Afro-descendants Repositioning Argentina in Latin America

Milena Annecchiarico recent years a new awareness of Argentine identities has emerged: multiple, multilocalized, politicized, disputed, subjective. This is the case of people of African descent. Historically made invisible by the hegemonic canons of nationality centered on the myth of a ” melting pot” and built on discourses and practices of denial and exclusion, Afro-descendants today are subjects of law recognized by public policies, social actors who are protagonists not only in history but also in the present and future of this Latin American nation.

In 2010, a decade ago, the 200th anniversary of the May Revolution of 1810 was celebrated. In a significant and unprecedented way in some official celebrations, there were performances and stagings of the time that placed the protagonism of the enslaved and free population of African descent in the wars of independence, as well as in the Argentine society of yesterday and today. But, above all, Afro-Argentine groups were present, gathered under the slogan “Argentina is also Afro”: descendants of the African diaspora from the time of slavery to the present day, were present to reaffirm a historic claim: visibility, inclusion, non-discrimination. That is not all. That same year, the population census included, for the first time, the variable of identity affiliation for the Afro-descendant population. Thus, 150,000 people indicated their affiliation, the vast majority of whom were of Argentine nationality. Although 150,000 is the number given by the census, the pilot test carried out a few years earlier to test the question of Afro descent had revealed nearly 2,000,000 Afro Descendants, a number that, according to Afro organizations, is much closer to the real number. Nevertheless, the 2010 census undoubtedly represents a milestone in the recent history of Afro-Argentine mobilizations and public policies of recognition initiated after the 2000’s. This result, which is provisional and limited, makes it possible to challenge and reverse the two main arguments, or fallacies, on which discrimination against this population is based: its non-existence (“there are no Afro-Argentines”) and its alienation (“those who are seen are foreigners”).

In the country, as well as in the Latin American region, the political circumstances of the progressive governments of those years made it possible to build a political agenda of expanded rights and inclusion for the most disadvantaged sectors, especially the Afro-descendant population, making more profound paradigm changes possible. From then on, Argentina began to work towards the recognition of its cultural diversity through public policies with an ethnic focus also for the Afro-descendant population. Significantly, Law 26,852, enacted on April 24, 2013, established November 8 as “National Day of Afro-Argentines and Afro culture” in commemoration of María Remedios del Valle, an Afro-Argentinean fighter in the wars of independence, named Mother of the Nation by Manuel Belgrano.

Ten years after that historic march and that first statistical revelation, I think it’s necessary to ask ourselves where we are in terms of the expansion of rights and the anti-racist struggle, as well as the deconstruction of the hegemonic imaginary regarding identities. At the same time, it is important to give an account of what futures are being constructed or imagined based on the current context of the pandemic, which highlights the urgent need to consider other post-pandemic normalities, especially in terms of social inequalities and racism. It is in this space of reflection that I find myself working.

Recently, a virtual meeting organized by INADI was held with the Ambassador of the Republic of Argentina to the Holy See in the Vatican, María Fernanda Silva, in dialogue with Victoria Donda, director of INADI, and Federico Pita, Afro-Argentinean activist and political scientist. Maria Fernanda Silva, a long-time career diplomat who was appointed ambassador at the beginning of the pandemic, is not only the first woman to hold this position at the Vatican. She is the first person of African descent in Argentina to be part of the diplomatic service abroad. She is, in other words, the first black woman to represent Argentina internationally. I am now going to focus on some of the highlights of that talk in order to organize these brief reflections.

First, there is a certain image of Argentina’s national identity that is “not particularly Latin American” but rather “European”. To be more precise, this idea emerged and was consolidated in the city of Buenos Aires, a port city that apparently always looked more outward than inward. This idea-image is based on the selection of certain “worthy ancestors” and the exclusion of “others” by the historical national hegemony, which incessantly endorses and reproduces the “myth of origin”: the strong connections with Italian, Spanish and European immigrants in general, and the symbolic and physical exclusion of the former Indians, blacks and gauchos.

A few days ago I saw the first episode of a new Netflix series on street food in Latin America, which begins by reciting these exact words, spoken by an Argentinean food expert: “Buenos Aires, so close to Europe and so far from Latin America”. This idea about the specificity of Buenos Aires as a white and European city, so deeply rooted inside and outside the country, is not a fact of history, genetics or culture. It is an ideological construction that bases its assumptions on a long history of exclusion, violence and fallacies.

It is, in other words, a structural racism that permeates social imaginaries about Argentina and the institutions of the State, as María Fernanda Silva warns. However, Maria Fernanda Silva is the daughter of the African diaspora, she is Argentine. As well as being black and a woman, Maria Remedios del Valle is the Mother of the Nation. The designation of Maria Fernanda Silva surely has a very powerful symbolic charge that, added to many large and small socio-political changes, moves towards the direction of deconstructing that idea of white Argentinianness.

With respect to structural racism, the institutions have historically prepared to reproduce asymmetries crossed by factors of ethnicity, gender, skin color, and specific identities. For example, so that white people, especially men and upper class people, would have places of prestige and power. Maria Fernanda Silva talks about her experience as a diplomat. She says that she would not see another Afro-Argentinean person enter the diplomatic service from abroad, because they do not have the time required for a diplomatic career and today there are no other Afro-Argentines entering. A similar situation can easily be found in practically all areas of the country’s institutional life, including academia. And the worst thing is that the people who work in those institutions generally don’t think about it, they don’t think about it because it’s designed to be that way. On the other hand, structural racism also means that the Afro-descendant population, black and brown, is over-represented in other areas: in inequality, in prisons, in poor neighborhoods. This is a constant for all of Latin America.

The pandemic that we are experiencing aggravates the social inequalities present in countries, making them even more evident. Racism does not cease to operate with its deadly power, as is well known. That is why the Ambassador also warns that this pandemic, this exceptional circumstance, should not make the other pandemics, which are no exception, invisible.

In this situation, the responsibility for transformation lies with everyone, including the State. Thinking about the post-pandemic period is an opportunity to reverse these normalities of exclusion. But the risk that States and societies become more exclusive, more xenophobic, exists and is evident. Closing with the words of Maria Fernanda Silva in dialogue with INADI, the main challenge is that we are capable of building a new normality focused on social justice, on the guarantee of rights, repositioning the Argentine identity in Latin America.

Translation by Internationalist 360°