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An African tree produces white flowers: The disappearance of the black population in Argentina 110 years later

The 2014 Men’s World Cup finals pitted Germany against Argentina. Bets were made and various observations were cited about the teams. Who had the better defense? Would Germany and Argentina’s star players step up to meet the challenge? And, surprisingly, why did Argentina lack black players? Across the globe blogs and articles found it ironic that Germany fielded a more diverse team while Argentina with a history of slavery did not have a solitary black player. The Argentine team in the World Cup could have easily been mistaken for a European team. In fact the team reflected the commonly held belief that Argentine roots reside in Europe because of mass immigration that began at the end of the nineteenth century and continued through the 1940s.

It is during this massive wave of immigration that journalist Juan José Soiza Reilly wrote the article that described how it affected the black population. On 25 November 1905 his article “Gente de color,” which appeared in Caras y Caretas proclaimed:

“Little by little, this race is becoming extinct…the race is losing in the mixture its primitive color. It becomes gray. It dissolves. It lightens. The African tree is producing white Caucasian flowers.”

25 November 2015 marks the 110th anniversary of this infamous saying. The roots and trunk were of African descent, representing the past, but the white buds on the tree would bring forth whiteness, representing the future. The saying reflected a lost battle because the Argentine nation slowly erased black Argentines from its identity.

This declaration, along with others (such as one made by the ex-president Carlos Menem, who noted while visiting Howard University in the 1990s that, “there are no blacks in Argentina, that is a Brazilian problem”), have continued to perpetuate the belief that there are no blacks in Argentina. But, as observations about the 2014 Argentina soccer team have revealed, it has not stopped people from questioning, what happened to the black population? In response, various myths have attempted to explain this conundrum. Some argued the wars, such as the wars of independence movement 1810-1820 and the Paraguayan War 1864-1870, killed them all, others argued yellow fever took its toll on the population, others proclaimed they migrated to Uruguay, and some simply stated “they disappeared.”

Yet, based on the first official census in 1778, at its height, African descendants accounted for up to 60% of the Argentine population. So, “what exactly happened to the black population?”

In general, scholarship has focused on the black experience in Buenos Aires and the nineteenth century. The first wave of historians who focused on the decline of the black population were social historians who provided demographic and social explanations. These historians debunked the myths of black disappearance pointing to the Argentine republic’s concerted efforts to lighten the black population in the censuses by using labels such as trigueño (wheat colored, which was applied to dark-skinned Europeans and light-skinned blacks) or pardo (an ambiguous racial category), rather than moreno (brown) or negro (black) to define their racial makeup. They also combed through military records and argued that the idea that blacks were killed off in the war was not true. In fact, more whites than blacks died in the wars of independence. They concluded the black population did not “disappear” numerically, but rather because of whitening—an ideology that stressed a white nation was a modern nation.

Leaders such as ex-president of Argentina Domingo Sarmiento (1811-1888) and Juan Bautista Alberdi (1810-1884) argued that the republic was at a crossroads in the 1840s. In order to progress, Argentina had to let go of barbarism and welcome civilization. In order to do this, they stressed the need for European immigration in order to make Argentina a modern country. Indians and other examples of barbarism had to be eliminated and the republic sanctioned the genocide of this population, known as Conquest of the Desert in the 1870s. By the end of the nineteenth century, in the midst of European immigration, Sarmiento encouraged miscegenation. He argued the mulatto (mixture between black women and white men) would incorporate the brute force of the African and the intellect of the European and slowly rid the population of “African blood.”

The second wave of historians shifted to the black contributions to the Argentine republic. Many scholars utilized the black newspapers, a gem that is rarely used in analysis, to delve into the black community’s realities at the end of the nineteenth century. Moreover, the commemoration of Argentina’s bicentennial in 2010 brought to light black soldiers’ successful efforts on the battlefield, which brought about the abolition of the slave trade in 1812 and the Free Womb Act of 1813, which declared that all babies born to slave mothers are free.

Historians also shifted the focus to the interior of the country. By studying the interior cities such as Córdoba, Tucumán, Salta, Mendoza, and Catamarca, historians provide a more complex understanding of the black experience in Argentina. It must be stressed that areas such as Córdoba, which has a strong ecclesiastical presence, maintained a more traditional and hierarchical culture than Buenos Aires, which was more liberal. Such cultural differences have allowed historians to explore various black historical experiences. Today, it is no longer acceptable to rely on Buenos Aires as the only narrative of black history in Argentina.

Presently, historians have shifted the question of black disappearance to an early period, the late colonial (1776-1810), and early republican periods (1811-1853); historians such as myself are also investigating the “pre-whitening” period. Doing so highlights the social and economic conditions that brought forth the “whitening” period. In particular, black women have become a central focus. Her role as concubine, wife, and mother were crucial to the budding Argentine nation.

Nevertheless, despite the increase in scholarship to debunk the idea that Argentina was founded and shaped by European immigrants, the belief that there are no blacks in Argentina remains the narrative. Clearly, we still have a lot of work to do.

Featured image credit: “la albiceleste” by William Brawley. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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