Civil Society, Development & Aid, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean, Population

ARGENTINA: Drumming Up Black Awareness

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Jun 11 2009 (IPS) - Argentina’s small black community, ignored by historical constructions that have traditionally focused on the influence of European immigration, is now fighting for recognition of its contribution to culture in the Argentine capital.

"We are fighting for visibility, for recognition of our contribution to culture, and to resist the prejudice that associates black people only with entertainment and carnival," Diego Bonga, a musician and luthier of Angolan and Congolese ancestry, and an active member of the Afrocultural Movement in Buenos Aires, told IPS.

Bonga was born in Uruguay, where "candombe," a musical genre of African origin, is part of the national identity. In the last few decades a wave of Afro-descendants from neighbouring Uruguay, mainly Montevideo, arrived in Buenos Aires, and their drumming has contributed to raising the visibility of black people in Argentina.

The Afrocultural Movement, which emerged in the late 1990s, offers workshops in dance, candombe, capoeira (an Afro-Brazilian blend of martial arts and dance), and making musical instruments, and has a video library and a games room. But for months now it has been threatened with eviction. Its premises, formerly an abandoned factory, are now being claimed by the owners.

Legal action taken by the members of the Movement extracted a commitment from the Buenos Aires city government to provide alternative premises for their activities, which have been declared of cultural interest by the city parliament. Meanwhile they have suspended classes and packed up their equipment in boxes.

"Our culture cannot be learned at a university. We need these spaces in order to preserve it. The centre we created is unique, all the representatives of African culture in Argentina meet here," Bonga said. The Culture Secretariat's promised solution has still not materialised.

Black peoples’ presence and contribution to national culture have been systematically denied by official historiography. There is also a widespread perception that there are no people of African descent in Argentina, where 97 percent of the population describe themselves as white.

However, the latest scientific research has shown that more than half of the population has at least one Amerindian ancestor, and that the average genetic structure of the Argentine population contains a European contribution of around 78 percent, an indigenous contribution of between 16 and 19 percent, and an African contribution of between 2.5 and four percent.

In 1810, when the territory that is now Argentina ceased to be a colony of Spain, black people made up 30 percent of the population of Buenos Aires, and in some provinces they were the majority, as in Córdoba in the centre, Catamarca in the west and Tucumán in the north.

This very significant population, descended from Africans brought over as slaves in colonial times, was decimated when black soldiers served as cannon fodder in the War of the Triple Alliance (1864-1870), in which Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay virtually devastated Paraguay, which lost one million of its then 1.3 million people.

The yellow fever epidemic that killed off about eight percent of the population of Buenos Aires, apparently introduced by soldiers returning from the war, caused ravages particularly among Afro-descendants, who lived in overcrowded conditions without any sanitation.

In spite of this, their influence remained alive. But towards the end of the 19th century, when the foundations of the Argentine nation were laid, key figures like President Domingo Sarmiento (1868-1874) threw the doors of the country open to white European immigrants and disdained the contribution of black and indigenous peoples.

According to Miriam Gomes, head of the Cape Verdean Mutual Aid Society of Dock Sud, a district near the port of Buenos Aires, the recent influx of African immigrants, since the 1990s, has had the effect of holding up a mirror for the descendants of earlier arrivals to see themselves, an experience they had been denied for centuries.

That is why, lately, the score or so of Afro-descendants' organisations in Argentina, in Buenos Aires and in the country's provincial cities, are trying to emerge from the shadows and proclaim their cultural values, or rediscover them if they have lost all contact with their roots.

"Some people look shocked when we tell them that their kinky hair might mean they have black ancestors," Victoria Díaz of the Cape Verdean Society told IPS. She said that some time ago, a blond white man who had information about a possible African ancestor was surprised when this was confirmed.

The organisations are also trying to shed light on African contributions to typical expressions of national culture, including traditional dances like the tango, the milonga, or the chacarera, as well as candombe. There are also African influences in literature, cuisine, religion and the language.

"In Argentina, the word 'quilombo' means a complete mess, something disorganised or poorly put together, but for us the Quilombo of Palmares is our pride and joy," said Bonga, referring to a settlement of former slaves who escaped from Brazilian plantations during Portuguese colonial rule.

As part of their bid for heightened recognition, the communities held the first "Black Argentina" Festival in Buenos Aires in late May, with performances by music and dance groups, a display of musical instruments, and tables with information about the different Afro-descendants' organisations in the country.

Gómes is in charge of a project titled "Support for the Afro-Argentine Population and Its Grassroots Organisations", aimed at making their work more visible. The project's goal is to foster unity among the descendants of enslaved Africans and Cape Verdeans who arrived in the late 19th century, and recent black immigrants from Africa, Brazil, Uruguay, Peru and the Caribbean.

These communities are not represented in the media or the educational system, Bonga said. "We only appear in school plays as vendors of candles and pastries," she complained, about celebrations of the country's independence in which black people are portrayed only in the servant roles forced on them in colonial society.

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