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Latin American Research Review 42.1 (2007) 139-156

Beyond Invisibility
Afro-Argentines in Their Nation's Culture and Memory
Reviewed by
Robert J. Cottrol
George Washington University
Buenos Aires Negra: Arquelogía Histórica de una Ciudad Silenciada. By Daniel Schávelzon (Buenos Aires: Emecé Editores, 2003. Pp. 209. $22.10 paper.)
The Afro-Argentine in Argentine Culture: El Negro del Acordeón. By Donald S. Castro. (Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2001. Pp. iii+185. $109.95 cloth.)
Identidades Secretas: Lanegritud Argentina. By Alejandro Solomianski. (Rosario, Argentina: Beatriz Viterbo Editora, 2003. Pp. 267. $15.00 paper.)

The study of Afro-Argentines has long presented something of a paradox. The field has frequently received inadequate attention from both students of Argentine history and from scholars concerned more generally with the issue of race in the Americas. This neglect has been partially fueled by the prevailing racial ideology in twentieth-century Argentina—namely that the nation is not only white, but indeed fundamentally European. That view has been buttressed by large-scale European immigration to [End Page 139] the nation since the end of the nineteenth century. Academic neglect was also fueled by the conventional wisdom that in the twentieth century, the Afro-Argentine population had ceased to exist as a numerically significant group. The Argentine Census of 1895 recorded a black population of 5,000. By 1954 Argentine social scientist Angel Rosenblat, in what he admitted were hypothetical figures, indicated that Argentina had a population of 5,000 blacks and 10,000 mulattoes in an overall population of roughly 17 million. U.S. Argentinianist James Scobie would state in 1964 that even that low estimate was probably too high.1 Although there is a popular belief that Argentina never had a significant African presence, historians of Argentina know better, realizing that Buenos Aires was a major center for slave importation and that throughout the nineteenth century, Africans and their Afro-Argentine descendants were significant percentages of the population of Buenos Aires and other Argentine regions. The view is that the Afro-Argentine population disappeared by the twentieth century, the result of Argentina's nineteenth-century wars and the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1871, and that little in the way of an enduring presence remains either in terms of population or lingering cultural influence. This traditional view was captured in a statement by former Argentine President Carlos Menem who once declared: "In Argentina blacks do not exist, that is a Brazilian problem."2

Yet paradoxically there has also persisted in the twentieth century an undercurrent of national interest in Afro-Argentines, belying their supposed irrelevance to the development of the national culture. The 1924 publication of Memorias de un negro del congreso told the story of one member of a group of highly visible Afro-Argentines, congressional porters and doormen—a [End Page 140] congressional hiring practice that began in the late nineteenth century and continues to the present. In 1926 Uruguayan-born Argentine writer Vicente Rossi published the folkloric Cosas de negros. Despite the book's often paternalistic racism, it did serve to remind Argentine audiences of the often pronounced impact Afro-Argentines had had on the nation's culture before the twentieth century. Rossi was particularly important for reminding a then very European-oriented Argentina of the African roots of the tango. Also, Argentine artist Antonio Berni routinely included black, mulatto, and mestizo figures in his paintings, depicting the everyday lives of the Argentine working class.3

Interest in Afro-Argentines increased from the 1960s onward, spurred on, at least in part, by international events: the civil rights movement in the United States, the emergence of independent nations in Africa, the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, the emergence of a more assertive Afro-Brazilian movement, and a growing resistance to traditional patterns of making Latin Americans of African descent invisible. It thus became a topic for occasional explorations by Argentine and foreign journalists.4 The field began to gain heightened academic visibility in the 1970s and...


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