BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA — When Horacio Delgadino thinks about his childhood, he hears music.
He recalls drums at family parties and the candombe rhythm, a mix of music and dance that was developed by African slaves in Argentina and Uruguay.
But Delgadino also hears his teacher, barring him from participating in school events, and questions at gunpoint from police: “Where are you going, negro? Where did you steal those shoes from?”
Delgadino, 51, knew he was descended from Africans who had been enslaved, but it wasn’t until 2010, when he joined the Misibamba Association, an Afro-Argentine community, that he discovered what his ancestors did for his country’s independence and constitution.
“I didn’t know; neither my father nor my grandmother was aware of this,” Delgadino says. “They didn’t have a past, and if they did, it was about being slaves and nothing else. They were never told the other part, and it wasn’t in any books.”
African, Afro-descendant and Afro-Argentine people have played a key role in Argentina’s independence and constitution, but they were erased from official history over a century ago, says Florencia Guzmán, a historian and founding member of the Grupo de Estudios Afrolatinoamericanos, a study group focused on Afro-descendant studies in Argentina and Latin America. This erasure has contributed to racism, ignorance regarding their identity and a lack of opportunities for those with African phenotypic traits, says Alma Velásquez Huichulef, an activist of African and Mapuche descent.
Organizations and activists are now demanding that the government include Afro-Argentine history in the mandatory school curriculum and include more Afro-descendant and Afro-Argentine people in public positions and policies.
Lucila Pellettieri, GPJ Argentina
Meanwhile, Delgadino and his partner, Analía Espinosa, are working alongside the Buenos Aires-based Misibamba Association to give talks in schools on Afro-Argentine historical figures and their cultural heritage.
“In most schools, what is being taught is that we were present during the colonial time period, and after that, we inexplicably disappeared,” says Lucía Dominga Molina Sandez, who also gives talks in schools and is president and founder of the Casa de la Cultura Indo-Afro-Americana “Mario Luis López” de Santa Fe, (Santa Fe Indo- and Afro-American Cultural House), a nonprofit that promotes Afro-Argentine rights.
Delgadino says that after joining the association, he discovered that among his ancestors were female colonels like María Remedios del Valle, a black revolutionary woman who fought in the Argentine War of Independence and was recognized as a captain. He learned that the first president of Argentina, Bernardino Rivadavia, may have been of African descent.
“We knew all about San Martín and his white horse, but we didn’t know that Cabral, who saved his life, was black,” says Espinosa, also a member of the Misibamba Association. “That’s omitting a part of history, and as a person of African descent, I feel cheated.”
Considered one of Argentina’s greatest heroes, José de San Martín led revolutionary South American armies against the Spanish crown in the early 19th century. There’s a scene from the Argentine War of Independence that’s often reenacted at school events: Sergeant Juan Bautista Cabral loses his life while aiding San Martín after he becomes trapped under his injured horse. But Cabral is rarely depicted as a black man.
Toward the end of the 19th century, Guzmán says, Argentina’s national heroes of African descent were either whitewashed or eliminated from history to create a narrative of a white, homogeneous, European and Catholic nation.
“In this narrative, the argument was put forward that the descendants of people of African ancestry who were enslaved long ago had gradually decreased in numbers until they disappeared,” she says. “People were talking about the disappearance of this population.”
According to the 1778 census, in the territory that now constitutes Argentina, 46% of the population was of African descent. Today, there is no reliable information on the number of people who self-identify as Afro-descendant in Argentina, but organizations estimate that there are at least 2 million, which is 4% of the country’s population. The 2010 census was the first since 1895 to include an ethno-racial question, but the question was only included for a sample of households. The first census to collect this data for all residents is expected to be carried out this year.
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Molina Sandez says there has been no public opposition to teaching Afro-Argentine culture in the classrooms, but until recently, there was no push for it from those in power. She says the government should conduct and finance awareness campaigns before the census is carried out.
“If there is no awareness, I doubt that people will know [about their ancestry],” she says. “There are many centuries of ignorance and shame.”
The government doesn’t collect data on the ancestry of its workers. But there’s evidence that those of African descent disproportionately occupy low-level positions, says Nicolás Fernández Bravo, a policy and technical adviser at the Ministry of Labor, Employment and Social Security.
“People who are not ‘white enough’ [for the job market] tend to hold positions further down in the hierarchy of the workforce, or they tend to be employed in racialized areas, in culture and in positions within specialized units that focus on this issue,” Fernández Bravo says.
Emanuel Ntaka, an Afro-Argentine activist and coordinator of the African Culture Program at the Ministry of Culture, says that since Alberto Fernández became president in 2019, more government positions have opened to Afro-descendants and Afro-Argentines, but that’s only a start.
“We must work to ensure that people of African descent are employed in all decision-making spaces as well,” Ntaka says. “We need to have representation in every ministry.”
Lucila Pellettieri, GPJ Argentina
Despite a National Day of Afro-Argentines and Afro Culture held every year on Nov. 8 since 2013, the teaching of Afro-Argentine culture has fallen short in schools.
María Verónica Piovani, executive director of the National Institute of Teacher Training at the Ministry of Education, admits that training in past years has not covered African identity awareness.
“Teacher training activities are being designed to include this subject matter in courses, workshops, modules and conference materials for their implementation [in 2022],” Piovani says.
Alberto Croce works in the Ministry of Education to coordinate with and seek feedback from the public on educational policies. He says the government acknowledges the activists’ and organizations’ concerns and is committed to ensuring that all teachers cover this subject matter.
“Although there are already many teachers who talk about [African heritage], it is also true that this is a subject that is pretty much invisible in Argentina,” Croce says. “There is still a long way to go, but we are on the right track.”
Delgadino, for his part, will continue giving talks.
“We have witnessed many miracles doing this,” he says. “Many children come out of it recognizing that they have a black relative, and people of African descent are being recognized. That is my reward for going into these schools.”