Argentina soccer legend Lionel Messi

Argentina is far more diverse than many people realize — but the myth that it is a White nation has persisted

by Erica Edwards, Washington Post

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Erica Edwards

December 8, 2022

As fans keep up with Argentina’s success in this year’s World Cup, a familiar question arises: Why doesn’t Argentina’s team have more Black players? In stark contrast to other South American countries such as Brazil, Argentina’s soccer team pales in comparison in terms of its Black representation.

The observation is not a new one. In 2014, observers hurled jokes about how even Germany’s soccer team had at least one Black player, while it appeared that Argentina had none during that year’s World Cup Final. In 2010, Argentina’s government released a census that noted 149,493 people, far less than one percent of the country, was Black. For many, that data seemed to confirm that Argentina was indeed a White nation.

But roughly 200,000 African captives disembarked on the shores of the Río de la Plata during Argentina’s colonial period, and, by the end of the 18th century, one-third of the population was Black. Indeed, not only is the idea of Argentina as a White nation inaccurate, it clearly speaks to a longer history of Black erasure at the heart of the country’s self-definition.

Argentines have several myths that purportedly “explain” the absence of Black Argentines.

Perhaps the first and most popular of those myths has been that Black men were used as “cannon fodder” resulting in a massive death toll during wars throughout the 19th century. Revolutionary armies, for example, conscripted enslaved people to fight in Argentina’s wars of independence (1810-1819) against Spanish forces, with the promise of freedom after serving for five years.

But rather than dying on the battlefield, many simply deserted and opted to not return to their place of birth, as the historian George Reid Andrews has argued. Roll calls reveal that in 1829 the Afro-Argentine Fourth Cazadores military unit lost 31 soldiers to death and 802 to desertions. Some of these men relocated as far north as Lima, Peru. While some died and some departed, others returned home. Census data from Buenos Aires, Argentina’s most populous city, reveal its African-descended population more than doubled in size from 1778 to 1836.

Another myth argues that because of the high death toll of Black men caused by the 19th-century wars, Black women in Argentina had no choice but to marry, cohabitate with or form relationships with European men — leading to the “disappearance” of Black people. Miscegenation, or interracial mixing, over several generations is thought to have taken its toll, creating a physically lighter and Whiter population. In this telling, Black women were mere victims of an oppressive regime that dictated every aspect of their lives.

But more recent studies have instead revealed that some Black women in Argentina made concerted decisions to pass as White or Amerindian to obtain the benefits afforded by whiteness for their children and themselves. Taking advantage of various legal policies, some Black women, such as Bernabela Antonia Villamonte, could be born into captivity and die not only free but labeled as a White woman.

Other myths for the lack of Black representation in Argentine culture have focused on the outbreak of disease, especially yellow fever in 1871. Some argued that many Black Argentines were unable to move out of heavily infected areas of Buenos Aires due to their poverty and they succumbed to disease. This, too, has been debunked, as data shows that outbreaks did not kill off the Black population at higher rates than other populations.

These and other myths about Black “disappearance” in Argentina serve to obscure several of the nation’s most enduring historical legacies.

In reality, Argentina has been home to many Black people for centuries — not only the population of enslaved people and their descendants, but immigrants. Cape Verdeans began migrating to Argentina in the 19th century with their Portuguese passports and then entered the nation in larger numbers during the 1930s and 1940s seeking employment as mariners and dock workers.

But White Argentine leaders such as Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, ex-president of Argentina (1868-1874), crafted a different narrative to erase Blackness because they equated modernity with whiteness. Sarmiento wrote “Facundo: Civilization and Barbarism” (1845), which detailed Argentina’s “backwardness” and what he and others perceived as the need to become “civilized.” He was among those who shared a vision for the nation that associated it more strongly with European, rather than African or Amerindian, heritage.

Argentina abolished slavery in 1853 in most of the country and in 1861 in Buenos Aires. With its history of slavery behind it, Argentina’s leaders focused on modernization, looking to Europe as the cradle of civilization and progress. They believed that to join the ranks of Germany, France and England, Argentina had to displace its Black population — both physically and culturally.

In many ways, this was not unique to Argentina. This whitening process was attempted throughout much of Latin America, in places such as Brazil, Uruguay and Cuba.

What makes Argentina’s story unique in this context, however, is that it was successful in its push to build its image as a White country.

For example, in the 1850s, the political philosopher and diplomat Juan Bautista Alberdi, who was perhaps best known for his saying “to govern is to populate,” promoted White European immigration to the country. Argentine president Justo José de Urquiza (1854-60) supported Alberdi’s ideas and incorporated them in the country’s first constitution. Amendment 25 clearly stated: “The federal government shall foster European immigration.”

In fact, ex-president Sarmiento remarked toward the end of the 19th century: “Twenty years hence, it will be necessary to travel to Brazil to see Blacks.” He knew that Black Argentines existed but suggested that the country would not recognize them for long. Argentina’s landscape was soon transformed, as 4 million European immigrants answered the government’s call to migrate between 1860 and 1914. That clause remains in Argentina’s constitution today.

As for the nation’s Black and Amerindian populations who were in Argentina before this mass European immigration, many began to strategically identify as White if they could “pass” or to settle into more ambiguous racial and ethnic categories.

These categories included criollo (pre-immigrant background often affiliated with Spanish or Amerindian ancestry), morocho (tan-colored), pardo (brown-colored) and trigueño (wheat-colored). While these labels ultimately cast them as “Others,” they also helped dissociate them from blackness at a time when that was a state imperative.

Despite a history and its remnants that have sought to erase Blackness from the nation, Argentina’s Black population remains, and more people of African descent have been migrating there.

Today, Cape Verdean immigrants and their descendants number 12,000 to 15,000 and primarily live in the Buenos Aires area. In the 1990s and 2000s, West Africans began migrating to Argentina in larger numbers, as Europe tightened its immigration laws. While the census revealed that Argentina housed nearly 1,900 African-born nationals in 2001, that number had nearly doubled by 2010. Over the past 10 years, African descendants from other Latin American countries such as Brazil, Cuba and Uruguay have also increasingly entered Argentina seeking economic opportunities.

This history makes clear that while Argentina’s soccer team may not include people of African descent, or perhaps people that most would view as Black, it is not a “White” team either.

While Argentina has collapsed racial categories in its quest to be seen as a modern, White nation, the presence of people described as morocho nods to this history of Black and Indigenous erasure. Morocho, an inoffensive label, continues to be used in Argentina today. This term, which references those who are “tan-colored,” has been used as a way of distinguishing non-White people.

Perhaps the most famous morocho in Argentina is soccer legend Diego Maradona, who came to prominence in the 1980s and 90s. The country had three days of national mourning when he passed away in November 2020. This non-White legend became the face of Argentine soccer and, ironically, a “White nation.”

Various players on the team today are likely to be described as morocho in Argentina. Understanding this history reveals an Argentina that is far more diverse than many people often associate it with. It also points to the concerted efforts to erase and minimize Blackness in attempts to create what many of the nation’s leaders perceived as a modern nation.

By Erika Edwards

Erika Denise Edwards is the author of the award-winning book “Hiding in Plain Sight: Black Women, the Law and the Making of a White Argentine Republic” and an associate professor at the University of Texas at El Paso.  

Source: Washington Post