“Liberty has no color” read the signs held outside a Buenos Aires city courthouse. However, Argentines are famous for saying, “no hay negros en Argentina, “there are no blacks in Argentina.” ~Trip Down Memory Lane – African Descendants In Argentina
I have been fortunate to travel extensively in my adult life. There is no better way to appreciate a culture than to live within it.
When the Euro stifled my tourist-buying power, I turned my sights toward Central and South America. It was in December, in the middle of their summer, that I landed in Santiago, Chile with the intention of flying home from Buenos Aires, Argentina 25 days later. Seven hundred miles and a treasure trove of adventures separate the two cities.
The sprawling Chilean capital, founded in 1541, has charming Plaza de Armas. It’s fairly close to the Pacific port of Valparaiso, which was once the continent’s focal point for international trade before the opening of the Panama Canal. Crossing into Argentina, the vertigo-inducing scenery of the Andes Mountains can’t be beat. Onto Mendoza, where the nation’s signature grape, the malbec, infuses Argentina’s wine country. Next stop: Córdoba. I take a step back to a time where the gaucho cowboys ruled the pampas. Ernesto “Ché” Guevara’s childhood home and the Jesuit estancias are in the vicinity.
It’s worth the long trek to experience Foz de Iguazu, the majestic waterfalls, at the sight of which United States’ First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt reportedly exclaimed “Poor Niagara!”
Mother Nature blessed these parts. If only human nature was so endearing.
A visit to Uruguayan capital of Montevideo won’t add much to the South American experience save for open disdain toward non-white travelers. There’s nothing like being welcomed by bag handlers with “what do you want, Negrita?” after the woman before you was politely referred to as “senora”. Cosmopolitan Buenos Aires feels like a European city, steeped in the rhythms of tango.
Every stop in between the pair of ocean-kissed capitals delivered a fresh perspective on the nation and, for travelers of colour, on its delicate relationship with race. Everywhere I went, I attracted puzzled stares, unsettling gawks and the occasional grossly inappropriate racial cat-call. Was the sight of a black woman so rare it called for special treatment?
The best part of my odyssey wasn’t poet Pablo Neruda’s house in Valparaiso, nor my chat with Guevara’s octogenarian childhood friend at the house he grew up in in Alta Gracia. The most moving part of this vacation was standing before the slave quarters at a UNESCO World Heritage site in rural Argentina. The Estancia Santa Catalina, a Jesuit estate founded in 1622, was apparently built and maintained by enslaved Africans.
In colonial times, the proportion of Africans hovered around 50% in half of Argentina’s provinces. General José de San Martín, the revolutionary who lead the charge to gain independence from Spanish rule, estimated that there were 400,000 Afro-Argentines who could be recruited to his armies. Black men made up 65 percent of his troops.
The 2010 census puts the Afro-Argentine population at 150,000, or less than half of one percent.
How did the Africans disappear?
Although slavery was abolished in Argentina in 1813, many Afro-Argentine were still held as slaves. Emancipation was promised to those who fought in Argentina’s wars. Most African men signed up with hopes of winning their freedom. They were sent to the frontlines. Most perished while fighting for a country that did not recognize their rights.
Until 1853, the law forced slave owners to cede 40 percent of their slaves to military service. The promise of manumission was offered to those slaves who completed 5 years of service — a promise rarely kept.
Over the years, overt and covert government sanctions promoted ethnic cleansing. Argentina is now South America’s whitest country (97% according to the CIA World Factbook). Argentinians themselves have purged their African roots from their socio-historical landscape and conscience.
Yet, in the countryside of Córdoba, the weathered slave quarters betrayed the collective silence.
The nearly 400-year old estancia, kept in pristine condition, is the pride of Argentina. Its church is one of the best examples of the “Colonial Baroque” style in the country, with a discernible influence from central-European Baroque architecture. The estate was the most important center of cattle breeding at its time. There were also workshops with looms and harnesses, a smithy, a carpentry, a textile unit, two mills and a reservoir. Just outside the main entrance, a mud-coloured structure “used to serve as slave quarters,” the tour guide sheepishly pointed it out, in passing. He ushered the tour group along as I lingered behind.
The slave quarters seem small. No plausible heat source in sight. The ceiling was so low; it was hard to imagine anyone standing inside. It was under these rudimentary conditions that enslaved Africans built not just the famous Jesuit estate, but the entire nascent country. After contemplating this testament to my ancestor’s skills and strength, I walked away with a sense of indomitable pride.
What you won’t read in the tourist tomes like Fodors and Lonely Planet is that these regal edifices authenticate the dowry which transatlantic slaves bequeathed to Argentina. Historians uncovered that the tango and the gauchos are Afro-Argentine endowments as well.
In embarking on this pilgrimage, I intended to discover a foreign culture. What I discovered was the food, music and soul of my own forebears. Black people were all but exterminated from Argentina, but their legacy is everlasting.
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Rachel Décoste is a motivational speaker and software engineer in Ottawa, Canada. Ms. Décoste has been a community activist since her youth, working with organizations such as Children’s Aid Society, the Famous 5 Foundation, and the Black Canadian Scholarship Fund, to name a few. Her commitment has not been limited to local activities: she has traveled abroad to provide aid in South and Central Americas. In 2008, Ms. Décoste worked on then-Senator Obama’s presidential campaign and again in 2012. Ms. Décoste was named in Ottawa’s Top 50 Personalities by Ottawa Life magazine. Web: racheldecoste.ca Twitter: @RachelDecoste