Statue of "Slavery" also known as "The Slave", by Francisco Cafferata, at Sicily square, Parque 3 de Febrero, Palermo, Buenos Aires, Argentina
San Francisco Gate, "Blacks in Argentina -- officially a few, but maybe a million," by Ruthie Ackerman of the Chronicle Foreign Service on 27 November 2005 in Buenos Aires, Argentina
Maria Lamadrid, an Afro-Argentine, vividly recalls the day when her country's immigration authorities prevented her from boarding a plane for Panama, demanding she present them with a "real passport."
"They told me, 'This can't be your passport. There are no blacks in Argentina,' " she said of the 2001 incident.
Maria Lamadrid, an Afro-Argentine
The authorities at Ezeiza International Airport had no idea that the woman they detained for six hours is the president of Africa Vive, or "Africa Lives," a prominent black rights group in Buenos Aires.
Lamadrid, who is in her mid-50s, founded the organization in 1996 to combat poverty, lobby for jobs and educational opportunities in the black community and raise awareness of African culture and history in South America's "whitest" nation. About 97 percent of Argentina's 39 million inhabitants describe themselves as white.
Indeed, most Argentines are of Spanish and Italian descent with almost half believed to be eligible for Italian passports. A long-running joke is that an Argentine is an Italian who speaks Spanish and thinks he's British.
Given the common belief among her fellow citizens that all blacks who reside in Argentina are foreigners, says Lamadrid, her organization -- with financial aid from the World Bank and Argentina's census bureau -- is currently working to add an "Afro-descendants" category to the 2010 census.
The census project is part of a campaign by a new office launched early this year by the Organization of American States. "The Special Rapporteurship on the Rights of Persons of African Descent," which says African descendants compose 40 percent of the poor in the Americas, plans to investigate reports of racial discrimination as well as prepare special studies on Latin American citizens of African descent.
The number of Argentines with African ancestry is difficult to gauge. Although Africa Vive says there are a million Afro-descendants, anthropologists say the number may be no higher than 10,000. The widespread belief that blacks died off from yellow fever epidemics and during Indian wars in which they were promised freedom for fighting on the front lines is deeply rooted.
When famed African American entertainer Josephine Baker visited Argentina in the 1950s, she reportedly asked the biracial minister of public health, Ramon Carillo: 'Where are the Negroes?' " Carillo answered: 'There are only two, you and I.' "
The 42-year old musician Fidel Nadal is a fifth-generation Argentine. Yet most Argentines do not recognize Nadal as one of their own because he is black in a country that sees itself as almost exclusively European.(miamiherald.com)
"In Argentina people consider me African or black, but not Argentine," said Miguel Yannone, a member of Familia Rumba Nuestra, an Afro-Argentine band.
Miriam Gomes, a professor of literature at the University of Buenos Aires, says historians are somewhat to blame for the stereotypes.
"Argentina's history books have been partly responsible for misinformation regarding Africans in Argentine society," she said. "Argentines say there are no blacks here. If you're looking for traditional African people with very black skin, you won't find it. African people in Argentina are of mixed heritage."
African slaves were first brought to Argentina in the 1770s to toil on large haciendas and serve as domestic servants. Slavery wasn't abolished until 1853.
The 1778 census showed that 7,236 of 24,363 Buenos Aires residents, or 30 percent, were African. That figure dropped to 2 percent by 1887 -- the final year blacks were included as a separate category. Some rights activists say the government eliminated a black category to promote an image of homogeneity. In its place, census takers introduced euphemistic race classifications.
"When I was issued my (government) identification card ... they had written wheat as the color of my skin," said Lucia Molina, director of the Indo-Afro-American House of Culture in the northeastern city of Santa Fe. "They just tell you that you can't be black."
The military junta that ruled Argentina between 1976 and 1983 further marginalized Afro-Argentine culture as part of a larger wave of repression, according to Alejandro Solomianski, a professor of Latin American Cultural Studies at California State University at Los Angeles. Only after the economy collapsed in 2001 did Afro-Argentines begin to question their identity and resurrect their past culture.
"The economic crisis in Argentina left many people ... seeing holes in what they were told by the government and in history books," said Solomianski. "They started realizing that if the government was false then maybe their whole identity was false."
On its Web site, Africa Vive says some of the nation's most cherished cultural activities -- tango and the Sunday barbecue (asado) -- are rooted in African culture. It also mentions such well-known Argentines of African descent as musician Jose Maria Morales, composer Casildo Thompson and poet Gabion Ezeiza. The nation's first president, Bernardino Rivadavia, was called the "Chocolate Dictator" by his political opponents.
Meanwhile, Lamadrid points to her airport detention as an example of how difficult the struggle will be to sway public opinion.
"They (customs officials) said: 'I'm more Argentine than you because my ancestors have been here for five generations,' " she said. "It's sad because the group most afflicted is the youth who grow up not realizing they are black." (source: San Fransisco Gate)