This Professor Explains why #ArgentinaSoWhite

Dr. Erika Edwards (2nd From Left)   during the taping of the soon to be released documentary  Black Buenos Aires.  There was no need for a script. These women were asked “What is it like to be Black in Buenos Aires?” They had so much to say and two hours later it was a wrap.

Dr. Erika Edwards (2nd From Left) during the taping of the soon to be released documentary Black Buenos Aires. There was no need for a script. These women were asked “What is it like to be Black in Buenos Aires?” They had so much to say and two hours later it was a wrap.

In 2002, Argentina experienced a huge economic crisis where the Argentine peso, which was previously pegged to the US Dollar, became devalued, overnight. Unemployment soared, banks were closed, there was widespread hunger and rioting in the streets. Study abroad programs notified students in the US that due to the instability in the region, they could cancel their study abroad for a full refund. But a few unfettered students still wanted to go and I was one of them. Dr. Erika Edwards, Associate Professor of Latin American History and Latin American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, was too.

I recently reached out to Dr. Edwards to discuss her groundbreaking research and upcoming book, Hiding in Plain Sight: Black Women, the Law, and the Making of a White Argentine Republic, and our messages went like this:

F: Erika! I want to do a piece on you re Argentina and your work there.

E: Hey Fazeela! It is so nice to hear from you! Can you believe it all started with that trip back in 2002 . . . and one question . . . where are all the Black people?! LOL

F: YES I want to talk about that!!!!! It’s still the whitest country in South America… I think 97%

Dr. Edwards (hereinafter referred to as “Erika”) is so full of knowledge that our video chat went for hours. I learned so much from her and I’m sure you will too. So sit back and get ready for us to discuss the first time she felt like a Woman, why she refuses to use the term ‘white supremacy’ in the Argentine context, how she could not have made tenure without her women of color sisters in the academy and more.

Let’s start with our 2002 study abroad in Argentina. What was your experience?

Erika and I during our 2002 Study Abroad - We were on a farm with gauchos in  Las Pampas  here (I think).

Erika and I during our 2002 Study Abroad - We were on a farm with gauchos in Las Pampas here (I think).

Fazeela, our study abroad was the best six months of my life (up until that point). For the first time in my life, the question of race was not in my face all the time. People just treated me differently than in the US. It was all in the subtleties and non-verbal cues. For example, when I went to stores, the Argentines were so kind. I did not feel like they saw my race before they saw me. I now realize that was more likely because they saw “American” and dollar signs, but at the time I didn’t understand that.

Also, I felt beautiful, for the first time, in Argentina. I had never felt that in the US. With any sort of person, black or white. In Argentina, I didn’t feel like a Black Woman. Instead, I felt like a Woman. I felt like men actually saw me. They liked my blackness and afro hair. I was like for real? It was shocking to have “white European folks” appreciate me. Within 2 weeks of arriving, I took out all of my braids. I had this natural and funky thing going on and I felt free and so happy. Of course, after living there for a few years, this changed. I couldn’t stand the cat calls, I couldn’t stand the fetishization of my body. I became furious. However during my latest trip in 2018, I noticed that the catcalling has stopped. I was shocked. I asked everybody what was going on and I kept hearing, “That’s the new women’s movement”. So, much has changed, for the better, since my first trip.  

What was your experience like growing up in the US?

I grew up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, so I was a small town girl. There were 4 black people in my high school. My sister, my current husband, another person and I. I then went to college in Western Michigan, at Grand Valley State University. It was a very conservative area of the state and I felt constant hypocrisy. Some people would talk about “being a good Christian” and the most racist and vile shit would come out of their mouth. I was dealing with that on a constant basis. While I was going to school, Western Michigan was becoming more brown due to an influx of Latinx folks, so tensions were rising… it was a tense environment to say the least.

So I was excited about the opportunity to live the dream of being abroad. I was a small town girl going to a big city for the first time . . .

My experience in Argentina was quite different than yours. I often felt isolated since Buenos Aires is so eurocentric. Did you ever feel isolated?

Oh yes. After three weeks of being there, I felt very isolated. I never told anyone from our program about this, but here goes . . . One day I was walking down Cabildo Avenue and I saw a Black woman and literally ran to her. I said, “Me, me, you, you” and touched my skin to show her that we were the same. I was so desperate and my Spanish was practically non-existent at that point. She looked at me like I was crazy. Luckily, she took me to her home and we became fast friends. Her name was Celia and she was from Brazil. She lived two blocks away from my host mother, who had a family member, Amabel, who was Afro-Cuban. I used to dip off every other day to visit Celia or Amabel. This is what made the trip amazing for me. I felt a diasporic connection with Black women from Cuba and Brazil. We just got each other. It was amazing.

In fact, this diasporic connection is how I thrived in Argentina. Just imagine, initially I could not speak Spanish very well and forget about Portuguese. Celia on the other hand could not speak English...but somehow we managed. There was a connection because we understood what it was like to be Black in a very white country. I would often think of the deeper historical connections we shared . . . and that really connected me to the larger African diaspora. I mean seriously. It felt like the only thing that separated me from Amabel or Celia was a boat.  

Now it makes sense why you were barely around! I thought you were just with that dude you met. Are we allowed to discuss that?

(Laughing) Of course! That was a part of my life. I mean I dated Dude (Readers: Clearly, Dude is not his real name) for 10 years. He was the reason I was able to obtain access to parts of Argentina that visitors often do not see or hear about. Through him, I saw Argentina through a different lens. He lived in Lanus, a working-class suburb outside of the capital.  I lived with him and to this day remain very close to the friends I met during that time. I consider them my family. Today, I receive a lot of street cred because of where I lived. People say to me, “Oh, you know the real Argentina”. I didn’t realize what the big deal was at the time since I was in a happy relationship. But Lanus is definitely a contrast to the more tourist/foreigner and richer areas of the city such as Palermo or Belgrano. So think of it like this, most students who study abroad and live in Buenos Aires reside in Palermo or the north of the city, which would be like living in the Upper East Side of Manhattan, while I lived in Lanus which would be like living in the Bronx (pre-gentrification). I would not change that at all and I am truly grateful for that experience.

OMG, what a great comparison. So much of Buenos Aires totally felt like the UES. But I felt like other regions and cities, like Ushuaia and Calafate in Patagonia, Salta, Jujuy, Mendoza, etc… were very different. I preferred the Argentina outside of Buenos Aires.

There is definitely a difference between the “interior” and Buenos Aires. I think we were lucky to have been able to see Argentina’s diversity. My upcoming book and research is based on Córdoba, the 2nd largest city in Argentina. As my research progressed I kept hearing that I should head west. I am so happy I did because Córdoba’s archival sources remain an untapped treasure.

Can we talk about your research now? I traveled a ton when I was there and mainly saw Euro-Argentinians and the indigenous Mapuche people. I did not see Black people. Your book will discuss how Argentina had a Black population? Please explain.

This article that I wrote goes into depth about the topic. Here is a piece from the NYTimes that I was interviewed for as well. During the 18th Century, many cities in Argentina had populations where 30-40% of inhabitants were African and/or African descent. That evolved into less than a percentage point by 2010. So the questions I’m trying to answer are how? and why?

The overarching answer is the Latin American process of blanqueamiento or whitening (1880-1914). This is the operative word used to describe the late 19th Century state-led “modernization” process. Argentina, like many other Latin American countries, looked to bring European immigrants to their land in order to “civilize” and “modernize” it. This is the main reason for the disappearance of people who identified as Afro-Argentine. Instead of enforcing segregation policies to sanction white superiority, Argentine authorities sought to eliminate blackness through European immigration and miscegenation (intermixing). For example, in 1905 Juan José Soiza Reilly wrote in the Argentine magazine Caras y Caretas, “The [Black] race is losing in the mixture its primitive color. It becomes gray. It dissolves. It lightens. An African tree is producing white flowers.”

Hiding in Plain Sight: Black Women, the Law, and the Making of a White Argentine Republic  focuses on the city of Córdoba and expands our understanding of Africans and their descendants. It concentrates on the origins of Black disappearance during the late 18th and early 19th Century, prior to state-led and institutionalized blanqueamiento at the end of the 19th Century. In other words, how does a country get to a point where it adopts this idea of blanqueamiento and more importantly how did Black women respond. I specifically decided to focus on women because most studies continue to concentrate on Black men who participated in the military, guilds, and confraternities and I felt that “time is up.” Her story is just as important and had to be told.

(After an hour of discussion) Erika, you have so much nuanced knowledge on this topic, can you tell us 5 surprising things about Afro-Argentines that we may not know?

  1. Prior to blanqueamiento (1880-1914) Argentina had a very visible Black population. On average, 60 percent of the population was of color and 30 percent of the population was Black.

  2. The disappearance occurred due to choices and passing. If one could, they would take advantage of laws for social mobility. For example, only the rich could wear gold, silk, vibrant colors. I read criminal court cases where Black women would break the law and wear those garments because they could pass.

  3. Race is much more fluid in Latin America than in the US. Race is not necessarily about phenotype or how one appears. Instead, it’s a mixture of how one dresses, known reputation and overall behavior. There are clear social hierarchies.

  4. Intellectuals and proponents of blanqueamiento often argued Afro-Argentines could become “civilized” as long as they had Europeans as models to follow (thus the need for mass European immigration). Moreover, intellectuals such as Domingo Sarmiento also encouraged miscegenation, arguing that the mulato  “retain[s] the fiery blood of the African…at the same time the organization of his skull links him to the European family. Dumas, Plácido, Barcala, [are]...noble mulatos...  [that are known] for the arts, music, poetry, and medical sciences.” The view was that, eventually, with an increase of European immigration, remnants of the Black race would be mixed out. This is where Argentina is very different than the US with respect to race. There were no “separate but equal” or Jim Crow laws implemented in Argentina.

  5. Indigenous Indians, on the other hand, were considered a block to progress. According to Argentine officials, they constantly lived in a state of “barbarism.” That is why General Julio Roca was given the green light to commit state-sanctioned genocide on the Indians during the Conquest of the Desert of the 1870s. This is where Argentina and the US are very similar with respect to race.

Can you discuss why you don’t use the term white supremacy in your book?

White supremacy is 21st Century language, so as a historian, it would be irresponsible to describe the 18th and 19th century Argentine experience in that way. Instead, when I discuss race relations, I keep it within the context of my study and define it along the lines of social hierarchy, which roughly speaking places whites at the top of the apex.

So, are there Afro-Argentines in Argentina now?

María Remedios del Valle aka “Madre de la Patria” (Mother of the Nation)

María Remedios del Valle aka “Madre de la Patria” (Mother of the Nation)

Oh yes. Beyond the first generation of African slaves, two more waves of African migrations took place. The second occurred in the 1940s and came from the Cape Verde Islands. Since Cape Verdeans had Portuguese passports, they were able to disembark and make Argentina their home. The last migration took place in the 1990s and continues today. Most are West Africans who took advantage of a strong economy and moved to Argentina.

Over the past 20 years there has been a growing movement that is making the Afro-Argentine population visible. This movement, led by the Asamblea Permanente de Organizaciones Afrodescendientes de Argentina, helped to create a law, in 2013, that made November 8th, the “Day of Afro-Argentines and Afro-Culture”. The Argentine government, under the recommendation of various advocacy groups and historians agreed upon November 8th because that day commemorates the death of María Remedios del Valle (November 8, 1847), an African descendant, otherwise known as the “Madre de la Patria” or the “Mother of the Nation”. She was a nurse and later conferred as a captain by General Manuel Belgrano during the wars of independence. In 2013, the government noted that Remedios del Valle “represented thousands of Afro descendants that fought for [Argentina].” And since that time a ton of organizations have been created and the Afro-Argentine movement is growing.

I think this is a good time to ask you about your self-care regimen. This work can be heavy. How do you recharge and find a way to sustain your brilliant self?

I recently achieved tenure, in May 2018, and I realized that I am still a work in progress. I have realized that I have to make time for things that I love to do, no matter how busy I get. So, for me, I love to dance (Latin, Belly Dance, and 80s pop). I now make sure to dance a lot. I exercise and eat well and that makes a huge difference. I am also on the Board of Directors of Latin Americans Working for Achievement (LAWA), which allows me to connect with community.

I have also learned that I do not need to suffer in professional spaces in silence. This is important for self-care. While I was going through tenure I had a miscarriage. I was supposed to be so happy, but I wasn’t. I was devastated. Thank God for my husband, he was my rock. My colleagues, three Black women and one Latinx woman, also pulled me together. These women were also my rocks. They never had to say anything, it was a LOOK of solidarity and compassion that sustained me.

You know, I could have made tenure alone (without these women), but I would have questioned my sanity and would have wondered how much of me was still left after compromising parts of myself. Instead, I had these women of color, I call them my angels, who had previously earned tenure and guided me along. They would talk frankly with me and say, “Erika, let’s do this differently”, “Did you just curse at a department meeting? Are you crazy?”, “Slow down”, “Speed up and focus on this.”  Basically it was real talk with so much love.

Wow, that’s beautiful. I can’t wait to share this. When can we read your book, Hiding in Plain Sight: Black Women, the Law, and the Making of a White Argentine Republic?

It’s going through copyedit as we speak and will be available in Summer 2019.

If you have anything to add about Afro-Argentines, please share in the comments!