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Author Topic: Afro-Argentina & Bolivia  (Read 34451 times)
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Posts: 605

« on: May 31, 2005, 02:31:07 PM »


Argentina is considered to be South America’s “whitest” nation. In fact, many times you will hear a white Argentine proudly claim that “no hay negros en Argentina” or that there are no blacks in Argentina. However, how could a country have practically no black presence at all, when at one point in Argentine history, the blacks outnumbered the whites five to one? How could a country, which had blacks account for about 30% of the population in the nation’s capital Buenos Aires in 1810, now have no blacks as many white Argentines like to claim? Also, what elements of this early African presence still remain present in the culture of Argentina today?

Afro-Argentine professor Miriam Gomes interviewing a black Argentinean woman


The biggest influence left by the Africans of Argentina is the music and dance tango. The origin of the word tango is still not clear, it could be African in origin meaning “reserved ground” or “closed place”. It is also speculated that the Africans on the slave ships could have picked up the Portuguese word “tanguere, which means to touch. One thing we do know is that the word “tango” came to define the place where African slaves and free blacks gathered to dance. The earliest tangos began to be danced in the streets, bars, and the brothels in Buenos Aires, in the 1800s. Tango formed from older African based dances and musical forms of the milonga, candombe and canyengue, and habanera. The rhythmic patterns of candombe were brought by the Afro Argentinean slaves, while the habanera was brought in by the Afro Cubans. Milonga is the product of the steps of the candombe and the habanera together with influences from the polka and the mazurka.

Eventually, tango would become very popular with the European immigrants and Euro – Argentines. In fact, it was very common to see the bars and brothels of the “barrios” (districts) frequented by European immigrants so that they could learn this dance. Once they learned this dance, they would take it with them when they left Argentina to introduce tango to the upper echelons of European and American society.

What happened to the negros(blacks)?

An Afro Argentine woman

The arguably biggest reason for the small Afro presence in Argentina, despite there once being a fairly sizeable population at one time, is warfare. Black Argentinean men were heavily involved in the country’s wars against Great Britain, Spain, Brazil, and even the indigenous peoples of Argentina. Another reason in addition to warfare is that they were systematically being mixed out by mingling with European immigrants and the white Argentineans as well. Also, Afro-Argentines that were free, were set loose into very poor living conditions.

Slavery was officially abolished in Argentina in 1813, however, many blacks were still held as slaves, and were only granted their freedom by fighting in Argentina’s wars. For this reason, black men served very disportionately in the war against Spain for Argentina’s independence. When you look at the huge number of black men killed in the war compared to the white Argentineans, you can come to the conclusion that these black men were being used as a “cannon fodder”, and were deliberately being placed on the frontlines. In fact, when you observe Argentina’s history, their government has purposely sent as many blacks as possible to battle in dangerous military service. Not to mention their mission of “killing two birds with one stone” by sending the black Argentineans to war against the Amerindians (Indians), who the white Argentineans despised as well.

While the black Argentine men were getting killed in warfare, black Argentinean women were without mates. So these black women began to produce mix children with the European immigrants, especially Italian immigrants, who were reportedly attracted to the body odor of black women. This mixing created another problem for the Afro Argentineans though, since having an African heritage wasn’t considered proper, and was even seen as a burden to many mulattos. It is for this reason that many light mulattos passed for white or trigueño (a dark skin white person), and were even careful not to associate themselves with the Afro Argentinean community. With the obsession of the Argentines to become a white nation, “passing” became popular for the mulattos in Argentina. In fact, it was very rare to find a mulatto who had the chance to pass, not utilize this advantage.

Ironically for the Afro Argentines, a free black in Argentina had less chance for survival than an enslaved black Argentinean did. An enslaved black was seen as an investment so he or she was taken good care for; on the other hand free blacks were left with menial jobs for low pay, or became beggars in the streets. For this reason the poverty in the Afro Argentinean community was terrible. In fact, a large portion of blacks died from disease, because they couldn’t afford proper medical care. Many Afro Argentineans were decimated by frequent plagues like yellow fever. So when you put these factors together with the racist immigration policies of the Argentinean government, you have the reasons for the decline in the Afro Argentinean community.

The Afro Argentine Community in the present

Young Argentine woman of African ancestry

Today in Argentina, the Afro-Argentine Community is beginning to emerge from the shadows. There have been black organizations such as “Grupo Cultural Afro”, “SOS Racismo”, and perhaps the most important group “Africa Vive” that have help to rekindle interest into the African heritage of Argentina. There are also Afro-Uruguayan and Afro-Brazilian migrants who have helped to expand the African culture. The Afro-Uruguayan migrants have brought their candombe to Argentina, while the Afro-Brazilians teach capoeira, orisha, and other African derived secular dances.

The question that remains now is “how many people in Argentina can claim African ancestry?” However, the exact number is actually quite difficult to calculate. As stated earlier, many blacks that could used to “pass” for trigueño or white, so for this reason, people may or may not be aware that they had a black great grandparent. In fact, many researchers believe that possibly as many as 10% of Buenos Aires residents have African ancestry, but are unaware of it. Also, as Anthropologist Alejandro Frigerio noted, “The term ‘negro’ is used loosely on anyone with slightly darker skin, but they can be descendants of the indigenous Indians or Middle Eastern immigrants. Not to mention the fact that it has been well over a century since Argentina has reflected the African racial ancestry in its census count. Therefore, calculating the exact number of Afro-descendents is very difficult; however, Africa Vive calculates that there are about 1,000,000 Afro-descendents in Argentina.

Africa Vive

Africa Vive's leader Maria Lamadrid who is on a mission to fight the discrimination in Argentina

Recently, there has been a growing interest into Argentina’s African heritage, as well as their African descended community. A group of Afro-Argentineans called “Africa Vive” (Africa lives), led by Maria Lamadrid, have emerged on a mission to fight discrimination, as well as raise awareness of the plight of the Afro Argentinean community and their place in Argentina’s history. Maria Lamadrid, who founded Africa Vive in the late 90’s, has helped to bring the racism and discrimination in Argentina to the forefront. She struggled in her youth to receive an education since she was both black and poor. For this reason, she ended up cleaning other people’s houses to make a living, like other poor women in Argentina do. Maria has seen the racism up close and personal there every day. In fact, a few years ago when Maria wanted to travel to Panama, she went to the immigration counter with her new Argentine passport, when the immigration officer saw the passport, the officer began to scream that “it is a fake”, and then this officer detained her. The only reason they could give for detaining her is that “there aren’t any blacks in Argentina.”

Although Maria encounters racism as well as discrimination on a daily basis in her country, it has done nothing but inspire her, as well as her Africa Vive foundation to push forward towards equality. In fact, in 1999, Africa Vive organized a very well publicized conference against discrimination at the University of Buenos Aires. Africa Vive also was invited to attend the Durban UN Conference on Racism. At this conference, they made a presentation about the socio-economic situation of the Afro-Argentines, such as the high amount of unemployment in the Afro Argentine community, as well as the problem with naturalization that blacks receive because of racist immigration policies.

Argentina has been a country that not only denies having an Afro-descended community, but has done everything to erase Africa from its past. The Afro-Argentine community currently faces issues of high unemployment, racist immigration policies, as well as denial about their existence; however, there is hope for this country’ black people. In 2001, Afro-descended groups like “Grupo Cultural Afro”, "SOS Racismo", and of course "Africa Vive" came together to convince a national deputy to organize a ceremony in memory of the black soldiers who died fighting(as a “cannon fodder” in many cases) for Argentina’s independence. In this ceremony, the national deputy spoke in honor of the great fallen soldiers, in addition to awarding degrees to the heads of several black organizations. For Argentina to have an event that not only acknowledges the African contributions to the country, but also puts the Afro-Argentines in the spotlight, is truly a very remarkable thing. This event was certainly a huge step for Afro-Argentines toward reaching their goal for equality, however, they still have many more miles to walk, but there is certainly more hope for the Afro-Argentine Community to reach this goal than there has been in a very long time.

Some Afro-Argentines from the film "Afroargentinos"


Forward to a united Africa!
Senior Member
Posts: 605

« Reply #1 on: May 31, 2005, 02:44:31 PM »


Some Afro-Bolivians working in the fields of the Yungas

Bolivia may very well be one of the most culturally indigenous countries of Latin America. It is for this reason, as well as Spain’s dominance over this country, that many people assume that all Bolivians are either indigenous or mestizo(Indian and European mixed person). However, there are blacks, mulattos (African and European mixed people), and even black Indians(African and Indian mixed people) in this country as well. Which leads us to ask, what is the history behind these Afro-Bolivians? What African derived elements are present in Bolivian culture? Also, what is the current socio-economic situation of the Afro-Bolivians?

History of slavery in Bolivia

The mines of Potosi that many Africans and Natives died working from the harsh conditions

In 1544, the Spanish Conquistadors discovered the silver mines in a city now called Potosí, which is on the base of Cerro Rico (Rich Mountain) in Bolivia. Almost immediately, they began enslaving the natives for working in the mines. However, the health of the natives working in the mines was becoming very poor, which is why the Spanish began to look towards a new group for labor. By the beginning of the Seventeenth Century, the Spanish mine owners and barons began bringing in African slaves in high numbers to help work the mines with the natives that hadn’t run out of health.

The conditions that the slaves had to work in were horrible. In fact, the brown and black slaves working in the mines survived no more than 6 months. First off, Potosí is 13,000 feet in elevation, making it the highest city in the world. Naturally, the slaves were not used to working at such a high altitude. Also many of the lives of these Native and African workers fell short because of the toxic smelter fumes and the mercury vapors that they were inhaling while working the mines. Also, because of the fact that the slaves had to work in the very dark mines for about four months, once they finally left these dark mines, they had to be blindfolded to protect their eyes from the sunlight, which they hadn’t seen in a long time.

Although it was a requirement for the Natives and Africans over 18 years of age to work in the mines for 12 back breaking hours, younger children were still put to work in the mines. These children did work less hours; however, they were still exposed to the very harsh conditions such as asbestos, toxic gases, potential cave-ins, and explosions. It is estimated that as many as eight million Africans and Natives died from working in the harsh conditions of the mines from a time span of 1545, when the Spaniards first put the Natives to work, until 1825, the end of the colonial period. This colonial period is certainly the worst human rights abuse of Europe’s colonial era.

The Spaniards way of combating the harsh conditions for the slaves in the mines was to chew coca leaves. Coca, which would eventually become a very important element of Bolivian culture, is an agricultural product that is consumed in Bolivia, but can also be processed into cocaine. By chewing the coca leaves, the slaves were numbing their senses to the cold, as well as preventing the feeling of hunger.

The Yungas

After their emancipation in the 19th century, Afro-Bolivians would relocate to a place called the Yungas. The Yungas, which is not far north from the city of La Paz, is where most of the country’s coca is grown. In parts of the Yungas such as Coroico, Mururata, Chicaloma, Calacala - Coscoma, and Irupana are a large number of Bolivians of African heritage. Before the Bolivians relocated to the Yungas, it was a place mostly inhabited by Aymara Indians (Indigenous group that makes up about 25% of the indigenous population and along with the other indigenous group called the Quechua Indians make up the majority of the indigenous population) and mestizos(European and Native mixed people). It is believed that the Natives thought that darker skin was more attractive, which is why they were impressed with the skin of the Africans when they first began arriving to Bolivia. For this reason, it is no surprise that many of the Afro-Bolivians would intermarry with the Aymara, adopt many of their cultural elements such as their style of dressing, and even become an Aymara speaking subculture.

Some black Indians with drums of African origin

Although these Afro-Bolivians were free, they still had a difficult battle in trying to maintain their culture. Many elements of their culture began to disappear, such as their feast, language, and spiritual sense to name a few. They had to fight very strongly against the colonial aggression and exclusion of their post-emancipation culture. One of the ways that they were able to hold onto this culture was through their music and dance.

La Saya(Saya music)

Afro-Bolivians dancing and singing "La Saya"

The biggest African influence in Bolivian culture is Saya music or La Saya. Saya, which is growing in popularity in Bolivia, is still very misunderstood. In fact, no one except the Afro-Bolivians themselves seem to be able to interpret it. The reason for this lack of understanding of saya is because the interpretation of the instruments as well as the rhythm is very peculiar. It involves Andean instruments incorporated with African percussion. The primary instrument is the drum, which was passed on by their African ancestors, along with gourds, shakers, and even jingles bells that are attached to their clothing on the ankle area.

During the performance of saya, the Afro-Bolivians wear Aymara style clothing. The women wear a bright multi-colored blouse with ribbons, a multi-colored skirt called a “pollera”, with a “manta” (back cover) in their hand, and a bore-slain hat. The men on the other hand, wear a hat, feast shirt, an Aymara style slash around the waist, woolen thick cloth pants called “bayeta pants”, and sandals.

Some Afro-Bolivians going to a gathering for La Saya

Every rhythm of Saya begins with the beating of a jingle bell by the Caporal (foreman) who guides the dance. This Caporal (also called capataz) guides the dancers with a cudgel (whip) in hand, decorated pants, and jingle bells near the ankles. The women, who have their own guide during this dance, sing while moving their hips, shaking their hands, as well as dialoguing with the men who play the bass drum and coancha.

Afro-Bolivia today

Two Afro-Bolivian women

Even though Bolivia had the richest silver mine in the world in the 17th century, it is currently the 2nd poorest country in South America. The majority of the Bolivians lives in rural areas, are unable to acquire basic needs, and depend on farming for their survival. For this reason, one can conclude that the conditions for the Afro-Bolivians aren’t very good either, since many Afro-Bolivians live without electricity. In fact, it was reported at Bolivia’s national referendum in 2004, that Afro-Bolivians (as well as the indigenous people) face discrimination, disadvantages in health, life expectancy, education, income, literacy, and work under brutal conditions.

It has been estimated that 25,000 Afro-Bolivians live in the Yungas, however, this number could possibly be wrong, since not even the Afro-Bolivians themselves know the number of their population. Once thing we do know is that the Afro-Bolivians are proud of their culture and have fought very hard to preserve it. In fact, in the town of Mururata, the Afro-Bolivians managed to keep their original culture for a long time, and even have a direct descendant of an African King living there. Not only that, but they are also in the process of trying to put together African culture classes for the young people, in an attempt to maintain their African culture. The future of the Afro-Bolivians is unclear; however, it is clear that the presence of mother Africa is still present in Bolivia.

Two Afro-Bolivian girls who will carry on the African heritage of Bolivia


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