When she first travelled to Argentina for an undergraduate study abroad programme back in 2002, Dr. Erika Edwards felt that something was strange. She’d spent three weeks roaming the streets of Buenos Aires and had yet to see another black person. By the time she did, Edwards was so enthralled that she approached a woman who was nurturing a baby, blubbering in English and pointing to her skin. The woman was clueless – at least until she understood what the US professor wanted: a connection in Argentina with someone who looked like her.
“She took pity on me,” Edwards recalls. The stranger subsequently invited the professor into her home, marking the beginning of a long-term friendship. There were challenges – for one, they did not speak the same language: one spoke Brazilian Portuguese while the other spoke English. But despite the language barrier, their budding relationship was enough for Edwards to understand “what it meant to be a part of a diaspora.”
The invisibility she felt until discovering another black person led Edwards to the crucial question that spearheaded the creation of her award-winning 2020 book Hiding in Plain Sight: Black Women, the Law, and the Making of a White Argentine Republic: what happened to Argentina’s black population?
Despite sharing the same history that characterises the racial context of other countries in the Americas that were involved in the Atlantic Slave Trade, Argentina’s sense of national identity resides in a belief of a “pure” social pool associated with high numbers of European immigration. In the 19th and 20th centuries, seven million Spaniards and Italians migrated to Argentina, contributing to the perception that it is a white nation and therefore distinguishable from other Latin American countries. That belief goes all the way to the top.
“The Mexicans came from the Indians, the Brazilians came from the jungle, but we Argentines came from the ships. And they were ships that came from Europe,” declared President Alberto Fernández during a 2021 visit from Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez.
For Edwards, there is a deeply rooted desire on behalf of Argentina to not only believe itself white, but to be seen as white as well. This whitewashing of national history not only neglects the indigenous population that lived here long before Europeans arrived – it also sparked the professor’s curiosity concerning the fate of the over 200,000 enslaved Africans who arrived in the River Plate region between the 16th and 19th centuries of European colonisation.
“The most common thing people would tell me was that they disappeared,” said Edwards in an interview with the Times.
Many Argentines date the ‘disappearance’ of the black population to key moments in the country’s history, such as the last military dictatorship (1976-1983), the Yellow Fever epidemic or the Independence War, a conflict in which many black people were sent to defend the nation’s pride. In the latter, famed Afro-Argentine María Remedios del Valle fought valiantly and was later adorned with the title “Madre de la Patria.” The systematic process of becoming a white nation is rarely considered to be the reasoning behind a declined black population, but it’s where Edwards spent over 20 years theorising on the phenomenon.
While other scholars on the topic precede Edwards, her research is uniquely situated in 18th- and 19th-century Córdoba. Her focus on the province and capital provides a crucial and critical analysis of how black invisibility developed in a smaller city than Buenos Aires, turning a particular eye to black women and their domestic and social labour as it pertained to Argentina’s whitening process.
In the first chapter of her book, ‘Miscegenation, Marriage, and Manumission in Córdoba,’ Edwards goes into stark detail about the concept of Spanish privilege, which relied on having “purity of blood.” Spaniards were often given the opportunity to elevate their status in society through this notion of purity while the indigenous population and African descendants from enslavement were “discouraged” in their attempts to climb the social ladder.
Although the struggles of both communities are denoted as immensely similar, “Indians had a slight advantage because of their free status,” Dr. Edwards writes in her book. Seeking ways to socially ascend, Córdoba’s black population often left their cultural customs behind and married into Spanish families with social and financial wealth. Indigenous and black populations began to realise the social benefit in identifying as white in Argentina, asserts the professor, and they began an intergenerational struggle into rejecting a certain phenotypic truth to institutionally merge into a white Argentine social landscape.
“If you wanted to vote, you had to be two generations removed from slavery,” Dr. Edwards told the Times, highlighting how interwoven policy had become with social identity. “It shows that Córdoba was still maintaining levels of a [post-colonial] hierarchy.”
The modern-day implications of this erasure could even be seen in how Argentina measured its own demographics – it was not until 2010 that black people could declare themselves as Afro-descendants on the National Census.
A 2022 article in The Washington Post by Dr. Edwards discussing the lack of black players on Argentina’s national team during the World Cup also jarringly denoted that less than one percent of the population identified as black.
“When you go down the street and you’re in Belgrano or Palermo and these people are clearly dark-skinned, they would not see themselves as a dark-skinned person,” Dr. Edwards said to the Times. She called Argentina a “success” story in its efforts to whiten the population, but made it clear that black people are far from gone, despite the invisibility imposed on them.
“They’ve always been here, they are here, and they will continue to be a part of the fabric of what is the Argentine nation,” said the professor, citing community initiatives such as DIAFAR, a diasporic initiative for Afro-Argentines. She also spoke positively of the Afro-Argentine Day, which has been celebrated every November 8 since 2013 to commemorate the death of María Remedios del Valle.
Edwards’ book has been read by critics and supporters alike, nonetheless opening a discussion on how to properly reconcile Argentina's racism and its history of erasure. It’s a conversation, she explains, that still has some way to go.
“There’s a lot of work to do,” she said. “But we’re headed in the right direction.”