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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 13-06-2020 08:15

Argentina’s forgotten African roots

Argentines of African descent have been in the country for centuries, but their history is mostly unknown. BBC journalist Celestina Olulode details what she discovered on a journey to uncover Argentina’s forgotten African roots.

No hay negros en Argentina / There are no black people in Argentina.”

It’s an old myth that for many, still persists today. It’s a myth I never really fully believed, leading me to embark on a journey from London to uncover Argentina’s forgotten African roots. 

What initially sparked my interest was a warning from a family member not to travel to Buenos Aires: “It’s not a welcoming place for people of colour,” I was told. “Compared with the rest of South America they are the ones famous for never mixing with the indigenous population.” But as a history graduate and a journalist, I’m always questioning opinions, and so my research began. 

Over 200 years ago Buenos Aires was the site of one of South America’s largest slave ports. However, today that history is largely hidden beneath the European veneer of the city’s architecture. But hidden in places like Parque Lezama there are some links to Africa. The public park in the San Telmo district was where enslaved Africans were smuggled and sold, sent across the city or to other countries in the region. 

Official records show that at the start of the 19th century, one-third of the population of Buenos Aires was black. It’s a fascinating fact, partly because the city’s demographic makeup has now changed considerably. Which led me to ask why?

One morning my team and I were in the heart of the city’s Plaza de Mayo. With a BBC microphone in one hand and my notes in another, there was some interest from a passerby who happened to be a local tour guide. When I explained the project she responded: “My theory is that they [Afro-Argentines] are not here anymore because they wanted to live with people that are like them.” The tour guide was convinced Argentina's African descendants had all left and gone to Brazil. 

Dr Noberto Pablo Cirio is an anthropologist who has been working on Afro-Argentine history for more than 30 years. He clarified that a significant number died on the battlefield during Argentina's wars of independence. He also explained that in the 19th century, presidents like Domingo Sarmiento were keen to make Argentina as European as possible, by focusing on the achievements and contributions of the white population. At the same time there was a big influx of immigrants from Europe, this changed the makeup of the population considerably. 

But Afro-Argentines never disappeared, and a key part of the story is their contribution to the creation of the Republic of Argentina. Military figures like Juan Bautista Cabral – who sacrificed his life to save General José de San Martin in the 1813 Battle of San Lorenzo – clearly demonstrates their contribution. Sergeant Cabral is often depicted as a white soldier, but academics have confirmed he was of African descent. 

Little is said too about Manuel Macedonio Barbarín. A sergeant in the 1806 conflict that took place against the British, Barbarín was an enslaved African who came from Nigeria. Like many other enslaved Africans he was drafted into the army. Barbarín went on to become a lieutenant-colonel, playing a significant role in the military. Afro-Argentines are often depicted as no more than cannon fodder in the Wars of Independence. 

Perhaps the biggest surprise for me was the role the renowned Afro-Argentine chef, Antonio Gongaza, played in helping to popularise asado. Dr Cirio pointed out that in the 1800s, asado was a way of life for gauchos, but by writing cookbooks filled with recipes, Gongaza helped make the custom popular, bringing recipes from the pampas to the white tablecloths of Buenos Aires. 

Through Dr Cirio I was introduced to Gongaza’s great-grandson, Horacio. We met up at the National Congress where Antonio was once head chef. Together we looked over newspaper cuttings of his great-grandfather. Beaming with pride Horacio told me: “I think the story [of my great-grandfather] is important. As an Afro-Argentine I’m proud of being one, and I’m proud of being Argentine. I would like stories like this to be better known.” Horacio explained that he’d only learnt more about his ancestor by chance, after meeting Dr Cirio a few years ago. 

But the history of Afro-Argentines isn’t just in central Buenos Aires. The city of Chascomús is just a 135-kilometre drive away, and home to the Capilla De Los Negros – a chapel built by freed African slaves to commemorate their existence. One of their descendants is María Soledad Luis, who currently looks after the church. 

The chapel is not big by any means, but as you walk in and see pictures of Africans, and their symbols of spirituality decorated throughout, you get a real sense of the significance of this place. 

Initially apprehensive to take on the role of caretaker, María told me she felt a big responsibility in maintaining the house of worship: “I feel a great respect for this place. We have had many achievements throughout history, books, arts, music. I believe it is our responsibility that our families continue the work.” 

María and her family have opened the doors of the chapel to members of the public and tourist groups who come to visit. For María, the place is a way of reminding people that Argentines of African descent have been in the country for centuries. She says it’s important for Afro-Argentines to be able to tell their own story: “Today we know many stories of black people, told by others who are not black. Our work is to tell the real story, starting from ourselves as black people.” 

Soon after walking into the church I noticed an image of a goddess on one of the walls. Above the image was the word “Osun,” which means “deity” in Yoruba – the language spoken in the part of Nigeria my father is from. It was definitely a memorable moment for me because despite being in Argentina, a country that is often described as the “Europe of South America,” this was a personal reminder that its African links are still there for everyone to see. 

 

* Celestina Olulode is a reporter for BBC News Africa, which is part of BBC World Service. A podcast, detailing more about her experiences in Argentina and the history of the Afro-Argentine community, can be accessed at https://tinyurl.com/afroargentines.

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Celestina Olulode

Celestina Olulode

Celestina Olulode is a reporter for BBC News Africa, which is part of BBC World Service.

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