The Blacks and American-Indian, an unknown community
From the times of slavery up to the times of the American-Indians in today’s Argentina.
When you think in Argentina, the image that comes to your mind is that of a Caucasian and European country. In fact, when compared to neighboring countries such as Uruguay or Brazil, in Argentine streets you see almost no black people.
However, in Argentina there exists a community with black ancestors that have intermingled along generations. Today, they represent 3% to 5% of the population of the country*, that is 1.5 to 1.8 million people, most of whom descend from slaves.
Río de La Plata, entrance door of slavery in colonial times
Black population in Argentina descends from slave trade during the Spanish domination of the Vice-Royalty of Río de la Plata. In the 18th and 19th centuries, they were almost half the population of some provinces. As it happened in other Latin American territories, the reduced density of native population, the resistance to acculturation of some groups, the high mortality rate related to the jobs and the illnesses introduced led to the diversification of the local labor work with black slaves from Sub-Saharan Africa.
From the end of the 16th century, African slaves arrived in Río de la Plata, firstly as a result of smuggling favored by the strategic location of Buenos Aires port. The traffic continued in the 17th and 18th centuries. The great majority of slaves were from today territories of Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea, and the Republic of Congo.
Even though there is no accurate information as to the quantity of black people who arrive in Buenos Aires port, where legally or otherwise, it was known that the city was an important access point as well Montevideo, Valparaíso and Rio de Janeiro. Slaves were used for agricultural chorus, cattle-raising, domestic chorus, and in smaller quantities for craftsmanship.
At the end of the 18th century, in Buenos Aires neighborhoods of San Telmo et Montserrat –also called drum neighborhood– where many slaves lived, although great part of them were sent to the Northern provinces. A neighborhood of the city of Corrientes today is called Camba Cuá, from guaraní “kamba kua” that means “cave of black people”. In 1778 census, in the city of Buenos Aires there were 15,800 Spaniards, 1,300 American-Indian and aborigines and 7,300 mulatto and black people.
Thirty years later, in 1810, year of May Revolution, there were 22,800 Caucasian, 9,600 black and mulatto people and only 150 aborigines. Black population represented 30% of the total number of inhabitants of the city.
Black people in the times of Argentine constitution
During independence wars, liberating armies recruited a great quantity of black slaves from the territories where they had been offered freedom. Free black people reached 65% of the troops of the Northern Army led by José de San Martín, Argentina liberator.
In 1806, during the English invasions to the Buenos Aires port, the first rebelling act of black slaves took place in the city. As from 1813 “liberty of wombs” was proclaimed but it was not until 1840 the slave trade was completely abolished in Río de la Plata, and in 1853 Constitution the right to freedom of slaves was recognized.
Extinction, disappearance and hiding black people in Argentina
Demographic decrease of the African-Argentine population had two main causes: one was Paraguay War (1865-1870) which caused many casualties; and the other was the yellow fever epidemics that affected Buenos Aires in 1871 with a great impact in the poorest populations. This had to be added to the migration towards Uruguay where the black population had been historically bigger and had a more favorable political environment.
Finally, massive immigration from Europe between 1850 and 1950 intensified the “dissolution” or “dissemination” of the black community in this population. The myth of a Caucasian nation widespread during the second half of the 19th century contributed to hiding black ancestors. They created new categories to incorporate certain ethnic groups to Caucasians. It is the case of “light brown” people that have African or American aboriginal features. Due to this ethnic mixture, this intermediary category also included some European, thus ending up in the Caucasian category. That is why today, a few African-Argentine descendents know their origins.
Black influence on the national culture
Tango is a good representative of the black cultural influence. It has some characteristics of festivities and ceremonies that used to be held by slaves in the so-called “tangos”, houses where they gathered with their landlords’ permission. You may also feel the black influence in rhythms and dances such as candombe, milonga and chacarera, and even in the traditional “payada” (an improvisation of a rhyme re-telling, sung and accompanied by a guitar, typical of Southern America).
Argentine Spanish includes African terminology such as “mina” (a synonym to woman), “mucama” (housemaid), “quilombo” (brothel), “marote” (head). Lunfardo, Buenos Aires argot, also inherited some African words: “mandinga” (devil), milonga, zamba. In the religious area, apart from carnival celebrations, the adoration to Saint Benedict and to Saint Balthazar, the black Wise Man still show black influence.
* A study carried out in 2002 in the city of Buenos Aires by the National Institute of Statistics and Census/ INDEC, University of Tres de Febrero, and the World Bank.