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Has the myth of Argentinidad come to an end?

Updated: Feb 2, 2022

Figure 1: Fernández at the press conference for the meeting with spanish prime minister (NurPhoto/Matias Baglietto)

1. Introduction


On the 9th of June, Argentine President Alberto Fernández attended an official meeting with Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez. On this occasion, he said: "Mexicans come from Indians, Brazilians come from the jungle, but Argentines come from boats. Boats that came from Europe. "He was convinced to quote the Mexican writer and Nobel Prize winner for literature Octavio Paz[1]


He wanted to express a pro-European feeling and celebrate the importance of European migration for the history of Argentina in the 19th and 20th centuries. However, his statement was controversial, to say the least. His speech triggered a storm on social media. In a few hours, critical social media posts have multiplied with the hashtags #VerguenzaNacional e #AlbertoRacista.


The president's remarks were deemed xenophobic and offensive by hundreds of people in Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina. His words[2], have been labeled as the last manifestation of "Argentine arrogance". A recent demonstration of an ancient and deep-rooted effort by the Argentine state (or at least its political class), to defend this peculiar bond with European countries. This element has been seen as a differentiator compared to the neighboring Latin American countries.


At homeland, Fernández was accused of continuing to culpably "forget" the descendants of native population and Africans brought into slavery into the country, as well as anyone who does not feel represented by this idea of ​​an essentially white and European Argentina.


2. Criticism from abroad


The episode may have helped to left space for a critical reflection on the myth of "Argentine exceptionalism". It is not the first time that a prominent Argentine politician has made a comment considered racist[3]. Yet phrases of this kind reflect a dominant idea for an important part of Argentine society. A common thought especially in the Buenos Aires region, which can be summed up in the phrase: “Argentines are Europeans, unlike the rest of Latin Americans”.

Figure 2: Latinamerican newspapers headlines (Infobae)

Jorge Luis Borges, 20th-century Argentine writer, poet, and philosopher, used to say that Argentines were "Europeans in exile". Bartolomé Mitre, an important Argentine historian wrote that the European character of the Argentine nation was a distinctive trait differentiating it from the "barbarism" of its neighbors.


Sylvia Colombo writes in the New York Times "The racist phrase reveals the profound denial of the black and mixed roots of Argentine society, on which national cultural identity was modeled". The president only voiced resistance from a large part of society to understand that the country has been formed by a process of fusion, often brutal, of peoples and cultures, like the rest of the region.


The president apologized on his Twitter profile, but without completely retracting. He wrote: "our diversity is a pride" and that "Argentines come from boats" has been said several times for the sole reason the country has welcomed more than five million migrants in the twentieth century.


The most famous reaction was that of President Bolsonaro who tweeted: “Selva”! (ie jungle) with a photograph of himself. A more reflective comment also came from Brazil. The newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo defined the phrase racist and revealing of a deep-rooted cultural attitude minimizing or denying the mestizo roots of Argentine people.


3. The construction of the national myth


It is the common opinion that the 6.6 million European immigrants who landed at the port of Buenos Aires between 1857 and 1940[4] found the pampas empty. On the contrary, the territories of present-day Argentine were not at all unpopulated. Although there are no traces of a centralized and structured empire comparable to the Inca or the Aztec ones (respectively in Perù and Mexico), at the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores between the Parana river basin and the Strait of Magellan there were about 40 different native populations, such as Querandí, Guaranies, Mapuche and Tehuelche.


Long before the European migration wave (between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries), composed mainly of Italians, more than 200,000 Africans were led into slavery in the ports of Buenos Aires and Montevideo[5]. This corresponds to about half the number of slaves destined for the United States. Furthermore, African, Afro-descendants and Creoles, were numerous among the independence troops in the war against Spain (1810-1825).


However, since the 19th century, Argentine politics has denied and erased the presence and cultural heritage of indigenous and Afro-descendant populations. It was a concerted effort by the institutions to create the image of a country with no colors, no blacks, and no natives, making anyone without European ancestry invisible. The implementation of active "whitening" policies.

Figure 3: 9 June 2019, parade for the day of indigenous people (Telam/Raul Ferrari)

The origin of these policies dates back to the group of intellectuals known as the "generation of 1837". These founding fathers of the republic created the myth of white Argentina, of only European origins. Their stated goal was to unify the nation, during the preparatory work for the first Constitution of the Argentine Republic, ratified in 1853.


Among them were Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, and Juan Bautista Alberdi who considered blacks and Indios “inferior races”. They also wished a huge flow of European people to "improve the Argentine race". Sarmiento, in his famous book Facundo Civilización y Barbarie[6] writes about the need to blanquear, which means "to whiten" the country, to develop it.


To create a national Argentinian identity or argentinidad, the ruling elites decided to "homogenize" the population by identifying them with the label of "descendants of European immigrants". European immigrants were seen as carriers of "civilization". While the social, cultural, and economic differences of the Argentinian inhabitants of the time were neglected.


In the Constitution it was written that “the federal government will promote European immigration”, and this passage of art. 25 is still in force today[7]. The contradiction manifests itself right here: if on the one hand, republican Argentina opens up to immigrants from the beginning, on the other hand, it denies Indios, Africans, and their descendants, living already in the newborn republic.


4. The dark side of the argentinidad


The overlapping of the categories civilization-barbarism with European-Indios, justified the violent territorial expansion of the newborn Argentine state in areas considered "wild". In 1878 general Julio Argentino Roca[8] led the so-called "conquest of the desert".


It was a series of military campaigns in the southern and northeastern regions of the country. Claiming that they want to include the most remote areas in civilization, the army has killed thousands of Indians or forcibly "assimilated" them. The real goal was to appropriate their fertile lands, promote export agriculture, and through them reach "modernity". It involved ethnic cleansing and cultural genocide, but the date has been celebrated for years as a founding historical national event.


Furthermore, a certain public discourse affirms that racism does not exist in the country. Racism indeed would be an exclusive phenomenon of countries where Afro-descendant population is much larger, such as the United States or Brazil. On the contrary, as INADI[9] theorizes, racism still exists in Argentina but it is more "subtle" and peculiar to the national context. INADI director Federico Pita defines it racismo criollo[10], or creole racism. It is based on three pillars: the invisibility, the denial, and the foreignization or extranjerizacion of those groups who are victims of racism or colectivos racializados.


The invisibilization process was put in place by building a story of “virgin lands”. Those areas have been described as unproductive and unpopulated, while they had been home to native people for centuries. Furthermore, Afro-descendants living in urban areas are hidden, by manipulating statistical registers and censuses data[11].


Denial consists of minimizing these groups from a cultural point of view and celebrating on the contrary new figures and elements, like that of gauchos. Foreignization means attributing to foreign countries, those populations and cultural elements not fitting into the idea of ​​European Argentina. For instance, in common speech, it is said that the few Afro-descendants who used to live in Argentina massively have moved to Paraguay. Or that the Mapuche populations of the north of the country would be made by Chileans who "trespassed" the border in recent times.


The argentinidad building process spread throughout the country, especially through the school system, the idea that the whole of Argentina was like Buenos Aires and the Pampas region. Namely, the areas flourished with the arrival of European immigrants. In this view, there was almost no space for indigenous groups, Afro-descendants, or the idea of an Argentinian melting pot.


5. The argentine alternative voices


The myth of the white and European nation remains strong in the capital[12]. However, it is enough to visit the other regions of the country to realize that the truth is different and much more complex.


An example of resistance to this exclusionary argentinidad comes from Mapuche activists[13]. The coordinator of the Mapuche Tehuelche parliament of Rio Negro declared that Fernandez's intervention "represents the racism hidden behind the denial, because at the same time it denies the genocide of native peoples and tries to disguise the construction of a racist, discriminatory, exclusionary and unfair state. A State that is both nationalist and patriarchal".


According to Mapuche leaders, the president's words showed that the genocide that took place in Patagonia had a strong cultural component. Not only the killings of indigenous men and women during the conquest of the desert are denied or hidden. Moreover, their very presence in the history of the country is deleted. Nowadays Argentina is inhabited by the descendants of peoples and cultures that existed long before the arrival of the boats mentioned by Fernandez. Beyond critical memes and comments in the press and other media, the time has come for the entire country to deepen the knowledge of the indigenous world, starting from the national education system.

Figure 4: Young argentine women of African descent (Ministerio de la cultura argentina)

In the meantime, efforts to raise public awareness of the historical legacy and the presence of the African diaspora in Argentina are on the increase. An example is the association Diáspora africana de la Argentina or Diafar. It is no longer acceptable to deny the African component in national culture or the contribution of the Afro-Argentine community into the past and present of the country.


In 2013, a law promoted by the Asamblea Permanente de Organizaciones Afrodescendientes de Argentina proclaimed November 8th the National Day of Afro-Argentines and Afro culture. It was in honor of the heroine María Remedios del Valle[14], also known as “Mother of the Homeland”. The Argentine Ministry of Culture declared that the idea "that the country was forged by white European immigrants is a myth that is slowly being demolished".


6. Conclusions


Many Latin American countries have long since adopted or are building a national narrative of mestizaje or cultural mixing. They all defend the melting pot of people and culture of a country, the sense of pride for the product of centuries in hybridization. A common "mestizo nationalism" can be traced in Mexico, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, celebrating a "Latin approach” of coexistence and fusion between peoples, as opposed to racial segregation and racism in North America[15].


Argentina has always kept itself separate from these approaches, defending its "exceptional nature". The massive European immigration into a territory considered almost uninhabited, would have made it a white and European nation, albeit geographically South American. This one-dimensional concept of ​​a European Argentina is a unique case in the American continent, herald of a simplified and reduced version of a much more complex history. A history that includes national policies aimed at eliminating or hiding non-white populations.


The presidential speech has shown that even today indigenous and African roots in argentine society are denied. In the same way, it is forgotten that Argentina was built through a not pacific fusion of different populations. However, the rain of critical memes has given visibility to the debate on racism in the country and the pending historical issue of ethnic cleansing in Patagonia, that has never been recognized by the state. Neither Afro-descendants nor Indigenous disappeared from Argentina in the aftermath of liberation from Spanish domination. It only was the Argentinian state to stop recognizing them as communities. The two just became part of the new, undefined "popular classes"[16].


We can say that Argentina has “an image problem”. Hopefully, this is going to push the contemporary political class to undertake a new reading of the Argentine past, recognizing the contributions of people and groups whose existence has so far been denied or minimized.


As shown by Bolivia, Peru, Brazil, or Canada, it is never too late to reformulate the national identity by recognizing the historical-cultural heritage of indigenous people and African roots, and to make today's Argentine women and men more aware and inclusive citizens.


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Note

[1] The correct quote from Paz would have been: "Mexicans descend from Aztecs, Peruvians from Inca and Argentines from boats", ironically underlining Argentina's lack of an empire comparable to the Aztec and Inca in Mexico and Perù. [2] The president actually quoted a song by the Argentine singer Lito Nebbia. [3] In 2018 president Mauricio Macri, said at the Davos Economic Forum "I am convinced that the association between Mercosur and the European Union is natural because in South America we are all descendants of Europeans". [4] Between 1830 and 1930 immigrants made up between 25 and 30% of the total population (Limes 2003). About half of the immigrant population came from Italy. More than 4 million migrants arrived between 1881 and 1914 in the most acute phase of the migration explosion. [5] The capitals of present-day Argentina and Uruguay were the main cities of the Viceroyalty of Rio de la Plata. [6] The book, published in 1845, is a cornerstone of Latin American literature. It has had a major influence on theories and models of development, modernization, and culture, within the entire region. [7] The article has not been modified by the 1994 amendments to the Constitution. Text in force available at: http://servicios.infoleg.gob.ar/infolegInternet/anexos/0-4999/804/norma.htm [8] He later became president of Argentina. [9] INADI stands for Instituto Nacional contra la Discriminación, la Xenofobia y el Racismo. [10] F. Pita «De que hablamos cuando hablamos de racismo? » in INCLUSIVE « No hay racismo en Argentina? Debates y reflexiones sobre el racismo estructural ». [11] Until independence from Spain in 1816, Africans and Afro-descendants made up about 37% of the total population according to the official censuses. For decades after independence, they made up about 30% of the inhabitants of Buenos Aires. However suddenly at some points, censuses stop collecting information on the citizens’ origin or cultural identity. Only in the 2010 census, the option to identify themselves as Afro-descendants popped up again. [12] Traditionally, Buenos Aires citizens love to consider their city "the most European" of the American continent. [13] Mapuche communities have been demanding for years the right to their ancestral land and the protection of their own language and culture. [14] María Remedios del Valle, who died on November 8th 1847, was an Afro-Argentine protagonist in the war of independence. She obtained for her merits as a patriot the rank of sergeant major in the army and the title of "Mother of the homeland". [15] P.L. Alberto e E. Elena, 2018 «The shades of the nation, the introduction of Karem Roitman, «Rethinking Race in Modern Argentina». [16] For instance the term negro that was initially associated only with the color of the skin, ended up losing its racial connotations and assuming those of social class. In Argentina, it is currently used as a synonym for poor, humble, popular.


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