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"