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Argentina's blacked out past

Recent archaeological discoveries in Argentina of the first artefacts to be identified as being of African origin are twisting a sensitive national nerve. Argentines have always believed that their country never had a black population. The findings have also prompted a further question: what did this nation, which prides itself on being uniquely non-racist, do to dispose of its black culture?

Looking at the fair European faces of Buenos Aires it is hard to believe that Black people ever existed here, but Afro-Argentines once made up 30% of the capital?s population and up to 60% in some provinces. In 1838 there were 15,000 African slaves (26% of Argentines) but by 1887 they barely figured in demographic registers.

They nearly vanished, but not completely. "It?s a bit like playing football alone against 22 players." laughed Fidel Nadal, 30, a typical Buenos Aires lad - with all the Italo-Latin macho gestures, but for his chocolate skin, a proud Jamaican walk and thick black dreadlocks. One of around 50 Afro-Argentines who have remained almost racially pure through six generations, Fidel is so rare that, "sometimes they shout at me, `Negro go back to the US!'."

While Argentina collectively denies its African past, this year a group of archaeologists stumbled across the first ceramic remains to be identified as African. "We imagine there must have been many more remains, but they were simply thrown away." said Daniel Schavelson, the archaeologist who found these remains. "Before, anything found that could not be identified as European or Indigenous was simply discarded because of an unconscious denial that blacks ever existed here."

Argentines, Latin America?s most diverse immigrant population, consider themselves to be among the world?s most tolerant people. "Our openness says something about our tremendous ability to incorporate foreigners from all over: Italy, Germany, Britain, Syria, Russia" said Senator Eduardo Menem, the President?s brother. Yet, Argentine historians struggle to admit that slaves arrived on local shores. No general history book explains how blacks lived, the influence they had on society and why they vanished. "It?s that, they have no social function today... and never came to influence our history," was historian Luis Romero?s stumbling explanation for virtually excluding blacks in the popular book he co-authored A Brief History of Argentina.

None of Buenos Aires? five main historical museums show, even in reconstructed form, examples of Afro-Argentine existence. "We have too many important events and personalities to show. We can?t waste space putting things that don?t have any relevance to our history," replied Susana Esperonino, a director at the Historical Costume Museum.

Only two Jewish academics, Schavelson and historian Marta Goldberg, and US historian George Reid Andrews, have properly investigated a past that Argentines want to ignore. Last month Goldberg tried to convince the National Historical Museum to recognise Argentina?s African past. "They just didn?t want to know," she said. "They are very proud that Argentina is white. After all, it is the distinction which has always made us feel superior to the rest of Latin America." According to Goldberg, the majority of African slaves were used as domestic servants, constructions workers and road builders since plantations were scarce. But Argentine leaders soon found a use for them which would eventually destroy them: war.

The Argentine infantry which won independence from Spain was almost all black. They fought in the wars against Brazil and Paraguay and in the interminable civil war between Unitarians and Federalists. The lure for blacks was the promise of freedom after five years in the army, but many did not survive; being chained on the front line so they couldn?t escape, reduced their chances. By the time the Paraguayan war ended in 1869, thousands of slaves were dead. Meanwhile, black women of Buenos Aires found solace in the thousands of European men who arrived alone at the end of the 19th century. Their culture and colour were quickly diluted. But by then, Goldberg and Reid insist, blacks had left an irrevocably strong influence on Argentine culture and language, even - to the horror of museum directors and cultural purists - on the origins of the tango.

Many Argentines are literally gob smacked when they are told their unknown history. "That?s absurd, I?ve never heard there were blacks here, not even in school," said Paula Correa, television producer. Others, like Nicolas Saubidet, civil servant, know the partial truth. "But, as I remember, we were told that the blacks left because it was too cold for them here."

Out of this negation has sprouted the delusion that Argentines are not racist. "We don?t have any racial problems because there are no blacks," said one taxi driver who never thought to ask why there were none. What they refer to as "Negros de mierda" (black scum), Buenos Aires residents are eager to clarify are not Africans, but the indigenous folk from the interior who descended on Buenos Aires during industrialisation. It is these dark-skinned and despised migrants who insult Fidel most. "They are so shat on by whites here that when they see that I?m darker than them, but that I?m walking with my pride, they get angry." says Fidel. "I feel like saying, hey we?re brothers, take your anger out on the whites. But they are the slaves now and they don?t realize it."

For middle class (and notably whiter) Argentines, however, Fidel is considered exotic. Some bounce into a bad Caribbean impersonation, give him the thumbs up and shout "Yeah, man, cool, Rasta, ". In his father?s time ladies would touch their knee when they saw him because a black man was so rare it was considered good luck. "Dad would stick his foot out and trip them up as they walked past," remembers Fidel. "Then he would help them up and say "you see? We don?t always bring good luck."

Fidel?s father, Enrique Nadal, is the only known living Argentine of totally unmixed race. His ancestors had intermarried to preserve their colour despite the drastically diminishing population and tried to keep the community together. "I remember when I was young going to black parties," said Fidel. "But it all ended during the dictatorship, I think because people got scared of getting together."

Fidel complains that most members of small Afro-Argentines community (not more than 1,000) have lost their sense of identity. There is a division between the Nadal family and the Murature family, Argentina?s most well known black family. Fifty years ago, as an act of historical compensation, Congress guaranteed the Murature family descendants work as Congress? servants and porters, for as long as the family exists. "It?s fitting isn?t it that the country?s model black family, get most media coverage by opening doors for whites," says Fidel. He says he had to travel and meet other black people to deepen his sense black identity. But he has returned to Buenos Aires: "My ancestors built this city and defended the country?s borders, so this is why I belong."

Behind the Argentine naivet?, Fidel is aware of a deep, primitive, almost Darwinian racism. It bursts out sporadically and spontaneously. Recently, at a Jamiroquai concert here, when lead singer Jay Kay introduced his Nigerian percussionist, some fans began to make monkey sounds. During the Olympics, when Argentina reached the football final, waiting to meet either Brazil or Nigeria, the front page headline of Argentina?s best selling sports daily was "Bring on the monkeys." Both the Nigerian and Brazilian embassies complained, but the editors, while apologising for having hurt their feelings, explained their point was to reflect popular humour.
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