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The reawakening of Afro-Argentine culture

Descendants of slaves are starting to assert their identity but it's not easy in South America's whitest country.

“It's part of Argentine common sense that there are no blacks, that their entire culture had disappeared toward the end of the 1800s,” said anthropologist Pablo Cirio. “That's all a lie.”

A 2005 pilot census estimated that about 5 percent of the national population has African ancestry — about 2 million people. The study found that population to be worse-off by health and socioeconomic indicators than the rest of Argentina, as has presumably been the case since slavery.

Unlike the census of 1887, performed in a political atmosphere that was eager to efface the African presence in Argentina, this survey tried to detect any African ancestry in a household, whether or not its members appeared black. For that reason, the survey's architect and community activists have preferred the term "Afro-descendant" to the narrower "black."

The survey was performed with help from the national census bureau and World Bank funding, at the urging of local Afro-Argentine activists who hoped to have the “Afro-descendant” category re-inserted into the Argentine census in 2010 and count themselves as a distinct segment of the populace after a century missing. Soon afterward, DNA tests of blood samples in several Buenos Aires hospitals bolstered the pilot census' result with a very similar percentage of genes traceable to Africa. Moreover, a much higher number — about 10 percent — was obtained by testing mitochondrial DNA, which traces maternal ancestry. This is consistent with the historical conjecture that many black men were lost after being sent to the frontlines of 19th-century wars, and Afro-Argentines assimilated into the white population when the remaining women mixed with the hordes of European males who had come to Argentina to work.

But now the census initiative seems to have stalled. There are fatal questions about its potential validity and value as a measurement tool in a society where African roots have been so long hidden. Many Argentines aren't aware of black ancestors they may have, and the survey's researchers noted the difficulty in getting people to self-identify as Afro-descendants when the label has always carried such a strong stigma.

The pilot census had to be preceded by aggressive public information campaigns in the sample areas, in order to sensitize households to the concept of African ancestry and give them time to research their family trees. But most agree that without such a campaign and trained researchers giving face-to-face interviews, the usual government census wouldn't accurately reflect the Afro-descendant population in Argentina.

Anthropologist Cirio notes that, faced with the hostility of their surrounding society, “the party most interested in making blacks invisible have been blacks themselves.” Those who maintained African cultural traditions decided, since the end of the 19th century, to conceal these traditions from the public eye. “They did this not to forget their past, but to preserve it,” he said, adding that Associacion Misibamba is one of the first organizations to “break the

In some cases the cultural insulation has worked and enabled the reflorescence happening today. But more commonly, the effect has been a large-scale amnesia in Argentine society. “Any of us could be Afro-descendants, perhaps without knowing it,” said Cirio with an ironic smile.