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  •  REVIEW: AFROARGENTINOS

      Afroargentinos
    Black not like me

    Argentina has no black problem because it has no blacks. At least that's what mainstream society has told itself, but the "Afroargentinos" in this documentary tell a different story of their country's past and present.

    By PETER THEIS
    Offoffoff.com


    Carlos Menem, whose ten-year tenure as Argentina's president ended in 1999 just before his macroeconomic policies led to the collapse of the economy, was asked, during a tour of the United States, about whether Argentina had any citizens of African descent. He responded, "No, we have no blacks. Brazil has that problem." Afroargentinos, a 2003 documentary by Diego Ceballos and Jorge Antonio Fortes, flushes out the dark premises of Menem's statement, persuasively showing the official invisibility and widespread stereotyping (as "a problem," among other things) that Argentina's black population endures.

    AFROARGENTINOS
    Directed by: Diego Ceballos, Jorge Antonio Fortes.
    In Spanish with English subtitles.
     SCHEDULE
    Clearview 62nd & Broadway Aug. 14, 2004, 9:15 p.m.

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  •   
    Primarily, the film is a compendium of individuals' experiences as black in an overwhelmingly white society (97% are of European ancestry) - or, at least, a society that wants to think of itself as overwhelmingly and unproblematically white. However, the compendium is given historical context. Like many New World nations, Argentina imported Africans as slaves, until total abolition in 1861. In post-abolition times, when pseudo-scientific race generalizations flourished on all continents, blacks were presumed to be genetically unsuitable to participating in the country's economic development. The official presumption of inferiority resulted in gross governmental mistreatment, exemplified by a quarantine of a cholera-infected area in which white families were permitted to exit but blacks forced to remain to become infected and die. In more recent times, Argentina remained one of the few allies of the apartheid regime in South Africa and even secretly agreed to accept white-skinned émigrés should the apartheid regime be overthrown. Running parallel to this appalling but too-typical history were hegemonic efforts to rewrite history and officially discount black citizens; a score and century before Menem uttered his denial of black experience in Argentina, another statesman made the claim that the only blacks that an Argentine could see were in Brazil. To the present day, history textbooks do not acknowledge that Argentina's first president was of African descent on his maternal side.

      
      Coming from such diversity in background, one man observes that little unity, or political organization, among blacks has been sought or achieved, in contrast to the Jewish or Armenian presences in Argentina. This observation is the pivot of the film.
      
    As mentioned, the brief history review serves only to contextualize the contemporary experiences of the half-dozen Afro-Argentine subjects interviewed. The subjects are of diverse cultural background, from members of the Cape Verde society, composed of 1940s-era immigrants from that African island nation, to blacks descended from slaves and, in one case, a renowned tango composer. They also have diverse occupations, from musician to scholar to seaman to activist. Coming from such diversity in background, one man observes that little unity, or political organization, among blacks has been sought or achieved, in contrast to the Jewish or Armenian presences in Argentina. This observation is the pivot of the film. Left to themselves, few of the subjects would think of themselves in terms of skin color, much less think to organize politically around such a trait; for most, national origin and occupation are the anchors of their cultural identities. However, each speaks of racisms blatant and subtle which have imprinted, over and over, that they are black, and that skin color is the primary, if not exclusive, marker through which they will be understood by the rest of Argentine society. (One of the subjects surmises that every black man who was a child in the '70s was probably dubbed "Cirilo" by classmates, after the single black child portrayed in Argentine cinema.) Unity is imposed from without. Whatever you think you might be, you are black, you are other-than-we.

    And as social scientists have amply documented in societies everywhere, being considered an exotic other-than-us is a life sentence of imprisonment behind a screen. On this screen is projected all manner of fantasies, irrationalities, and idiocies. The subjects of "Afroargentinos" speak of the most common stereotypes encountered: the female black is exotic and sexually available, leading to constant catcalls and aggressive sexual advances; the male black a person of criminal propensity. (A taxi driver thanks one of the subjects for not robbing him.) The very term negro/a is associated with negative traits; the musician laughs while recounting an instance when a nurse, in her mind, exhibited racial delicacy by conferring on him the honor of being described as "dark-haired" (moreno). Although racial intermixing was widespread during the second half of the 19th century (probably leading to the precipitous decline of self-identified blacks), few Argentines will avow any black ancestors, preferring to highlight a Spanish grandfather and Italian grandmother while neglecting a perhaps less "pure" branch.

    Naturally, the film does not stop at an abstract discussion of race reductivism. The subjects also speak about the personal consequences of their color-coded demonization, stories that will not strike an American audience as unfamiliar. One is not hired at a company because it wants to promote a "homogenous" workforce; another marries a white woman and is never allowed to set foot in the in-laws' house, even when picking up his children from their visits there.

    Hopefully, "Fahrenheit 9/11" has settled that having an agenda is not a demerit, as long as the advocacy is well-structured. "Afroargentinos" has a nearly perfect argument structure — a product of skilled editing — cloaked behind its surface schema of seemingly random, rotating interviews. Race as socially significant marker is exposed as arbitrary, constructed, and imposed. Both subtle, "unconscious" racism and the more direct variety are shown to flow from the same source — i.e., the facile fetishism of superficial difference, the need to create social "others" against which the rest can define themselves. This is not a new lesson, but seeing the same phenomena happen in Argentina proves that racializing tendencies are global and share similar modi operandi that, despite all myths to the contrary, are still evident in our popular imagination. (Think how young whites who resist entering the job market are often described as "restless," "finding themselves," "experiencing ennui," "rebelling," "punk," or, at worst, "slackers," while young blacks are "shiftless" or — this is familiar — a "problem.") "Afroargentinos" thus manages to illuminate a universal even as it brings to light the specific, unchampioned plight of a population a hemisphere away.

    AUGUST 9, 2004
    OFFOFFOFF.COM • THE GUIDE TO ALTERNATIVE NEW YORK


    Reader comments on Afroargentinos:

  • Afro Argentines/Afroargentinos   from Edwin Rosa, Sep 23, 2004
  • Re: Afro Argentines/Afroargentinos   from eduar, Jul 5, 2008
  • Re: Afro Argentines/Afroargentinos   from Vivian Ekey, Feb 8, 2009
  • Re: Afro Argentines/Afroargentinos   from Jess Peters, Mar 24, 2010
  • Re: Afro Argentines/Afroargentinos   from Mary Robinson, Jun 18, 2010
  • Re: Afro Argentines/Afroargentinos   from Mary, Jul 12, 2010
  • Re: Afro Argentines/Afroargentinos   from Omo, Mar 20, 2011
  • Re: Afro Argentines/Afroargentinos   from Rosana, May 15, 2011
  • Re: Afro Argentines/Afroargentinos   from litchfieldclement, Dec 22, 2011
  • AfroArgentinos   from Patty Hornbeck, Nov 24, 2004
  • Re: AfroArgentinos   from Uptown, Jan 16, 2005
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  • pictures of african argentines   from wilson dassumpcao, Jun 28, 2007
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  • P.S.- otra cosa sobre los (Afro)Argentinos   from Adrienne W., Feb 29, 2008
  • afroargentinos lo busco   from sara, Nov 8, 2008
  • Re: afroargentinos lo busco   from Luis, Jan 11, 2009
  • Re: afroargentinos lo busco   from Omo, Mar 20, 2011
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  • Afroargentinos en Buenos Aires   from Jesse RHINES, PhD, Jun 30, 2009

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