Argentina Rediscovers Its African Roots

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The chapel in the small lakeside resort community of Chascomús is at best underwhelming. Its whitewashed brick exterior is partly obstructed by a tangle of vines and bushes, and its dim, one-room interior is no more majestic than its facade. Wooden pews and an uneven dirt floor are scarcely illuminated by sunlight from a single window. The gray, cracked, dusty walls are adorned with crosses, photos, icons — things people leave to mark their pilgrimage. A low front altar is layered with thick candle wax, flowers and a pantheon of black saints, Madonnas and African deities like the sea goddess Yemanja of the Yoruba religion.

Despite its unkempt state, this chapel, the Capilla de los Negros, attracts a little over 11,000 tourists each year who come to see a church named for the freed slaves who built it in 1861.

The chapel is “where we can locate ourselves and point out the truth that we are here,” said Soledad Luis, an Afro-Argentine from the tourism office who led me through the space. She knows it well. It sits on a plot her great-grandfather helped secure, and her family still gathers there weekly for a meal.

Capilla de los Negros feels off the beaten path, but it is part of a list of slave sites in Argentina created in 2009 by Unesco. Its inclusion signals the growing consciousness of African heritage in Argentina, seemingly the most Europeanized country in South America.

Argentina at one time had a robust African presence because of the slaves who were brought there, but its black population was decimated by myriad factors including heavy casualties on the front lines in the War of the Triple Alliance against Paraguay in the 1860s; a yellow fever epidemic that rich, white Argentines largely escaped; and interracial offspring who, after successive generations, shed their African culture along with their features. And European immigration swelled the white population — 2.27 million Italians came between 1861 and 1914.

The demographic shift has been sharp. In 1800, on the eve of revolution with Spain, blacks made up more than a third of the country, 69,000 of a total population of 187,000, according to George Reid Andrews’s 2004 book “Afro-Latin America.” In 2010, 150,000 identified themselves as Afro-Argentine, or a mere 0.365 percent of a population of 41 million people, according to the census, the first in the country’s history that counted race.

But the culture the slaves brought with them remained. And in recent years, Argentina has gone from underselling its African roots to rediscovering them, as academics, archaeologists, immigrants and a nascent civil rights movement have challenged the idea that African and Argentine are mutually exclusive terms.

Some see creating tourist trails, with plaques and brochures, as a way to educate locals and tourists alike about this long-suppressed history. In my several visits the last few years and during my time living in the country, the trail led me to the other Argentina, one that is just starting to be woven into the country’s narrative about itself.

MY FIRST STOP required some dancing shoes. I dropped in on a tango lesson at the Movimiento Afrocultural on Buenos Aires’s Calle Defensa in San Telmo. The cultural institution was started in 2009 to promote African and African-Argentine heritage. As I scanned its events calendar, there were many activities that had an obvious African bent, but tango?

“There are no doubts that tango has an African origin,” the teacher, Veronica Rueco, told me. Together, we watched locals and tourists practice their dance moves in the center, a converted warehouse whose walls were lined with candombe drums carved with images of slave ship hulls filled with chained human cargo. “The only doubt is the exact story of how it came about.”

The dance form, she went on to note, was created in the late 1800s, the result of a fusion of African and European immigrant culture. (The term tango is thought to originate from a Niger-Congo term that survived the trans-Atlantic passage along with the slaves, according to Dr. Erika Edwards of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.)

The center’s director, an Afro-Uruguayan named Diego Bonga, leads a drum circle that draws a diverse crowd. The night I attended there were Porteños (from Buenos Aires), Chileans, Uruguayans and even a woman from Iran. The curious peered through the gates at us. Those onlookers are part of the party on Sundays, the neighborhood’s busiest day, when antiques vendors line Defensa, and Plaza Dorrego becomes an open-air milonga, or tango salon, with performers, locals and tourists dancing past midnight. That day, Movimiento Afrocultural holds a candombe parade. Spectators become participants, dancing on the cobblestones in the jittery shake of a murga comparsa, an Argentine dance popular during Carnival season, also rooted in African culture.

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