On November 19, Javier Milei secured the presidency of the Republic of Argentina with 56% of the vote. However, his victory is expected to significantly impact a specific segment of the country.
During my six-month exchange in Argentina’s Venado Tuerto (pop. 75,000) in 2016, I encountered someone of shared Black ethnicity on the street only once. A person whom many locals incidentally mistook for me—along with a Cuban Black girl, the only black person like me in the whole high school. As insignificant as a census of this small city’s population may seem, it effectively illustrates a sobering reality: the presence of Black people in Argentina is sparse, and their numbers have dwindled over time.
“Hay más por otros lados, acá no llegaron” (There are more of them elsewhere, they have not arrived here) is a rhetoric prevalent among many Argentines, but the reality is quite dissimilar. Contacts between Argentina and Black people, particularly of African descent, date back to the 16th century transatlantic slave trade, when West and Central Africa people were brought by Spanish and Portuguese settlers to the coastal city of Buenos Aires, only to be sold and moved mostly within the Río de la Plata, present-day Argentina and Uruguay. In “Hiding in Plain Sight, Black Women, the Law, and the Making of a White Argentine Republic,” Erika Denise Edwards reports that between 1587 and 1640 approximately 45,000 African slaves disembarked in Buenos Aires. By the end of the 18th century, one-third of Argentina’s population was Black.
What, then, became of the Black African population in Argentina? Some attribute their decline to historical factors such as their active involvement in conflicts including the War of Independence against Spanish colonists (1810-1819) and the war with Paraguay (1865-1870), in which Black men often found themselves on the front lines, enduring the brunt of the attacks, or even choosing to desert and flee the country. These factors intersect with a gradual process of miscegenation and interracial mixing, leading to a progressive whitening of the population—both in terms of physical attributes and ideology.
Adding to this complex mix, political rhetoric comes into play. Influential Argentine leaders, such as Domingo Faustino Sarmiento in the 19th century, idealized white Europe not only as a model for overcoming the country’s socio-economic challenges but also as a narrative that implied the absence of Black people in Argentina, thereby erasing an integral part of the nation’s history.
Doing so has shrewdly allowed a country to avoid reckoning with its past of slavery and navigate the complexities of its presence, using the escamotage that there are no race-related issues in the country because there are no Black people. This assertion is incorrect for several reasons beyond those mentioned above. First, despite being imperceptible to the naked eye, there is a small but existing population of Afro-descendants in Argentina. Nevertheless, in my second stay in Argentina, this time in Buenos Aires, it became more apparent to me how a certain nationalistic current, in the footsteps of Sarmiento, proudly makes itself of this consistent lack of Black heritage. Comparing itself favorably to neighboring countries, this current boasts a notion of white supremacy in Argentina, which celebrates the Italian immigration from the 19th and 20th centuries as the foundation of national identity, while largely overlooking the historical legacy of African bodies that predates it.
As a result, even in a cosmopolitan capital city such as Buenos Aires, a significant portion of the white Argentine population based its identity on my opposite—not knowing that as an Afro-Italian, my Italian citizenship actually made them closer to my blackness and African roots than they wanted. Asserting that there are no racial concerns in Argentina is misleading. It amounts to the invisibilization of racial discrimination in a country where those who deviate from the preferred prototype, including Indigenous communities such as Mapuche, Quechua, Wichi, and Guarani, experience limited access to education and social services, and are disproportionately prone to experience poverty than their white counterparts.
Even within everyday discourse in Argentina, the assertion is refuted: many are labeled Black despite not matching the physical appearance associated with the term. The expression “es un negro” might refer to everyone who has darker skin tones, grouping them into a specific social category. However, beyond a mere description of physical attributes, “es un negro” delineates a person situated at various margins and lower rungs of society, whether for economic or social reasons. The appellation is also ordinarily used in jest as a nickname for a person who, of “black phenotype,” has nothing. The label “morocho” seems to be the most appropriate appellation for dark-skinned people in the country.
Argentine white supremacist identity is often matched by a certain right-wing political ideology that is classist, macho and, to make no bones about it, xenophobic. In the 2023 elections, such a systemic structure takes on the face of Javier Milei. The Argentine’s Donald Trump claimed in 2022 at the presentation of his book that he did not want to apologize for “being a white, blonde [questionable element], blue-eyed man.” With false modesty, the demagogue took on the burden of what it means in the country to have his hallmarks: privilege, status, and power.
Milei’s need for apologies should not revolve around his connotations but rather the proposals presented during his election campaign and outlined in his political program, which include the dollarization of pesos and the removal of government subsidies. Besides assessing if these actions would really benefit the vulnerable economy of the country, it’s worth questioning why it’s the middle-class, often white population that stands to suffer the least from such policies. They can afford to transact in dollars, weather an initial depreciation of their income, and provide for their children’s education without relying on government subsidies. In essence, they can do without the limited benefits offered by the Argentine state, given their already privileged positions.
The election of this politician not only adversely affects Black minorities, but also targets apparent minorities whom this divisive ideology seeks to erase, including Indigenous populations and the poorest segment of society—the current Argentinian “blacks”—who significantly enrich the Argentine populace. In such a scenario, one can only hope that the world will strive for a more consistent record of their existence.