celebrating diversity with blackface?

As Buenos Aires geared up to celebrate the Bicentinario (200 years of independence), we were excited to see some street productions. We heard some kids were going to do a song and dance about the country’s history, and were shocked to see about a quarter of all the children donning blackface and dressed in plantation rags. ¿Que pasó?

Aside from tourists and recent immigration from Africa, Porteños have had little or no experience with actual black people. So I guess no one told them that blackface might be more than a little insensitive. This explanation isn’t exactly satisfying, but I think it’s plausible. So what happened to the Africans who were here initially? Slavery was abolished in 1840, and the freed black men were enlisted to fight a 15-year-war with Paraguay in 1865. These men were in the front lines, and killed in battle. Also, there was a yellow fever epidemic in 1871 that wiped out the rest of the population. The rich upper class left the area, but the poorer Italian, Spanish and African people stayed put and died. After all that, there were still Afro-Argentine women and children left. They inter-married with the Europeans, so there might be Argentines with African blood who don’t even know it.

A complicated history for sure. But I don’t think they were in costume to mock or deride. It seemed like this generation genuinely wanted to pay homage to the people who were here before, but their cultural sensitivity is low from having a relatively monolithic population. Clueless and well-meaning? That’s probably it.

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