As the world looks to the United States in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, many countries are beginning to question their own systemic racism.
The Times talked to Lucía Dominga Molina Sandez, a renowned Afro-Argentine activist from Santa Fe and co-founder of the Casa de la Cultura Indo Afro Americana “Mario Luis López,” about racism, Argentina and the black community.
Is Argentina a racist country?
From its beginnings, Argentina was a racist country, by the sole fact that they wanted to eradicate presence, both in the past and the present, of indigenous people and Africans and all of their descendants. The political, cultural and social conception of Argentina is racism, pure racism. Even if it is sometimes masked in a lot of ways.
What is an example of that masked racism? Are there examples, for example in our language?
Let's look at something as simple as me going to buy tights. When I arrive, they say, “Hey, negrita, what do you want?” as if I were a child. I tell them I want socks. I ask them, “Do you have black tights?” and they say, “Oh, I don't have any right now, but I do have skin colour.” And I look at them and ask “Who’s skin? Yours or mine?” It's not just something that happened once. It happens all the time.
Now if I asked, “How are you doing whitey?” they say, “Hey, what's wrong with you, are you discriminating against me?” Because that's what they've said when I have answered in this way. But then people discriminate against me, they don't realise it. It might be a silly example, but these things have deeply racist roots.
When you speak of your activism, you say that you are reclaiming history. Why is that?
We are descendants of those who were brought as slaves to Argentina — in my case, Santa Fe — and we have to reclaim that because in Argentine history, there is no presence of those descendants. Our history class tells us that yes, there were slaves, and that's it, that they died off. That's not true: life continued. There are many of us. That's why it's important to remember and make it known because there is total, internalised ignorance when it comes to our presence in the past. Because if we don't learn about the past, then we don't know where we are standing now.
Why did Argentina forget about this historical presence, which then devolved into a complete denial about the current presence of Afro Argentines?
I would say that it’s more than forgetfulness. It's a denial that began with policies inflicted on Argentine territory. Don't forget that we existed before the Argentine nation. We have been here in every moment of Argentina: in servitude, with our words, fighting in domestic and foreign wars internal. We’ve contributed with our music, such as tango, the origin of which is denied. We are in everything, everything, because our ancestors left their lives, with all of their components, for this country. When they were brought here, they were Africans. And then with time, they became Argentine, and they adopted this land as their own.
How so how did we get to this denial?
We need to refer to politics above all else, because the policies implemented from the beginnings of our Republic, were designed to make us invisible. We have big characters in history, such as Sarmiento and Mitre, who wanted Argentina to be a white Argentina. So, we not only have the fact that they opened their doors to white immigrants to populate Argentina and make it a white country, but they also worked to erase us from history. We were not included in the census, for example.
How do you view this myth of a white nation in the historical narrative of Argentina as an independent state?
So when the Argentine State was born in 1810, I can assure you that we contributed, but at the same time, we were enslaved. We were “things.” We were not people. We were objects to be bought and sold, possessions, especially women. In 1816, that still persisted even though Argentina celebrates its Day of Independence — but not for us. For us, it was an 1853 with the Confederation, and in 1860 in Buenos Aires, which had seceded.
How do you view the depiction of black people, including blackface, on national holidays like 25 de Mayo?
Sadly, these practices persist to this day. This year, because of the pandemic, we haven't seen it as much. But in earlier years, several teachers have wanted me to disappear because I call them out.
Despite everything, last year I felt huge satisfaction because my grandson who is eight years old and has much lighter skin than me, said, I want to talk in front of the school. I explained to him what it is to be an Afro-descendant, and why I fight for it. And so he talked in front of the whole school, from first grade to seventh grade, and said, “I am an Afro-descendant because I have my black grandpa and grandma and my parents and me. And that's why I am an Afro-descendant, and I am proud of that.” It was amazing and it’s so important because coming to terms with our African past goes beyond skin colour.
As you’ve mentioned, there’s the myth that in Argentina, there are no black people, so we're not racist. Why do you think this myth persists in 2020?
You know why? Because genuinely, within our formal education, there is nothing about us. I also think that it's because we were taught to shut up, because there are generations of silence, people who believed that by staying silent, they could integrate into society. But society did not integrate them. Society discriminated against them, rejected them, put them in the most far away, hidden places. Society accepts those that have ascended socially and economically, but only if they deny their roots. Only if they are puppets.
Another thing that is said a lot is, 'Argentina has a lot of prejudice against poor people, not black people. It’s not racism, it’s classism.'
That is the confusion that exists politically between the socio-economic and the ethnic. Argentina thinks, because that is what it was taught, that there are no black people, and it is so ingrained that even black people in our country believe it. And so they don't fight to have the opportunity to have the rights that they deserve.
How do you see current Afro-Argentine activism?
We currently have a federal network across different provinces: Chaco, Corrientes, Cordoba, Entre Ríos, Santa Fe and Buenos Aires province. And with time, we're getting more people. It's important because you can share simple things of life that are common to all of us, and it makes you have a space for those roots. It’s lovely.
Do you see much difference between the provinces?
Racism exists in every single one of them. What we try to do is emphasise how we can reach people to make us make our presence known both in the past and in the presence. That is what moves us, our way of fighting is making people know our history.
Have you experienced this othering in Santa Fe as well?
I live in a small place where everybody knows me, but they still make me out to be a foreigner. They ask me where I'm from. For many, I am “the African woman,” my daughter, “the Brazilian.”
My sons defended themselves with their fists so I think they didn't give them such nicknames! But even though it’s subtle, it hurts.
What do you think of the myth that Argentine slavery was benign?
That is a justification for all of the evils that they did. When they use your body, especially as a woman, and you are made into a possession like that — there's nothing benign about that.
What is your reaction to people pointing to the United States, as a racist country without necessarily addressing racism in Argentina?
It is yet another way of making us invisible, Argentina says, “See, they fell over because they tripped!” But we are on the ground, too. Do they really think the police are bad only in the United States, when we also have police stopping people here and doing background checks based on the colour of their skin?
There is a deep-rooted disdain for black people here. And there is a lot of internalised shame that comes with believing that there are no black people. I am 70 now. but I only came to terms with my blackness when I was 30. That is why it is important to me to fight, to make our history and our presence known, so that young people do not go through what I went through.