Mercedes Sosa, Latin American singer, in 1972
Mercedes Sosa, Latin American singer, in 1972. Photo: Wikipedia.

How Latin America Has Treated Its Ethnic and Racial Minorities

From Mercedes Sosa to “cabecitas negras”, Argentina is a tangible portrait of the cultural invisibility that may be behind the recent social tension in the region

Ler em português

When I moved to Buenos Aires in 2009, I soon noticed the lack of black and indigenous people in the streets. During my Master’s Degree, I had a black friend and one day I realized that when he came across another black man on the street, they would greet each other. I asked why, in such a big city, where everyone ignores everyone, they greeted each other. “We are few”, he answered me.

Argentina is part of an example that spans Latin America. It is the tangible portrayal of the social, cultural, and identity invisibility of a civilizing quarrel that may have been quietly creeping in from its earliest settlers.

In fact, there is the Argentinean myth that colonization was by European immigrants, who came to populate a large plateau and, in the specific case of Buenos Aires, a swamp.

ALSO READ: Diego Amorim – Will Brazil escape the social upheavals in Latin America?

Buenos Aires was so inhospitable that it was founded twice. Historians say that the first settlers left the city because of a pirate plague and barren muddy soil, leaving only cows and horses behind. However, numerous facts persist regarding the native population and the slave trade that seems very incoherent or ignored.

One day, taken by journalistic rage, I decided to search the immigration records in the country’s archives. I found a record of a large number of black people entering Argentina for centuries. According to historians, about 74,000 blacks landed from the River Plate until the 18th century. So, where did they end up?

The historical explanation for the absence of blacks in Argentina would be the decimation of this population due to a yellow fever epidemic and their presence on the front of the Paraguayan War.

In fact, historians often explain that the Argentine expression “carne de cañón”, something in the line of “cannon fodder”, used for black soldiers going to the Paraguayan War to fight for Argentina. They went proudly, with promises of integration and citizenship, and ended up at the front line with high death tolls. Ironically, historians also point out that tango, a trademark of Argentine identity, has black origins.

The last census conducted by the Argentine government in 2010 admits that Argentine African descendants suffered from both historical and statistical invisibility. At that time, out of a population of 41 million Argentines, only 0.4% declared themselves to be of African descent, just under 150,000 people.

This is a remark. There are etymological and phenotype constraints when we refer to the meanings of the word “black”, either as race or color or as a term, in Argentina.

The word black is commonly associated with crime in the country

Anthropologist Alejandro Grimson describes this context: “Black is not necessarily associated in Argentina with certain characteristics of African phenotypes (…). In this sense, they tend to be considered in the ordinary language of the poor as black or little black heads.”

In several definitions, including historical ones, it is suggested that the term ‘cabecitas negras’ appeared in protests in the 1940s in Buenos Aires, when thousands of people, who fit the phenotype, took to the streets.

‘Cabecita Negra’ is a pejorative term of racist nature, widely used in Argentina. Although the term is part of the popular language of that country, “it is used to disparage a hard-to-define sector of the population associated with working-class dark-haired and intermediate-skinned people,” the dictionaries define.

Few outside Argentina know, but there Mercedes Sosa was affectionately called ‘La Negra’. She was born in the impoverished province of Tucumán, the daughter of a construction worker and a washerwoman, then married and went to live in Mendoza. But she was recognized in Montevideo, Uruguay. Among the three places where their ashes were scattered are the two cities (Buenos Aires and Montevideo). She claimed to have been happy in one and recognized as an artist in the other.

ALSO READ: Chile has the best HDI ranking position among Latin American countries

What about the indigenous?

The indigenous people also have little visibility at the Argentine capital. Leaving the north of the country in cities like Salta or Jujuy, however, they are more common than European descendants. Many complain about the stereotype created in the capital. It is common to be asked if they come from a neighboring nation for their indigenous traits. The Argentine does not seem to know his own hosts.

It is also interesting to think that in the 1990s, there were more people in Argentina who considered themselves “Indians” than in Brazil, according to the indigenous scholar Alcida Ramos.

In other countries, this denial is often transformed into a kind of apartheid. This is the case of Bolivia, where although there is no lack of registration of the original population, it is possible to see, centuries ago, who were the colonized and who were the colonizers.

Is this social invisibility becoming the myopia of our new geopolitics?

The most striking aspect of Mercedes Sosa is the face that brings us to Latin America like almost no other. When Brazil turned its back on the continent, consciously or not, by Lusophony or choice, Mercedes’ face appeared next to Chico Buarque, Caetano Veloso, Maria Betânia, and so many others. The face that many say is that of Pachamama, sovereign goddess among the Indians, many Andean.

Admittedly, many populations from this continent are different from each other. However, Mercedes brings out a regionalism that we sometimes do not realize exists.

ALSO READ: Gabriela Grosskopf Antunes – “By a head”: the unusual presidential election in Uruguay

Civilization clash

With due differences and proportions, this movement resembles an international relations theory that shook the academic world in the 1990s. An article by Harvard professor Samuel P. Huntington in Foreign Affairs, which eventually became a best-seller in the US: The Clash of Civilizations.

In this article, Huntington argues that cultural rather than ideological differences in a context of rapprochement due to globalization are the next sources of conflict. Huntington, however, even holding distinctions within the continent, puts Western civilization and Latin America in the same basket, ignoring, at that time, the region’s endogenous movements that were growing. Especially because it tends to focus on current issues, such as tensions between the Western world and Muslim societies.

In some ways the author is emphatic, affirming that “religion and cultural differences” will be at the heart of the modern conflict. With the advance of messianic religions and their political capillarity, coupled with the fiercer discussion of identity issues, wouldn’t we be experiencing a clash of civilizations?

The settlers and the colonized

With the region in social upheaval and insurgencies emerging from the original populations, and not necessarily from social classes, one might wonder if new cultural and civilizing movements are not being ignored.

It is easy to allude to the question that we are different in Brazil. However, are we so far from our neighbors? Worth another observation here. In Brazil, blacks and browns are not a minority. Even so, they remain marginalized.

There are over 150 ethnic groups in the Amazon, and when I was there a month ago, visiting several of them, I noticed that after years of dispute, they begin to look back at the people who colonized them

I saw clear intercession of values ​​that included the struggle for survival. It can be argued that this struggle has always existed. Nevertheless, this time the differences between them seemed to narrow to undergo a process of internationalization. They needed to coalesce on the continent and they seemed to understand this with astonishing clarity.

Without a political party

Today, in my view, insurgencies in the region go far beyond political predilections, although we are divided by deep partisan differences, and leftist movements have historically appropriated these struggles, sometimes out of goodwill, sometimes out of opportunism.

In Ecuador, indigenous movements do not necessarily stand against right-wing governments. In Chile, where many Mapuche live, on the other hand, there is an insurgency aimed at a right-wing government. In any case, there is a paradigm shift going on and they have now turned to an abyss that we have taken centuries to see.


I make one more caveat here of not surrendering to partisanship and the dangers of minimizing the present moment as a perennial crisis of party politics. However, a rising with a strong indigenous presence in the region draws attention. Especially when historically revolutions were born out of the middle class.

Fifteen years ago as a journalist I have not yet come across a coincidence. I often say that if something stinks, there is leachate nearby; if something looks like a casualty, it is no accident; if a story is misplaced, there is an unreal narrative behind it.

If a series of events breaks out, they are not isolated facts; they are a phenomenon, such as those proven by Science

There are more than five centuries of civilizing struggles that had been going on silently. Today, they are taking the streets. Whether for seemingly mundane factors, such as a rise in gasoline, a government overdue, or a social outcry. These are just the trigger, not the cause. It looks like we have exactly 527 years of history to solve.

In my favorite song performed by Mercedes Sosa, she goes for a walk around America and feels it in her skin. Happily or not, she cites three countries on this tour after leaving Peru. “Face Bolivia, Tin, and loneliness / A green Brazil kisses my Chile / Copper and Mineral / I climb from the South / Towards America’s entrails and total / Pure root of a scream / Destined to grow and burst”. And in the chorus, it says “All the voices, all. All hands, all”.