Argentina’s issues with whitewashing and genocide. Like the crimes committed during the dirty war, they too should be addressed.

by , under Enrique Tessieri

When I was young, I remember very well the racism that inflicted the Argentines. A friend of mine from Rosario highlighted this racism in the following example: A porteño (a resident of the capital Buenos Aires) told his friends that when they travel to countries like Peru they state that they are going to visit South America.

The more one reads Argentine history, genocide and whitewashing of Amerindians and Afro-Argentines become clearer.

From social thinker, Juan Bautista Alberdi (1810-84) to former President Faustino Sarmiento (1811-88), their suspicion and hatred of non-white Europeans is more than clear.

Juan Bautista Alberdi and Domingo Faustino Sarmiento. Sources: El Intransigente and Organization of American States.

In his most famous book, Bases y puntos de partida para la organización política de la República Argentina (1852), Alberdi states: “The indigenous does us justice by naming us Spaniards to this date. I don’t know of any distinguished person of our society that carries a Pehuenche or Auraucano [Amerindian] surname…[W]ho would want their sister or daughter to marry an infamous Araucanian and not a thousand times an English shoemaker?”

Sarmiento, considered the father of Argentina’s education system, not only despised Amerindians but was an ardent defender of white European racial purity. Of the Gauchos, the Argentine cowboy who were mestizos, he said that their only use was to serve as fertilizer when they died.

Sarmiento wrote in El Nacional of Nov. 25, 1857: “Will we be able to exterminate the Indians? For the savages of America, I feel an invincible repugnance that I cannot cure. Those scoundrels are not anything more than disgusting Indians that I would hang if they reappeared…”

Even today, an argument used by some to justify the genocide of the Amerindians is that they were so few. Thus genocide of the Amerindian was not a major crime because they were so few.

Some estimates place the number of Amerindians living outside colonial jurisdiction in the nineteenth century between 300,000 and 2 million.

Historical guilt

Some Argentines put a poker face to cover up the atrocities committed against the Amerindians with arguments by claiming that we are a melting pot.

Nothing could be further from the truth unless “melting pot” means white European.

Racist comments by some white Argentineans reinforce how racism and bigotry are still alive and kicking in the country. “White” in Argentina means anyone who has a European background. Those of mixed mestizo ethnicity, Europeans mixed with Amerindians, are called disrespectfully cabecita negra, or little black head.

In my research of the Finns of Argentina, who founded a Finnish colony in the province of Misiones in 1906, racism was present in the many interviews I did. When I asked one former late colonist how many races there existed, he responded three: “white, black, and pitch-black.”

The colonist whom I interviewed, admitted that race mixing was good but not with blacks. He said he would never accept his daughter marrying an Amerindian, black or member of the Romany community even if the person “were an airline captain.”

A family working at a corn field in Colonia Finlandesa. The picture was taken in 1978. Photo: Enrique Tessieri

In light of our problematic history with non-European whites, should we children and grandchildren of European migrants in Argentina feel guilty for the genocide and whitewashing that took place?

The answer to that question is clear. Recognizing the injustices committed against groups like the Amerindians and Afro-Argentines is a good start to healing wounds.

Acknowledging and correcting what happened to minority groups is similar to how the country has tried to come to grips with the atrocities committed by military regimes, in particular to those that ruled the country during the dirty war (1976-83).

If we as a nation forget our past atrocities and conveniently brush them under the rug, we are in danger of committing the same crimes again.

A person whom I’ve known since childhood was adopted as a baby by a white porteño family and who came from Amerindian parents.  When I met him in 2016, his hatred for Bolivians and other non-white nationals in Argentina surprised and shocked me.

“We got to kick all these Bolivians out of the country,” he said, adding that there are too many of them.

Whitewashing “Made in Argentina”

Throughout Argentine history, we have seen history whitewashed, turned upside down and then right side up again. Consider when Juan Manuel de Rosas (1793-1877), one of Argentina’s most important caudillos of the nineteenth century, went into exile in Great Britain in 1852. His enemies, and they were many, made certain that no plaza or street in Argentina would carry his name until 1989 when his remains were repatriated.

We saw the same happen after Juan Domingo Perón’s overthrow by the military in 1955 with Decree 4161 of 1956, which prohibited people from mentioning the names of Juan Perón and Eva Duarte de Perón.

Looking at the above examples, should we be surprised that so much whitewashing and genocide went on in Argentina?

Not at all.

We must remember that the millions of migrants that moved to Argentina in the nineteenth and twentieth century not only brought with them their physical belongings but also their prejudices and racism. Colonial powers like the United Kingdom, Spain, Portugal, and France reinforced with the examples of colonial oppression, exploitation, mass murder the genocide of groups like the Amerindians.

That racism is ever-present in the treatment of African migrants in Argentina today.

Mauricio Macri and the legacy of racism

Taking into account Argentina’s racialized society and its history of racism, President Mauricio Macri aims at scoring brownie points with the voters by spreading xenophobia and fear of outsiders.

“We can’t allow criminals to keep picking Argentina as a place to commit offenses,” he was quoted as saying in The Guardian. According to the London-based newspaper, the comment was made after Macri signed a controversial and far-reaching executive order that permits foreigners to be deported from Argentina.

Read the full story here.

Singling out and scapegoating certain immigrant groups is the same questionable example found today in the United States and in European countries. Such rhetoric is a slippery slope that can lead to the horrors we saw in Europe in the last century.

Argentina’s Security Minister Patricia Bullrich, who belongs to one of the country’s richest families, didn’t mind labeling and linking crime to immigration like far-right, anti-immigration parties in Europe.

She claimed that “Peruvian and Paraguayan citizens come here and end up killing each other for control of the drug trade.”

Such rhetoric is racist that aims to harm and victimize the good name of certain national and ethnic groups.

Argentina needs today more than ever an earnest debate about its history and how we wronged non-white European minorities.