Dear Buenos Aires,
I am writing this letter to leave physical evidence of my experience as a Black American woman in this city. There aren’t many of us. Perhaps some of you reading this remember me. I was often on the 68, 152, 151, 59, and 67 bus. I was warmly received by many in this city, but the general experience of being dark skinned in Argentina was unpleasant.
In preparation for my trip to Argentina, I did what any cautious Black person with internet access would do; I googled “Black people in Argentina.” I wanted to know where they were and if they were being treated well. I found a couple of blogs attempting to soothe my nerves.
Here’s a summary of what my online reading taught me: There aren’t many Blacks in Buenos Aires. You will get some stares, but the people are very friendly. I don’t know why I trusted the cultural sensitivities of a bunch of virtual John Does.
There are less than “not many” Blacks in Buenos Aires. One could conceivably go several days without seeing anyone with dark skin in this city. There are stares. Having a world of eyes on you at all times tears at your spirit. Imagine the experience of hypervisibility. “Staring” can’t inherently be classified as racist. However, if impact has any meaning, I would say Argentina is a racist country. And historically speaking, how could it not be?
In the beginning of the 19th century, the population of Buenos Aires was 33% Black. Within decades, that number was crushed to 2%. Walking down any avenido here now, that 33% is unimaginable. Argentina is considered the whitest country in Latin America, with 97% of the population white identified. What happened? There are two explanations.
The first is that shortly after slavery was functionally abolished, Argentina entered a brutal war with Paraguay. Their army was largely comprised of Black soldiers who were strategically recruited and placed in the deadliest positions. The second is the plethora of diseases that decimated the neighborhoods to which Blacks were relegated. Through a system of consistent, racist, and fatal policies, the Argentine government managed to murder and uproot nearly their entire Black community.
This country is not just white. These eyes are the descendants of those that saw mine as inferior. Disposable. My presence must be an unsettling reminder.
Our blood is all over Argentina’s hands. Take the tango, Argentina’s most celebrated contribution to world culture. Tango was created by Africans who were enslaved here:
Until the beginning of the 20th century, Tango was defined as “a fiesta and dance of negroes or gente del pueblo.” The first known image of anyone dancing the tango is of a Black couple. The word’s first modern usage in any formal document defines it as dance of the Blacks.
Imagine building your identity on something you stole and having the person you stole from walk onto the 68, 152, 151, 59, and 67 bus. Especially after all that extermination work. This is a racist country if I ever saw one. Of course there are stares. You could’ve sworn you finished us off.
Una negra americana estaba
A Luta Continua by Josette Souza
Stone, copper wire, pleather chain, glue
The stone is tiger’s eye, which is a gem native to South Africa and is said to attract luck, protect against negative energy, and turn positive thoughts into positive manifestations in life. One of the things that impressed me most about the week-long trip I made to South Africa in Nov. 2013 was the incredible resilience and kindness of the Black and Cape Coloured South Africans I met. There is no doubt in my mind that this gem reflects and strengthens the power of those who are fighting against oppression and obliteration. The words read: “A Luta Continua” (“the struggle continues”), which is the first half of a Mozambican saying that was popularized in South Africa by the singer Miriam Makeba. (Angolan singer David Ze also has a wonderful song with this title). The full phrase goes “a luta continua, vitoria e certa” (“the struggle continues, victory is certain”).
Tap-tap-a-phone by Josette Souza
Acrylic, whiteout, and permanent marker on paper
In his article “Tap-Tap, Fula-Fula, Kia-Kia: The Haitian Bus in Atlantic Perspective,” Robert Thompson describes tap-taps, the brilliantly colored buses of Haiti, as a “glittering mix of carnival, church, and crypto-Vodou.” These buses, Thompson explains, carry more than just passengers—they also carry prayers, self-expression, and social criticism throughout Haiti’s street. Tap-taps’ decorations and inscriptions allow their drivers to call on the gods for protection or call out detractors and politicians for malicious deeds. In this way, these buses act as a direct line of communication with this world and the next.
Discussion/writing prompt for the first story of Just A Lil’ Jiggalow,
called ‘Patronizing Questions.’