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Excerpt: Part one

6 Mar

 


 

 Part one:

Who am I?


My maternal grandmother, Antonia hailed from the province of Guizpicoa in the Basque country. My paternal grandmother, Rosario derived from the Basque country as well, but the specific region remains a mystery. Antonia’s husband, Fortunato traced his roots to the Mapuche Indians. My paternal grandfather, Ramon recognized Cadiz, Spain as his ancestral home, therefore European, indigenous roots have contributed to shaping my life and world view in a myriad of ways, I have still yet to understand. The reality is I’m a composite of   several cultures which are reflected in my physical features. My husband says had it not been for my light complexion, I’d look completely African- American. Others perceive my visage as being that of  a light-skinned black woman. And yet others have said they had never seen anyone with my physical features, and could not place my ancestry at all. Some surmised Jewish, while others, Hispanic, and yet others, Mediterranean. One woman I made a pastoral visit to when I was a chaplain at a local hospital had the audacity to say, “You are like Heinz- 57 varieties.”

By the time, I was 41, I had already researched my African roots. I undertook the exploration at The Schomberg Center in Harlem. Pouring over books, I noticed Al Sharpton within my peripheral vision. I read about how Buenos Aires was a major slave port and that the majority of African slaves were brought form Nigeria. My eyes darted across the pages scanning more and more fascinating details, never spoken about in my family. One of Argentina’s presidents was affectionately called “Doctor Chocolate” as it was a well-known fact, he was black. The common saying, “In Argentina, there are no black,” derived from a collective denial, and one which I had grown up believing. My parents were terribly patriotic in terms of Argentina, yet they never spoke about how one of Argentina’s leaders, Sarmiento had been responsible for the extermination of blacks in the War of Paraguay (1865- 1870), and that the yellow fever epidemic followed in Buenos Aires in 1871. Sarmiento has been attributed as saying, “I come to this happy Chamber of Deputies in Buenos Aires where there are no gauchos, or blacks, or poor.”  Monte Reel writing for The Washington Post in 2005, said the disappearance of the black populations of Argentina is one of Argentina’s great mysteries. The journalist went on to say in 1810, black residents accounted for about 30 percent of the population of Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina. Reel asserted by 1887, however these numbers had plummeted to 1.8 percent. The journalist pointed out that many people have asked the question- “so where did the blacks go?” The answer, the reporter surmised is “simply nowhere.” According to Reel, popular myth has offered two historical hypotheses: a yellow fever epidemic in 1871 that devastated black urban neighborhoods, and a vicious war with Paraguay in the 1860’s that was responsible for putting many Afro-Argentines in the front lines. Referring to two recent studies, Reel said the researchers challenged old notions using distinct methods: a door to door census to determine how many Argentines considered themselves black, and an analysis of DNA samples to detect traces of African ancestry in persons who considered themselves white. In 2005, the Washington Post journalist added the results were only partially compiled, but suggested that many of the black Argentines did not vanish, but simply faded into the mixed-race population, and became lost to demography. According to some researchers, Reel pointed out, as many as 10 percent of Buenos Aires residents are partly descended from black Argentines, but are unaware. Reel then quoted Miriam Gomes, a literature professor at the University of Buenos Aires as saying: “People for years have accepted the idea that there are no blacks in Argentina. Even the school textbooks have accepted this as fact, but where did that leave me?” Miriam Gomes is an Afro-Argentine who raises the question of where she stands in society today. A question that indeed plagues many who struggle with identity, as I did. Once I discovered my African roots, the same question arose for me: “where does this leave me?’ I’m the descendant of Nigerian slaves brought from the motherland to Buenos Aires, a huge slave port. I too, was nurtured on the delusion that in Argentina there were never any blacks. As a child, when my black school friends came to visit, my mother quickly ushered them away. My aunt admitted that when she first arrived in New York from Argentina, if she spotted an African- American male walking along the sidewalk, she’d cross to the other side of the street. I assumed she had developed a fear of black men as she had been taught from her racist parents. my research in unearthing my African roots also led me to the work of George Reid Andrews, who published a book related to the Afro-Argentines of Buenos Aires 1800-1900. It is well- documented that the author reconstructed the true story of some of the prominent Afro- Argentines who were artists, musicians, military leaders, and poets. Andrew asserted that the Afro- Argentines of that era maintained their African heritage in the areas of the arts such as dance, music, art, and also religion. From the 17th century to the 20th century, communal organizations called confradias, or mutual aid societies shaped and promoted black discourse as a way to maintain African roots.