Posted by – Keyanah Freeland, PhD Student NYU Department of History
Historically separated and linked by the estuary of the Río de la Plata, the cities of Buenos Aires, Argentina and Montevideo, Uruguay are not often figured as important sites within the historic formation of the African Diaspora within the Americas. Indeed, since the arrival of millions of European immigrants (mainly Spanish and Italian) to the region at the turn of the twentieth century, both nations have, to varying degrees, fashioned themselves as “white nations.” On the one hand, the precipitous decline of both cities’ populations of African descent from the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth lent some credence to the presumed new racial homogeneity of both cities. According to the national censuses of both countries, the population of African descent in Buenos Aires had decreased from 25% to less than 2%, and in Montevideo from 10.7% to less than 1% (Reid Andrews, 1980, 2010). On the other, the ideological erasure of blackness on both sides of the Río de la Plata through the writings of prominent intellectuals and politicians contributed to a process of Europeanization, of reconstituting Europe physically and socially in the Americas. Blackness, as well as indigeneity and any other form of unaccepted nonwhiteness, thus had no place in the vision and constitution of these “white nations.”
However, as early as the 1930s, historians, anthropologists, and literary scholars have argued against the narratives of erasure that either deny the presence of people of African descent beyond the end of the nineteenth century (in the case of Argentina) or distort their contributions and importance to national history (in the case of Uruguay). From the pioneering works of historians Elena Studer, Miguel Angel Rosal, and George Reid Andrews, to the more recent scholarly contributions of historian Alex Borucki and anthropologist Lea Geler, a variety of counter-narratives have demonstrated the importance of slavery to the region throughout the colonial period, the profound contributions of men of color to the region’s wars of independence, the rich tradition of nineteenth and twentieth century black intellectual and journalistic production, and finally, the sustained fight for civic and political equality amidst continued discrimination.
My research on the making of diasporic connections throughout the region of the Río de la Plata during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries contributes to this body of literature by unpacking the social, political, and intellectual exchanges fostered between people of African descent in Montevideo and Buenos Aires. Although the aforementioned body of scholarship has made significant advances in understanding Afro-Argentine and Afro-Uruguayan populations historically, none has analyzed substantially both populations within the same analytic field. They have also inadequately explained why despite the robust ties and exchanges between the groups throughout the late nineteenth century, Afro-Uruguayans maintained a discrete racial identity around which they organized politically into the twentieth century, while the historical record maintains a radio silence around Afro-Argentines during the same period. How then do we solve this historical and archival puzzle?
I took these initial questions and concerns with me to Montevideo, the first of my research destinations for this summer. Since my arrival, I have been consulting the Afro-Uruguayan newspaper collections at the Biblioteca Nacional de Uruguay, which span as early as the mid-nineteenth century and continue well into the twentieth. The persistence and proliferation of these historic newspapers has been really astounding to track, and in fact, has led to new lines of inquiry that I hope to pursue as I conduct more research. For example, as I noted earlier, the exchanges between Afro-Uruguayans and Afro-Argentines are overwhelmingly present in one of the most popular black newspapers in Montevideo during the late nineteenth century, La Regeneración. Not only does this newspaper contain developments about mutual aid societies and black newspapers developing in Buenos Aires, but it also notes with incredibly frequency with which certain members of what we could conceivably call a “black community” traveled to Buenos Aires and when they returned. Given my previous research on the black press in Buenos Aires during this period, these findings were not necessarily novel. However, I did discover that when La Regeneración took its first hiatus (because of budgetary constraints), its writers flocked to and wrote for black newspapers in Buenos Aires. Even when La Regeneración began its second “era,” it was able to do so because of monetary contributions from individuals associated with the black press in Buenos Aires. By themselves, these observations may not amount to anything, but taken together they suggest a concrete relationship between intellectual production and the making of diaspora.
Since more research has confirmed the centrality of these connections across the Río de la Plata, I am now interested in trying to understand historically their emergence and apparent decline. Diaspora is a social phenomenon that does not happen accidentally or naturally; it is socially and historically specific. Why and how then did Afro-Uruguayans living in Montevideo come to see people of African descent in Buenos Aires as somehow related to or the same as them? How did they understand their historical connections and/or their contemporary experiential similarities?