02 September 2007 by Published in: in my life No comments yet

So last year, I read this wretchedly bad book about Buenos Aires by Jason Wilson. In it, I found this throwaway sentence, slipped in nearly at the end of the book:”On the plaza Once is the odd, art-deco mausoleum of Bernardino de Rivadavia, the radical, mulatto first president of Argentina, who died in exile in Cadiz, Spain.” The art-deco mausoleum Huh, I thought to myself, Rivadavia was a mulatto? In my mind’s eye I could see one of a thousand Rivadavia cuadernos I’d used in my schooldays, most of them with portraits of Rivadavia on the cover or on the front endpaper. He never looked anything but Caucasian to me, but maybe it’s my eyes, and my memory, and not the portrait. Or maybe it was the eyes of the portrait painter, like all those Egyptian murals you see in museums, which may have people with pale skin in them, but then you look at the stuff in the cases underneath those murals and you realize that if the features you see on the faces of the genuine artifacts were to match the paint color on the wall, then the paint color on the wall would be darker.

Still, weird that no one mentioned in it in all those history lessons I had as a kid, right? Then again, Argentines are all sorts of weird about race. I’ve often had to endure long lectures from Argentines about how racist us U.S. folks are, from citizens of a country which, during the 1980’s, would not allow the ambassadors of African nations to hold visas for longer than 90 days (for all I know they still don’t give them permanent visas).

Whoops. Veered dangerously close to a rant there. Pardon me.

Wilson drops this information all casual-like, in a sentence about statuary, so maybe everyone but me knows, and I just wasn’t paying attention as I should have in school.

So I say to my brother, who knows more things about Argentine history than Sophia knows about dinosaurs,”I read this book, where this guy said that Rivadavia was mixed-race.”

He looks at me like I’m crazy. He’s never heard any such thing either. I don’t have the book on hand, and I wondered if I confused Rivadavia with someone else: Sarmiento maybe, or Urquiza. But no, the assertion remains in the book when I come home and check it again, and my brother, just like me, finds the assertion suspect.

Not because it wouldn’t be cool if Rivadavia were part African…that would be totally cool, rather because it just doesn’t seem all that likely.

The mighty internet doesn’t gift me with the smudgy monochrome portrait I recall so well from those cuadernos, but here’s a couple I snagged for your perusal:Bernardino Rivadavia Bernardino Rivadavia

Right, I know, doesn’t look like a person of color, but then again, race is such a slippery subjective sort of thing. Can’t really rule it out, either.

Spanish wikipedia’s article on Rivadavia doesn’t mention his supposed race, or his ancestry at all, not even on the discussion page.

Wilson didn’t support his sentence with references, so I can’t track that way. Maybe he’s full of manure.

More google digging follows. The folks at the Marcus Garvey tribute site embrace him as one of their own (and who wouldn’t, he was awesome), but, like Wilson, don’t support (or even address) the supposition that he was a person of color.

Hmmm. Time to pull out the mad librarian skillz and dig more deeply.

First I dig up a secondhand source, a book review, which says “Morrone does, however, provide an important observation on the use of the term mulatto as a political insult (15). If in fact mulatto was, as the author intimates, an epithet employed to politically slander a rival, and not strictly a racial designation, this would put into question Reid Andrews’s implication that Bernardino Rivadavia was in fact of African descent (“Dr. Chocolate” to his federalist enemies [see Andrews, 81-2]).”

So what we know is that, according to Andrews, Rivadavia was of African descent, because some of his political rivals accused him of being so. There had to be some reason, I suppose, his political enemies thought this label would get traction, but Morrone’s analysis is that it might not mean anything really. So…is Morrone whitewashing? Did the “epithet” apply, or not?

This article implies a lot of whitewashing went on and goes on, and I can certainly attest to the fact that standard elementary education tells you there were hardly any slaves in Argentina and there sure weren’t any persons of color in any sort of significant positions. You rarely, if ever, come across people who are clearly African in Argentina, even today. There’s a pretty famous enclave in Entre Rios that you hear about, sort of like you hear about New Orleans’ free people of color, but that’s pretty much it.

The article’s author flatly states that Rivadavia was of African descent, and like the Marcus Garvey site, without supporting his argument.

As for the lack of Afro-Argentines in everyday life, I was told that because Argentina was so fertile, and no laboriously intense crops such as sugar or cotton were grown like in Brazil, the slave trade was essentially limited to house slaves. I am ashamed to say I have repeated this lie I was taught.

This Clarin article poses the following question: ¿Por qué en 1810 uno de cada tres porteños era negro y al finalizar el siglo XIX sólo había 8.000 africanos y afroargentinos? (Why in 1810 was one in three of Buenos Aires’ residents black, and at the end of the 19th century there were only 8,000 Africans and Afro-Argentines?). Good question. Apparently experts float basically four theories or some combination of the four theories: miscegenation, departure for Montevideo after Rosas, the disproportionate use of black-recruited regiments to fight in the 1865 War of the Triple Alliance, and the yellow fever outbreak of 1871.

I’ve gotten a small way off the point of Rivadavia himself, in an attempt to give an overview of some of the whitewashing of Argentine culture. For example, while it is generally acknowledged that candombe and milonga have African roots, it is not usually acknowledged that tango also does, though this can seem obvious to even a casual listener.

My last bit of digging finds me at Spanish wikipedia’s entry on Argentina’s black population. Under “colonial racial categories“, I finally find a reference to Rivadavia’s supposed mixed ancestry. Why this doesn’t extend to his own entry, I don’t know. It’s also a fairly circumspect allusion:”known personalities such as…Bernardino Rivadavia were classed as mulatos.” That’s not exactly decisive.

So is Rivadavia a victim of mudslinging in his own time or a victim of current whitewashing? Neither? Both? Was Argentina’s first president, a liberal and enlightened man, a person of color? I’d love to know.

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