Black History Month: A tangoed web

Argentina might not like to trumpet it, but a new book reveals the tango has its roots in Africa. Angela Cobbinah goes in search of the truth

Thursday, 28th October 2021 — By Angela Cobbinah

Tomado Maté new

Tomado Maté, 1866: Gauchos drinking Yerba maté, a herbal tea they popularised. Image: New York Public Library Digital Collections

NOTHING could be more quintessentially Argentinian than the tango with its stiff upright posture and playful moves.

But believe it or not, the dance has its roots in Africa, a legacy of the hundreds and thousands of slaves transported to the country between the 16th and 19th centuries.

According to a 1778 census by Argentina’s Spanish rulers, Afro-Argentines made up more than a third of the nation. But from the mid-19th century all this changed when the first shiploads of four million immigrants from Europe, mainly Spanish and Italian, arrived as part of a state plan to displace the indigenous Indian and African populations.

Today, as citizens of South America’s “whitest” nation, Argentinians frequently boast “no hay gente negroes aqui” – there are no black people here. The throwaway remark forms part of the title of a book by Pamela Gayle examining Argentina’s African presence and how it has been “disappeared”.

“The truth is black people did not disappear,” she says. “They ceased to exist as a forgotten part of ‘modernising’ Argentina. A European white history meant distorting reality, inventing lies and myths to create a sanitised and whitewashed version without Indians’ and black peoples’ contribution.”

Tango, originally a drum-based dance that became overlaid with European styles, the herb tea-drinking gauchos of the Pampas, and one of Argentina’s favourite dishes “chinchulines” – known as chitterlings in the US Deep South – all bear the indelible imprint of enslaved Africans who arrived in Buenos Aires via La Plata River from Angola and other parts of Central Africa between 1585 and 1835.

The financial stakes were high. “As a rival slave trading nation, Britain twice tried to invade Argentina and seize control from Spain, but they only managed to get hold of the Falkland Islands,” says Pamela, a teacher who taught in primary schools for more than 25 years.

The book examines how the 19th century “sistema de castas”, a ridiculously complex pecking order based on skin shade and origin, placed whites at the top and Africans and Indians at the bottom, meaning that they were barred from a proper education or joining the professions. The poverty of many indigenous peoples and Afro-Argentines today goes hand in hand with the embedded racism this created.

In the last 2010 census, less than half a per cent of the population identified as Afro-Argentine, around 150,000 people. However, with a growing movement to reclaim the country’s African heritage, including marking November 8 as the annual National Day of African Culture, this figure is likely to increase.

“More and more people are recognising their roots and acknowledging that they have an African ancestor, even if they are white-skinned,” says Pamela.”Before they would have tried to hide it.”

This vexed question of racial pride is something she is familiar with. The daughter of Jamaican parents, she grew up in south London knowing little about black history.

“This set me off on a journey to find out things for myself and it helped me to grow as person.”

On top of studying history and anthropology, she began indulging in her wandering spirit, which over the years has taken her to all manner of places, including Central America, West Africa and, most recently, Zanzibar. “I have a passion for travel and was never bothered about travelling alone – you meet more people that way. As a teacher I also took on various teaching projects, including in Trinidad and California. I am really interested in how people live and I always look at the African presence.”

One place she hasn’t been to yet, though, is Argentina. “I started researching the book and had booked my flight to go there in April last year. Then lockdown­ came so I couldn’t go. But I decided to carry on with my research and writing, sticking to salient facts and information. The idea was to raise awareness and make people think so that if they wanted to dig deeper they could. However, I still plan to go to Argentina one day.”

Written as both an educational resource and basic reference book, No Hay Gente Negroes Aqui is a mine of little-known facts, including that of slave descendant Maria Remedies Del Valle, who is known as “Madre de la Patria” – Mother of the Homeland – because of her role in the Argentine War of Independence in the early 19th century.

Generously illustrated and easy to read, it is the first of Pamela’s planned series, The Black History Truth. Next up is one on Jamaica, followed by Zanzibar.

The Black History Truth: Argentina – No Hay Gente Negroes Aqui (There Are No Black People Here). By Pamela Gayle, Grosvenor House Publishing, £18.99

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