On July 11, an Argentine court sentenced three police officers to life imprisonment for the murder of a 17-year-old boy. Lucas González, a soccer player from humble southern Buenos Aires, was killed by two shots from officers who were chasing him in broad daylight in a car with no official plates and wearing civilian clothes. The friends who accompanied him were held for a night under blackmail and threats. It happened in November 2021. Almost two years later, the court that convicted them ruled that they had not only acted in breach of duty, but were also motivated by racial hatred.
“Damn niggers,” the police officers kept yelling at them, according to Lucas’s friends at the trial. It’s a common insult in Argentina. You hear it often in Buenos Aires, where blockades against poverty have multiplied in recent months. It’s screaming in the football stadiums, even though the country’s four most popular teams have been fined millions. Much was said as protests erupted in Jujuy, in the country’s northern Andes, where police are cracking down on sections of the population demanding answers on a constitutional reform they say threatens the rights of indigenous communities. And Twitter was widely read during the election campaign after a presidential candidate asserted — using a false number — that foreigners had taken over public universities.
Racism is a common problem in Argentina, buried under one of its founding myths, that of a white nation built by European migrants. According to the latest available census from 2010, only 0.37% of Argentines identify as Afro-racial, 2.38% as descendants of indigenous peoples and 4.5% of the population are foreigners.
Where is the racism in Argentina? Collectives like Identidad Marrón argue that it is a structural problem in a country that is not what it is made out to be: that of a majority of working class, ethnic, mestizo, migrant and brown skinned people who have unequal access to political participation, work, health, education and culture. Through science, art and militancy, Identidad Marrón makes this problem visible so that brown Argentina can claim its place in the construction of national history. EL PAÍS met with five of his references.
“Argentina doesn’t tell a big page of its history”
David Gudiño, actor.Mariana Eliano
David Gudiño recalls that while the world was shocked by the murder of George Floyd, who was choked to death by a police officer’s knee in the United States, a field worker from northern Argentina was murdered by four officers. Luis Espinoza was 31 years old and had six children. He had been arrested during a coronavirus quarantine operation and his body turned up a week later, wrapped in a plastic bag, in a ravine 100 kilometers from his town.
“This is where the media exploded talking about George Floyd. Why did we go this far? It just happened here. That too was racism. Institutional racism is the simple trigger that kills in this country,” says Gudiño. He is a professor of biology, studied acting and devotes himself to dramaturgy. In his work as an actor, he immediately noticed that something was wrong. “I just acted like a thief, a pawn, a poor man,” he says. “I didn’t stick to the commercial castings, I knew the big producers would never call me, and I started writing to keep from starving.”
His short film “Argentina Is Not White” sparked discussion about racism in Argentina last May. In three minutes of a tiktok that arrived at the Cannes festival, he summarizes the experiences of a brown-skinned Argentinian who is mistaken for a foreigner by those around him. “Structural racism with the post-traumatic features of colonization and indigenous genocide remains in the shame of being brown,” Gudiño reflects. “The great transformation begins when a young person puts aside their shame and imagines inhabiting any space.”
The room he wanted to live in, the television, the cinema, was closed. “Argentina doesn’t tell much of its history,” says Gudiño. “And it doesn’t, because it doesn’t incur any costs: the country that is exported is white, that which is sold here is white. we don’t exist Do you see Argentina, 1985, do you see someone who is brown?” he asks.
– Is that why we should include brown characters?
– It would be necessary to expand the roles. A lot of the characters we play are stereotyped because all the people sitting around the table are white: actors, screenwriters and producers. That’s not colorism, that’s a Yankee interpretation of racism. We don’t think about it with a pigment chart, we talk about an origin, a family, institutions, socio-historical constructions.”
“Universal access to rights is a myth”
Sandra Hoyos, teacher and feminist activist. Mariana Eliano
“Racism does not only discriminate because of skin color, its main problem is that it is structurally transferred into people’s lives,” says Sandra Hoyos. “There is a life that is repeated in many families in the Buenos Aires suburbs: a mother is a domestic worker, a father is a construction worker; a predominantly racist segment of the population, with lower income and a greater proportion of irregular, precarious and informal work.”
A feminist activist, teacher, researcher, and social policy graduate, Hoyos is the only person in her family to have completed a college education. “It doesn’t make me proud,” he says. “It’s powerful evidence of gross inequality.”
29% of Argentina’s population lives in the outskirts of Buenos Aires. According to a late 2022 survey by the National Institute of Statistics, 39.5% of these people are poor. “What characterizes these areas is unequal, downward-sloping access to everything rights-related: education, jobs, health care and housing,” says Hoyos. “We are not far, but this inaccessibility has to do with planning from the capital, the other sectors are at your disposal.”
Hoyos is one of the leaders of the campaign for legal, safe and free abortion in Argentina and a researcher on the application of public policy in the Buenos Aires suburbs. Hoyos admits that his concerns about these issues arose during the 2001 crisis, in the neighborhood organization and soup kitchens that sprung up in the peripheries as the economy collapsed. “The dominant narrative of the 2001 crisis is that many people lost their dollar savings that were sitting in the banks,” he says, “but that narrative doesn’t explain what happened to a larger segment of the population.”
“I’ve been taking care of girls since I was 15, after graduating high school I started helping my mother clean houses, and I worked as an operator in food factories for about eight years,” Hoyos recalls. “After all that, I started university as a personal project, as a person whose time passed between quotes. And I was able to because of a political change in the last 20 years: I had a university nearby.”
– Free access to health and education is a hallmark of Argentina across the region. It’s a myth?
– The universal and unrestricted access that has existed in our country for more than 70 years is unequal. There are distinct populations that we can classify as ethnic whites, who have up to five generations of university education, and other populations that are characterized by internal migration because they are provincial and do not have that access. It is the complete opposite of the meritocracy.
“Political correctness gives no rights”
Alejandro Mamani, Lawyer.Mariana Eliano
Brown Identity consists of a large majority of people who are the first in their families to have access to higher education. For Alejandro Mamani, this brings them closer to “the areas inhabited by white people: the academy, the museums, the government offices”. From there, they set about breaking down doors.
Mamani, a lawyer with a master’s degree in immigration law specializing in computer law, affirms: “Argentina is perhaps one of the countries with the most public policies related to human rights. The slogan “Remembrance, Truth and Justice” for the victims of the military dictatorship has a historical tradition, the country is at the forefront of trials for crimes against humanity, its gender identity law is the most progressive in Latin America, it has one of the first equal marriage laws in the world and a large feminist movement. With this huge fan, the big question is why racism isn’t part of the debate at all.
– It is not only an Argentine problem. It can be said that there is a myth in Argentina about being white and being European, but that doesn’t mean that the desire for whiteness is a region-wide affair. The imagination of Latin America is white. Across the region, it remains taboo to talk about why being white is an essential attribute of power, despite the fact that a large proportion of the population is not white. The question why it is difficult for us to talk about racism connects others: Why are the popular sectors doomed to economic insecurity? Why don’t they access greater capital economically or symbolically? What color are the judges of Latin American courts? What color are the intellectual elite, the top academics? What color is the person speaking in the media?
Mamani reiterates that access to rights is the most important thing in the fight against racism. “Political correctness gives no rights. The statement says that progressivism changes nothing. What we need is public action,” he affirms.
“In Latin America, in Argentina, we are talking about class-conscious anti-racism. We know where we come from, where most people with our skin color come from and what access restrictions apply. So the crucial point is to have access to rights and to be able to exercise freedoms. This goes beyond a symbolic person in a photo. We can pose for the photo, but we want to open the door so more people can come in.”
“Color is a passport”
Chana Mamani, writer and social worker.Mariana Eliano
While European migration shaped mythical Argentina in the transition to the 20th century, migration from other countries in the region since the 1990s has shaped another. The biased media of the early 2000s dubbed it a “silent invasion,” and since then the idea of the illegal migrant taking the place of Argentines in schools, the workplace, and hospitals without paying taxes has been promoted.
Chana Mamani came to Buenos Aires from Bolivia at the age of seven. She is a social worker, author and militant feminist and is believed to be Argentine, Bolivian and Aymara indigenous. “There is a double mirror in Argentina,” he says. “On the one hand, racialization towards indigenous people born in the country and, on the other hand, that of migrants. In both cases, the indigenous phenotype is excluded from the construction of national identity. Any person who follows this stereotype and this skin color is under suspicion.”
– Where is this marginalization expressed?
— In football, for example. The insults that concern a nationality express what is excluded from the Argentine. That denies a brown Argentinian identity. But there is more. To refer to a nationality when expressing another identity that is not white is to deny the possibility that something else exists in Argentina. A white person from Latin America is never asked where they are from, unless their accent is very loud. For a non-white person in Argentina, it is normal to ask what country they are from, what country their parents and grandparents are from.”
“Every country has its unwanted migration,” says Mamani. “There’s an intersection between class, migration and ethnicity that brings into play something we saw recently in Argentina: migration from Eastern Europe is not criticized, which is bad migration for Western Europe.” Argentina welcomed poor whites in droves. There is an interface between migration and class where neither is a problem. So what is the remaining problem?
“We see the identity struggle as a claim”
Daniela Ruiz, playwright and LGTB activist. Mariana Eliano
“It takes time to reconsider yourself as a person of color,” says Daniela Ruiz. “Ask a racist person to fight racism is not easy, especially in this country where we are not seen as people who are subjected to a lot of violence. Brown Identity does not emerge from a conglomerate of people coming together to change the world, but from the inner process of each individual.”
Actress, playwright, actress and LGTB activist Ruiz has just presented a solo performance at the Cervantes, a hundred-year-old theater in Buenos Aires, a symbol of national culture. For 12 years he was part of the organizing committee for the Pride march and helped draft the Equal Marriage Law in 2010 and the Gender Identity Law in 2012.
“What we do, starting from the territories, the red zones and the popular contexts, is a political identity claim. Identity politics has to do with a correlate that historically stems from the peripheries, places unthought of and lost in the limbo of centralism. Often these come together to bring about change. What we are looking for is that people of color in their daily lives can understand the situation and see this practice of visibility as a paradigm shift. We believe that people who have experienced structural racism can be healed,” he says.
“From this point of view, Identidad Marrón is a paradigm shift in thinking about identity,” says Díaz. “Consider the identity struggle as a claim. It’s not just about cleaning up, it’s about turning something negative into something positive to challenge a place. If they call me brown, tan, the color of feces, that’s what I want. From this point of view I allow myself to say that I am an indigenous transvestite who can question the limbo of coloniality. For me, that is the change.”
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