In Loving Memory of Blackness

March 26, 2012 § Leave a comment

By Judy Anderson

My first fieldwork experience in Buenos Aires, Argentina was marked by an event at the Casa Suiza.  It was 2005, and two white Argentine filmmakers decided to have a Shimmy Club party there to include in their documentary film Afroargentinos.  I literally lived around the corner so it seemed that I was in the right place at just the right moment.

The Casa Suiza had been the historic location of Shimmy Club parties held on the eve of Carnival for over 30 years.  The organization became defunct in the late 1970s.  The older generation of Afro-Argentines remembers the parties vividly, and stories of their encounters there peppered my field interviews.  Afro-Argentines would celebrate in the basement and dance to the pulsating rhythms of traditional candombe music performed by members of their extended families while the criollos (Argentines of mixed ancestry including indigenous and European) and whites would celebrate upstairs by dancing to waltzes played by an orchestra.  I heard some stories of whites going downstairs briefly to join in the dancing below, but few of Afro-Argentines going upstairs to party.  Afro-Argentines proudly hailed these parties as “their parties,” a space where they felt free to express themselves without the glare and ridicule of outsiders.

The 2005 party was touted as a sort of revival for the organization, but the event was marred by old rivalries and ongoing disputes—many between family members. The leaders of the Shimmy Club considered the event to be poorly executed.  It was full of misrepresentations and discontent. However, there were some positive aspects that could be gleaned from it.  The event marked the Casa Suiza as a space of black culture while reminding the general public, Africans, and Afro-descendants in Argentina of the historical value of the location.

Unfortunately, it seems that the memory of blackness is honored in Argentina rather than acknowledging the present-day reality of those racialized as black in the nation.  Now the Casa Suiza, an important landmark of blackness, is under threat of destruction in spite of being declared by the government as a site of historical and cultural patrimony.  A small group of local blacks mobilized to protest against the destruction of the space, but the outcome remains to be seen in a country where corruption has become normalized and expected. Afro-Argentines are not among the few minority groups with political influence, so the Casa Suiza will probably not be saved in the long term.

So much of Afro-Argentine culture is reserved for the private realm.  The parties at the Casa Suzia were one of the few things they were willing to share with larger Argentine society, which has long devalued the group’s contributions and downplayed their very existence.  The destruction of the site is yet another way of reaffirming the myth that “no blacks exist in Argentina.”  It is these types of battles that strengthen the voice of activists and allies who want to build consciousness and pride among Afro-descendants in the nation and gain the respect of dominant society.

I write this piece in loving memory of blackness in Argentina not because it no longer exists, but because it persists in the “European nation” in spite of the continued attacks against it.  Afro-Argentines are a very insular group and their cultural expressions tend to be reserved for the private realm where only close friends and family members can witness them.  This causes me to question the idea of public vs. private blackness.  By removing their blackness from the public realm and reserving it for private spaces, Afro-Argentines might have contributed to their own invisibility.  Of course, this decision was influenced by dominant society’s racist interactions with Afro-descendants.  This is a topic that I will be exploring in depth in future writing.

Buenos Aires is a city with several spaces that are marked by blackness and the Casa Suiza is only one of those.  The history of Afro-descendants in Argentina is what scholar Stuart Hall would call a hidden history that is slowly being uncovered.  The struggle over the Casa Suiza serves to remind everyone that Afro-Argentines are not relics of the past, but part of the nation’s present and future.

* For a 2012 update on Buenos Aires’ Casa Suiza, click here.

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