The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The history behind the removal of Argentina’s version of ‘Aunt Jemima’

Argentina’s racial history is complex, with anti-Blackness playing a major role

Members of leftist organizations protest racism and in memory of George Floyd in Buenos Aires on June 2, 2020. (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/ Getty Images)

The racial reckoning brought on by the murder of George Floyd last year extended far beyond questions about inequities in how the law is enforced in communities of color. Corporations were pushed to move beyond diversity mission statements to make real change, not only in their hiring practices but also in how their products were marketed.

As anti-racist uprisings went global, so too did corporate efforts to eliminate racist imagery. In February 2021, Quaker Oats announced a rebrand of “Aunt Jemima,” and in Argentina the product’s “cousin” also got a makeover. There, the Blancaflor label used a Black woman kneader, a smiling Sambo-like figure with enlarged white lips and a flyaway pigtail braid. Recently, Blancaflor decided to change its logo, after using it since 1956, and replace the packaging image with two (White-appearing) hands mixing the flour.

Such branding, and campaigns to change them, counter the narrative espoused by Argentina’s President Alberto Fernández, who recently claimed, “Mexicans came from the Indians, the Brazilians came out of the jungle, but we Argentines came from boats from Europe.” In attempts to clarify, he reiterated a version of Argentine history that omitted Black people.

But in fact, there is a long history of Black people — and anti-Blackness — in Argentina. Their experiences remind us of the fluidity of race and the ways in which Whiteness has been deeply interlinked with economic and political power.

Enslaved people first arrived from Brazil in 1585 to what is today Argentina. Ten years later, Pedro Gomes Reynel, a Portuguese trader, received an asiento to import 600 Africans annually to Buenos Aires, marking the beginning of a continuous legal slave trade that persisted until 1835, with an estimated 200,000 enslaved people arriving, mostly from Africa or from Brazil.

Because Buenos Aires remained a small town, traders sold the majority of the enslaved people to the interior of the country, with enslaved people stopping first in Córdoba on their way to Potosí or other interior cities such as Mendoza, Catamarca, Jujuy and Salta. The slave trade expanded to include intra-American trade, with a woman named Maria coming from Mexico City in 1609, and the Pacific slave trade with a person coming as far away as Japan. By the late 18th century, the first official census by the Spanish Crown estimated that enslaved people made up 30 percent of the population. The enslaved and later free Africans and African descendants largely concentrated in the cities and provided semiskilled labor.

Clearly, Black Argentines have a long history, but over time they learned that Whiteness was the key to attaining improved status and freedom. Since the colonial period, Whiteness has been equated to privilege, wealth, freedom and education. Conversely, the notion of Blackness has been associated with disadvantage, poverty, slavery and ignorance. As a result, many African descendants throughout Argentina’s history have sought to access, when possible, Whiteness.

To do this, Black women would frequently emulate elite White women, at times successfully passing as White. Because interracial marriages were legal, they also married White men, which allowed some Black women to obtain the coveted status of doña, an honorific title granted to elite White women.

When becoming a White woman was impossible, some Black women argued that they were Indian to evade enslavement. This especially worked if they could trace their maternal side to an Indian ancestor, as Maria Guerra did. Not only did she obtain her freedom, but her children and grandchildren were declared free because a child inherited her mother’s status.

Some free African-descended girls were encouraged to attend school. This was the case in 1816, when doña Micaela Catalina freed Alexo and his wife, Encarnación, and their children. Their freedom papers specifically stated that Alexo and Encarnación could not take their daughter Bernardina out of school, where she would be socially groomed with habits that would uplift free African descendants from the stigma of their enslaved pasts. She attended a newly formed segregated class for non-White girls to learn “civilizing” habits that they would later teach their own children. These habits, Argentina’s leaders and intellectuals believed, would lead to a more obedient and “whitened” society.

Black women, by trying to escape the stigma of Blackness, thus became pivotal in the creation of a White Argentine republic.

It was during the construction of the Argentine nation that this whitening became law and policy. As a new republic, Argentina attempted to create a raceless society because Blackness was equated to an enslaved, colonial past. The country ended the slave trade in 1812, enacted the Free Womb Act (a policy of gradual abolition) in 1813 and officially outlawed slavery in 1853, although in Buenos Aires it existed until 1861. Official documents began to use ambiguous racial labels such as pardo (brown skinned) or trigueño (wheat colored) to refer to people who had formerly been labeled African descendants — until eventually they stopped including a racial category at all.

To join the ranks of European nations such as Great Britain, France and Germany during the mid-19th century, Argentina had to physically and culturally displace its people of color. To modernize Argentina, Argentine intellectuals such as Juan Bautista Alberdi and Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, who served as president of Argentina from 1868 to 1874, called for European immigrants “to populate and to govern” the large, resource-rich country.

More than 4 million European immigrants answered this call and made Argentina their new home. While not all immigrants were White — subjects in European colonies such as Cape Verde in Africa could sometimes migrate under European passports — the majority were. Nevertheless, by the end of the 19th century, many intellectuals and governing officials would declare “there are no Blacks in Argentina.” They had tried to erase the Black population by eliminating official racial categories in state documents, and through a population policy that brought a massive number of White immigrants, that still remains a part of the constitution today.

Even so, the image of the “negrita” — the figure depicted on the packaging of Blancaflor — has remained until now. Why? Because Black women, both enslaved and freed, continued to work as maids, cooks, wet nurses and caretakers. They fed the most prominent families often before their own and did so, with little choice, in a self-sacrificing manner.

Long obscured, Black Argentines today want recognition, representation and respect. Efforts of Black activists and scholars have led to the national Day of Afro-Argentines, a day that remembers Afro-Argentine contributions to the nation and is celebrated on Nov. 8. The date commemorates the death of Maria Remedios de Valle, a valiant soldier who was shot six times during the wars of independence, captured and later escaped. She later successfully petitioned for her pension at the rank of captain, and is known today as the (Black) mother of a (White) Argentine nation.

Many Argentines did not like the removal of their beloved “negrita.” In fact, many have accused Blancaflor of cowering to the influence of the United States. Moreover, many Argentines do not believe racism exists in their country, noting that they have many problems, but racism is not one.

But the truth is that Black activists have been protesting for years against anti-Blackness in Argentina. While the changing of product packaging may seem trivial, it offers all Argentines an opportunity to have critical discussions that dispel myths of Black disappearance and minstrelsy and come to acknowledge the role of Black Argentines in the making of Argentina.