Until a trip to NYC in 1993, I had never seen or talked to a person of African descent other than one Brazilian dance teacher. You’d be surprised to know that in Buenos Aires, a city of 12 million people, back then there were barely, if any, black inhabitants. (Allow me to use “black” and “white” here just for the sake of practicality. But really, is that the best we could come up with? Afro-Caribbean, African American, Afro-Cuban are too location specific. And I cannot simply use
African because that might not represent how they feel if they were born somewhere else).
I’ve been thinking about the concept of ethnic origin a lot since I arrived in Jamaica ten days ago. I realized how much I have changed in the past four and a half years since moving to Panama. Alex feels the same way this time, on his third visit to Jamaica, he can see how much more at ease he feels now walking down the streets of Port Antonio.
Argentina and Chile are quite different from the rest of South America in that they are the southernmost countries in the continent. The bottom half of both countries is covered in snow during the winter, some areas have all-year-round glaciers. Argentina even owns part of Antarctica. Which explains, in part, why we did not retain the African population after slavery was abolished. Uruguay, with its milder temperatures, did. But this was also a political decision.
In case any of you is interested in a little Argentine history, you’ll probably be surprised to hear that my home country was the world’s 10th wealthiest nation per capita in 1913 after Australia, Britain and the US but ahead of France, Germany and Italy. During that period, the migratory flow into Argentina (escaping the war or seeking a better future) was such that half of its population was foreign, mainly Spanish, Italian and Eastern European. The 20th Century was filled with political instability and military dictatorships and the economy naturally plummeted; we never managed to recover. But culturally speaking, these migratory waves changed our perceived national identity.
I grew up in Latin America which, needless to say, accounts for a lot when it comes to who I am. But like many other people in the Argentine urban centers, there has been no indigenous mix in my family. Also, because Buenos Aires is such a large city with such vibrant cultural life, I always felt foreign during my travels, that is, until I went to Europe. I was treated like a white “gringa” in many places in Latin America and like a “beaner” in the US. (It’s funny how sometimes in the US we are all perceived like Mexicans since Mexico is actually located in North America. Until high school when I started seriously traveling I had never tried black beans, corn tortillas or chili peppers. Mexico City is nothing less than 4,581 miles away from Buenos Aires, which, for you to have an idea, is longer than the distance between Buenos Aires and Cape Town (4,278 miles) or New York and Belgrade (4,524 miles).
When I started traveling to Europe, I was surprised that most people didn’t realize I was South American, they thought I was Italian or Greek. I can personally trace my family roots, with photographs, to my great-grandparents on my mum’s side of the family (they were all Spanish) and to my grandparents on my dad’s side (my grandpa left Croatia when he was 20, and my granny’s parents I believe were both Italian). My Croatian last name literally means “son of the Saxon”, which probably means our Yugoslavian ancestors were actually from Central Europe, Germany perhaps. Yet I wonder whether there was an African trace anywhere in my European ethnic origins. I look at my family photos and everybody is very pale with thin lips except from my mum’s Spanish grandmother. She’s got olive skin and full lips. I wonder whether there was someone from Northern Africa in her family, from Egypt or Morocco, perhaps?
According to Wikipedia, over 6.2 million Europeans emigrated to Argentina from the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries. Argentina was second only to the US in the number of European immigrants received. There was plenty of fertile empty land to give away in the Pampas, and the weather and landscape was very similar to Europe; the German and Swiss settled in the snowy mountains and icy lakes of Patagonia, the Southern European in Buenos Aires where they could enjoy opera, ballet and cinema just like back at home. There wasn’t (and still isn’t) a laid-back, palm and mango tree atmosphere in Buenos Aires. If you have no roof over your head and wood to burn in the winter, you literally die. But that was not the only reason why the now free families of African origin did not stay in the country. There were diseases they had never been exposed to, but also, following the trend of Social Darwinism, some Argentine politicians and members of the intellectual elite decided to begin a “whitening” process, which meant importing as many white immigrants as possible, and getting rid of the black population by sending them to war for example in exchange for benefits for their families. Our rich “black” historical heritage was unfortunately also erased from school curricula, as if it had never existed.
In regards to our native history, it suffered the same fate as in the rest of the Americas. They were decimated by the Spanish conquerors through murder or disease, and the few who were left were converted to Christianity, forced to forget their traditions and beliefs and pushed away from the main urban centers into other areas of the country, where it’s easy to see the traces of their blood still today.
Anyway, I was telling you about my holidays to NYC in 1993. I was 17. I remember I was in a record store and this African-American boy very casually looked at the music I had chosen and started talking to me. Listening to his particular accent, and being the second black person I had ever talked to, I realized then how little I knew about his culture. In the media and the entertainment business, as you know, they are too often portrayed like criminals and that causes fear, segregation and violence. It is high time we fought against such evil, poisoning media, even if it’s just throwing away the TV set. But even when things do not escalate in that way, this lack of cultural knowledge creates a wall which prevents us from enjoying the wonders of each other’s company.
Splendid is moored next to a Panamanian town called Puerto Lindo. The inhabitants are mostly black, and there are a couple of foreigners too, people who came by boat from Europe and the US and after a few years decided to build or buy a house. The first few months I lived there I have to admit I was a bit intimidated by the locals, I heard stories of robberies and drug trafficking many times until somebody had anything nice to say about them. Slowly, after saying hi to them in the street many times, I started getting to know amazing families and Alex and I have grown not only fond of them, despite the clear difference in experiences and economic class we have built close and strong bonds of friendship and trust with them. They are a very important part of our daily life and one of reasons why we love living there as opposed to anywhere else. Our closest friends in Panama are the couple who own the boat next to ours, he is German and she also happens to be of African descent (her mum Panamanian, her dad from the US). Through many conversations with her, I was also able to better understand how the more accommodated black citizens feel about their heritage in those two countries, the mix between pride and feeling
different or inferior.
A friend told me the other day how in some Caribbean islands the locals openly make white people feel unwelcome. He told me how for instance he would be queuing at the supermarket and the cashier would be very chatty and smiley with the black customers in front and then very quiet and cold to him. And that it continued happening throughout the trip, that it was very upsetting, even though they were not “afraid” of him, they were not treating him like a dangerous criminal. He couldn’t even imagine what that must feel like. I wish this kind of thing happened to us more often, so that we could really understand how aggressive and shitty, and how uneducated and embarrassing it is to be afraid of someone just because of the color of their skin, or how they dress or talk.
I realize now when I travel to the US, and especially now that I am in Jamaica for the first time, how I am able to be myself and move naturally among black people and the impact that has on how situations develop and unfold. The other day we were walking down the street going to a local vegetarian restaurant and we saw this pretty female tourist who was suddenly approached by a local man we’ve talked to before. They can be quite intense in their way of talking or approaching others comparing to other places but she got so startled and afraid she actually jumped and screamed. I understood her, of course, but it was pretty embarrassing. I realized, bycontrast, that now when someone approaches me in the street here, I look in their eyes to see what they want to say. Sometimes they want money, of course, we have too much and they have too little in comparison, much more because of sheer luck than effort, sometimes they’re selling amazing art but many times they just want to make friends with us, they ask us what we’re looking for and recommend restaurants or places to visit. They’re interested to meet people from other countries and learn from the exchange, like every other person in the world. Can you imagine that for a minute? Someone comes to your town and is walking around and you want to make friends, or try to help them and they jump and scream in fear at the mere sight of you. In your own town. And it happens to you regularly. Can you see how ridiculous and infuriating that would be? Many times it is that fear that makes you a target, because you are the one who threw the first punch. Openly being afraid of someone who hasn’t done anything to you (crossing the street, holding your bag close to your body, not looking at them in the eyes) is violent.
Alex feels the same way, he realizes what a better traveler he is today than when he left the US. Travel, for some, is seeing new places. But it can be so much more than that. Alex always talks about how in his opinion being educated has nothing to do with attending university. How nobility placed great importance on travel as a means to educate their young. At university you learn a trade, or learn about a particular subject, but that does not mean you understand how the world works. Travel becomes a real journey when you interact with others and learn first hand how they live, how they feel, the things they love. The only reason we feel so different from others is because we are ignorant of our many similarities. It is only then that you will know who you really are and what you stand for. And that changes both you and the world around you. Much of the destruction of life and resources on our planet are the direct result of this lack of knowledge and education. You can’t love, appreciate or protect what you don’t know. And it feels so nice to learn. Don’t miss out. Our life on this planet is so brief. Don’t hide behind a stupid computer screen. Make the most of it. Make it beautiful. See what’s out there with your own eyes. Taste new flavors, dive into new waters, take a nap under a tree you’ve never seen before, smell the cool breeze of a new mountain, learn a new language, lie under the sun, dance in the snow.