When the Archive Imitates Life: Research in Argentina

Bom dia, como vai você? (Good morning how are you?), to which I learned very quickly to say, Não falo portugêus (I do not speak Portuguese), often led to dumbfounded looks of “well, what is she then?” Being Black and American in Argentina was clearly not an option, as an American identity remained synonymous with being white, and black meant Brazilian.  Over time I learned to negotiate these layers of my identity while working and living in Argentina during the past eighteen years.

I began researching the black history of Argentina in 2006 on an exploratory grant.  Having already visited the country I remained intrigued by its pride in being “European” and “white.” In fact, being a black woman in a very “white” country is what first prompted my interest in the nation. What exactly happened to its black population?  Why did Argentina become such a white country? 

Two years later, I was back in the archives on a Fulbright fellowship. As my research developed, I eventually settled on the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and the city of Córdoba, the second-largest city in Argentina. Researching in the interior of the country rather than in Buenos Aires, the capital, meant the provincial archives were a much more intimate setting in which I got to know the archivists personally.  It also meant that I rarely saw or interacted with other foreign scholars and, in turn, some of the archivists and librarians had not worked with foreign scholars, let alone a black woman.  For instance, the provincial archives had remembered the last American scholar to work in their archives (in 2004) and asked me if I knew the person….funny enough, I did. Some of the archivists even remembered the first American scholar to study the topic of race in nineteenth-century Córdoba, and they asked if I knew him, he had visited the provincial archives in 1980. 

Because of my previous trips I was used to the stares, cat-calls, and salutations in Portuguese. For some Argentines I was most likely the first black person they had seen. Others, of course, sexualized my presence, and I was constantly reminded that my blackness meant that I was exotic. 

These experiences did not just remain on the street but also infiltrated the archives. In particular the stares did not stop nor did the fascination that an American black woman actually wanted to mine their archives. In fact, the first time I visited each archive was a miniature initiation project. I got so used to it. One person would take an interest in me… ask how they could help me, my research interests, how long I had been in the country, what I do for a living… usually about 10 minutes of friendly conversation. My “interviews” often drew a small crowd, and they would listen as I answered the questions. Finally, I would politely ask if I could see some files/ or ask more poignant questions, and that’s when the actual archivist or librarian appeared from their office or would speak up (having had a chance to listen during my “introduction”). And I learned very quickly that my initial interviewer served as a gatekeeper (and, luckily, I passed the test every time). 

Moreover, as an American in a foreign country I became the representative of foreign politics. My research has taken place under three presidential terms, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump.  I remember the election of President Obama occurred while I conducted research in Argentina. Never had I felt so homesick.  I witnessed history from afar and thought about the significance of his win for black America and also members of the African diaspora. But for many Argentines their main concern was President Obama’s foreign policy.  In fact, any and ALL U.S foreign politics had to be discussed, and I became the unofficial representative of the United States of America. Because politics is not an impolite topic to discuss, they wanted to know how I voted and more importantly why the American population passed various policies and legislation. I also had to dispel many stereotypes about the United States. At times some would not allow me to work until I had fully answered those questions. 

As a Black woman I constantly knew I was on display. I remember having my photo taken while I worked in the archive.  The first instance I remember looking up and noticed someone was watching me and heard a click… before I knew it my photo had been taken. Baffled, I stood there in shock. I later asked who this person was and found out she was a tourist who was looking at the architecture. Another instance I remember a person creating a documentary about the archive and I just so happened to be working that day. Without seeking my permission, the documentarian started recording me working.  Luckily these instances, as well as the constant stares, declined in number the more I visited. 

Once the librarians and archivists grew accustomed to me, as every day I visited two to three archives, they helped me tremendously. Shocked at the pristine condition and amount of information in Córdoba’s archives, I felt I hit the jackpot. But my findings also revealed a  gap in the public knowledge of Argentina’s black history. This was a country in which many people swore that I would not find much information, yet I gathered so much about black lives that mattered. This disconnect between public knowledge and available materials drove my research as I constantly collected proof of Argentina’s black past. Subsequent visits further inspired me to shift my focus to black women. I realized that her-storyhad not been told. In fact, few studies actually delved into black women’s experiences in Argentina let alone how they contributed to the making of a white republic. 

Criminal, ecclesiastical, and civil court cases, marriage and baptism records, and newsletters highlighted black women’s efforts to become free and to free their family members. Whether they were concubines, wives, mothers, or daughters, enslaved or free women played an integral role in the making of a white Argentina.  Hundreds of individual stories of quotidian life preserved in the archive waited to be told and ultimately became the topic of my book Hiding in Plain Sight: Black Women, the Law, and the Making of a White Argentine Republic. 

Erika Denise Edwards is an associate professor of Latin American history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She specializes in the black experience in Argentina a country known more for its European than African past. She has been cited and consulted by the New York Times, National Geographic, and interviewed by La Voz del Interior (an Argentine newspaper) regarding her research. She has published various articles, book chapters, and blogs about the black experience in Argentina. Most recently she published her book Hiding in Plain Sight: Black Women, the Law, and the Making of a White Argentine Republic (University of Alabama Press, 2020). Follow her on Twitter @Prof_Edwards