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Using history to rethink the African experience in Latin America

June 1, 2022
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Like many other Argentines, Paulina Alberto knew little about her country’s strong Black communities, which used to have their own newspapers, mutual aid societies and other community organizations.

Paulina Alberto, professor of history and Spanish at the University of Michigan. Image credit: Paulina Alberto

Paulina Alberto, professor of history and Spanish at the University of Michigan. Image credit: Paulina Alberto

“We were never taught about the history of people of African descent in our country at any point, from elementary school through high school,” said Alberto, who did not find out until she was in college that the history of her native country was far more nuanced than she realized.

Alberto, professor of history and Spanish at the University of Michigan, now focuses her research on the history of African people and Afro-descendants in Brazil and Argentina. This work has served to support efforts for the visibility of communities that have been obscured by official narratives not only in her native country, but throughout the Americas and the rest of the world.

“In most Latin American countries, history in all its manifestations—from textbooks to historical representations in art, theater, literature or monuments—has been a key instrument in making Afro-descendant populations appear invisible,” Alberto said. “Today, written history can help to unveil these same processes, and in turn provide new narratives about the presence and prominence of Afro-descendants in our societies.”

Revealing the hidden history of Latin America

The daughter of an Argentine diplomat, Alberto lived in New York as a young child but returned to Argentina at age 9 after the fall of the dictatorship in 1983. It was there that she completed primary school and attended part of secondary school.

Alberto photographed as an infant during the 80s Image credit: Paulina Alberto

Alberto photographed as an infant during the 80s Image credit: Paulina Alberto

As an undergraduate student, Alberto studied the intersection between history and literature, with a focus on the cultural history of the British and French empires. Within this context, she began to deepen her studies on the African diaspora in Latin America and began realizing that despite the country’s return to democracy, there were still traces of an authoritarian and homogenizing nationalism in the ways history was taught in the country.

While in graduate school, she began studying the culture and dynamics of the Black diaspora in Latin America and the Caribbean, especially Brazil and Argentina, topics she continues to research as a professor in the U-M departments of History and Romance Languages and Literatures.

In bringing together these themes of racialization, culture and power, Alberto studies history beyond that of “of men, generals and wars,” as she was taught in elementary school, but looks through the lens of history as a story. Within the last decade in particular, she has begun to approach racial ideologies as stories: “racial storytelling” about national identities.

“In thinking of the ideologies of race as narratives, it allows us to engage a variety of sources: works of art, literature, history textbooks, because all of these sources have a plot, a story they are trying to tell,” Alberto said. “In my classes on race, history, and narratives, I have the opportunity to really delve into that particular method. It’s a very effective way to teach the breadth that these ideologies have in our societies.”

In one of her classes, for instance, Alberto utilizes these methods to focus on the importance of studying history as a discipline and method of critical reflection on modern-day society. Rather than focusing directly on a particular country, region, or time period, her focus is to bring forward the themes of race, racialization, ethnicity, culture and power.

Translating history

In another course called “Stories and Histories of Race in Argentina and Brazil,” Alberto also highlights racial issues, in a class that is taught in Spanish and Portuguese, with English being used to discuss theoretical and historiographical texts in greater depth.

“To me, it is very important that there is communication between the different parts of Latin America regarding African American history,” she said, adding that teaching about Afro-Latin America must include Brazil which has the largest population of Afro-descendants outside of Africa in the world.

Being able to communicate the diverse narratives between different Afro-descendant populations throughout the Americas gave rise to her desire to translate and introduce the knowledge and ideas from Latin America to the United States.

With her new book “Voices of the Race: Black Newspapers of Latin America (1870-1960),” she hopes to facilitate Inter-American conversations with a focus on Afro-Latino stories in Cuba, Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil. Co-edited by Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof and George Reid Andrews, the book will be published in late 2022.

“The discussions and debates that are actively emerging in the United States about the need to rethink what Latinidad and the Latinx label means, so that it centrally includes blackness and Afro-descendants, directly articulates the struggle for revisibilization of Afro-descendants in Latin America,” Alberto said.

Afro-Latinos and historic amnesia

The dominant “racial narrative” in Argentina is that there were Afro-Argentines during the colonial period and 19th century, but that they disappeared when they died in wars or epidemics—which ravaged the poor neighborhoods of Buenos Aires—and were eventually engulfed by the large wave of European migrants. The implications of this account of history would say that there were no Afro-descendents in the 20th century.

Alberto turns this story on its head in her book published earlier this year, “Black Legend: The Many Lives of Raúl Grigera and the Power of Racial Storytelling in Argentina.” In it, Alberto analyzes a rich collection of racial narratives of a famous Afro-Argentine from the first half of the 20th century, uncovering how Afro-Latinos in Argentina have been erased from national narratives or visibilzed as stereotypical caricatures only through defamatory accounts.

By telling a new story that centralizes people of African descent and racial issues in a country that is supposedly “race-free” or even a “white” country, Alberto says, she hopes to “to bring readers new ways of thinking about African American history or diasporic history from the South.”

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