Negros Aires: Hypervisibility and racism’s permeating nature

I wrote this originally for an indie magazine where it was published and then later un-published with everything else on the website. No hard feelings towards that publication, but I would like my words to live on, so they will live here. This is an essay I wrote on one of the many emotions I experienced while living in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

“Hasta Santa Fe,” I tell the bus driver before swiping my Subte card and finding my seat on the bus headed home after a long day. It’s at least my fifteenth time riding the bus, and yet the stares prick my skin as if it were the first.

My bus ride comes to an end several stops later, but the stares do not. I walk down Santa Fe towards my apartment. The voice inside my head coaches me to hold my head high and proud, as even if they are ‘only,’ stares, very clear thoughts are emitted:

Morena. Morocha. Negra.

This is Buenos Aires. Where, unlike its other Latin American siblings, the average porteño is not brown, they are white – and most likely of Italian descent. Existing here as a Black woman brings to light the dark history that this country has with those of African ancestry. Go back to 1996 and you’ll hear the former president, Carlos Menem, say an infamous statement: “No hay negros in Argentina,” or, “there are no Black people in Argentina.” Go back almost a century before that and you’ll witness the brutal near-extinction of Afro-Argentines that led most survivors to flee to nearby countries such as Colombia and Brazil.  President Menem, and much of the Argentine population, conveniently only remember certain parts of these histories.

But I am often reminded of them through the prevailing imagery. During my first week here, our group went to a barrio named La Boca, often coined the birthplace of the Tango. It’s considered one of those must-see places for tourists; full of colorful buildings, souvenirs, and deep Argentine history. Everyone in my group was ecstatic to arrive for photos, shopping, and sightseeing. And so was I, until I saw her. ‘Her,” as in the stone statue of a Black woman standing at a sink, with a scarf on her head and dishes in her hand. She was a mammy, a caricature. And while I stood there looking at her and unable to move, other visitors took photos of her, laughing and posing. I looked around to see if anyone was as affected as I was if one of the students in my group would give a similar side-eye, but I was alone. A too-familiar account had stolen my ability to be a simple spectator like everyone else.

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This atmospheric-removal continued. I joined a friend for a trip to the supermarket for a go at my first grocery shopping experience in the city. We marveled at the range of cheeses, the quality of the fruit and the price of the steak. It was entertaining until I saw her. She was smiling back at me from the bag of flour, with large and red lips, a kitchen apron, and uneven ponytails. She was the Blancaflor girl. My eyes were locked on the bag, but everyone else’s shopping experience continued without a rift. Once again, forced to ponder on my place – my belonging.

I had to ponder again during our first night out on the town. Walking fiercely down the street to a popular plaza, we passed a man who saw me and immediately commented about me being a “morocha.” Immediately, I struggled to keep pace with the group, walking along completely unaltered. “Why?” I asked myself, as conversations continued about brands of beer and favorite Cumbia songs. “Why?”

Another night, we passed a restaurant, Carita Morena, with a very distinct caricature as the “o” in the signage. A Black person with an afro was the “mascot.” I stopped to take a photo and shook my head, while around me life continued.

Later that night I joked with a friend from home that I’ve seen more Black people in these ‘artistic’ depictions that I have in real life since I’ve arrived. But beyond a joke, that dichotomy speaks to a larger issue that doesn’t just call Argentina home. Black people are repeatedly the subjects of hypervisibility. Our bodies, our creations, you name it. In the United States, this is actualized in the never-ending imagery of limp, lifeless Black bodies lying on the street, lying on jail cell floors, lying in cars. Channel 2 has no problem airing footage of Laquan McDonald being shot 16 times. Channel 5 thinks it’s ethical for viewers to see Mike Brown’s corpse in the middle of a Ferguson street. Channel 7 replays and replays that troubling photo of Sandra Bland.

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And while such a hypervisibility may front the façade that we are being seen, the opposite is true. For Black people around the globe, hypervisibility is erasure. It contributes to our livelihood not being seen as humane. In the U.S., this is perpetuated when non-Black communities use rhetoric such as “we are being killed too, but no one reports on us…” as if seeing your siblings murdered on every televised and socialized channel is a privilege. Hypervisibility never allows us to simply ‘be’ in the ways that others are. And so, even though Argentina has less than 2% of Black people in the population, you see our distorted bodies everywhere. This allows for random men on the street to yell out obvious phenotypical qualities when they see me. This allows for men at fruit stands to stare at me with heaps of fetishism. This allows for women in my apartment elevator to go on and on about how “delightful,” and “good for you,” it is that my Black behind is afforded the opportunity to travel. This allows a whole population of people to believe that there is no racism towards folks who don’t look akin to Sarah Jessica Parker. Hypervisibility, whether through imagery, fetishization, or any other device, never exists as something for us to be proud of.

The sooner one realizes this, the sooner we are able to throw away problematic dreams of travelling in the manner of our white counterparts – through a lens of voyeurism. No matter how many weirdly idealistic Instagram pages surface selling T-Shirts that read, “Travel is the New Black,” we were never meant to cross man-made borders for the sake of consumption. It is opposite to our ancestry and it is opposite to our existence – no matter where our respective homes lie. I’m never going to be able to walk down the street of Argentina, or anywhere else for that matter, with an occupy approach, but I also no longer want to. I don’t want to approach global travel with mental hierarchies that lead me to believe that chaos inflicted upon Haitians is fine as long as Americans have our healthcare. I also don’t want to be so caught up in trying to euphemistically ‘enjoy’ a travel destination that I am unable to criticize it. As a Black woman, dismantling systems of colonial oppression means believing in doing so everywhere.

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I choose to allow this trip to manifest how the universe sees fit. It’s full of nuance; smiling photos on the beach paired with striking condemnations of indigenous treatment, café con leche paired with protesting femicide and machismo. I won’t pretend that walking this earth as a Black woman is ‘easy.’ But it damn sure isn’t means for shame, either. I throw glitter at comforting smiles from other Black women on Santa Fe. I get shea butter happy when the bustling burger spot is Black-owned and loudly playing Bob Marley. This life isn’t easy – no matter where I lay my head, and yet, I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Post-Publish Note:

After reading this, a lot of people thought the point I was trying to make in writing this was to stay in the U.S. because everywhere else has problems. That…could not be further from the truth and I couldn’t publish this again without making this glaringly clear. The point is that racism is a global construct, and man-made borders don’t hide that fact any bit. The point is that hypervisibility in one context should not be read as a privilege. The point is euphemistically looking to other nations to be savior destinations for marginalized communities is a purposeless search. It is by no means that the United States is “better” than anywhere else, and definitely not an attempt to persuade people to stay comfortably in their bubbles.



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