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Argentina's Complicated Relationship with Race

In the 19th century, the popular world’s fairs offered a strategic platform for countries to display their scientific accomplishments and to prove themselves worthwhile players in the international trade scene.

One country vying to improve its international presence in the late 1800s era of industrialization was Argentina. As the country’s elites tried to prove they were a worthy player in the international arena, a dark side of racism and the eradication of Argentina’s indigenous population emerged.

Ashley Kerr, an assistant professor of Spanish and Latin American studies, takes a look at the evolution of Argentina and the popular perception of the country as a “European microcosm” in her essay, “From Savagery to Sovereignty: Identity, Politics, and International Exhibitions of Argentine Anthropology, 1878-1892.” Kerr’s work will be highlighted in 2017 in Isis, a premier academic journal from University of Chicago Press.

In the 1800s, European and North American societies were rapidly advancing, and aspiring nations, including Argentina, used exhibitions at the world’s fairs to try to mimic other countries’ successes. According to Kerr, this went as far as attempting to emulate racial makeup — a supposed factor in societal advancements.

The desire to attain a more “civilized” status created a complicated problem for the Argentine elite, Kerr found. Since its indigenous population contrasted with Europeans and those newly settled in North America, they wanted to sweep them under the rug. However, Europeans also appreciated the raw materials, such as prehistoric skulls, that the Argentines displayed at the fairs.

“It was the paradox of science in the 19th century,” Kerr said. “Doing science is a way of proving that you’re progressing and thinking, but for countries like Argentina, that’s also a problem: European anthropologists could go to Africa or Australia to see their ‘savages,’ but the Argentines had ‘savages,’ as they called them, right there. And, there were quite a few people, in North America and Europe, saying that racial mixing was bad.”

Argentina turned to the U.S. in looking for a role model for race relations. In the late 1800s, an Argentine ambassador went to the Bureau of Indian Affairs to study its policies for treating indigenous populations — with disastrous consequences, Kerr said.

“The U.S. experience seemed to be this positive tale of gaining independence and getting more land,” Kerr noted, emphasizing that the reality of the tale was far from positive. “Americans came up with intellectuals and literature. They managed to control their Indian problem. People in Argentina looked to achieve similar effects. Because of the scientific racism of the 19th century, they think they’re not progressing economically because they’ve racially mixed with indigenous people.”

The eventual outcome was slavery and genocide. The military imprisoned or killed indigenous populations. They sent prisoners to work on sugar plantations and gave away women and children as domestic help. Children were separated from their families for re-education.

Kerr’s research offers a glimpse into the historical mistreatment of Argentina’s indigenous population, but it also remains relevant to modern-day realities.

“The mentality of racism hasn’t been totally eradicated in Argentina,” she said. “People of indigenous descent are still more likely to live in poverty and have less access to education and social services. However, there is some recognition of what’s been done over the last century. There have been several high profile cases where museums returned skeletons to indigenous communities for reburial, and they’re trying to incorporate wording in the constitution that they’re open to everyone. But it’s only a partial incorporation.”

In the meantime, Kerr’s work may bring heightened awareness of the still rampant racism in Argentina, and how the U.S. can be a trailblazer in such matters, for better or worse.

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