As I maneuvered the shit-laden sidewalks of San Telmo, a gently gentrified neighborhood of Buenos Aires, I couldn’t help but hear the Sesame Street song “one of these things is not like the other, one of these things just doesn’t belong,” playing from an imaginary loudspeaker. To see people’s reactions to me, you’d think I was the Cookie Monster. My life as an expat was, I assume, much like everyone else’s. Except mine was punctuated on an almost hourly basis by advances from eighty-year old men, whistling truck drivers, and the occasional child who pointed and stammered something in a Spanish far more complex than I will ever achieve. I was an anomaly in a city where staring is a national pastime.
The fact that I was different escaped me for the better half of my first day in town. Perhaps it was my post-divorce haze, having only signed the papers a month prior, that clouded my usual owl-like observation skills. Or maybe it was that after arriving at 7am, following ten hours of sleepless flight, I was using all the strength left in me to grab onto the “oh shit” handles of the car I’d hired at the airport. But on the eve of the second anniversary of my return to the U.S., it is safe to say that I was naive. Full on Cher-in-Clueless levels of cluelessness.
I told the driver in two-word sentences that I’d come to Buenos Aires to reflect, to write, to—in the cliché of all clichés—find myself. I understood Spanish well enough (or was he speaking English?) to understand that in his expert opinion, I would not blend in. I was shocked, world-traveler that I was, having managed to blend in cities like London, Paris, and even Dakar. I knew little of South America, and even less of the city that I would eventually claim as my hometown; even so, I decided he was but a silly driver and decided to take no offense. The highway into the city was lined with a combination of German-inspired chalets and unfinished concrete houses. Abandoned lots had turned into dusty soccer pitches; the first indication that while the inhabitants of Buenos Aires proudly dub it the Paris of South America, it had more in common with Dakar. It is not without irony that the famed auto race announced its move to Buenos Aires just a year later.
I understood Spanish well enough (or was he speaking English?) to understand that in his expert opinion, I would not blend in.
My room was not yet ready at the hostel, so I headed off to Plaza Serrano, a popular tourist destination according to the map I had in hand. This was before GPS. Note: Brandishing a smartphone in Buenos Aires, where iPhones cost as much as a month’s salary, is never a good idea. Consulting the map, I turned right; a critical error had I been on an episode of The Amazing Race, but instead an opportunity to see a part of the city few tourists actually make it to. On my walk, I noted that the taxi drivers must’ve known I was lost; they insisted on following me for a block or two, I guessed in an attempt to help me find my way. I smiled and nodded, thinking how unusually friendly the people in Buenos Aires were. I passed a group of about ten police officers. They were also suspiciously friendly. This is something I’d find profoundly annoying in the States, but here, it seemed somewhat charming. I hadn’t even showered yet and I was getting more attention than Rihanna in the visiting area of a Federal prison. I was beginning to suspect that something was amiss.
Then I saw my reflection in a bank window. I did a double-take. Doing a double-take on oneself can be rather unsettling. I was in shock. A black person! And suddenly all the staring children, the overly-friendly Officer Friendlies, the incredulous cab driver all made sense. I was the first black person I’d seen all day.
Suddenly, I was gripped with paranoia. What had these men been saying?! I then began to shrink in horror at every passerby, convinced they were whispering, “go home nigger” or something to that effect. I’d made a point to avoid the American South my entire life—perhaps I’d made a huge mistake picking a destination even further south. Did the guidebook mention anything about lynching? If it did, I’d missed that along with the important chapter that mentioned Buenos Aires is 98% white, and that the other 2% are just dark white. This wasn’t intrinsically strange for me, having grown up in predominantly white neighborhoods and studied at predominantly white schools. However it was extremely strange for the three million people who lived in Buenos Aires.
And suddenly all the staring children, the overly-friendly Officer Friendlies, the incredulous cab driver all made sense. I was the first black person I’d seen all day.
So much for disappearing into the fabric of the city. So much for anonymously scribing my poems at sidewalk cafes. So much for blending in. However, finding myself suddenly became ironically easy. I became acutely aware, particularly in the case of young children, that I was the first black person they had ever seen. Ever. I was bowling and a four-year-old in the lane next to mine pointed at me as she said to her mom, “¡Mira, mamá! Una nena de chocolate.” Now I didn’t mind being called the chocolate girl; in fact, it was kind of cute. What wasn’t cute was when my Spanish teacher informed me that if my length of stay in Buenos Aires extended to the point where I had actual porteños as friends, that my nickname would become La Negra or Negri, as in “the black chick.”
I should mention here that that nickname is given to anyone who is even slightly darker than pink, and it’s not considered offensive. It’s what caused utter confusion when my then-boyfriend told me his grandfather was black. Yes, despite the onslaught of advances, it took me a whole seven days to find a boyfriend. Five years my junior, his youth was emphasized by the fact that he still lived at home, calling his parents’ car “his.” The first time I was invited over, I didn’t notice if his family was shocked by my presence. I was too busy trying to not stare at the little black-faced, red-lipped dolls that lounged lazily on their coffee table. Negritos. His grandmother is an artist, he explained, and painted them herself. How cute. I was still getting over that when I heard “negro” at the dinner table. I was hoping they were talking about a black sweater, or a black toaster, or anything black that wasn’t a person. This was the problem with having enough Spanish knowledge to pick up keywords, but not enough to understand what had been said. Interestingly, racial slurs cause tension that doesn’t need translation. Moments later, he chastises his mother and suddenly I’m the one feeling guilty. A heated debate ensues about the use of “negro de mierda” in my presence.
“But Maya, you’re not black.”
“No de piel, del alma.”
They meant not-black on the inside. Her father is “negro,” being half-indigenous. He’d been called “negro de mierda.” So sometimes it refers to skin color? I gather that when they add de mierda to negro, they mean negro as in villero (people who live in ‘hood) who aren’t black, just poor. Oh I thought, classism, not racism. Much better. Over the years, I learned that de mierda is the go-to suffix of choice used to defame everything from old people to a broken air conditioning unit. I decided that I wouldn’t be offended. This is a decision that I had to actively make on a fairly regular basis.
The first time I was invited over, I didn’t notice if his family was shocked by my presence. I was too busy trying to not stare at the little black-faced, red-lipped dolls that lounged lazily on their coffee table. Negritos.
The first time I went grocery shopping, I was not at all offended. I was horrified, both by the lack of variety (Argentines have two spices: salt and a blend called “provenzal”) and Blancaflor, one of the more popular brands of flour-based products. The Blancaflor logo makes Aunt Jemimah look like Michelle Obama. I pictured the branding team deciding that the best way to sell a product that translates to “white flour” is to design a tar-black cartoon character wearing white gloves. I get it—contrast, juxtaposition. Every time I was in the grocery store, I wanted to set these bags of flour on fire. Yet it would be inaccurate to say that porteños are racist, at least in the traditional sense. How can one be racist when everyone is the same race?
I did in fact stay long enough—long enough for everyone to know that calling me Negri was not in their best interest, and then even longer to the point that I stopped caring. Yet what people called me wasn’t my biggest concern. When I was six months pregnant the first question everyone had, beyond the obvious “boy or girl” is what color s/he’d be. I’m not a scientist, but I felt compelled to give everyone a strongly worded genetics lesson. I told my son’s father that I would kill anyone who referred to our son as negrito—even if it was prefaced with “que lindo.” And he knew that I meant it. I didn’t know what was better, raising him in the states where as a blatino, he would be eligible for both a wide-variety of scholarships as well as discrimination, or in Argentina where in the school plays he would inevitably be cast as the negrito that sells candles, lest one of his melanin-challenged classmates be forced to appear in Blackface for the part.
Yes, in Argentina they paint kids’ faces black. In case you’re confused, let me clarify: Blackface is an acceptable thing to do in children’s plays. Without fail, every semi-official holiday is celebrated with an acto, a play about the history of Argentina, that features at least two children in blackface. I’ve seen it a half-dozen times, and a half-dozen times, I decide it would be unreasonable to beat up small children. After one such performance, I was asked if I was offended. My shrug was quickly responded to with an excuse I heard multiple times during my tenure as one of five black people in Argentina: They’re not making fun of black people, it’s just that there aren’t any black kids to play those parts. I guess.
Yes, in Argentina they paint kids’ faces black. In case you’re confused, let me clarify: Blackface is an acceptable thing to do in children’s plays.
Tourists regularly asked me what it was like to be a black person in a city full of white people. This is what it was like. Upon leaving the bank in Plaza de Mayo, my then-boyfriend and I at the same time shout, “Black people!” But they had already noticed me and were already snapping photos. It is certain that passersby thought I was a celebrity as they swarmed around me, taking pictures. Here’s the Casa Rosada, Teatro Colón, the black chick. I was immortalized in strangers’ vacation photos. They pepper me with questions, the most pointed of which is, “where are all the black people?” I launch into a monologue worthy of a Smithsonian-trained tour guide: Apparently there once were black people in Buenos Aires and it is said that at the turn of the 19th century, 30% of the population was of African descent. Then, depending on who tells it, the black people were killed on the front lines in the war for independence, shipped off to Uruguay in a “Liquidation Sale” just before slavery was abolished, or were diluted by intermarriage so much so that many Afro-Argentines don’t even know of they’re black. Tango, the very dance that has the world coming to Argentina in droves, has African roots, we invented dulce de leche, a ridiculously creamy caramel spread without which no Argentine kitchen or cake is complete, and, yes, they have an Afro-Argentine history month. It’s in November, a full two days longer than ours.
People often ask me about how I decided to visit Buenos Aires in the first place. No good reason. I knew nothing about it. Not the language, not the culture. Nothing. It was to be an adventure, a portal to the new me. During my eight years as an expat, my feelings about Argentina fluctuated and crashed like its economy. The new me had thicker skin when it came to political correctness. The new me didn’t blink twice when my neighbor said, “Hola, Negri,” on her way to the chino. And when a little old lady stopped to get a look at my son and exclaimed, “Pero, es blanquito!” The new me replied, “yes, I stole him.” She was more than offended, she was horrified. And I smiled all the way home, because after years of being defined by strangers’ stares, I’d learned to stare right back.