Backstory: Argentina's indigenous shadows

A nation that cultivates a European image barely sees the dwindling culture that was here first.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Did you ever experience one of those moments when you see something for the first time that has always been right in front of you? It happened to me in this Pampas town on a damp, summer night following a storm.

The Club Parador was dense with mosquitoes. They'd come to dine on about 200 people who'd paid to watch Sebastian "Lefty" Ojeda introduce Nicolas "The Savage" Carriaga to second thoughts about taking up the sport of boxing.

It was a buoyant crowd, sprinkled with tattooed dudes and some tough-looking senior citizens, apparently former boxers, who watched their grandchildren play in the ring before the pugilism started. At least three infants slept through the action in their mothers' arms. A ticket cost three pesos, about a dollar.

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Suddenly, I realized mine was the only white face in the crowd. I'd been in these circumstances before, but this was the first time they impressed me so: All the rest, the men, women, and children surrounding me, were dark, with thick black hair. These were the faces of the other people of Argentina, faces you won't see in TV commercials, magazine ads for beauty products or household appliances; faces you don't see behind shop counters or in offices. These faces you find in the kitchen, the maid's quarters, and on the men picking watermelons in fields here. Most are poor; worse, they are unseen.

Unseen, you might think, exaggerates their situation. But some years back I was dispatched to Connecticut, to write about the new Pequot Indian Casino that, overnight, made the Pequots as rich as the white suburbanites they'd dwelled among for years and served in menial ways.

"I never even knew they were here," a local housewife said, her discomfort evident at the discovery of the sudden elevated status of these people who fixed her car and clipped her grass. I suspect this peculiar myopia afflicts many of the well-off in every country.

The indigenous people of contemporary Argentina descend from tribes that met the Spaniards five centuries ago with slings and arrows, literally. Among them are the Mocovi, Toba, Abipone, and remnants of the Guarani, who thrived in the vanished South American network of Jesuit mission towns in the 17th century.

Today these people are usually referred to as negros, negritos, morochos and once, when they were called forth in their multitudes to rescue President Juan Peron's threatened regime, cabecitas negras, "little black heads." That term is no longer heard, and whites will say that those other words are more often used affectionately than as epithets, which is not entirely untrue.

Most of those in the Club Parador that night, including the boxers, were probably descendants of the Mocovi, who once rode free over the grasslands around there.They fought Spanish power through much of the 18th century until pacified by the Jesuits. After King Charles III of Spain abruptly expelled every Jesuit from his dominions in 1767, the indigenous people were robbed of their lands and exploited by European colonists.

Today, says Ines Quilici, a sociologist with Argentina's National Institute for Indian Affairs, they "live in a terrible exclusion" from society around them, an exclusion reinforced by ignorance. "In Santa Fe Province the illiteracy level among the Mocovi is alarming, maybe as high as 75 percent," she says. "This is among adults, although lately the children are getting into schools." Ms. Quilici estimates only between 6,000 to 7,000 Mocovi remain in this area. (In all, according to James S. Olson's book "Indians of Central and South America," there are 10,000 Mocovi alive today.) The Argentine Association for Native Peoples estimates a national total of 200,000 indigenous people from 15 different tribes.) Her agency tries to help them by buying small pieces of land and setting up community centers where they can study their own language and history.

"For their own defense," she says, "the Mocovi must learn who they are, where they came from. They've got to wake up."

Argentina has always presented itself as a white European country in South America. Near the end of the 19th century, in an effort to populate the country the government encouraged only European immigration: Travel in any direction from here, and eventually you'll encounter a remnant of an old agricultural colony, land given free or at generous rates to French, Swiss, German, British, Jewish, and Italian settlers. The Indians were moved aside.

As I watched boxer Juan Vera stalk his opponent, I thought it appropriate that these people gather in places like this. I was hardly surprised when told their enthusiasm has stimulated the creation of boxing clubs hereabouts. Why boxing? Maybe because one of their own did so well at it.

Outside Club Parador, Provincial Route 1 runs 100 miles up to San Javier, a town of maybe 6,000 people. San Javier began as a Jesuit mission in 1743. It was the site of the last rising by the Mocovi, in 1904, a desperate act that grew from the bitter taste of never-ending defeat, of a people forced deeper into poverty with each wave of immigration.

In the novel, "Wind From the North," Alcides Greca, wrote: "Not one of these pariahs is the owner of the soil where he lays his head. Every day a new owner arrives who pushes him farther and farther away.... Upon the last Indians a wind of death blows. Even their dogs seem unhappy."

Not far from San Javier on Provincial Route 1, stands an enormous memorial to Carlos Monzon, built on the spot where he was killed in a car crash in 1995. Monzon held the world middleweight boxing title from 1970 to 1974; he retired undefeated. He was the first native American boxing champion in the history of that most ancient sport - a Mocovi, born in San Javier.

Monzon is a hero to the Mocovi, though mightily flawed: he went to prison for killing his wife. Yet this hardly diminished the affection for him among his people, such as those in the Club Parador.

They need all the heroes they can get.

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