Backstory: Argentina's indigenous shadows
A nation that cultivates a European image barely sees the dwindling culture that was here first.
SAN JOSE DEL RINCON, ARGENTINA
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.