la rebelión consiste en mirar una rosa

hasta pulverizarse los ojos

Alejandra Pizarnik


María Lamadrid, founder of "África Vive": “We are the first disappeared people in Argentina”/ Interview by Viviana Marcela Iriart, Buenos Aires, December 2002 / Photos by Ana Cea / Internet / Translation: Luciana Valente



According to the census carried out by the África Vive Foundation, there are 2 million black men and women in Argentina, descended from slaves in the Colonial period, who live with 34 million white Argentinian people that mysteriously ignore or deny their existence. In order to visualize their existence and claim for their rights, María Lamadrid, a black Argentinian descendant from the Zulu ethnic group in South Africa, founded “África Vive” (Africa Lives) in 1997, an NGO which received financial support from the Kellogg Foundation for 3 years.


Her fight against discrimination actually began in her childhood, when she spent 2 years as a pupil in a Catholic school, being the only poor black girl among white, upper-middle-class girls. Following her destiny as a poor black woman, María was only able to attend primary school. After that, the streets were her only education, where she learned so much that she now speaks as if she had a master’s degree from the Sorbonne. María was a model at the Buenos Aires School of Fine Arts and she was also a dancer. When these two jobs were over, María ended up like all poor women, cleaning other people's houses. But she was left with all she had lived, and the stories. 



ML:    We were the only black Argentinian women who danced like “The Fiery Mulattas”, we were “The Ebony Mulattas.” We had formed a group with my cousin and two friends, we danced and sang, but we didn't get anywhere because we were black, because we danced better than the other dancers... Let me tell you an anecdote... The Cuban cabaret star Salma Beleño had come, and they were asking for black women to work with her, and when we did the dance audition they turned us down... because we danced better than the star of the show!


María laughs, and her cheerful, infectious laughter, full of life, rings constantly during the interview. Not even two hundred years of discrimination have been able to take that powerful joy away from this woman. And I say powerful because María’s smile is so beautiful it is hard to believe anyone could deny her anything when she smiles. And still...

In August 2002, a Migration official from the Ezeiza Airport did not allow her to travel to a congress in Panama. The reason: the official said that in 
Argentina there were no black people and so María’s passport had to be false. María was detained for several hours. When this “misunderstanding” was finally cleared up, her plane had already left. María was traveling to Panama to look for financial support to resume the Microcredit Project for Heads of Household and to carry out a census of the Afro-Argentine population at a national level.


However, María knows, as a famous tango says, “that the struggle is long and cruel”. She works pro bono and, since she has no other job or any personal fortune, her economic situation is very bad. As bad as that of her foundation: she has no money to pay office costs and she is several months behind in rent... So far, the only Argentinian solidarity she has received is that of the owners of the office, who have told her not to worry about the debt: “How could we not show solidarity with you when we are Argentine Jews and we also suffer discrimination.”


“We are the first disappeared people in Argentina”

María says this without sadness. And that is the first thing about her that calls my attention: she talks about the most tragic things with a smile in her face and even laughs about the atrocities she has endured simply for being black and Argentinian.

    “They've made us invisible, we don't exist”

There is no resentment or pity in her words - there is a strong, healthy pride for fighting to recover the identity that was snatched away from them back in the 19th century. However, black Argentinian men and women do exist and, among the 30,000 people who were arrested and disappeared during the Dictatorship, there is an Afro-Argentine girl.

ML:    Let me tell you about something that happened to me. I live in La Matanza. One day, I went to see a city councilman to ask for an office. The councilman receives me and then closes the door behind me and tells me: “You can't tell anyone about this - my grandmother was like you, but we had her hidden in a room.” When this was published in an interview I gave for Clarín (one of the main newspapers in Argentina), the councilman called me and told me “Don't tell them who I am!”


María, how did you start with “África Vive”?

It all started when the Inter-American Development Bank (Banco Interamericano de Desarrollo, BID) asked an American man and a Honduran woman to carry out a study about black people in Latin America. They came to Uruguay - they didn't plan to come to Argentina because they had been told there were no black people here. However, in Uruguay someone told them they knew a black Argentine woman who was setting up an organization little by little, so they came here and contacted me and Miriam Gomes, from the organization “Unión Caboverdiana” (Cape Verdean Union). So we did a presentation for them and told them where black Argentines were - in the interior of the Buenos Aires province and the interior of the country. Thanks to this meeting we were invited to Washington, were we did a course and carried out a study about black people in all Latin America. For three years in a row we went to the Afroamérica XXI congress, where all black people from Latin America met. So in 1997 I founded “África Vive”.

Which was your goal at the time?

To carry out a census to know how many we were. The first thing I did was a census of my family: we were called "Lamadrid" because black people carried their owner's surname. But my family comes from the Zulu ethnic group in South Africa. Then, with Miriam, we started to conduct the census in the street - we would stop every black man and woman we saw and ask them if they wanted to take the census. If they said yes, we would go to their house and take their responses. This was in 1998. At the same time, I suggested the School of Philosophy and Humanities at the Buenos Aires University to give lectures about racial discrimination and the School asked me to give the lectures myself. So I suggested giving a seminar for Menem, who had said in Washington that there were no black people in Argentina, and tell him they were here. So they told me that I was wrong, that I was crazy, that it would have no impact. Two days later, they called and said it was a good idea, that black men and women had never entered the Congress. So they let us use the annexe to the Congress and we did a three-day seminar, bringing black men and women so that they could see them, realize they were there, hear what problems they had, and know why they were invisible. And well, I liked it a lot and we had a big impact. So Miriam and I asked them to integrate African history within the university, because she is a teacher and a historian. They accepted our proposal, and Miriam gave classes until 2001 at the University of Buenos Aires (UBA) - for free, because they didn't pay her. Eventually, she had to leave because she needed money, like everybody else.

Could you get any financing for the foundation?

Not at the beginning - this was driven by my own efforts, with my money. Then the Kellogg Foundation showed up and asked us what project we had so that they could finance it for two years. We presented a project about culture, workshops, seminars. Because when we started gathering people from the community to give them our presentations, which were for small groups, in houses, we realized people needed work. So we asked them how we could help and they suggested creating tapestries. We looked for a triangle loom, one that was cheap, so that they could work at home, and they liked it a lot - keep in mind we're talking about family heads. There was a great deal of interest. We started with 10 people and then there were 40 men and women. Because men realized that if the women weaved, they could go out and sell the tapestries, and that way we managed to integrate men too.

Do the tapestries show African motifs?

No, they show Argentinian motifs - we haven't been able to recover any African ones yet. Two years later, Kellogg's financing ended, because that's their policy, but we asked them if they could stay for one more year and they generously agreed and asked us for another project. So we proposed the Microcredit for Heads of Household, a project I had seen in Venezuela and which I adapted to Argentina, and they gave us financing for one more year. First, we had to give 36 workshops, which lasted almost 3 months, in order to assess who we were giving credits to and for what, because we provided up to 300 pesos a month. That was great, because with that money the women with the looms could buy directly from the wholesaler and this reduced the cost quite a lot. And we made arrangements to get them craft fair booths so that they could sell there on weekends.

What was the reaction of the Afro-Argentine community when you appeared?

It wasn't easy. They thought that perhaps we had been “bought off” by politicians, that we were going to tell them: You have to go on a picket line—here, take a thousand pesos. People were more into politics than into their ethnic roots. It was really hard for us—that's why we had to give those 36 workshops, to also speak about what it was to be black, about our history. We focused on young people and after we gave them the workshop, parents would show up to see what we were teaching them and so they would start with “I remember...”, “I know this...” And this was something we were very interested in, because this was a way to recover our history, to know why no one talked about it, why they didn't preserve it.

And why was it, María?

They have kept to themselves. They have kept to themselves in the sense that they don't like to be branded as “black.” Most of them live in the Buenos Aires province and they don't want to come to the capital for fear of being rejected. Let me tell you an anecdote. In one of the workshops, young women were with their mothers and grandmothers, and when we started to tell them they needed to wake up, that black men and women had their rights and didn't even know it, one of the girls told me: “What if you start with all of this and they take us back to Africa?”

Is that why we don't see them in the street?

You don't see us because we have been erased; they have erased us, white people.

And how have you managed to reverse that denial process of “non-existence”? Where does your pride emerge from?

Firstly, because my aunt would always tell me: “Wherever you walk, that's you.” And so I would go along the street full of pride thinking I was everything. Then I was lucky enough to get training in Washington. The first time I went to the Afroamérica XXI congress, in 1996, the coordinator told us: “You need to understand that you are going to have trouble in your country. You all need to say why you are here.” And we all talked about what had happened to us—we said we were invisible. He told me: “You need to write to the government and tell them who you are—start with yourself.” When I got back, I went to the BID office in Buenos Aires to seek support and they told me: “No. You're only one black woman! How can you tell me you want support?!” And I was dead set on going every week. I would go and tell them: “Look, you know I always get an invitation and I need…” And they said: “No, no, we're not going to pay any attention to you.” So I got tired and wrote to the president of the BID, whom I had met in Washington, and said: “Your bank here is not paying attention to me.” Two days later, the people at the BID knew everything from my nickname to my phone to where I lived: “Please come, María, we want to help you, we want to listen to you.” It's not easy to be a black woman who says there are two million black people in Argentina. People tell me: “You're crazy! That can't be true!”

But, before going to Washington, you already had that pride.

Yes. When I started dancing, I already had that pride. I always told my nephews they should go to the corner and play some music, because a drum always calls people's attention. And that, when someone asked them where they were from, they should charge them 1 peso, because they don't know we're here, they don't know we exist.

You want to levy a tax on white people for having denied you all. 

(Laughs) For not knowing.


And did they do it?

Yes! We got out of the annexe to the Congress and when the guards saw us with the drum, they told us: “No music, no dancing and no drum playing here”. I said “Oh yeah?” And then I took the drum and started playing.


You play the drum?

(Laughs) No, I dance better that I play, but at that moment, we had to play and scream for pride. So we went to the White Tent in front of the Congress, where teachers were protesting at that time, and we sat there to play and dance candombe. There were also Bolivian and indigenous people with their music. And people were saying: “No, no, we want the black people to play again.” Ah! You see? We're here! And we are Argentinian.

Do you have any support from other Argentine human rights organisms or the government?

None. But last year I went to a congress in Barbados, invited by a lady who works at the BID there. And this lady said at the congress: “In Argentina, your people are not included, and you need to fight for their inclusion, you have to send letters to everybody and travel to the Congress that will be held in South Africa.” These words before representatives from all Latin American organisms had a big impact. So when I came back here, to shut me up, they called me from the Congress to give me a diploma recognizing the black men who had fought as soldiers for independence. Recognition was for black men - black women don't exist either for the Argentine Congress. No, we don't exist. They are male chauvinists. But, anyway, we did get to send one of the young ones to South Africa.


What are your goals for the long-term?

Being able to conduct the census across the country, which would take about two years and for which we need financing, because we need to travel to all provinces and advertise it in the media. In the short-term, getting funds for another Microcredit Project for Heads of Household, which is urgent, because unemployment is very high in the community. I also want to recover our origins, our history since we were taken out of Africa as slaves, because there's nothing left - our past is in the minds of old men and women. When they die, we'll be left with no identity.


Have you looked for support at the South African Embassy?

Yes, the Embassy proposed that I make a profile of everything I've done so far to see where they can help. The first thing I asked them is to know where I come from, where the ethnic groups are, and if we can contact them and see if they have any records of the slaves that were brought here.

And haven't you received any national or international funds to conduct the census?

No, no. With the article they published about us in Clarín, we received calls from 40 people, from Entre Ríos, Río Negro, Mendoza... I need to send them the request so that they can answer the census in their provinces and then send the forms back. A chain has been formed. We are going to conduct our own census.

Have you been knocking on doors with no answer?

Look, I think I don't have any knuckles left. But I'm interested in conducting the census for two reasons: first, I like conducting censuses, because if there's a woman and you go there alone, you could write a book with the story she'll tell you. And second, because it's a way to charge the INDEC (National Institute of Statistics and Censuses), which is in charge of conducting censuses here, to go and tell them: “You'll have to pay me for even the paper.” The South African Ambassador told me: “You're starting the wrong way.” But they won't let me do it right! We sent a letter to the INDEC telling them: “Please include a little checkbox to show the person's descent.”

And they refused?

They didn't answer. It's like the ambassador said: “You're starting things the wrong way.” It's like I'm trying to conduct this census by force, but I'm going to do it. I'm going to conduct this census. "No" is not an option for me.

And how do you feel about that silence?

Look, I don't know how I feel… the thing is I'm tired of them. So I look for support in the United States, because I know I won't find any support here. In Honduras, in 1998, Afroamérica XXI was created, which includes all Latin American organizations. I started with them and I'm still with them, because it is thanks to them that we're surviving, and they also guide me. When I was arrested at the airport, they acted immediately, black organizations sent protest letters to Argentine embassies in their countries, to everyone. They were shocked when this happened to me. And they tell me: “That was lucky, because now you'll find support.” So far, I've only found promises. I haven't found anything else. But I keep fighting, mainly for the young. So that young people can open their mind, know what rights they have and don't let themselves be “insulted” - as it were - because they are black. That they are not afraid to go to university “because they won't know anything” o avoid going anywhere because “that's not their place.” That's my fight.

María, do you believe you're going to win that fight?

I'm going to answer you with a phrase from Martin Luther King: I have a dream.

And with your courage, I'm sure you're going to make it.

Yes, but don't forget King was murdered.


But that won't happen to you.

Are you sure?

This is María Lamadrid. Courageous María. 

“We shall overcome someday. We are not afraid. Deep in my heart, I do believe we shall overcome someday” sang Joan Baez in the 60's.

  Forty  years have passed, but the fight is still the same, and her song just as necessary.

 You will overcome, María.

 You will see your dream. 

Without a shot being fired.

We hope. 

We desire.




©Viviana Marcela Iriart

Buenos Aires, December 2002  

translation   ©Luciana Valente

Photos © Ana Cea  

To whom I apologize for using them without her permission, because I could not contact her.

  Clarín, agosto 2002, Buenos Aires. Source: Blog  Alejandro Frigerio


·       Personalidad Destacada, Legislatura Buenos Aires2016

·    Distinguida Personalidad Destacada en el Ámbito de los Derechos Humanos, Legislatura de Buenos Aires, 2016 

·       Condecorada, Secretaría de Derechos Humanos De la Nación, Argentina, 2016

·       Detenida en el aeropuerto internacional de Ezeiza, Buenos Aires, por “ser negra y argentina”, Clarín 24.08.2002, Argentina

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·       UNAM, México

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·       Pequeña reseña biográfica, blog de Alejandro Frigeiro, Argentina

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·       Encyclopedia of the African Diaspora: Origins, Experiences…by Carole Elizabeth Boyce Davie, Estados Unidos, 2013


·       Colonialism and Race in Luso-Hispanic Literature by Jerome Branche, University of Missouri Press, Estados Unidos, 2006


·       At Home and Abroad: Historicizing Twentieth-Century Whiteness… by La Vinia Delois

Jennings, University of Tennessee Press, Estados Unidos, 2010 


·       Contesting Racism Democratic Citizenship, Human Rights by Barbara Sutton, Pennsylvania State Univ, Estados Unidos, 2008


·       Argentine Independence and Other Stories to Recycle by Washington Cucurto, Harvard Univ, Estados Unidos, 2010


·       Negros en Argentina: integración e identidad por Jean Arsène Yao, Universidad de Alcalá, España


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 ·     Las voces en los bordes de la historia de Jorge Iván Jaramillo Hincapié, Colombia

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·       De la desaparición de los negros a la reaparición …de Alejandro Frigerio, Consejo Latinoamericano de Ciencias Sociales, Argentina

·       Mujeres Afrodescendientes

·       Día internacional de la mujer afrodescendiente

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·       Negro Che: Los primeros desaparecidos 

·   Afro Buenos Aires                      Artículo Gob. Ciudad de Buenos Aires  
·    Mujeres afroargentinas               Documental
·    Estudios Africanos                      Universidad Nacional de Córdoba,Arg.     
·    Afrodescendientes en Argentina  Interviewing HERVÈ 2012
·    Afroargentin@s                             Documental
·    Los Argentin@s Tambien Descendemos de Esos Barcos    Documental
·    Afroargentin@s - La historia jamás contada                        Documental
·     Grupo de Estudios Afrolatinoamericanos                             GEALA