Today, March 21, happens to be the U.N. International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. The U.N. says,
Racial and ethnic discrimination occur on a daily basis, hindering progress for millions of people around the world. Racism and intolerance can take various forms — from denying individuals the basic principles of equality to fuelling ethnic hatred that may lead to genocide — all of which can destroy lives and fracture communities. The struggle against racism is a matter of priority for the international community and is at the heart of the work of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Hindering progress. Denying basic principles of equality. Fuelling ethnic hatred. A matter of priority for the international community. This is a touchy subject. Nevertheless, I think this is something important I need to address. I notice skin color here in Salta on a day-to-day basis. And if you know anything about Milwaukee, you know that race matters there, too.
In Salta, long before the Spanish arrived, there were a number of indigenous groups that lived in this region of Argentina: Los Apatamas, Los Omaguacas, Los diaguitas or calchaquíes,Los capayanes, Los Lules y Vilelas, and Los Tonocotés, among others. These groups were all conquered by the Incas in around 1470, and then this region was considered part of the Virreinato del Perú. But in 1535, the first “conquistador” came into this region (Diego de Almagro). The region remained part of the Virreinato del Perú until 1776, when the Spanish created the Virreinato del Río de la Plata. This particular region was called “Salta de Tucumán” — today there are two separate cities, Salta and Tucumán, about 5 hours from one another. The Spanish brought Christianity with them, and as a result, “Christianization” of the indigenous people occurred as members of the clergy were specifically Europeans and the criollos, someone of mixed ancestry (indigenous and European). However, “sincretismo” also occurred — a mixing of some indigenous religious rituals with Christian ones.
In 1813, after the Batalla de Salta (of which we just celebrated the 200th anniversary here), the territory gained independence from Spain, and Salta Province was officially created in 1814 (before Wisconsin!). However, the province was occupied by the Spanish for a few months in 1817 and attacks from the Virreinato de Perú continued until around 1826. Fights continued in this region for years to come, mostly over where the border with Chile and where the border with Bolivia was. Finally in the 1940s, the border of the province and of the nation was settled and it’s remained so. All of this history is important because it highlights the mixing between the Spanish and the indigenous groups here.
Now, how does this apply to race in the 21st century? Interestingly enough, it has a huge impact.
As I write this, I am sitting in Havanna, a nice café which is a chain in Argentina. The coffee is pretty expensive, they have fancy lattes and such, and are known for delicious alfajores (a traditional Argentinian cookie). I’ve been here for a few hours, and everyone that has come in has a skin-tone similar to mine. It’s light. Their ancestors are European. They don’t have much, if any, indigenous blood.
My gym is located in Barrio Tres Cerritos. On my walk to the gym from the bus stop, I pass houses bigger than my parent’s houes in New Berlin (no offense, mom and dad). The homes are huge. Two stories, 2-car garages, perfectly manicured lawns. I enter my gym, which is probably the most expensive gym in the city. From the moment I get off the bus until the moment I leave the gym, I only see people who look like me. They have light skin.
I went to yoga this morning at my yoga studio here and most of the women looked just like me, but most of them were blonder. BLONDER. Granted, they dye their hair, but they look nothing at all like a descendant of the indigenous groups.
When I volunteer at an English institute here, about half the students have skin as light as mine. It’s a private institute where the students’ parents A. want their child to learn English at an early age, and B. need to pay a good amount of money for the classes. They have cultural and financial capital.
When I go grocery shopping at Carrefour in the mall here, admittedly one of the more expensive grocery stores, and I look around at the people in line waiting to check out, I realize the same thing. I look pretty the same as everyone else. They are not very indigenous-looking, nor am I.
I don’t stand out.
But I was riding a bus around 9:45 on Saturday night to go meet up with a friend, and as I looked around the bus, I realized I was the lightest person on that bus by far. I stuck out. Everyone was shorter than me, and everyone had darker skin than me. When I go to the central market here and buy my fruits and veggies, almost everyone is shorter and darker than me. When I walk along Avenida San Martín, which is certainly a little rough around the edges, I grab my purse a little bit tighter. Why? Simply because I know that I stand out. The color of my skin (and my height) instantly draws attention from other people. I’m not scared, but I know that I look different, and it’s because of my skin-tone.
But the thing is, the color of my skin doesn’t just make me think.
I had a really long conversation with a friend of mine here, Miriam. Her family is mixed — partially indigenous, partially European. Her skintone is “medium,” let’s say. She told me that skin tone makes a huge difference here in Salta. The lighter skin you have, the more money you tend to have. The darker you are, the less money you tend to have. If you have light skin, you’re more likely to get hired when you apply for a job. Darker skin is a disadvantage when it comes to unemployment. And, according to my friend Leigh, who’s lived in Salta for 4 years, people from different classes here tend not to mix. Carpenters just don’t talk to professors. Mechanics aren’t friends with architects. And guess what… this also tends to correspond with the color of your skin. Now let’s turn to America — in particular, Milwaukee. During my Rotary presentation last week, I presented the following maps to my Rotarians:
The more shocking of the two follows:
In my role as an Ambassadorial Scholar, I want to… I have to… BE HONEST when it comes to America. I’m not going to sit there and tell my Rotarians that all is fine and well in the city of Milwaukee. Yes, I showed them the gorgeous lakefront, the amazing art museum, the cute boutiques, salons, and art galleries in the Third Ward, and all of the good things my Rotarians at home do for the community. But I also showed them those maps, and we had a really good discussion about race. I talked to them about crime. I talked to them about discrimination. I talked to them about foreclosures, poverty, the high school graduation rate, and how race correlates to many of those things.
Something that Luciano said continues to stick with me, two weeks after we had this discussion. He said (rough translation), “I can’t believe it. We read, we learn, we hear that in the 1950s and 1960s all of this came to an end, that things were going to be different. But here you are, now, and you say that it’s basically just the same, if not worse.” And he’s exactly right. Granted, racial segregation was by law during that time… but does this insane de facto racial segregation mean things have improved? I don’t know the answer to that. I don’t think it has. The world is so messed up. I hope that today, on this International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, we think hard about our own race, what kinds of advantages or disadvantages it brings, and what we can do to stop racial discrimination in our own communities.