BUENOS AIRES — Argentina is one of the most liberal countries in Latin America and the world, where abortion and same-sex marriage are legal and nonbinary identities recognized. These battles have been won thanks to years of activism from different militant groups. Yet, despite these progressive policies, structural racism and colorism persist.
Wari Alfaro, an artist and photographer, has been a member of Identidad Marrón Collective, a group of artists, educators, and activists who identify as marrones or marronxs since it began in 2006. The word marrón does not translate exactly to the color “brown” in this context, but is used as an umbrella term to talk about people with brown skin who have Indigenous features and are the subject of discrimination and racism in South America. Alfaro knew that the social violence, micro-aggressions, racial slurs, and negative stereotypes of which they were the target were not just isolated events. “Racism in Argentina, but also parts of Mexico, Perú, and Bolivia, operates over people of Indigenous descent or with Indigenous features, and it intersects with social class,” Alfaro explained to Hyperallergic. “Visually and conceptually, our color is already constructed by perceptions of danger and poverty which are linked to our unequal treatment, the negation of rights or use of violence against our bodies.”
Argentina continues to sustain a myth of being a “White” country in South America. A general argument I heard growing up in Buenos Aires, whenever I mentioned racism, was that Argentina didn’t have communities of Afro-Latinos. Because of that, racism was not an issue, as it was in the United States. But if that was true, why, I wondered as a child, was the word negro in Spanish used constantly as a racial slur toward people of African and Indigenous descent?
Images of White people have dominated the media, educational narratives have erased the massacre of Black and Indigenous people, and immigration policies have favored Europeans since the country’s foundation, all of which have contributed to this myth. “A lot of us had already started questioning the lack of Indigenous and marrón identities in progressive spaces and realized most people there did not look like us,” says Alfaro, who also coordinates the project Retratos Marrónes (“Brown” Portraits). A graduate of the Gender Studies, Politics, and Participation program at Universidad Nacional de General Sarmiento, Alfaro is in charge of communications for the women’s secretariat at the Municipality of Pilar in Buenos Aires. “The spaces we are occupying today have been dreamt about for years, and we’ve had to work double and triple to get into them.”
When the school year started this March in Argentina, artist and photographer Javier Corbalán, a member of Identidad Marrón from Salta-Argentina, went out to take pictures of students. Corbalán works for Salta’s newspaper, El Tribuno, and has won various awards for photographing this region for 15 years. With his images, he aims to document the everyday uniqueness of the Andes territory and his community. This time, he decided to tell the story of a six-year-old boy starting first grade at the local public school with 1,400 students in one of Salta’s most populated neighborhoods. The boy’s parents, who work at the city’s waste disposal site, proudly walked him to school.
“This is our people, who have been invisibilized for a long time,” says Corbalán, “and today, to be able to show a marrón person walking their son to the first day of public school, the boy smiling, wearing his new shoes and his modern haircut, it is very exciting to me.” Corbalán explained how Salta, a province in northwest Argentina, is rooted in both its own traditions and coloniality: “The images on the media here are predominately White and very far away from what a salteño looks like.” Corbalán has also documented climate change events such as wildfires, droughts, deforestation, and floods, along with carnival and religious celebrations, always revealing a human side of strength and beauty.
The Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Buenos Aires is one of Argentina’s first national museums. To this day, it holds a painting from 1892 that is considered the first artwork to inaugurate the history of Argentine art and justify Indigenous extermination. Painted by a White artist, Angel Della Valle, La Vuelta del Malón (The Return of the Indian Raid) shows a group of Indigenous “savages” robbing a church and taking a White woman with them. Since then, images of Black, Indigenous, and marrón people have been othered by the White gaze. Alfaro works to reclaim visual history by using their own gaze to make portraits of other marrones, as well as self-portraits.
“What would have happened if iconic artworks had our color? If we could have seen more images with our bodies, photographed with our cameras, with our hands, our gaze, our own decisions. Would our lives have been configured differently? And what do we want to say to the incoming generations of marrones?” Alfaro asks in their work.
When Argentina won the soccer World Cup last December, and people took to the streets to celebrate, Alfaro went out to capture images around the city of Buenos Aires. Camera in hand, they snapped pictures and felt overjoyed “to see people who looked like me smiling. It is something you just don’t see much,” they explained. “Usually, our faces are associated with images that represent poverty, ignorance, delinquency, thousands of things except smiling faces that celebrate.”
As more artists, activists, and educators have found each other, the collective has grown to more than 100 people. In 2021 the book Marrones Escriben was published, compiled and edited by Florencia Alvarado, América Canela, and Alejandro Mamani, with editorial support from Pablo Cossio and Ana Vivaldi. Created in collaboration between Identidad Marrón, the University of Manchester project “Cultures of Anti-Racism in Latin America,” the University of San Martin (UNSAM), and the University of Buenos Aires (UBA), the book is the product of years of workshops, conversations, and interventions in public spaces. Its critical essays, art, and photography ask about the presence or absence of marrones in different spaces.
How many are we? What is a mirror? What color is the Buenos Aires conurbation? And the prisons? And the shantytowns? Where are we? Where do you see your color? Who are your mirrors? Where are we in the art books? Where are we? In what kind of images? (translation by Ana Vivaldi)
“Slowly, Argentina is starting to give more voice to issues of racism,” says Alfaro, who explained how the term was not discussed in school, the media, or academic settings until recent years. Today, the question is at least installed in public discourse. The work of collective members is hugely diverse and tells stories of their experiences from different parts of Argentina and Latin America.
Alfaro and Corbalán agree that, in a country whose systemic racism has all but erased Indigenous and mixed-race narratives, the work it takes to create, re-appropriate, archive, and preserve is vast. Corbalán is planning to donate all of his images to a Memory Project in Salta, and wants to incorporate AI practices into his work. Both artists want to continue creating new cultural productions from a marrón perspective. Alfaro is eager to capture more images of desire, embodiment, and marrones existing in the world. They add, “There is just so much work to do around creating those representations that we don’t see yet because so much isn’t there.”
All interviews were conducted in Spanish and translated into English by the author.
Editor’s Note, 5/8/2023, 6:39 pm EDT: Javier Corbalán’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this article. This has since been corrected.