“Hola, morocha”: Race and Ethnicity in Argentina

Often accompanied by a sly smile and ‘come hither’ stare, “Hola, morocha” is a greeting I hear often in Argentina. It commonly precedes a cat-call and roughly translates to “Hey, brown-skinned girl.” Anyone feel a little bothered by the bluntness? I know I did when I was jolted out of my blissful delusions of being an integrated pseudo-Argentine by a racially-charged reality check.

The first time I heard the term was in my ‘Ethnicity and Multiculturalism in Argentina’ class. My professor explained that the national narrative of Argentina was so constructed as to project an image of an all-white populace, descended from the European boats that hit the country’s shores in the late 19th and early 20th century. During this period, known as ‘The Great Wave of Immigration,’ the country’s creole political elites were eager to fashion their nascent nation into a cultural microcosm of Europe in Latin America and, accordingly, negate the existence of a sizeable indigenous and African demographic. Their social caste system predicated on exalting the European peoples has left a powerful legacy…one with which I’ve had first-hand experience.

Allow me to firstly relate that in Argentina, notions of “race,” ethnicity, and nationality are profoundly linked to phenotype, most especially skin color. On the fateful day in class when the word “morocha” entered my consciousness, I recall dispassionately taking notes on the terminology that Argentines use to racially categorize the intermediate skin colors between “white” and “black.” For example, individuals of mixed descent are known as “pardos,” among whom there are mulatos (white and black mix), mestizos (indigenous and white mix), and zambos (indigenous and black mix). “Morocho/a nation” encompasses these very individuals as well as anyone else possessing what we may playfully identify as a dulce-de-leche-like complexion.

I remember subtly smiling at how I had escaped being denominated by the color of my skin. I must just dress like such a cosmopolite that no one dares to pin me down, I arrogantly thought to myself. Well, my “woman of the world” ego was deflated soon afterwards when a man on the metro hissed “Hooola, morocha linda” at me as I walked past him. That moment anchored my realization that I had always been (and would continue to be) a subject of exoticization, I just hadn’t recognized it prior.

In public spaces like the street, bus, and train, men have attempted to arrest my attention by hazarding a guess at my nationality: “Hey, you, Brazilian! Nicaraguan! Colombian! Guatemalan!” One encounter my friends and I had outside of a restaurant with a young Argentine male was particularly telling of how, in a city where the olive-toned complexion of the Mediterranean reigns supreme, people itch to judge a book solely by its leather cover:

Argentine (to my friend): “De donde sos?”— Where are you from?
My Blonde Friend: “Los Estados Unidos.”— The United States.
Argentine (to me): “¿Y vos?”— And you?
Me: “Los Estados Unidos, también.”— The U.S., as well
Argentine: “¡Noooo, vos sos de África!”— (Incredulously) No, you’re from Africa!

I came to find out that a considerably tanned physical appearance earns one the title of “negro,” since dark skin apparently alludes to being African. When Argentines refer to someone as “el negro” (the black one), they are either commenting on said individual’s racial ancestry or the “colored” quality of their skin; that is, one does not have to have roots in the Negroid race to be identified as “el negro.”

My trip to Jujuy, a northern Argentine province where the indigenous Aymara and Quechua cultures remain relevant, further illustrated to me the curiosity of Argentina’s social constructions. Upon my arrival, I felt relieved to be able to blend in with the dark-skinned locals. I was particularly excited about not hearing the word “morocha” leave anyone’s lips for three days. While that word never surfaced, one hilarious episode of public singling out did: during an outing to a local restaurant in the town of Tilcara, the singer of a folk band took a break from his performance to turn to me and say, “Ella parece como la hija de Obama.” Translation: She looks like the daughter of Obama. He paused for me to respond to his grand inference. Though what I really wanted to do was yell out, “Yes, I’m his illegitimate one,” I shook my head and collapsed into embarrassed laughter to indicate that Sasha, Malia, and Maria were not members of a sassy sister triumvirate.

I would have expected a remark like that in Buenos Aires, but not in Jujuy, where I could have posed as that singer’s own daughter. What struck me as fascinating was how the capital city’s ideas about race and ethnicity had pervaded the perspective of a people who had long-suffered from its exclusivism: the communities of the country’s periphery have been politically and socially stigmatized by the mainstream porteño attitude that the closer one gets to a white skin-tone, the more associated with being Argentine one becomes.

In the United States, words such as “negro” or “colored” are typically cast out of national lexicon in deference to the historical struggle against white oppression; there exists an obsession with hyphenation, whereby one can meld one’s ethnic heritage with the umbrella “American” identity; and people debate the implications of replacing “black” with “African-American.” Here in Argentina, I’ve noticed that black Argentines are more frequently referred to as “descendants of Africans” instead of “African-Argentines.” In fact, many porteños deny the existence of a large number of black Argentine nationals. Once, at a spirited drum show known as La Bomba del Tiempo, an Argentine standing next to me in the crowd pointed at the single black person in the band and postulated, “He is most definitely not Argentine.”

His conclusion about the lanky man with braided hair and superior drumming abilities is representative of how a culture of racialization based on skin color actually results in the invisibilization of select social groups. Dark-skinned people of varying ethnic backgrounds, such as Bolivian and Paraguayan immigrants, often get roped in under the blanket category of “negros.” In my case, the tendency to read my skin color and assume my story (i.e. box me into the category of a morocha from Africa or some select part of Latin America) renders invisible the significance of my facial features, form of speech and cultural predilections.

When I elected Argentina as my Study Abroad destination, I envisioned it to be a melting pot that mirrored the U.S. with its rich tradition of immigration and cultural syncretism. I have now put that theory to bed. Buenos Aires is a melting pot chiefly of European ethnicities and relates to the rest of Argentina’s provinces much like oil does to vinegar. While I was wrong in my hypothesis that Argentina was the site of grand ethnic and cultural mixing between those of indigenous, African and European heritages, I could never have predicted how my identity as an Indian-American foreign exchange student would enrich my understanding of the dynamics that color Argentina’s social and cultural landscape.

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  • “Buenos Aires is a melting pot only of European ethnicities and relates to the rest of Argentina’s provinces much like oil does to vinegar.” I wouldn’t be too sure about the US as well. It’s just more hushed up. But so far no “black” politician that I know of has truly come from the African-American population. Neither Colin Powell, Condoleeza Rice or Obama fall into that category but rather are either racially mixed or have not been into an African-American family in the first place or were not raised in one. This bigotry is only beaten by the fact that the US populace would rather vote a purportedly “black” MAN into the highest office than e.g. a white woman …

  • So well written- like an intricately woven piece of Kanjeepuran silk saree..the silk thread..mixed with golden brocade..and hand knotted tassels..a complex idea so beautifully said..you are truly talented!

  • Reminds me of a conversation I had with one of my friends in Singapore who travels quite extensively. He was saying that there was a big difference between Brazil and Argentina in the way they view and integrate ‘colour’, Argentinians being much ‘pro white’ and ‘arrogant’about their European ancestry. Quite in contrast to their perceived global image of ‘multicultural melting pot’

  • Can i add that the meaning of the term “morocha” usually refers to dark hair, not skin? “Rubia”, “Colorada” and “Morocha” usually refer to hair color, not ethnicity. Black argentines are very few, it’s a novelty seeing one walking down the street, because he/she stands out from the rest of the population (thhat might be the reason some argentines might think this person is from somewhere else, like Brazil or US, they are rare here, thus, very exotic for us). We have, mostly, mediterranean looking people (italian, spanish) or nordic (from german heritage) and we also have many argentine natives…or immigrants from our neighbor countries. From 10 people in the street, you usually count 3 or 4 with darker skin.

  • Very informative, I truly enjoyed your writing piece, thank you for sharing your experience. I came across your writing as I searched for the meaning of the word “morocha” as I had been recently called by a friend. I have heard that Argentines do tend to “look down” on those with darker skin tones, so your writing piece really shone light on that subject, well for me.

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