Chasing a Ghost: A Profile on the Elusive Carlos Alvarez Nazareno and the Invisibilized Afro Community in Buenos Aires
A conductor of sorts, Carlos Álvarez Nazareno in action is a sight to see. The manner in which he draws attention from a crowd is so skillful it can only be likened to that of a professional performer, yet so dispositional, the attention can’t help but be followed by respect. His way of speaking is in no way cacophonous, a conductor knows just how to control their instruments. On the contrary, Carlos has a very smooth manner of speaking, his cadence incorporating a water-like lull, so that his voice carries the listener up and down to the rhythmic beat of his bobbing intonation. At this particular meeting for Agrupacion Xango, an organization made for and by Afro-descendants in Argentina (including Afro-Argentines, African Americans, and Afro-Latin@s living in Argentina), the respect he elicited from the members would have had any unbeknownst guest assume him the president instead of the general coordinator.
Halfway through the meeting a man — dark, wide shouldered, and soft smiled — came through the door. Carlos introduced this man to the attendees and prompted him to speak on the precarious state of the Senegalese community in Buenos Aires. He informed the room of that local police are making it more and more difficult for them to work, most usually street vending, and with their lack of lawyers, there is a widespread yearning within their community to move to Chile. This policial abuse is just one of the many facets of discrimination against black faces within the country. The various forms of racism are both implicit and explicit, micro and macro, whispered and shouted. Alongside institutional racism they manifest in fear, hypersexualization of black women, and invisibilization.
The Senegalese story sparked a dialogue about the abuse the community is facing by the police which mirrored a very similar conversation witnessed by New York University student in attendance, Michelle Jones. She expressed that Carlos “favors a more forward approach to activism,” which is exactly what she saw when she attended a march on El Día Internacional de Lucha contra el Racismo, or the International Day of the Fight Against Racism. Carlos, as well as the Xango collective and other members of the Afro-Argentine community, made an act of denouncement in front of El Congreso Buenos Aires. She bore witness as Nazareno informed the crowd about the case of Massar Ba, a local Senegalese activist murdered on March 7th 2016. Ba was found by a neighbor with multiple injuries to the head, hip, and lower abdomen, screaming “they want to kill me”. Despite the gravity of his injuries the police arrived late, and only to call an ambulance. There was virtually no investigation and no records were taken of the crime scene. “The speech was so powerful,” Michelle recounted, “as an activist myself, he executes exactly what the community needs and what I hope to eventually be doing too.”
Back at the meeting, the dialogue was followed by plans for a group field trip to the United States and a discussion on Xango’s possible collaboration with New York University to teach its members English. He managed to pass the floor back and forth between members and himself seamlessly, like a game of tennis. As the match came to its end, Carlos gathered his coat and bag, his next stop the March for Marijuana.
After this meeting, I found out just how difficult it is to track Nazareno down. From council to march, meeting to protest, he keeps himself busy with activism. Between this and his job in the government, little is more difficult than setting up a meeting with him. Sunday he was busy. Monday he was so busy he couldn’t make the scheduled meeting. Tuesday, he had no free time until 7.30 pm, and still couldn’t make it until 8:00. He entered the restaurant in a calm but brisk manner, with his dreadlocks tied neatly so as to fall as one raven wave down the small of his back, managing to elicit interest from the entirety of the café. Yet, the steady stares he received could not solely be attributed to his poise. A common occurrence in Argentina for those with black skin, Carlos knows firsthand, as a human rights leader and a black man himself, the struggle of being Afro in Buenos Aires. This case in point, is one of invisibilization, or erasure, of those of African descent, resulting in the starring, as the black presence is underestimated, and thus over-examined.
Carlos’s niceties were warm, but brief, as he chose to immediately delve into the topic of police brutality before even settling into a seat. He had spent the entirety of his weekend petitioning for the freedom of 18 Senegalese immigrants that had been wrongfully handcuffed and detained by the police for over 36 hours without food or water, solely for street vending. His passion in recounting the story made it very clear that his involvement in the community took precedence over any other facet of our meeting. Before he even opened his menu, Carlos spent many minutes describing the case of the detained Senegalese, and after opening it, many minutes discussing the current racial political climate.“There is a large level of violence and mistreatment from the police” he asserted, before ordering a cafecito and muffin.
Nazareno is a native to bordering Uruguay. Born in Ansina, a “traditional” afro-uruguayan barrio in the capital city of Montevideo, his family changed locations to another neighborhood in 1976 due to displacement by dictator Juan María Bordaberry Arocena. In 1983, he moved to Palermo, Uruguay to begin school. At the age of 18, he met a young activist that introduced him to a group of black youth working to better their community. And with this moment, he began to familiarize himself with the fight against racism.
“My blackness was never a conversation point during my childhood,” he said. “There is a higher density of black people in Uruguay, the population is 10% black. Therefore we more of a visibilization. We have created such important things, such as candombe music. Racism and discrimination are much more explicit here in Argentina”.
Fast forward from that initial moment to the age of 41, he has two daughters and resides in Buenos Aires. While he maintains a strong link to Uruguay and his family, most members now having converted to activists himself, he shows no qualms about being here in Argentina. “I started a life here, have two daughters here, I have no regrets about working for the freedom of marginalized people from Argentina,” he asserts.
This is, of course, in addition to his day job . He works in the nation’s human rights secretariat, focusing on the Afro perspective. While this description aligns perfectly with his personal objectives, some tension does arrive. Nazareno works under the office of Mauricio Macri, the current president of Argentina. A right wing post-neoliberal, Macri backs policies that many Argentines feel do not benefit them, usually Argentines that are not white. This other side of Carlos professional life, fairly adverse to his progressive sentiments, seem to be the only open criticism of Carlos’s within the community.
“How can I trust someone that works for such a, oppressive government?” questions Gabrielle Pita at a meeting for DIAFAR, another local Afro-Argentine group. During conversation about local race relations, I brought up the steps Carlos had been taking to better them, causing him to express his displeasure with Carlos’s seemingly “double” position, stating how no-one who opposed the presidency could work in such proximity to it.
“He helps them plan events, implement policy, do you think Malcolm X would have done something like that?” he exclaims with a tight tone of mistrust and betrayal. Pita closes his argument with a note of apprehension, informing me to take Carlos’s words with a grain of salt. “He’s influenced by money, wherever it goes he will”.
Carlos voices his disdain for his job himself. “I don’t believe in this government,” he said. In fact, during the election of 2015, he was in support of Daniel Scioli, Mauricio Macri’s Justicialist opponent. “The government has the responsibility to work for the Afro-community,” he stated, but feels as though it doesn’t, labelling it a “contradictory” state. At the same time, he holds no shame or bashfulness about his position within it. “I believe that it is my job to help the state remain mindful of public policies for the Afro community and to ensure that they create spaces for Afro-descendant inclusion,” he said. Nazareno does not limit his activism to respectability parameters for his place of work either. Carlos spends much of his time calling out the state directly. “Being a part of the secretariat doesn’t stop me from denouncing the government’s wrongdoings.”
The tension doesn’t stop on a professional level for Carlos. A gay man, he often times finds himself working alongside communities that might not be receptive to his orientation. “Especially with the Muslim African Immigrants, the men might have a homophobic perspective”, he explained sans an ounce of self pity, “but once working with me, they think nothing of it and respect who I am because they understand the different contexts.” He highlights the tendencies between these two communities to undermine one another. “The white gay community can be racist, xenophobic, and classist while the Afro community can be homophobic,” he said. Yet, Nazareno maintains the ideals of intersectionality, a term he continually became excited to use, and of different marginalized communities coming together in order to achieve an overarching freedom. “My identities are nothing more than things that strengthen me” he asserted. By this time, he had just unwrapped his muffin.