Professor rethinking African experience in Latin America

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Like many other Argentines, Paulina Alberto grew up knowing little about her country’s Black communities, which used to have their own newspapers, mutual aid societies and other community organizations.

“We were never taught about the history of people of African descent in our country at any point, from elementary school through high school,” said Alberto, who did not find out until she was in college that the history of her native country was far more nuanced than she realized. 

Alberto, professor of history and Spanish in LSA, now focuses her research on the history of African people and Afro-descendants in Brazil and Argentina. This work has served to support efforts for the visibility of communities that have been obscured by official narratives not only in her native country, but throughout the Americas and the rest of the world.

“In most Latin American countries, history in all its manifestations — from textbooks to historical representations in art, theater, literature or monuments — has played a key role in making Afro-descendant populations appear invisible,” Alberto said. “Today, history-writing can help to expose these same processes, and in turn provide new narratives about the presence and prominence of Afro-descendants in our societies.”

Paulina Alberto, professor of history and Spanish in LSA, focuses her research on the history of African people and Afro-descendants in Brazil and Argentina. (Photo courtesy of Paulina Alberto)
Paulina Alberto, professor of history and Spanish in LSA, focuses her research on the history of African people and Afro-descendants in Brazil and Argentina. (Photo courtesy of Paulina Alberto)

The daughter of an Argentine diplomat, Alberto lived in New York as a young child but returned to Argentina at age 9 after the fall of the dictatorship in 1983. There she completed primary school and attended part of secondary school. Years later she realized that, despite the country’s return to democracy, there were still traces of an authoritarian and homogenizing nationalism in the ways Argentine history was taught.

As an undergraduate student, Alberto studied the intersection of history and literature, with a focus on the cultural history of the British and French empires. Within this context, she began to deepen her studies on the African diaspora in Latin America.

While in graduate school, she began studying the culture and dynamics of the Black diaspora in Latin America and the Caribbean, especially Brazil and Argentina, topics she continues to research as a professor in the U-M departments of History and Romance Languages and Literatures.

In bringing together these themes of racialization, culture and power, Alberto seeks to write histories beyond those “of men, generals and wars” that she was taught in elementary school. Within the last decade in particular, she has begun to approach racial ideologies as stories: “racial storytelling” about national identities.

“Thinking about ideologies of race as narratives allows us to engage a variety of sources, such as works of art, literature, or history textbooks, because all of these sources have a plot, a story they are trying to tell,” Alberto said.

“In my classes on race, history, and narratives, I have the opportunity to really delve into that particular method. It’s a very effective way to talk with students about the reach that these ideologies have in our societies.”

In History 101, “What is History?” for instance, Alberto utilizes these methods to highlight the importance of history as a tool for critical thinking about the past and present. Rather than focusing directly on a particular country, region, or time period, the course centers themes of race, racialization, ethnicity, culture and power.

In a course called “Stories and Histories of Race in Argentina and Brazil,” Alberto also explores the intersections between narrative and race. The class is taught in Spanish and Portuguese, with English being used to discuss theoretical and historiographical texts in greater depth.

“To me, it is crucial that discussions of Afro-Latin American history cut across the linguistic barriers of Spanish and Portuguese,” she said, adding that teaching about Afro-Latin America must include Brazil which has the largest population of Afro-descendants outside of Africa in the world. 

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As part of this desire to place the histories and stories of different Afro-descendant populations throughout the Americas in conversation with each other, Alberto has been working to translate the writings of Black thinkers in Latin America for readers in the United States.

With the new book “Voices of the Race: Black Newspapers of Latin America (1870-1960),” she and her co-editors George Reid Andrews and Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof hope to facilitate inter-American conversations with a focus on Black intellectual production from Cuba, Uruguay, Argentina and Brazil. The book will be published in late 2022.

“The discussions and debates in the United States about the need to rethink Latinidad and the meanings of “Latinx” so that they centrally include Blackness and Afro-descendants are directly tied to the struggle for revisibilization of Afro-descendants in Latin America,” Alberto said.

The dominant “racial narrative” in Argentina is that there were Afro-Argentines during the colonial period and 19th century, but that they disappeared when they died in wars or epidemics — which ravaged the poor neighborhoods of Buenos Aires — and were eventually engulfed by the large wave of European migrants. According to this account of Argentine history, there were no Afro-descendents in the 20th century. 

Alberto turns this story on its head in her book published earlier this year, “Black Legend: The Many Lives of Raúl Grigera and the Power of Racial Storytelling in Argentina.” In it, Alberto analyzes a rich collection of racial stories about a famous Afro-Argentine man from the first half of the 20th century, uncovering how Afro-Latinos in Argentina have been erased from national narratives or visibilized as stereotypical caricatures only through defamatory accounts.

By telling a new story that centers people of African descent and racial issues in a country that is supposedly “race-free” or even entirely “white,” Alberto says, she hopes to “to bring readers new ways of thinking about the history of the African Americas, or diasporic history, from the South.”

Q&A

What memorable moment in the workplace stands out? 

Toward the beginning of my first semester at U-M, I received the news that a friend had died suddenly. I had to cancel one session of my favorite class, an upper-level Spanish seminar, to attend her funeral. I felt badly canceling — the class was just finding its pace, developing that elusive camaraderie in which students talk to each other rather than to the professor. But I figured they’d be happy for a day off. When I returned, I was stunned to find that they had decided to gather in my absence. They did the readings, they talked for 90 minutes, they wrote up notes. It taught me to always look out for opportunities to let students rise to the occasion.

What can’t you live without? 

I keep getting drawn to tech gadgets that simulate, and promise to improve upon, the experience of writing by hand — tablets with a stylus, apps that look like your favorite grid, dot or lined notebook, note-taking programs that recognize your handwriting and promise to back everything up across 20 devices. But I always come back to pen and paper.

Name your favorite spot on campus. 

The Nickels Arcade. It’s an architectural gem, I love the eclectic stores, and there’s great coffee.

What inspires you? 

A long walk through my neighborhood, or my neighboring neighborhood, or the Arboretum.

What are you currently reading?

“The Phantom Tollbooth,” by Norton Juster. I loved this book as a child but had mostly forgotten about it until my daughter brought it home from school recently. I borrowed her copy and was thrilled to rediscover it, now from a wholly new perspective as an educator.

Who had the greatest influence on your career path?

My parents. My mother, one of the first women in the Argentine foreign service, paved the way for me to imagine, as a young girl, that I could have a challenging and engaging career in the public eye. My father, who did not have the chance to go to college, steered me in that direction very early on.

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