I've devoted a considerable amount of time on this blog writing about my life in Buenos Aires, sharing my experiences as a black man in a city where there are so few of them, talking about how for better (it gets me laid) or worse (it gets me laid), to be a black American man in Argentina is to be twice an outsider. They can stare if they want to and ask obnoxious questions, but all things considered, I've never felt under suspicion or under siege in BA because of the color of my skin. I can not say the same thing about my life in the United States.
But yesterday I was presented with an uncomfortable glimpse into the Argentine psyche and how Argentines view anyone who's not Argentine. I was having a meeting with the man behind one of BA's hottest new gay parties when I mentioned a friend of mine who is a bartender at the club where his bash is held. I repeated my friend's name several times without seeing even a glimmer of recognition. "He's from Mexico; he works at the outside bar," I said, expecting those two specifics to finally do the trick. They did. "Ah, The Mexican!" he said, suddenly coming to life. "I didn't know him by his name. We just call him 'The Mexican.' "
He was smiling wide. He seemed a little embarrassed because he hadn't known my friend's name, not because he calls him "The Mexican." Clearly, he wasn't trying to offend. But he kind of did. It's bad enough that he didn't even bother to learn the name of a colleague. But fueling the fire, to him, my friend wasn't even a person; he was just a geographical location (and one, I am well aware, that is looked down on my many snobby Argentines). What if, in some other context, one employee referred to another as "The Black" or "The Gay"? How would that go over?
Not very well, I suspect. Despite the negative effect of his words, they didn't make me think any less of him. Unlike the redneck who tosses around the word "nigger" like a grenade, he didn't mean any harm. In BA, such borderline racist talk is as common as tacky tango joints, but generally, they are not intended to demean or humiliate. As Buenos Aires continues as a top South American tourist destination, this is just the porteño way of restoring order to a rapidly changing universe of increasingly varying ethnicities.
When porteños ask me if it's true, the myth about black men in bed, many of them still don't get how insulting the question is. (Neither did Sophia Petrillo, who asked that very same thing on an episode of The Golden Girls, but her character was pretty much based on inappropriate remarks.) They don't understand why I blow them off when they ask me about the size of my penis (I was out with my friend Rob, who is also black, this past weekend, and he actually overheard two guys say, "Hay dos pijas negras!" or, as one might say in English: "Two black dicks!") or why it turns me off when someone courts me with the line, "Siempre ha estado mi fantasia estar con un hombre como vos" (translation: "I've been fantasizing about black dick all life long -- and I can tell by that look on your face that my fantasy is not about to come true").
And ignorance is all kinds of bliss, isn't it? I don't get angry -- or even -- anymore; I just pretend like I've gone temporarily deaf. Which is what I did with the "Mexican" comment. I'm not sure if it was the product of an ingrained attitude toward certain demos, just words, or a little of both. Or maybe I'm overthinking this entire thing. After all, if I had to choose between being labeled "El Negro" or "Nigger," there'd be no contest. Now pass the malt liquor.