How Argentina became white

Apropos of my skepticism of Census projections of 2050 demographic balances, there's a new paper out on Argentina which is relevant. Here's Wikipedia on Argentina's self-conception:

As with other areas of new settlement such as Canada, Australia and the United States, Argentina is considered a country of immigrants. Most Argentines are descended from colonial-era settlers and of the 19th and 20th century immigrants from Europe, and 86.4% of Argentina's population self-identify as European descent. An estimated 8% of the population is mestizo, and a further 4% of Argentines were of Arab or East Asian heritage. In the last national census, based on self-identification, 600,000 Argentines (1.6%) declared to be Amerindians (see Demographics of Argentina for genetic studies on the matter). Following the arrival of the initial Spanish colonists, over 6.2 million Europeans emigrated to Argentina from the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries Argentina was second only to the United States in the number of European immigrants received, and at the time, the national population doubled every two decades mostly as a result.

In contrast to Mexico, which is self-consciously a synthetically a "mestizo" nation which conceives of itself as a cultural and biological synthesis between European and native, I think it is fair to portray Argentineans as a settler society of Europeans in their self-image. As I have said before, this mythos goes a bit too far. The median Argentinean probably has enough indigenous ancestry to qualify as a Native American tribal member in the United States by the rules of blood quantum (on the order of 20-25%). Here's a multi-dimensional genomic window into this reality, Inferring Continental Ancestry of Argentineans from Autosomal, Y-Chromosomal and Mitochondrial DNA:

We investigated the bio-geographic ancestry of Argentineans, and quantified their genetic admixture, analyzing 246 unrelated male individuals from eight provinces of three Argentinean regions using ancestry-sensitive DNA markers (ASDM) from autosomal, Y and mitochondrial chromosomes. Our results demonstrate that European, Native American and African ancestry components were detectable in the contemporary Argentineans, the amounts depending on the genetic system applied, exhibiting large inter-individual heterogeneity. Argentineans carried a large fraction of European genetic heritage in their Y-chromosomal (94.1%) and autosomal (78.5%) DNA, but their mitochondrial gene pool is mostly of Native American ancestry (53.7%); instead, African heritage was small in all three genetic systems ( Population substructure in Argentina considering the eight sampled provinces was very small based on autosomal (0.92% of total variation was between provincial groups, p = 0.005) and mtDNA (1.77%, p = 0.005) data (none with NRY data), and all three genetic systems revealed no substructure when clustering the provinces into the three geographic regions to which they belong. The complex genetic ancestry picture detected in Argentineans underscores the need to apply ASDM from all three genetic systems to infer geographic origins and genetic admixture. This applies to all worldwide areas where people with different continental ancestry live geographically close together.

I've outlined a reasonably plausible model for how this situation came out before. Strong male bias in European settlement and immigration. This would naturally result in the persistence of maternal indigenous ancestry, while at the same time contributing to the dominance of European ancestry. Dienekes points out:

European ancestry in mtDNA (44.3%) and Y-chromosome (94.1%) gives an estimate of 69.2%, compared to 78.6% for autosomal markers. Native S. American in mtDNA (53.7%) and Y-chromosome (4.9%) gives an estimate of 29.3%, compared to 17.28% for autosomal markers. Finally, African mtDNA (2%) and Y-chromosomes (0.9%) gives an estimate of 1.45% compared to 4.15% for the autosomal markers.

If one assumes serial matings between European men and mixed women the uniparental lineages would underestimate the total ancestral contribution of Europeans, as the "mixed" women themselves progressively became more European in ancestry. As for the African lineages, the proportions are small, but one could envisage scenarios whereby slave women have mixed-race children, and for whatever reason their sons marry out and reproduce to a greater extent than their daughters. This would eliminate African mtDNA from the population, but maintain the total ancestral contribution.

Let's see how the sample above relates to other world populations:


The people of Argentina are mostly European in ancestry, so these results match our expectation. Now let's visualize it in another way:


The Structure bar plot is small, but you can see the intra-population variance among Argentineans. A substantial proportion of the population of Argentina arrived within the last 100 years. But, a far smaller number of Argentineans have only ancestry from within the last 100 years. In other words, to have exclusively grandparents or great-grandparents who were only immigrants or only the children of immigrants must be relatively rare, looking at the detectable proportion of indigenous ancestry across most of the population. Since Argentina was a mixed-race society before mass immigration, as long as the roots of any given individual goes back to the period before mass immigration than it is likely that they will have some non-European ancestry.

Of course this doesn't really change anything. I have known of individuals who look European with less than 25% Native American ancestry who identify as Native American. I have known individuals who show their Native American ancestry on hindsight who don't identify as such. To say that racial identity is a social construction is ludicrous on the boundaries. An blonde Swede would not pass for a Sinhala. But there are plenty of gray lands in between, and the populations of Latin America often inhabit those domains. Someone who in Brazil identifies as white could be identified as African American in the United States. Someone whose forebears were part of the white racial aristocracy of Cuba two generations ago may now self-identify as a Person of Color in the United States (while at the same time being a participant in the racial discrimination which Afro-Cubans still suffer within the greater Cuban community.

The relevance for the United States is clear. I think the Census projections underplay the likely role of admixture in "whitening" the population. Though white-black biracial actors can not plausibly play white characters in American culture, white-Asian actors do. Those of partial Hispanic ancestry have long passed for their career's sake (and sometimes later come back out when social norms changed). Therefore, I think America may have a non-Hispanic white majority just a little longer in its own mind than what the genes and projections might tell us....

(the countervailing trend would be the tendency of people will little, or rumored, Native American ancestry to identify as Native American)

Citation: Annals of Human Genetics doi:10.1111/j.1469-1809.2009.00556.x


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The Argentinians I've met at scientific conferences have appeared to be European, whereas the soccer players I see on TV often have a discernible Amerindian inheritance.

By bioIgnoramus (not verified) on 17 Dec 2009 #permalink

Actually,Razib, some "African-American"actors (via the one drop rule)have portrayed White characters in American films and television, as a quick look at the bios of Rashida Jones and Jennifer Beals will quickly demonstrate.
However, as both actresses amply prove, a Black actor must be very "White looking" for this to take place. Indeed, I would argue that Beals, at least, is more "Black looking" than, say, Keanu Reeves and Jennifer Tilly are "Asian looking."

yeah, i was gonna add an addendum with those 3 specific actors! i think it proves my point though. also, jones is triracial. quincy jones has native american ancestry.

Sorry, that should have read that Beals is less "Black looking" than Reeves and Jennifer Tilly are "Asian looking."

I've never been outside of Buenos Aires metro, so can't say anything about the rest 75% of the country. Just judging from phenotypes, my estimate would be (will look up DNA numbers in your text later): about 30% are clear-cut Europeans. A good half of them would look considerably "whiter" than your average Madrid or Rome inhabitant. Then there is about 25% of clear cut Indians without any obvious admixture. The rest are, without a doubt and regardless of how they self-identify.

Also, on the streets of Buenos Aires, there are more Ashkenazi Jews in yarmulkes than people with obvious Arabic features.

Re: bioIgnoramus. As far as scientists are concerned, my experience is the same. In the same vein, "suits" in Buenos Aires are overwhelmingly white.

By Nanonymous (not verified) on 17 Dec 2009 #permalink

Damn, the sentence in my post above somehow got truncated. Should be:
"The rest are, without a doubt and regardless of how they self-identify, mestizos".

Now that I looked at the figures above, the crude phenotypical observations seem to be roughly consistent with DNA analysis.

By Nanonymous (not verified) on 17 Dec 2009 #permalink

True. I would suspect that people of European (particularly non-Mediterranean European) descent are overrepresented among the upper classes in Argentina, and people with Amerindian ancestry and (to a lesser extent) Iberian or southern Italian ancestry are underrepresented.

As for Jennifer Beals, I had always assumed she was Italian or Greek.

For the proud people of Argentina and Uruguay, the fact that they are half natives on their mother's side is surprising. The study does not reflect the typical porteno's self image, and I assume that the study has included large rural populations in the provinces of the "interior". Also there is a large silent immigration from neighbouring countries (Bolivia, Paraguay) that is changing the average composition of the population. Anyway, during the next generation we shall see the number of Europeans shrinking absolutely and relatively, and Argentina becoming increasingly a mestizo country like the rest of Latin American. All this is happening without the racial neurotic anxiety that has seized American whites.

As a non-American, I remember being highly surprised to learn that Halle Berry was "black".

Now I learn that Wentworth Miller (a blue-eyed guy whose skin tone is fairer than mine) is also considered "black"!

Maybe genetic mixture tends to assimilate people into the majority, but apparently social dynamics can maintain "non-majority" status for a long time...

toto, social dynamics could create either result for Halle Berry and Wentworth Miller.

an aside: I think African Americans could be happy with the U.S.'s black and white "one drop rule." If mixed (black/white) Americans were treated differently, they likely would have become buffer race given clear preferential treatment at the expense of dark blacks.
However, because the US viewed Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Dubois, and Langston Hughes as being racially black, there was reduced division and stratification amongst "black" Americans.

Portenos are different from people in Cordoba, Rosario, Chubut etc, or even "bonaerenses" (people in the rural areas outside Buenos Aires), just like New Yorkers are different from Midwesterners or people from upstate NY.
As far as phenotype, there is some overlap between darker southern Europeans (many southern Italians and Andalusians) and more European-looking mestizos.

But there's no affirmative action in Argentina, while it's financially beneficial to identify as Hispanic in the U.S.

You get more of what you pay for, and the U.S. pays people to be Hispanic, so why wouldn't people self-identify on future Census's as Hispanic?

There are differential rates of emigration in Argentina at the moment, and for the last decade or so; anyone under thirty with a European passport (and there are *lots*, given how much of the European settlement of Argentina was Italian and Italy's heavily jus sanguinis citizenship) considered getting out, and many of them did, and are still doing so.

There used to be an African-Argentinian community but it got wiped out by yellow fever in the early 20th century.

I don't see the relevance to the US, which has a large and politically powerful African-derived community. Unless their birthrate declines to below replacement level which is always a possibility.

As for the low number of blacks in Argentina I remember three theories:
1.- They were never many here. In times of slavery Argentina was a very poor country with no plantations for the slaves to work in. So the few ones that were brought here were for domestic service and only rich people could afford them. so they were few.
2.- There were plenty of them but males died because they were sent to fight in the independence, civilian and other wars and females mixed with the rest of the population.
3.- There were many but they died because of the cholera and yellow fever epidemics in mid 19th century.

By Juan Carlos (not verified) on 29 Jan 2010 #permalink