The Black Dandy of Buenos Aires Racial Fictions and the Search for Raúl Grigera
A mysterious staple of Buenos Aires nightlife in the 1910s and 20s, Raúl Grigera was an audacious Afro-Argentine dandy, an eccentric bohemian icon, a man who called himself el murciélago (the bat). Paulina L. Alberto examines the racial stories told by photographs, comic strips, and newspaper articles about a person many knew only as “el negro Raúl”, searching for the life behind the legend.
May 31, 2023
In an old wooden card catalog that no longer stands in Argentina’s National Archive, under the entry titled “negros”, there was, for many years, an index card for someone called “el negro Raúl”, or Black Raúl. I happened upon that card, and the collection of photographs to which it pointed, in 2010 while searching for sources for a twentieth-century history of Argentina’s African-descended population.
I had not expected to find much. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, people of African descent made up a substantial portion of the population of the territory that would become Argentina: more than thirty percent of the inhabitants of Buenos Aires, the city of my birth, and over fifty percent of some provinces to its northwest. But over the course of the twentieth century, most Argentines came to believe that our nation no longer had a Black population. At the dawn of the twentieth century (so the story goes), the last descendants of Argentina’s enslaved Africans had succumbed to the combined effects of warfare, disease, and intermixture with White immigrants, “disappearing” from what became a thoroughly White citizenry.1
Yet “el negro Raúl”, the Black man whose image developed before me across eleven striking photographs, was clearly a twentieth-century figure. In one arresting studio photograph taken in his youth, he poses in black coattails and silk waistcoat, a walking cane in one hand and a luminous white magnolia on his lapel. In other images, an older incarnation of the same man, cocooned in ragged overcoats, walks the city streets shadowed by the police or shelters uneasily in doorways. In another series, an even older “negro Raúl”, his legs bowed by age but his face beaming for the camera, strolls near the entryway to some sort of institutional building, assisted by men in white coats. I could see from the pencil markings and the snippets of newspaper articles pasted on the backs of the photographs that his full name was Raúl Grigera and that he had been famous — so famous that photographers and journalists sought him out over many decades to tell his story. But who was “el negro Raúl”? And what had made him famous?
I pulled the thin threads of information dangling from these photos, and hundreds of stories came tumbling forth. Thanks to traditional historical sleuthing and the marvel of text-searchable books and periodicals, I was able to collect more than 280 published textual and visual sources on “el negro Raúl”, as well as several more unpublished photographs. This corpus spans more than a century: from Raúl’s first print appearance in 1912, interleaved among coverage of the sinking Titanic, to 2011, when the local press mentioned him in relation to the United Nations’ declaration of the “International Year for People of African Descent”, and beyond. It comprises genres from across elite and popular culture — newspaper and magazine articles, plays, poems, songs, comic art, photographs, portraiture, films, novels, essays, histories, memoirs, city and neighborhood chronicles, and blog posts. Its creators were mostly Porteños (residents of Buenos Aires) from a variety of social backgrounds, political persuasions, and degrees of renown in the city’s intellectual and creative circles. Almost all these chroniclers of “el negro Raúl” were men, and except for one African American traveler, all were people considered White by Argentine racial norms.
Yet it quickly became apparent that this profusion of sources offered no straightforward answer to the questions of who “el negro Raúl” was and what made him famous. What I had before me were suspiciously repetitive stories about a semi-fictional character that referred more to each other than to the life of a historical individual. Authors rarely offered citations for their accounts, breezily invoking hearsay, oral tradition, or common knowledge instead; when they did, the account cited was equally unfounded or in turn referred to yet another baseless story. More troubling still, the single story of Raúl’s life reiterated Argentina’s dominant narratives of race. Especially in retrospective or posthumous accounts, the patterned tale of his (nebulous) origins, (bizarre) rise to fame, and (inevitable, spectacular) decline and death plotted exactly onto the black legend of Afro-Argentine disappearance in circulation at least since the mid-1800s: that Argentine negros were rarities, fundamentally out of place, and well on the path to extinction. There was nothing subtle about it: the stories about “el negro Raúl” were parables — projections of one story onto another — about the inexorable demise of the Afro-Argentine population.2
Raúl’s swift ascent to spectacular fame — the rising action and climax of these tales — generated far more speculation than his nebulous origins. All accounts agree: “el negro Raúl” was famous in the 1910s and 1920s as the Black buffoon of the niños bien, the notoriously spoiled, carousing young men of the White Porteño elite. In exchange for their cast-off finery, lavish food and drink, and inclusion in their nocturnal debauchery, Raúl made himself the niños’ plaything: the willing object of sadistic practical jokes that risked dignity, life, and limb. His whole persona was a sham: the luxurious outfits on which he prided himself, in which he ostentatiously posed for the camera or paraded himself about town, were secondhand, ill-fitting, out of season. By all accounts, “el negro Raúl” was a throwback in the modern White nation, evolutionarily out of place, unable to play fairly by the rules of democracy and capitalism.
Then came the stories’ extended dénouement: Raúl’s much-anticipated decline and death. Years of easy living had taken their toll, and as his aristocratic protectors suffered through the stock market crash of 1929, they abandoned him. He became a pitiful sight, reduced to begging and wearing rags, revisiting his earlier haunts in the vain hope of handouts and sympathy. Speculations about madness became certainties once news began to circulate that Raúl was dying in a rural mental health institution. And dying, in these stories, was a protracted, iterative affair. As early as the 1930s, contemporaries declared “el negro Raúl” to be in the twilight of his life, and in the 1940s and 1950s, mistaken assertions of his death were so frequent that they became part of the story surrounding him. He was, writers joked, a dead man who kept returning to life, forcing newspapers to retract their repeated obituaries until his real death in 1955. Prominent Argentines had vigorously repeated premature assertions of Afro-Argentine decline and death since the nineteenth century; storytellers in the mid-twentieth century simply conscripted Raúl into that broader narrative. His premature death was permanently useful to tell and retell as part of a tragicomedy about the foolishness of persisting in being a Black person in a country that had outgrown them (or in its great wisdom, had arranged never to have any).
In the 1910s and 1920s, Raúl Grigera was an audacious Black dandy, an eccentric bohemian icon, a man who called himself el murciélago (the bat) — a mysterious creature of the night. Using the freedoms granted to men, he moved seamlessly among the city’s after-hours hotspots, seedy and glamorous alike: the illegal gambling dens of his working-class neighborhood, knife fights outside disreputable bars and cabarets, the foyers and plush seats of downtown theaters, and the city’s crowded dance floors, where he led revelers in tango and other African-inflected rhythms. Using his charms, physical grace, and sartorial flair, Raúl made himself the subject of scores of newspaper and magazine stories, poems, plays, and tangos. He posed for photographs, became the protagonist of the first Argentine comic strip, and had cameo appearances in early silent films. As the stories multiplied, “el negro Raúl” became a rare Afro-Argentine celebrity: a Black legend.
Sometime in the early months of 1912, or so the story goes, Raúl Grigera visited the editorial offices of the upstart magazine Fray Mocho in downtown Buenos Aires. He turned himself out impeccably for the occasion in a matching jacket and waistcoat. Playful touches took his attire from stuffy to debonair: a silky cravat plumped high under his starched collar, a creamy kerchief cascading from his breast pocket, pants cuffed with fashionable insouciance, and a fedora styled almost (so deep was the crease in its front brim) as a cowboy hat. A walking cane held at a rakish angle completed the ensemble.
Sauntering into the offices without so much as an introduction, Raúl requested a free subscription to the magazine — a “festive, literary, artistic, and current affairs” weekly. This was too much presumption from the unknown visitor, and the editorial staff told him so. But Raúl brought them up to speed: “I’m Raúl Grigera, I am el murciélago”, he announced. “But had we only known!” came the chastened reply. “How do you do, sir?” Raúl answered that he did just splendidly and, at the urging of Fray Mocho’s writers, went on to disclose some of his exploits in the city’s boisterous nightlife. So it was that in their very first issue of May 3rd, 1912, Fray Mocho published an exclusive interview with the famous murciélago, titled “A Strange Creature of the Night” (“Un raro bicho nocturno”) — the words set against an imposing black bat, wings outstretched in flight.3 This article, published when Raúl was twenty-five years old, is the first mention of him I have found in the twentieth-century print media. Hundreds more would follow.
The feature in Fray Mocho, complete with photographs, surely amplified Raúl’s fame. But it left no doubt that by 1912, he had already made a name for himself in some circles as both an enigmatic denizen of the Buenos Aires nightlife (“el murciélago”), and as visibly, unambiguously Black (the article referred to him as “el negro Raúl Grigera”). The piece disclosed the coordinates of Raúl’s favorite haunts and itineraries of leisure, repeated by legions of later storytellers and largely borne out by other sources. By day, Raúl is said to have told his interviewer, he frequented the elegant Calle Florida, where the city’s most powerful men and most stylish women strolled and patronized bars, restaurants, and cafés (like the iconic Confitería del Águila), or lounged at the palatial Jockey Club, the downtown retreat of the Porteño aristocracy. On weekends, Raúl was invited along to sumptuous villas and country homes in the tree-lined neighborhood of Belgrano or the lush town of Adrogué, just outside the city. Raúl also frequented garden-view restaurants in the parklands of Palermo, like the Hansen or the Armenonville, which attracted respectable guests by day and rowdier ones by night, when they doubled as dance halls.
Most evenings, the article claimed, Raúl joined the muchachada, the roaming bands of partying young men, at the corner of Corrientes and Esmeralda. This was the pulsing heart of the city’s nightlife: an obligatory and overcrowded intersection (before Corrientes became the wide avenue it is today) in the itineraries of nocturnal revelers. It was also not far — about ten blocks — from Raúl’s home on Calle México in a historically Afrodescendant neighborhood. On this corner, particularly favored by boisterous gangs of aristocratic niños bien, the cafés or confiterías El Guaraní, La Giralda, and the underground Royal Keller enticed clients with live music and dancing women. Along the adjacent blocks of Esmeralda, French-themed restaurants catered to rambunctious crowds into the early morning. Brothels nestled along Lavalle, parallel to Corrientes. And on Corrientes itself the hotspots of Porteño nightlife: theaters, cinemas, music halls, and cabarets, interspersed with bars and cafés offering refreshment and live entertainment.4
It was in the lobby of one of these theaters, El Nacional, that photographers for Fray Mocho found “el murciélago” on the evening of their interview. In one photo, Raúl and six other young men stand by the coat-check window holding programs for the evening’s show. Raúl, sharply dressed, a satin-lined overcoat draped over one arm and a cigarette in his free hand, grins broadly at the camera. He looks at ease.
There is an ouroboros-like quality to the earliest racial stories about Raúl. Like a serpent swallowing its tail, textual and visual images repeat and circle in on themselves, blurring any firm point of origin for these representations and the character they collectively portrayed. Similar to the racial stories from later in the century, these early accounts often appear to refer more to one another than to sightings of an actual Raúl Grigera. Yet their apparent circularity may be partly Raúl’s own doing — indirect evidence of his ability to shape his persona and its representations in the city’s popular culture.
Raúl succeeded in projecting a remarkably stable image of himself. And he did so in high-profile settings. Far from occupying the traditional spaces of servitude or entertainment expected of Afro-Porteños, Raúl ostentatiously took up space in the city’s leisure areas, from crowded bars and theaters to chic north-side streets and plazas.5 Men, women, and even children took note. In 1914, a girl named Ofelia Chesio earned a spot among the winners of a children’s drawing contest, held by the illustrated cultural magazine Caras y Caretas, with a sketch of Raúl (more children followed suit in the next few years). It depicted “El negro Raúl de paseo”, on a stroll through the city. Raúl appeared in profile wearing a checkered suit — pant cuffs emphatically rolled — a starched high collar with tie, and a fedora. His right hand grasped a pair of gloves and his trademark walking cane, his left rested in his pocket, arm akimbo, and he held his head assertively high. Here was a drawing of a Black flâneur promenading through the city so ostentatiously that children could draw him from memory, assured that he would be instantly recognized among the other familiar characters included in the drawing contest.
Had it not been for his color, he could have been mistaken for a ‘gentleman.’ A slow, deliberate gait, a black top hat, dress trousers, a double-breasted jacket or sometimes a morning coat, a thick walking cane, white or pale-yellow gloves and cravat . . . A large Cuban cigar was the final touch for this character, whose Blackness, thick lips, flat nose and tightly curled hair betrayed a direct descendant of the African race.6
Raúl, he suggests, could not be a gentleman (the English word was used) due to his extreme Blackness — it was a categorical impossibility in the eyes of White beholders. Raúl’s father’s generation had struggled with similar prejudices, excluded from Black gentlemanliness either because their efforts to dress according to norms of dignified manhood were rebuffed as “aping” of their social betters, or because successful performances of bourgeois respectability required the erasure, downplaying, or public silencing of their African descent. But Raúl’s sartorial performance was so convincing that it could momentarily confound a viewer, until the telltale signs of his Blackness “betrayed” his true identity.7
Yet Raúl may have been up to something more transgressive than attempting to pass for a proper gentleman. In these years, he posed for a photograph that would preserve his performance of fashionable flair for over a century. Of all the visual and textual sources about Raúl I have uncovered, this is the one in which his willing participation seems most apparent. The photographic collection of Argentina’s National Archive, where the print is housed, offers next to no information on its provenance.8 The stamped number on the reverse is similar to the markings on photos acquired from Caras y Caretas’ editorial archive, and the imprint left behind by a rusty paper clip suggests it may once have been attached to text (a sign of intention to publish). But I have not found the photograph in that or any other contemporaneous publications. Nor do the faint markings on the reverse indicate its date, place, or creator.
In no surviving source does Raúl speak directly about the kind of self, society, or world he hoped to inhabit or create. But the few photographs for which he posed, and his deliberate choices around his appearance, do constitute a testimony, even a theory of Black masculinity and citizenship, transmitted in the “language of clothing, image, visibility”.9 Despite later storytellers’ attempts to dismiss Raúl as a failed “secondhand dandy”, an “India-ink Brummel” (in reference to the iconic English dandy, George “Beau” Brummell), these early texts bespeak his success in cutting an impressive figure — and the studio photograph for which he posed makes this point forcefully.10 Raúl’s ability to embody cool Black elegance with the materials at hand (even or especially if they were secondhand) was a creative act of dandyism. He did not merely attempt to imitate his social betters, impersonate a gentleman, or claim the privileges of Whiteness. Instead, he deployed style and self-presentation to invent a new kind of negro. In a city where “Black gentleman” and “Black dandy” were unthinkable oxymorons, and where Black men in fine dress were read either as liveried servants or absurd, out-of-place upstarts, Raúl forced White Porteños to contend with and make sense of a flamboyant Black man who turned style into a feature of his singular brand. And not just, as his studio photograph attests, the prescribed buttoned-down style of the “gentleman”, but the more knowing, often outrageous style of the bohemian dandy.
When I first discovered these tales about “el negro Raúl”, I thought they might make for an illuminating window onto the relatively unexplored topic of racial ideologies in twentieth-century Argentina. The character they constructed, his far-reaching “narrative resonance” with Porteño audiences, offered an unusually potent lens through which to examine ideas about Whiteness and Blackness over time and across social class, political ideologies, and literary genres.11 But I quickly lost all heart for a project centered on these stories, with their gruesome deformation and muzzling of the protagonist, their perpetual restaging of his humiliation and death. The twentieth-century tales about “el negro Raúl” lay bare, with painful clarity, the raw racism and White supremacy so often ignored or dismissed by Argentines. But by taking only those stories as my subject, I, as yet another White Argentine narrator of Raúl’s life, would simply have amplified their power, conceding to the character storytellers had constructed and to their conceit (in the end, a provocation) that it was “impossible” to know anything outside its bounds. I chose not to use “el negro Raúl” as a lens through which to peer at something else. I decided instead to try to reconstruct Raúl Grigera’s life as lived in dialogue both with stories about his character and larger narratives of Blackness and Whiteness in Argentina. This multigenerational history of Argentine Blackness and of Black Argentina, with Raúl Grigera at its center, was the one worth telling.
Excerpted and adapted from Black Legend: The Many Lives of Raúl Grigera and the Power of Racial Storytelling in Argentina by Paulina L. Alberto. Copyright © 2022 Paulina L. Alberto. Published by Cambridge University Press and reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.
Paulina L. Alberto is Professor of African and African American Studies and of History at Harvard University. She is a historian of Afro-Latin American lives, thought, and politics as they unfolded in the aftermath of slavery, particularly in Brazil and Argentina. Her work explores the intersections of ideas of race and nation in Latin America, with a focus on how Afro-Latin Americans have shaped and contested the region’s ideologies of racial inclusiveness in their ongoing struggles for recognition and equality. Alberto’s latest single-authored work is Black Legend: The Many Lives of Raúl Grigera and the Power of Racial Storytelling in Argentina (Cambridge University Press, 2022).