Brazil’s Living Museum: 4 Points
Over the past week, I’ve been reading a book entitled ‘Brazil’s Living Museum: Race, Reform, and Tradition in Bahia’ by Anadelia A. Romo. It explores the attitudes and policies that have developed around Bahia’s dominant Afro-Brazilian culture from the late 19th to late 20th centuries. Reading the book right here in Salvador — the heart and soul of Bahia — was certainly an interesting experience, primarily because the book explained a lot of subtle social phenomena I’ve noticed during my brief month here.
Thus, I thought it’d be worthwhile to list four of the most interesting lessons I’ve learnt from the book. So, without further ado…
4 Points from Brazil’s Living Museum
- The history behind Brasilidade — defined as a ‘Brazilian national essence’ — isn’t the fun-and-festa many make it out to be. The first thing many people extol about Brazil (besides the football, that is) is Brazil’s strong sense of national unity. Brazil is a huge cultural and racial melting pot: with citizens of indigenous, African, Portuguese, Italian, German, Japanese and other descents, the resultant mestiçagem (mixing) has birthed a nation of many skin colours and cultural fusions. However, unlike many Western countries with significant immigrant populations, Brazil has lesser rates of racial tension. Many Brazilians explain this phenomenon with ‘Brasilidade’, an attitude that was promoted by President Getúlio Vargas during his time in power (1930-1945) to strengthen the nation’s unity and promote its distinctive culture.
Many Brazilians are proud of Brasilidade, and rightly so. It’s fascinating to find cultural fusions wherever I go: here in Salvador, one can find traces of Africa in street-side acarajé (corn fritters filled with shrimp paste, vegetables and dried shrimp) (fun fact: acarajé is derived from the African dish acará, and the additional -jé, which means ‘to eat’, became part of the name when Bahian street vendors yelled ‘acara-jé’ to lure customers) and find an interesting mix of African pantheistic religion and Catholicism in Candomblé.
But how did the idea of Brasilidade gain traction? According to Romo, Brasilidade became popular after prominent scholars began ‘ranking’ cultures as part of a cultural hierarchy. Whereas in the 1800s, before the abolition of slavery in 1888, racial determinism (the idea that some races are inherently superior to others) was a popular viewpoint, the early 1900s saw scholars making the argument that it wasn’t race but culture that followed a system of hierarchy. In this case, white culture was believed to be more ‘civilised’ than African culture, which led to many believing that Afro-Brazilians faced the socioeconomic problems they faced because they couldn’t ‘assimilate’ to white culture ‘quickly enough’.
It was in this sociopolitical background of ‘cultural ranking’ that Brasilidade became popularised: the idea that Brazilian culture was the superior glue that essentially held the country together, and thus being ‘Brazilian’ was superior to being ‘African’.
- Racial harmony: fact or fiction? It’s a bit of both. Many scholars who studied Bahian race relations left with the conclusion that there were no racial problems in Bahia. For example, American researcher Ruth Landes opens her book City of Women with the words:
“…this book about Brazil does not discuss race problems because there were none.”
But was it true? According to the book (and my general observations thus far), it is much rarer in Brazil to witness the kinds of slurs and racial crimes that exist in countries like the United States. Yet racial inequality is very, very real here in Brazil, even in a place like Bahia where over 80% of the population is Afro-Brazilian. One particular statistic on social mobility that struck me is from a study done by researcher Donald Pierson, who travelled to Bahia from 1935 to 1937. It’s an old statistic, but indicative of a troublesome social situation:
“Blacks, according to Pierson’s estimates, made up 0.4 percent of Salvador’s ‘intelligentsia’ but 75 percent of the lower class. Whites were in the opposite position: they made up 84 percent of the intelligentsia but only 1.5 percent of the lower class.”
A lot of these racial divides are evident today. At big, fancy shopping malls like Salvador Shopping, most of the patrons are lighter-skinned than the people in Candeal or other working-class neighbourhoods. At UFBA, the most prestigious university in Salvador (which provides full tuition for its students based on academic performance), many students are similarly light-skinned. When our group went on a city tour we ran into a big group of middle school students talking loudly on the street. After they passed, our guide asked us if we thought they were public or private school students. She then told us her guess was the latter, because the students were ‘too light-skinned’.
- Candomblé has been core in reviving African roots and traditions. Candomblé is a syncretic religion with elements of traditional African beliefs (from the Yoruba, Fon and Bantu) and Catholicism. The syncretism was a direct consequence of slavery: many slaves, brought to Brazil from Africa, would disguise their own religion under the guise of Catholicism so that their masters would not punish them from practicing their faith.
In Salvador, Candomblé is everywhere. On Fridays, which is a sacred day in the religion, many people only wear white to pay their respects. Cowry shells — sacred symbols in the religion for their relation to the orixas, or the deities — make an appearance everywhere in the city, on walls, on wrists… the list goes on. Drumming, which is performed in Candomblé ceremonies, is heard at every hour of the day.
According to Romo, the legitimisation of Afro-Brazilian traditions only came around in the 1930s, especially at the Afro-Brazilian Congress of 1937. For the first time, Candomblé leaders were invited to speak alongside the elite scholars and researchers of Bahia and were consequently able to petition for greater religious freedoms (in 1905, Candomblé was still seen as ‘illicit’ and prohibited in many places). Thus, Candomblé became one of the first symbols of a great Afro-Brazilian cultural renaissance, as traditions with African roots were venerated as opposed to denigrated.
To this day, Candomblé remains not only an important religion but also a tradition that pays deep respect to African roots, cultures and rituals.
- Afro-Brazilian culture has experienced a great deal of cultural appropriation, by Westerners and Brazilians alike. African culture experienced decades of strong opposition before being accepted in various stages. In the 1800s, slavery meant African traditions were seen as ‘inferior’ and ‘sacrilegious’ and thus legislation was drafted to prevent the open expression of African rituals (like Candomblé). It was only when white researchers began looking into the intricacies of Candomblé that African rituals were ‘glamorized’, and thus considered worthy of study. During the Vargas era, when propaganda extolled the cultural idiosyncrasies of Brazil, African roots were extolled even further, as people venerated the Afro-Brazilian beats of samba and dubbed capoeira — an Afro-Brazilian form of martial arts with strong links to Candomblé — as ‘national gymnastics’. Yet many of the people who engaged in this great veneration had never even been to Bahia themselves.
But the instance of cultural appropriation that angered me the most was the story of Pelourinho. Today, Pelourinho is perhaps the biggest tourist spot in Salvador; with its colourful colonial buildings and cobblestoned streets, it isn’t hard to see why.
But here’s the story. Pelourinho means ‘whipping post’, as the main square used to be the place where people went to publicly whip their slaves. After slavery was abolished in 1888, Pelourinho became a degraded colonial town without much life, and it was only in 1968 — the year Bahia’s tourism board was created — that a tourism initiative brought Pelourinho back to life. After Pelourinho became a UNESCO Heritage site in 1985, the then-governor of Salvador forcibly removed Afro-Brazilian residents out of Pelourinho to make way for tourists. Romo describes the injustice of the situation with great acuity:
“The revitalization effort crystallized officials’ simultaneous valorization of an Afro-Bahian culture and disregard for the conditions and lives of Afro-Bahians… black inhabitants were moved out so that black history could be turned into a commodity.”
Suffice to say, I’ll never see Pelourinho in the same way again. Nor will I see traditionally dressed street vendors in the same way again either… because apparently, a 1998 law made it mandatory that all street vendors wear traditional Bahiana clothing just for the aesthetic benefit of tourists. How frustrating.
And with that, the end of my 4 points. There’s a lot I’ve learned, and a lot of consequent reflection I’ve done in reference to what I’ve seen so far in Brazil.
To see where the next book takes me!