Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Commemorating Race in Brazil's Past, Ignoring it in the Present

Yesterday (Nov. 20) was the National Black-Awareness day in Brazil, better known as Zumbi Day, a day which, as d over at Axis of Evel Knievel does an excellent job narrating, witnessed the Portuguese's murder of Zumbi, the leader of Brazil's largest escaped-slave (as well as Indians and free blacks) community in 1695.

Unfortunately, much like Martin Luther King Jr. day in the U.S., here in Rio there was not much to commemorate the importance of Zumbi and Afro-descendants in Brazil. Rather, and again much like MLK Jr. day, to most (and particularly to the white and brown communities), it was a day off, a chance to spend at the beach (which, I admit, I also did for the morning), and not a day to spend thinking about race/racism and nation, past and present. While public ceremonies/events to mark the importance of Zumbi and of Afro-descendants to Brazil here in Rio were few, other areas such as Bahia, Pernambuco, and other centers of slavery in the colonial period may have been more honorary and larger in scale.

However, yesterday also offered important perspective on race in Brazil today. While traveling through the southern zone, I had the chance to go by Rocinha, the largest favela in Latin America (while the far-from-infallible Wikipedia puts the numbers at 60,000 inhabitants to 150,000, it's really probably 300,000 now. To get a better sense of the sheer physical magnitude, check out images such as this, this, and this). As in much of Rio, Rocinha is nestled against some of the richest barrios in Rio (in this case, São Conrado and Gávea, though again, this happens throughout the city).

As should come to no surprise, while (obviously) all of the residents of Rocinha and other favelas are poor, a very large majority are black. This provides a rather interesting paradox for the white and brown (a category often determined as much by income as by skin color). On the one hand, residents in places like Gávea and Ipanema (also rich and white, but fringed by favelas) would like nothing more than to basically see the favelas bombed into the proverbial stone age. At the same time, were the favela residents to actually remove themselves from existence (or be removed), the wealthy white people of Rio would suddenly find themselves without the cheap domestic labor which they demand on the basis of class. Thus, for many residents of Rio, the favelas become painfully necessary evils (not to mention, in a disgusting display of imperialism, tourist attractions for foreigners, particularly Europeans).

While no nation-state is without racism, Zumbi day provides another invaluable insight into the ways Brazil can build a tradition around race while totally ignoring the conjunctions of race and class and the very-real presence of racism (often coded in terms such as "culture," "refinement," "decency," and "class") today, and the parallels between it and Martin Luther King, Jr. day in the U.S. offer a necessary reminder of how far both countries have to go in not only commemorating important figures of the past and dealing with race in the present.