A few hours of pleasure? Motel Senzala in Porto Alegre, located in southern Brazil, offers slavery-themed rooms complete with chains, shackles and cages
Ya see, this is the reason why I’ve been exposing the race-oriented themes in Brazil for almost seven years now. Is it difficult to see why there is an article on this blog speaking on Brazil’s apparent nostalgia for the slavery era? How about the piece on the woman who turned her home into a sort of throwback to slavery experience for visitors and tourists? Quiet as it’s kept, slavery does in fact still exist in some areas of Brazil, which tells us that there arestill many people who would probably not have any problem if the dehumanizing practice were to return to a widespread institution.
I have to admit, even after having reported on the existence of conditions analogous to slavery still today in Brazil, the jokes people make about slavery (see here, here or here) and the current novelas that for some reason continue to set their plots in the slave era, I still found today’s story a little hard to believe. Why? Let’s get into it…
In Porto Alegre, the capital city of the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, there’s a motel called Motel Senzala that attracts guests by modeling their rooms with slave-oriented themes. To understand this, you must first understand that the term “senzala” is Portuguese for ‘slave quarters’. Right, the spaces reserved on Brazilian plantations for slaves to rest, for the little time they were actually allowed to do so. But there’s more…much more.
The suites inside of this motel also take on names such as Zumbi, Marimba, Quilombo, Alforria, Casa Grande, Escrava and Grilhões. Zumbi is of course considered the greatest black leader in the history of Brazil, the 17th century leader of the greatest quilombo (maroon society) of fugitive slaves in Brazil’s history. A marimba is an African percussion instrument, while “alforria” means “freed” with “Casa Grande” referring to Big House, or the slave master’s home, “escrava” meaning slave and “grilhões” meaning shackles. There are also suites entitled “pelourinho”, which is where slaves would be publicly whipped and “sinhá”, which is what slaves called the master’s wife. Do you see where this going?
To bring a hint of reality to the experience of the guests, the rooms are actually decorated with shackles and chains! Guests can enjoy this experience for the price of R$150 for two hours. Yep. Two hours. Hmm, any large city has these sorts of in and out motels and we know what purpose they serve. But wait, check it, to add even more excitement to guest experience, visitors also have the right to a cage! And as this motel is sure to attract interested parties, the price actually goes up to R$210 for two hours for those want to enjoy the “luxuries” of this motel between Friday and Saturday.
But do you get all of the messages going on here? Brazil’s particularly brutal regime of slavery was also the setting for the widespread rape of African girls and women that was the origins of the nation’s large mixed-race population. As such, any couple that wishes to indulge in a few hours at slave-themed motel surely have some fetish about the sadistic master/slave sexual relationships. I mean, think about it. What could a couple getting down in a motel be thinking about if they’re surrounded by chains, shackles and cages?
According to the motel’s website, “The rustic and themed decoration of the motel ensures a special and unique climate during the stay.” And to top off the theme, the motel’s very architecture is modeled after the old colonial Casas Grandes, the homes where the owners of enslaved Africans lived.
Needless to say, such an operation not only attempts to gloss over, commercialize and fetishize the horrors of black servitude, an institution that lasted for three and half centuries in Brazil, but it also contributes to the ongoing sexualization of the black body, a fact not missed by Movimento Negro activist, Jorgilene Maciel.
“We know that for a person to make an enterprise he usually searches for a market, and if the person took the lead, it’s because he somehow knows that he’s going to make a profit, that he’s going to have a public. In other words, it’s not a problem just for those who undertake to capitalize on pain. But of the group of people who propose to consume and participate in this,” said Maciel.
Interesting, the motel had already caused a stir on the internet two years ago but only recently becoming a widely divulged story. Yet, even with the recent negative press, the only reaction to the questioning of its slave-themed rooms was removing its Facebook page. For many black people, there is an issue as to why it seems that the suffering of other groups throughout history are often recognized while it seems as if the trafficking, commercializing and brutal dehumanizing of Africans doesn’t seem to garner any sort of sympathy.
This year, on May 13th, marked the 130th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Brazil which was the last country in the Americas to abolish the institution. Brazil was by far also the largest recipient of enslaved Africans during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, receiving an estimated 4-5 million Africans between the 16th and 19th centuries. For nearly four centuries, brutality, inhumane work conditions and rape were a daily part of the lives of those enslaved Africans and their descendants; an experience that is still referenced and joked about in everyday conversations in modern-day Brazilian society.
“Dehumanizing is a way of justifying violence, as if it were a justification for years of captivity and physical punishment. Black women were raped by their masters and became pregnant, and from that pregnancy they bore bastard children who were, most of the time, sold as slaves,” sociologist Eliane Oliveira reminds us. And because slaves weren’t seen as human beings, such treatment of black bodies was naturalized.
Another well-known aspect of African slavery was the profit generated from the creation and selling of new bodies to be sold on the market as simple objects. To continue the profits in this venture in the land that would come to be known as Brazil, black men were given the role of escravo reprodutor, meaning studs or slave breeders, to impregnate female slaves and thus create more “product” to be sold on the market by the senhores (masters). One example of this practice was the story of Roque José Florêncio, a black man born in the city of São Carlos, in São Paulo state. A study showed that Florêncio fathered more than 200 children and died at the age of 130. History also tells us that black or mulatto children were taken away from their mothers, provoking a devastating impact on the creation and sustenance of black families making it nearly impossible to create bonds of kinship within the senzala.
One can only imagine the untold horrors a regime that endured for nearly 400 years wreaked upon the bodies and genetic history of black families, another fact that the commercializing of a motel with such a theme can be deemed as insensitive.
For Oliveira, it is a form of connecting the slave experience with pleasure:
“Fetish is related to pleasure and it is impossible for us to think that the violence took place within this historical context can be forgotten or naturalized to the point that one finds tranquility entering a motel and finding it seductive to be enslaved.”
Apparently, the owner of the Motel Senzala doesn’t see it that way.