Candomblé, a religion of resistance: A maximum expression of black culture that has been Afro-Brazil’s weapon of struggle and survival



“I’m a Candomblé militant. I do a black theater that is guided matricially by candomblé. I am not connected to the black movement just because of the [racial] issue. In my mind, I don’t see how a militant can be from the black movement and not like candomblé. […] Because if you understand that candomblé is not a religious institution, candomblé goes beyond the factor of religari, of religion, […] this thing that separated itself in the western world from social life and religious life you will understand that even to be black it was very important to understand what candomblé is.” – Interview with follower of Candomblé, courtesy of Ari Lima and Nana Luanda M. Alves

Note from BW of Brazil: Brazil’s particular brand of racism that has been so successful in maintaining its black population in a certain “place” has been the use of its diverse “tentacles” is separating the African descendant population from its roots. Those roots have been snatched up through several mechanisms, especially, through promoting a combination of integration and miscegenation, the idea of whiteness as supreme as well as a goal to achieve, and the idea that black cultural practices are symbols of backwardness and inferiority. In the latter  case, not being able to completely eliminate these practices by force, integration once again came into play as whites began to participate in these black cultural forms such as samba, capoeira and candomblé. In terms of the African-origin religion of candomblé, like samba and capoeira, followers have been persecuted, oppressed and specifically in the case of the religion, demonized.

While, for the most part, samba and capoeira have been fully integrated into Brazilian culture, candomblé terreiros (holy temples) and leaders continue to face violent attacks by a population that has been highly influenced by propaganda being disseminated by an Evangelical movement whose popularity has posed a serious challenge to the Catholic Church’s dominance of Brazil’s religious life. Although people are led to believe their beliefs about candomblé are simply rooted in the church’s stance against what is assumed to be “witchcraft” or work of the devil, the racist roots of such discourse cannot be separated from Europe’s centuries long stereotyping of Africa’s people as backward, being less than human and beings with no souls.

Candomblé, for many of its followers, represents a connection to blackness, an African-based identity in resistance to the West and whiteness, as can be noted in the quote that opened this article. But what does it tell us when a large percentage of Brazil’s black and brown people also distance themselves from the religion largely because of the negative connotations and stereotypes? Today, only 0.3% of Brazil’s population identifies itself as followers of the candomblé. But for these followers, the religion still represents an important cornerstone of black resistance to an ongoing agenda for the extermination of all remnants of Brazil’s African past. 


Candomblé: religion of resistance

By Pai Rodney

More than the cult of the orixás (orishas, African deities), it gathers a legacy of cultural preservation and a history of struggle and resistance

The candomblé allowed the blacks to reconstitute the family bonds

The history of Brazil is deeply marked by centuries of slavery. Although launched into the saddest condition to which a human being can be subjected, the black contingent saw in the faith in their ancestors a possibility of re-establishing ties, maintaining and re-creating traditions, and reconstituting, even in symbolic terms, families, which, as part of the strategy of the slave system, were completely crushed.

To return to black people this notion of family was the first function of the candomblé, because in the space of the terreiros (holy temples) the familiar identity was recovered, having in the mães e pais de santo (priestesses and priests) their central figures. Like the quilombos, the terreiros were spaces of resistance and struggle.

To preserve its cultural patrimony, it was necessary to survive and to resist all sorts of persecution. African reminiscences, rituals, cults and deities, despite ethnic differences, were brought together and organized into one religion: candomblé, which officially emerged in Bahia in the first decades of the nineteenth century with the arrival of blacks of Nagô origin. Before that, Afro-Brazilian religiosity was present in several regions, but with a lot of repression and little visibility.

Under the aegis of confraternities and brotherhoods of black “Catholics”, protected by syncretism with the saints of the church, the first terreiros appeared and established themselves. In the Igreja da Barroquinha (Church of Barroquinha), in Salvador, Bahia, Ilê Axé Airá Intilé was born, probably in the early 1800s, from which originated Ilê Iyá Nassô Oká, the first terreiro officially registered in Brazil.

Out of this important terreiro came two other great houses: the Gantois, of the celebrated Mãe Menininha, and Opô Afonjá, of Mãe Aninha and Mãe Senhora. The Alaketu terreiro of Mãe Olga and the House of Oxumarê of Mãe Cotinha de Ewá are also centennial and fundamental houses in the history of resistance and struggle of the candomblé.

In these terreiros, the famílias de santo (ritual families) created a network of protection essential for the preservation of the values and traditions, customs and faith of these peoples, besides enabling the reconstruction of identities and the maintenance of African culture, philosophy and worldview, without which black people would not have survived slavery.

The religions of African matrices in general and candomblé in particular never lived days of peace and tranquility. During and after slavery, the persecution of both society and the state was relentless. Especially in the first decades of the twentieth century, with the clear project of exclusion of the black population, all African cultural traits were strongly repressed, including capoeira, samba and candomblé, which were always deeply intertwined.

The facts that authorJorge Amado romanticized in the book Tenda dos Milagres were really experienced by black men and women not only in Bahia but in all regions of the country. Terreiros invaded and plundered, sacerdotes (priests) imprisoned and tortured, objects of worship seized and destroyed. Years and years of struggle until the state assumed secularity and implemented religious freedom in its Magna Carta. In practice, the persecution continued and until the late 1970s the Bahian terreiros needed authorization from the Delegacia de Jogos e Costumes (Department of Games and Customs) to perform their rituals, at the risk of being interrupted by the police at any time.

The 1960s and 1970s marked the expansion of the Bahian candomblé to southern and southeastern states, especially São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. At that time, the famous pai de santo Joãozinho da Gomeia implanted his terreiro in the Baixada Fluminense region, where important people of the society of Rio de Janeiro, including artists and politicians, attended. Mãe Menininha was acclaimed in the verses of famed singer/songwriter Dorival Caymmi and in the voices of singers Maria Bethânia and Gal Costa. Her fame ran the world and the world wanted to know about Gantois. But the persecution continued.

The Catholic Church was open to dialogue with Afro-Brazilian religions. However, the advent of neo-Pentecostal Evangelical churches renewed the idea of demonization of the orixás and entities of umbanda. With the strength of the media, persecution has gained new components. Newspapers, magazines, books, television programs chose Candomblé as a target and began a campaign of intolerance as or more dangerous than the actual police persecution of the 1920s.

Even the guarantees of the 1988 Constitution were not enough to stop attacks of all kinds, some very serious. One of them led to the of death Mãe Gilda, a priestess of Salvador, Bahia, and in her honor, January 21 was instituted as the Dia Nacional de Combate à Intolerância Religiosa (National Day to Fight Religious Intolerance).

The trajectory of blacks in Brazil has always been one of struggle. Resistance, preservation and survival are inseparable concepts in the African-based religious work. The terreiros returned to blacks the notion of family, made possible the reconstruction of identities and the maintenance of their culture.

The terreiro, quilombo, roda de capoeira (capoeira circle) the escola de samba (samba school) are, above all, strategies of resistance. Remember the verses of singer/songwriter Luiz Melodia: “Singing samba all night, I am stronger, I am more of a person, I am a king”.

Cultura negra (black culture), of which candomblé and samba are maximum expressions, has been our weapon to fight and to survive. If slavery has robbed us of royalty, the orixá has given it back to us.

Source: Carta Capital. Lima, Ari and Nana Luanda M. Alves. “RELAÇÕES RACIAIS, RACISMO E IDENTIDADE NEGRA NO CANDOMBLÉ BAIANO DE ALAGOINHAS “. Educere et Educare. Volume 10, Number 20, July/December 2015.


About Marques Travae 3747 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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