Note from BW of Brazil: The roots of racism and black resistance are deep and filled with tragedies as well as hidden treasures. This story falls into the latter category. Although Brazilian elites didn’t post signs that read “whites only”, “preferem-se brancos (we prefer whites)” (see here, here, here or here) were common in job classified sections of newspapers and Afro-Brazilians were routinely barred from areas and establishments using these means as a socially enforced mechanism of exclusion. In 1960s São Paulo, as in other areas of the country, black people came together and did for self, creating what would become “THE place” for middle-class blacks of the era. Check out an inspiring story from the days of way back below….
The Aristocrata Club, “the most luxurious black club in Brazil”
At a time when “gente de cor (people of color)” were barred at dances and in the pools of the white elite, middle class blacks founded their own club in São Paulo. It was a time of celebration, music and swing as weapons against prejudice
by Eduardo Duarte Zanelato in collaboration with Luiz Felipe Orlando
The silence that reigns in the Aristocrata Club hall, downtown São Paulo, is interrupted by the jingle of keys with which its chairman, Mário Ribeiro, opens a huge glass door decorated with a blue symbol. It’s feijoada (1) day on the second Saturday of the month, and Mário is enthusiastic about the possibility of meeting other founding partners for a full afternoon of laughter and memories. Despite the day being marked on the calendar, nobody shows up. The days in the club’s social network have been like this, a mixture of abandonment and neglect.
Maybe not to waste the trip, Mário begins to tell stories while going through old photos hanging on the walls. They are portraits of a past nothing like the current worn out look throughout the environment. In his words and those pictures, there is no doubt that the club, abandoned on the eve of its 50th anniversary, has had much to celebrate.
In its heyday, the Aristocrata was hailed in laudatory reports and full-page photos in the press. “This is the most luxurious black club in Brazil,” affirmed the magazine Fatos & Fotos (meaning facts & photos) in the early 1970s, between images of a hectic weekend in a “Hollywood-like atmosphere” bringing together “the most beautiful mulata paulistas (2)”. The description of the magazine portrayed a very similar routine to what we saw in clubs for whites only, like Homs, Pinheiros or Paulistano. Although they could not attend them in the day to day, blacks were admitted in football matches against their teams.
It was in one of those games that first came about the idea of a club for blacks. “We only get involved when prodded,” says Mário, the owner responsible for the push to open the Aristocrata. Like most founders, he played for Boca Juniors of the Bela Vista neighborhood, a famous small-time minor soccer team in the 1950s. In a match against the team of the Pinheiros, players were invited to visit the club at the end of the match. It was close to the 1pm and very hot. “I said that if I had some swimming trunks, I would dive in the pool,” Mário recalls. “Then, my friend, a member of Pinheiros, said he would even lend me some trunks. The problem was that, according to them, there was a solution in the pool that was bad for the skin of blacks.” Outraged, they decided to create their own club where there was no discrimination.
Chess and strained caipirinha
The case in Pinheiros was followed by a year of monthly dinners in the homes of the founding members. The meetings served to elect Raul dos Santos as the first president, decide what would be offered to members and choose the ideal location for the headquarters. As most members were born in the Bela Vista neighborhood and worked in the downtown area, headquarters were setup in a commercial complex on Rua Álvaro de Carvalho (street) downtown. The walls were torn down, the kitchen remodeled, and on March 13, 1961, the Aristocrata officially opened its doors. The success was instantaneous. In the first month, 600 members joined the Aristocrata. The members were mostly public workers, lawyers and liberal professionals. The club opened its headquarters every day in late afternoon and was a meeting place for happy hour. They drank whiskey and caipirinha (3), ate snacks and enjoyed themselves to the sound of Bossa Nova music and American Soul.
On Friday and Saturday nights, about 100 members were there. “They were polite, educated blacks with more financial stability,” says Ideval Anselmo, 70, a waiter at the Aristocrata at the time. On Saturdays, in addition to evening meetings, there was lunch – always with the same menu: chicken with polenta on warm days and on cold days feijoada. “The guys were squeamish,” says Ideval. “They only drank strained caipirinha and played chess after lunch.”
The buzz in number of 118 on Álvaro de Carvalho began to attract famous people. Great names of Brazilian music such as Jair Rodrigues, Wilson Simonal, Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil stopped by. They were taken by singer Agostinho dos Santos and other influential directors before or after performing in the city. “I came to play some songs there, accompanied only by acoustic guitar,” recalls famed MPB musician Milton Nascimento. “Whenever we released an album, we played at Aristocrata first,” says Amilton Godoy, pianist of the Zimbo Trio. The distinguished visitors were not limited to Brazilian artists. Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan and boxer Muhammad Ali visited the club when passing through Brazil.
In addition to daily meetings and lunch on Saturdays, the Aristocrata organized two major galas each year, always crowded, with up to 2,000 people. On these occasions, the number of guests exceeded the maximum capacity of the social club and the board was forced to rent a larger space, usually the Casa de Portugal, a long-time hall still active today on Avenida Liberdade. In March, there was a gala to celebrate the anniversary of the club in September, a debutante ball extended to black girls that until then was restricted to white girls from wealthy families. The dance for daughters of members included a waltz with their parents and a ceremony in which they, at age 15, won their first high-heeled shoes.
“The Aristocrata gave us the platform to face the ethnic and racial issues directly,” says Maria Cecília de Moraes, who made her debut at one of the club’s dances. “It helped us to have self-esteem at a time when being black was a thing of shame.” In both dances, the dress code ranged from suit and tie to tuxedo. “They didn’t want to have a backyard ‘neguinho’ party,” (4) says Maria Cecília. Being well-dressed, they danced to the orchestra sounds of Nelson Tupã and Maestro Simonetti, responsible for keeping the dance floor full until 4am.
Dressed to the Nines
With very well attended crowded halls and dances, the directors of Aristocrata decided to erect a country club – equal to those where only whites could swim. “We had the purchasing power to cover any expenses,” says Luiz Carlos dos Santos, one of the founders. “The Aristocrata had a reputation for being a club of rich blacks.” Already having passed three years since its founding, associates felt a lack of an area for sports and leisure. “When we were little, we were used to swimming in the muddy waters of the Rio Tietê. Then, when we went to other clubs and saw those pools we wanted to have our own,” said Luiz Carlos. The location was on 60,000 square meters of uneven landscape on Estrada do Bororé, in Grajaú, in the south zone. It was, at the time, a region of smallholdings. Fifty members are making a series of 24 payments to pay off the debt incurred to enable the purchase.
The earthwork was made with borrowed machines by a client of the notary office where Mário Ribeiro worked – the same one used in the construction of the nation’s capital Brasília, he said. After maintenance, the owner of the company sent “blacks from Mário’s Club” to tighten it up. “We were there over the weekend, picnicking and cutting weeds” says club president. With donations, fundraising campaigns and the help Adalberto Camargo, a black deputado (congressman) elected with the help of the leaders of Aristocrata, in 1966 work began to move forward faster. Four years later, the club opened two pools: one for adults, semi-Olympic (25 meters long), and another for children, attended by authorities and raising of the flag.
On Saturdays, between 1,000 and 1,500 people were enjoying the edge of the pools. At the headquarters, the happy hour still attracted members and famous people, crowding the hall from Monday to Saturday. The children of associates played soccer and basketball, while the girls learned volleyball and danced ballet. At the end of the year, children presented dance numbers copied from TV. Once a semester, the location was opened to huge beer parties, with a couple dressed in typical German clothes and guests drinking from porcelain mugs made for the occasion (when up to 5,000 people attended the concerts of popular singers Jorge Ben and Jamelão).
Excursions came from Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. With 3,600 members, the Aristocrata was in its heyday. The club’s success prompted plans for a new headquarters: the directors wanted to build a school and a hospital in the region – and some cottages for families who wanted to spend the weekend in the area.
Until the late 1970s, the Aristocrats was in its glory. In 1986, the club filled the hall of the Círculo Militar in Ibirapuera, in celebrating its silver jubilee. But from then on there was not much else to celebrate. The expansion plans didn’t progress, the children of the members lost interest in the club, and parents, some already elderly, didn’t attend with the same diligence. “The Aristocrata was a reflection of a time that is over,” says Jasmin Pinho, director of the documentary Aristocrat Clube, released in 2004. “This generation didn’t renew itself.” With the growth of the city came the traffic, which made it a long trip to Grajaú. Even the address changed: the road became an avenue and lost its Indian name. The land, now on Rua Dona Belmira Marin (street), had 10,000 square meters overrun, in the decades of the 1990s and 2000s, it was partly expropriated by water and lighting utilities. A favela (slum) was setup in the neighborhood. “When there was an invasion, the staff had already stopped attending,” says Martha Braga, former president of the club. “Maintenance was getting hard and the club had become a white elephant (or more trouble than what it was worth).”
Today, little remains of the Aristocrata beyond the memories kept alive by founding partners and their children. Some keep in their homes a vast collection of photos of proms, parties, lunches and visits from stars. Divided into five lots, the headquarters will have three of them expropriated by the city and turned into the Centro de Tradições Populares Clube Aristocrata (Center of Aristocrata Club Popular Traditions), taking advantage of the blocks to offer leisure to the Grajaú region. As compensation, the club will receive R$1.5 million (US$630,000), money that will be used to pay off accumulated debts and, perhaps, return to the headquarters some of the luster of the past. Until then, Mário Ribeiro continues going to place every second Saturday of the month, hoping to reconnect with some old friends for a new session of feijoada sprinkled with good memories.
1. Feijoada is a stew of beans with beef and pork, which is a typical dish in Portugal and former Portuguese colonies, such as Brazil, Macau, Angola, Mozambique and Goa. Modern variants of the dish are based on ancient Feijoada recipes from the Portuguese regions of Beira, Estremadura, and Trás-os-Montes. In Brazil, feijoada (feijoada brasileira) is often considered the national dish. The name comes from feijão, Portuguese for “beans.” The basic ingredients of feijoada are beans with fresh pork or beef. In northwest Portugal (chiefly Minho and Douro Litoral), it is usually made with white beans; in the northeast (Trás-os-Montes), it is generally prepared with kidney beans, and includes other vegetables such as tomatoes, carrots, and cabbage. The stew is best prepared over low heat in a thick clay pot. It is usually served with rice and assorted sausages, such as chouriço, morcela (blood sausage), farinheira, and others, which may or may not be cooked in the stew. Source. For an intro to feijoada’s roots in Brazilian slavery see here.
2. Denotes a person from the city of São Paulo
3. Caipirinha is Brazil’s national cocktail, made with cachaça (sugar cane hard liquor), sugar and lime. Cachaça is Brazil’s most common distilled alcoholic beverage (also known as Pinga or Caninha). Both rum and cachaça are made from sugarcane-derived products. Specifically with cachaça, the alcohol results from the fermentation of sugarcane juice that is afterwards distilled. Source
4. With the origin text reading ‘de neguinho’, de fundo de quintal, or “the little negro’s backyard party”, the speaker refers to the common, black lower class parties held in the backyards of poorer neighborhoods.