Liberdade: São Paulo Neighborhood known for Slaves and Freed Blacks
Note from BW of Brazil: It’s actually been a few years now, but for some time after I arrived in São Paulo, I used to like to venture to the neighborhood of Liberdade located in the city’s downtown area. On Sundays, my family and I would catch the subway to this region and, immediately after going up the stairs leading outside of the station, we would arrive right in the middle of what could be called “Japanese Town”. I call it this because on Sundays, this area would be loaded with tents of vendors cooking and selling tasty Japanese cuisine. Depending on what I was in the mood for, I would sometimes choose the yakissoba noodle/vegetable soup, other times it would be the fried tempurá with vegetables and shrimp. I would usually combine this with fried shrimp kebobs or bolinhas de camarão, little fried balls of shrimp in batter.
Eating in Japanese Town was always a welcome change from the typical beans and rice that are such a staple of Brazilian meals. But whenever I would visit this area that is said to be the most Japanese of the country, I would sometimes wonder, why was this neighborhood called Liberdade, which means liberty or freedom. Being in a country that is known to have been the greatest recipient of enslaved Africans in the Americas, I thought, is it possible that this part of Brazilian history had anything to do with this neighborhood?
As much as I have dedicated myself to learning to experience of black people in Brazil, it never occurred to me to investigate this hunch. I should have because it seems that Brazil has covered up so much having to do with its black population that you really can’t take anything for granted. This is also the case with Liberdade. For, although today we know it is a traditional neighborhood in which one can find Japanese restaurants, Asian products and many people of Asian descent, it also hides a very disturbing past. Right here in this area where I love to scarf down Japanese style food, in days gone by, masters and their henchmen would inact some of the most brutal forms of punishment against black people.
With the recent change of the name of the subway station from Liberdade to Japão–Liberdade (Japan-Liberdade), we see yet another example of the historic erasure of the memory of black people, and a neighborhood that was once mostly populated by black people. Right there in Liberdade lived ex-slaves, their descendants, the place the black rights organization the Frente Negra Brasileira was located, as well as a maids’ union that would become a samba school headed up by the famous sambista (samba musician) Geraldo Filme.
The 19th and 20th centuries would see the neighborhood house Portuguese and Italian immigrants and then later Japanese immigrants. Today, the vast majority of visitors to this region probably have no idea of this black past. But a number of activists are fighting to make sure its original inhabitants aren’t forgotten.
The history of black people in the neighborhood of Liberdade
Movement fights for construction of memorial on the land where a bone was discovered and where a shopping center would be built
By Guilhemre Soares Dias
On September 20, 1821, the soldier Francisco José das Chagas would be hanged in Largo da Forca, where people who had committed crimes were sentenced to death in the place that today is Praça da Liberdade, in the neighborhood of the same name in São Paulo. The crime of Chaguinhas, as the soldier became known, had been that of leading a revolt in Santos against the non-receipt of wages. He was a black man who was in military service, as were other freedmen in the 19th century. What was not expected was that the rope on which he would be hanged would break three times, causing the people who watched the act to start shouting: “liberdade”, meaning ‘freedom’.
Chaguinhas was not forgiven and was beaten to death. But he gained fame as a popular saint and his body was taken to the Capela dos Aflitos, built in 1779, which belonged to the Cemitério dos Aflitos, where blacks, indigenous people and those hanged were buried. At the place where he was hanged, people started lighting candles and the Santa Cruz das Almas dos Enforcados Church appeared in 1853. Capela dos Aflitos, since then, it has been receiving devotees who went to request miracles, placing papers on a wooden door and knocking on it three times – the number of times the rope broke.
Although this story is little known, this is where the name of the neighborhood comes from. More recently, several groups have started to tell this narrative and there is a project to build a memorial that tells about the presence of blacks in Liberdade. The place destined to revive this story is on the ground where a shopping center was being built, at Rua Galvão Bueno, 48, at the back of the chapel, and where nine skeletons were found in December 2018. Since then, the work has been stopped and a bill is trying to transform the area into a place of public interest, so that there is expropriation and construction of the space.
The project of Councilman Reis (PT) was approved by the Constitution and Justice Commission (CCJ) and should be voted on in plenary by the end of the year. The Department of Historical Patrimony (DPH), of the Municipality of São Paulo, informed during the event “Patrimônio em debate” that it intends to expropriate the area and restore the chapel, in addition to creating the Reference Center of the Black Memory of São Paulo, as proposed in public hearing at the City Council on December 17, 2018. In a note, the Municipal Secretary of Culture informs that Resolution 25/2018 establishes the archaeological protection around the Capela dos Aflitos.
“The skeletons drew the attention of black culture groups that operate in the region and demand the presence of other narratives in the Liberdade neighborhood. In view of the archaeological findings and the claim, DPH supports and studies the implantation of the memory center,”informs the agency.
Besides sheltering the gallows and the Cemitério dos Aflitos (Cemetery of the Aflitos, meaning, Afflicted), Liberdade was the stage, in the 18th and 19th centuries, of the Pelourinho, a pole where the enslaved were punished, besides receiving the first residences of the freed black people. Only at the beginning of the 20th century would it begin to be occupied by the Japanese, newcomers to São Paulo. This was one of the gentrification processes in the city, which expelled the blacks who lived in what was one of the first peripheries in São Paulo. In the 70s, Japanese lamps began to adorn the neighborhood, which was attracting more and more businesses, tourism and events related to Japanese culture. Since 2010, Chinese and Korean migrations have grown in the neighborhood.
But in July 2018, the City of São Paulo changed the name of the subway station and square to Japão-Liberdade (Japan-Liberdade), in an action sponsored by the Ikesaki store. To this day, Chaguinhas does not have a bust or a plaque telling this story in the main square of the neighborhood. During the Jornada do Patrimônio 2019, an event of the São Paulo City Hall to enhance the city’s memory, a plaque was placed at the exit of the Liberdade subway signaling that Largo da Forca was once there. And on this 20th of September, the Cemitério dos Aflitos will be signaled in front of the chapel of the same name.
The writer and journalist Abílio Ferreira, who is an articulator of the movement for the preservation of the Archaeological Site of the Aflitos, recalls that the black community is in a dispute that begins with the change of the name of the subway station. “There is an attempt to maintain Japanese hegemony in the Liberdade neighborhood,” he says, stressing the importance of having a memorial that tells about black history in the place.
The memory center would be in the area where a commercial gallery is being built, a land that belongs to the Chinese businessman Ko Chia Chi. On the site, there was another building that was demolished irregularly, since it had only one permit to renovate the building. The works stopped and archaeological research was carried out at the request of the DPH Archeology Center. The organ’s supervisor, Paula Nishida, recalls that the land was registered with the National Historical and Artistic Heritage Institute (IPHAN) and DPH presented an opinion for the expropriation of the area.
Paula, who is a granddaughter of Japanese, says that the site enhances the other narratives of the neighborhood that were buried and affirms that the urban projects for the revitalization of Beco dos Aflitos and the memorial don’t yet have funds defined by the city. “We contributed to the toppling study. It is necessary to define what will be done later,” she says. She recalls that the project to build a black history memorial is not to encourage conflicts, as happened with the change of the name of the Liberdade station, but “to mediate so that all the actors have the same space in the history of the neighborhood”, she says.
The lawyer Renato Igarachi, who is Nissei (son of Japanese) and was part of Japanese institutions, was one of the voices of the community against the name change of the subway station. On July 26, 2018, he made a post on Facebook that went viral stating that he didn’t agree with the delimitation of territory by ethnic criteria. “Other peoples live there. Not only Japanese, but also Koreans, Chinese and migrants of African origin. The name change consolidates this historical erasure.” For him, the Japanese community needs to hear about what the black movement has to say about the history of the neighborhood. The Sociedade Brasileira de Cultura Japonesa (Brazilian Society of Japanese Culture) said it was unaware of the black history memorial project, but declined to comment on the proposal. The Freedom Cultural and Assistance Association (ACAL), “Bunka Fukushi Kyôkai”, didn’t answer questions in the report.
Artisan Eliz Alves, representative of the União dos Amigos da Capela dos Aflitos (Union of Friends of the Capela dos Aflitos or Unamca), says that since 2018 the collective of which she is a member, made up of devotees and regulars in the chapel, has been working to restore the site, which is listed by the Council for the Defense of the Historical, Archaeological, Artistic and Tourist Heritage of the State of São Paulo (Condephat). “The chapel is part of the city’s history. It was a place of refuge for the less privileged classes,” she says.
Chaguinhas is not officially recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church, but he has several miracles attributed to him and there are banners of thanks in the chapel. “The first miracle was with himself, with the ropes that would hang him breaking three times”, says Eliz Alves. And despite the story saying that he was black, Chaguinhas is portrayed with light skin and eyes, in a painting inside the chapel, which is administered by Mitra Arquidiocesana de São Paulo. “It’s just a chapel, with no fixed priest, baptism or marriage. Masses are held by the priest of the São Gonçalo Church or by ministers”, says the representative of Unamca.
Eliz says that dialogue with Mitra for the restoration of the church is difficult – the Catholic church body didn’t respond to the interview request. The chapel originally built in rammed earth went through a fire in 1996 and was painted at the time, gaining a new ceiling – different from the original – in addition to a more modern roof.
She recalls that the quadrangle between Galvão Bueno and Rua da Glória streets was part of the cemetery. “When the Cemitério dos Aflitos was deactivated, the bodies were transferred to the Consolação Cemetery, but in the excavations for the Liberdade subway bones were found and now again.”
In addition to the restoration of the church, the group argues that Beco dos Aflitos has restricted access by car. “There are loads and unloads all the time, including during Mass. We also want the Japanese fixtures to be removed from that street. It has nothing to do with the story,” he emphasizes. To pay homage to Chaguinhas, the group organized, on September 20, a procession that began in the Church of Boa Morte and continued up to the Capela dos Aflitos.
There are also independent movements trying to redeem this narrative. The architect and comic artist Marilia Marz is the name behind the book Indivisível, which tells the story of Chaguinhas in comic form. “He is a myth. There is a version that he freed slaves who were confined in the Capela dos Aflitos and were going to be hanged in the gallows square,” he says, recalling that this is one of the erasures in the history of São Paulo.
Historian Philippe Arthur, from the collective ‘Passeando nas Ruas’, organized a tour debating the disputed memories between Japanese and blacks in the neighborhood during the Heritage Day. “The idea was to try to understand how the narrative of the group of Japanese migrants stood out in the popular imagination, leaving aside the black presence in that territory and how economic power was decisive in that,” he summarizes.