Rio Grande do Sul: The Invisibility of Blacks in one of Brazil’s Whitest States

Rio Grande do Sul: The Invisibility of Blacks in one of Brazil's Whitest States

Rio Grande do Sul: The Invisibility of Blacks in one of Brazil's Whitest States

Note from BW of Brazil: In my two decades of experience visiting and living in Brazil, I have never been to the state of Rio Grande do Sul. Well, let me take that back. I have actually been there, but it was only a brief stop at the Internacional Salgado Filho airport in the capital city of Porto Alegre. I was returning from a brief trip to Montevideo, Uruguay, in 2012, and I stopped in Porto Alegre on my way back to São Paulo. So, as I was there for only a few hours, that trip to Rio Grande do Sul doesn’t really count.

map BR RS
Map of Rio Grande do Sul in southern Brazil. At right, in red.

The furthest south in Brazil I’ve traveled up to this point is the state of Paraná, also located in the south of the country. One of these days, I would like to spemnd some time in Rio Grande do Sul to see if the differences between the south, southeast and northeast of the country are as different as I’ve read. I can say that I can feel significant differences between São Paulo and Bahia, for example, so I can imagine that these differences would be pretty obvious in comparison to Rio Grande do Sul as well.

One thing that Rio Grande do Sul, Paraná and another state, Santa Catarina, have in common besides being located in the south is that the three have the largest percentages of people who consider themselves white in the country. It’s often said that the south is like Brazil’s Europe and according to many reports, elites of these states want everyone to know that this is white part of Brazil. Although a state like Rio Grande do Sul does have its own black history, you’d never know it by the way the state is promoted. 

Interestingly enough, the state does have the distinction of having one of the highest annual reports of one particular statistic that tells us a little about beliefs about race on the part of gaúchos, meaning natives of the state of Rio Grande do Sul.  According to the Brazilian Yearbook of Public Security, the state has the most registrations of the crime of injúria racial, meaning racial injury or slur, with 1,404 cases in 2017 and 1,507 in 2018. In second place is another state in the south, Paraná, with 1,289 registrations in 2017 and 1,239 in 2018. According to the Secretariat of Public Security of Rio Grande do Sul (SSP-RS), a qualified injury is contemplated, besides racial, that of color, ethnicity, religion or origin. 

In other words, the area of the country that received millions of European immigrants in the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century also ranks high in anti-black sentiments. Considering the uproar back in 2018 when a black woman competed in the Miss Rio Grande do Sul contest, this all makes perfect sense. Go figure. Oh well. I still want to visit some day. 

Rio Grande do Sul: The Invisibility of Blacks in one of Brazil's Whitest States

Where are the blacks of Rio Grande do Sul? 

The black population has been in the state since the early days, but over time this presence has been erased from “official history”. On the Dia da Consciência Negra, or Black Consciousness Day, learn more about this process, its consequences, and how to modify it

By Eduardo Amaral

“Throughout my career, and that of most of the black people, we never really saw ourselves represented, never had that black figure. In the history books, monuments, I never saw myself. ” This is how people like the journalist Flávio Bandeira, 34, born and raised in Porto Alegre, grew up, without seeing people like them in the history of their city and state, and hearing all their lives that their role was far from professional success and the possibility of holding relevant positions because of their skin color, something that still hurts. “The first impact is vital and guides our life, our daily life, which is self-esteem. Not being represented in practically nothing makes one wonder, ‘wow, can any of us get there?’, even though some have. But then comes another question: what is the difficulty in showing that we can also get there? What is the fear of society that some black will reach a prominent position? This is something I think about a lot every day. We see that we are practically invisible in society,” says Bandeira.

This lack of protagonism in the history books, the names of streets and monuments scattered around Porto Alegre and other cities of the state goes against the reality of the facts, since even denied, the black presence in the history of Rio Grande do Sul is very strong and it was fundamental for the state to become one of the most important in the country during the time of the Empire – until today a significant portion of the gaúcha population calls itself black. In the 2010 Census, 1.72 million people said they were black, representing 16.13% of the total population. In Porto Alegre alone there are 285 thousand blacks, or 24.18% of the inhabitants. Historians report that the first Africans to arrive in the state date from 1717, as soon as the colonization of the region began, they remained here throughout the imperial period and are still present today. Even so, this did not guarantee that their names would be engraved on bronze plates, worthy of homage in the streets.

Author of the book Rastros da Resistência, in which he tells the history of black characters forgotten by time, the São Paulo writer Alê Santos draws a parallel between Brazil and the United States that fits the relationship of gaúchos with their black personalities. “We look a lot at the Black Panthers, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, we don’t know that in Brazil our black heroes are alive: Hélio Santos, Sueli Carneiro, Vovô of Ilê Aiyê, are people who fought against the Dictatorship, against racism and against social repression,” says the writer. Ignorance of the still-living Brazilian black heroes described by Santos is similar to what happens in the state, where blacks celebrate Zumbi dos Palmares but are unaware of the story of Manoel Padeiro, a quilombola leader who led revolts against slavery, and how, in Pernambuco, he amassed a series of followers among freedmen and fugitives from the torments of slavery. Historians analyze that the disappearance of references is not coincidence, but part of a process of invisibility that has crossed the centuries and with a clear objective: to create the image of a “different state” in which miscegenation would not have happened as in the rest of the country, where slavery was milder and blacks did not suffer so much.

The origins of whitening

Historians dedicated to reconstructing the narrative about the relationship and importance of blacks to the formation of the state do not point to a date and a specific movement in the who initiated this erasure from history. However, even without defining exactly when and for what reasons these characters were forgotten at the time of telling the history of Rio Grande do Sul, some facts are considered important to understand how black people were left out of the “official version”. One of them is the arrival of the first European immigrants who landed on gaúcho soil in the late nineteenth century, coming to replace the labor that was no longer the slave.

Historian Jorge Euzébio de Assumpção points out that the migratory process followed by black invisibility followed an ideological line. “Rio Grande do Sul was one of the most slave-holding states, but this kind of thing goes unnoticed when it comes to the southern economy that values immigration, the valiant immigrant, and I’m not belittling it, but before the immigrant came we had the work of the enslaved and this was evaded. This weight of enslaved labor is ideologically evaded, because the history is ideological as well. It is part of this whole context of political scientism, embranquecimento (whitening) and also not wanting to be Brazilian like the others. ‘We are the best because in our blood there is a little black blood’, this is all an ideology of gauchism, from which here in the South a society based on free and non-enslaved labor was formed. If I start to demystify this, I will take away the myth of the gaúcho and this myth that is celebrated in the CTGs, and then it goes against the official ideology”, explains Assumpção.

A Ph.D in History, Fernanda Oliveira is in the same line as the historian and in her analysis it is possible to see that in the myth of the gaúcho did not fit other ethnic groups than the European. “The ideal of Rio Grande do Sul dates back to the 19th century, when the first memorialists begin to narrate what this place is, and there will be created a whole myth of who is the gaúcho, who here in Rio Grande do Sul has no black and indigenous features, he is a white man of the field. So, we have an official story that will be constucted to speak of this place since the 19th century, and it will say that this is a white place,” she says. This erasure of history has been accentuated over the years, generating an imagination also about blacks, who would not be qualified to occupy places of power or have prominence in society. Over time, these two imaginations will create spaces of segregation followed by the expulsion of black populations to make room for the new white inhabitants of the state. In Porto Alegre, this is registered when knowing the formation of the Rio Branco neighborhood, today considered one of the upper crust places of the city.

Where are the blacks in the history books of Porto Alegre? There is a total embranquecimento (whitening)” – Jorge Euzébio de Assumpção

During the nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, Rio Branco was called the Colônia Africana (African Colony) and housed a large portion of freed and liberated people after the Golden Law of 1888. And so it was for a long time, with the black community creating there its space for housing and social interaction, so much so that it was recognized, already in the XXI century, the first urban quilombo of the country, the Quilombo dos Silva. However, the arrival of Europeans gradually made the area a region of conflict and it was not long before the place gained a new profile and the history of blacks who lived there erased from the region, all in a subtle way. In 1912, there came the change of name, which at first might seem like a tribute, because it referred to the author of the Law of the Free Womb, but for Assumpção it was a way to deny the former residents. “If I place Colônia Africana, I’m saying there were a lot of blacks there. Now if Porto Alegre is a white city, how am I going to have an Colônia Africana? From this moment that I change the name I am whitening, it is a subtle whitening that we have of the history, but at the same time something that marks,” he explains.

But this would not be the only case of a black population removed from the space they inhabited. The creation of the Restinga neighborhood, in the extreme south of Porto Alegre, is, in Asumpção’s view, another chapter of this history of erasingout and turning blacks away from the city’s looks. “The neighborhood comes from the people of Ilhota who were expelled in the 1960s during the urbanization of Porto Alegre. A hygienic cleaning, Ilhota was removed and all were sent to the Restinga. So no wonder the neighborhood has this large black population, because it comes from those who were in Ilhota. Porto Alegre has always treated blacks badly, and it is not mimimi (whining), it’s historical facts. Where are the blacks of Porto Alegre’s downtown? They are all in the peripheries, the outskirts of the city. Where are the blacks in the historical formation of Porto Alegre? Where are the blacks in the history books of Porto Alegre? There is a total embranquecimento,” he protests.

Rio Grande do Sul: The Invisibility of Blacks in one of Brazil's Whitest States
Removal of the families in Ilhota. Photo: CP Memória

Author of the recently released Além da Invisibilidade: história social do racismo em Porto Alegre durante o pós-abolição (Beyond Invisibility: The Social History of Racism in Porto Alegre during the Post-Abolition), Marcus Vinicius de Freitas Rosa points out another important moment to understand the erasure of blacks in Porto Alegre history: the policy adopted at the beginning of the new Republic in the 1930s. “(President Getúlio) Vargas made an effort to construct a Brazilian regional identity, so it is a period that the provincial and municipal government here in Porto Alegre greatly encouraged the Carnival of the lower classes, where there was already a participation of the very massive black population. Carnival has always been a conflict, because while it is a symbol of Brazilianness, it was encouraged at a time when the regional identity of the gaúcho was being constructed under a notion of raça branca (white race). The identity of the gaúcho was constructed on the imagination of a white race, so this is also a criterion that differentiates us from regional to national identity. National identity is based on an idea of miscegenation between Indians, Europeans and Africans, and Rio Grande do Sul believes that it has a pure identity, which has never been evident,” observes Rosa.

It was at this time that one of the places of the city officially marked by black history was renamed in an attempt to reinforce the formation of a regionalist culture. In 1935, the then Parque da Redenção (Redemption Park) was renamed Parque Farroupilha (Farroupilha Park). The year marked the centenary of the revolt led by gaúcho ranchers dissatisfied with the taxes levied on charque (beef jerky) produced in the state. To honor the date and reinforce the identity of Gauchism, the governments of the time decided to set aside the initial nomenclature of the space located between the Bom Fim and Floresta neighborhood, leaving aside the tribute to the end of slavery, as the original name referred to – and which is still the most popular among Porto Alegre and park goers.

Rio Grande do Sul: The Invisibility of Blacks in one of Brazil's Whitest States
Ilhota families in the 1960s were taken to Restinga. Foto: CP Memória

The consequences of embranquecimento

With their forgotten role in official historiography and marginalized through policies considered hygienist, black gaúchos and Porto Alegre were gradually being forgotten when the state introduced its population to the rest of the country. Investing in the idea of a society made up solely of immigrants, the presence of black people here still amazes the inhabitants of other states, as Rosa says: “I am promoting the book in other regions of the country, so when I go to Salvador, Recife, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, people are still surprised to learn that there are black people in Rio Grande do Sul, because they continue to this day with an image of a state where there are only immigrants. They think everyone here is blond with blue eyes. But Rio Grande do Sul constructed an image of itself centered on immigration, we erased the history of slavery of Africans and their descendants in this region of the country, and consequently also the blacks of the state.”

The feeling is not just that of the scholar. Flávio Bandeira also felt up close the surprise when he identified himself as a gaúcho. “One of the first times I went to São Paulo alone, I went to play futebol with a group of friends I met there, people said my accent was different and they asked me where I was from. I said I was gaúcho. I showed that there are black people in Rio Grande do Sul. My parents, when traveling to Porto Seguro on vacation, strolling there, left people surprised to learn that there are black people here. Those who study black history a little deeper see that its representation is strong, but it is at all times stifled,” opined the journalist. Beyond the astonishment, the lack of representativeness is pointed directly as one of the causes of the great inequality between whites and blacks in the state. If racism exists in every country, the numbers of official organs make it clear that it is much more severe in the pay of gaúchos.

“This southern, gaúcho identity, excludes instead of including” – Fernanda Oliveira

In the study “Desenvolvimento Humano para Além das Médias” (Human Development Beyond Averages), released by the Institute of Applied Economic Research (IPEA) in 2018, Porto Alegre appears as the most unequal city for blacks and whites. The municipal human development index (MHDI) for whites is 0.833, while for the black population it is 0.705, a difference of 18.2%. This index measures the quality of life of the inhabitants of a region and the best result is the closest to 1. Across the state the difference between whites and blacks averages 13.9%, with whites always having the best conditions. What the numbers say, Bandeira felt in life-long practice. Passionate about racing and a rock fan, he spent much of his life going to places where black people are not common. “When I started to have more contact with karting and racing I noticed how the black doesn’t belong there. It is there because it is present, because it wants to be. I have my kart friends, I’m the only black guy and I know that sometimes I need to speak firmly to be heard, respected and not let them try to diminish me in any way,” he reveals.

Fernanda Oliveira evaluates that the impact of this disappearance of blacks in history is not only a problem of the affected population, but something that brings harm to everyone. “I believe there is a negative impact on every society, it loses what is most potent about it, which is plurality. You make a unique identity of the place where many people do not identify, we do not identify women, blacks, people with dissident sexuality, indigenous people. We do not have a plurality presence, so it is most perverse in what is the potential of places, which is what people are able to produce from their places and social positions. So this southern identity, gaúcha, excludes rather than includes.”

Retelling the story

Alê Santos started with a series of Twitter posts to tell the story of great black figures that were forgotten by Brazil, and that’s where the idea for the book Rastros da Resistência came from. With him, the writer wants to bring to the surface what has been historically hidden for years and see other people like him meet in the characters that were unknown until then. “It was an example of my own recognition, because I am constantly reading, watching documentaries trying to find some figure that I could identify with, because it makes me understand my part as black too. I found in these stories the answers to deal with all prejudice, answers that I did not find in life,” he says.

In the evaluation of Marcus Vinicius de Freitas Rosa, the process of showing black characters with public honors is fundamental for the gaúchos to have a broader perception and more consistent with the reality of how the state was formed. “There is something called colonization of the imagination, which means that most people, when they imagine the past, exclude black people. The historical imagination is also permeated by racial criteria, we exclude black people and indigenous people from history, so it is important to make them visible through street names, building statues, re-naming avenues, building libraries and giving them the name of by black writers such as Machado de Assis, Lima Barreto and others. Doing so helps deconstruct black invisibility in history.”

Some black personalities

Rio Grande do Sul: The Invisibility of Blacks in one of Brazil's Whitest States
Carlos Santos was a state deputy and came to become part of the state’s government. Foto: CP Memória

Carlos Santos (1904 – 1989)

A native of Rio Grande, in the southern region of the state, he became involved with the trade union movement in 1930, shortly after the revolution led by Getúlio Vargas. He became an auxiliary inspector of the Ministry of Labor and Social Action, organizing the Union of Metallurgical Workers, a position in which he spent a short time. In 1935, he was elected state deputy (congressman) as a classist representative, being the first black to occupy a seat in the gaúcho parliament. He held the position until 1937, when Vargas contructed the Estado Novo, New State, through a coup. He became a newspaper contributor and majored in letters in 1945. In 1958, he was elected again as state deputy, holding the office until 1963. In 1967, Santos, then deputy of the MDB, assumed the presidency of the Legislative Assembly, a position that allowed him to assume the state government, having occupied the seat long before Alceu Collares (PDT) was elected governor. He remained in the Assembly until 1975, the year in which he ran for the position of federal deputy and was elected, holding the position until 1975 after a re-election. During his political career he stood out for denouncing and combating racism both in Rio Grande do Sul and directly in Brasília.

Aurélio Verissimo de Bittencourt The Invisibility of Blacks in one of Brazil's Whitest States

Aurélio Verissimo de Bittencourt (1849 – 1919)

A civil servant, he was one of the trusted men of the first Republican governments in the state, both under the management of Júlio de Castilhos and Borges de Medeiros. Born in Jaguarão in 1849, he died in Porto Alegre in 1919. In the Capital, he held important positions in public administration and was linked to groups of literate blacks, being one of those involved in the founding of the O Exemplo meaning ‘the example, a journal that became the voice of blacks in the south of the country. The newspaper has had three phases since its foundation, the first circulating from 1892 to 1897. On Monday, the newspaper was edited for eight years, between 1902 and 1910. In the third, the longest, it circulated between 1916 and 1930.

The Invisibility of Blacks in one of Brazil's Whitest States

Luciana Lealdina de Araújo (1870 – 1930)

Born on June 13, 1870 in Porto Alegre, Lucinda became known when she moved to the city of Pelotas. After contracting tuberculosis, she made a promise that in case of cure he would found a house to house exclusively black girls. At the time, at the end of the 19th century, the black children abandoned in the circle of the rejected had great difficulty in being adopted and were not accepted in most of the shelters that offered shelter. Cured of tuberculosis, Luciana founded in 1901 the São Benedito orphanage. In 1909, he repeated the action in Bagé, with the creation of the São Benedito Orphanage. In both institutions children of all colors were accepted, inside they were literate and had several other teachings. According to the Ph.D in history, Fernanda Oliveira, education has always been a very prominent area for black women.

With information courtesy of Correio do Povo

Source: Informativo, Correio do Povo


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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