In front of Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas in Rio de Janeiro, with a view of Christ, the Redeemer, is the site of one of the most beautiful stories of black resistance in Brazil. In the middle of luxury condominiums and high security walls, seven families of descendents of slaves have struggled for possession of their land on which they have lived for over a century.
This year, the families of the first and most valuable urban quilombo* of the country are very close to having their title to the land officially recognized. But judging by the long history of the siege on their land by the local elite, the definitive victory is still not assured.
José Luiz Pinto Junior, 67, known in the city as Luiz Sacopã, in reference to the name of the quilombo and the street on which he lives, saw his nearly 100 year-old father die in bed, sick and sad, one day after an aggressive police intervention happened in 1986.
His sister, a singer known as Tia Nenê in Rio’s samba circles, also had a similar end in 2005, dying the day after she had a vehement argument with Judge Antonio Eduardo Duarte, an powerful enemy of the community.
Luiz, however, has remained in the struggle for the community’s rights, and after an intermediate agreement with Incra (National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform), he is very optimistic about the possibility of the community gaining permanent land title.
The Lagoa is one of the most exclusive neighborhoods of Rio de Janeiro. Real estate companies have attempted to expel “undesirable” inhabitants. In the 1960’s during the Carlos Lacerda government, the infamous secretary of habitation, Sandra Cavalcante, removed the favelas [shantytowns] from the region.
To some of the black descendents of the quilombo, she offered rewards or small houses in Santa Cruz, the poorest neighborhood of Rio. Luiz and his family tried to explain to their community that their land was worth far more than Cavalcante was offering, and would be worth even more in the future.
But they were not successful. Seduced by very little but easy money, many of the quilombo migrated to the eastern zone of the city. “In some cases, they alleged that this was a nature preserve and removed people. The minute the former owners left, they began to put up buildings,” said Luiz.
According to anthropologist Fabio Reis Mota of the Federal Fluminense University, the driving force of the public power to remove populations around the Lagoa was “based on the idea of cleansing the city, making it morally habitable. The Public Power took up a policy of expulsion of various local families to the peripheries of the city. The favela, as a pejorative and stigmatic category, became a problem for the city, a problem which had to be terminated and removed from the image of Rio as a paradise.”
As is common when real estate speculation intervenes, the region grew tremendously in value after the removal of these families. The favela of Catacumba, in the same region and where Luiz’s grandparents arrived and began the story, was entirely demolished, as were the other quilombo communities in the area.
Much to the surprise of all of those who knew about the successive attacks suffered by the people, what remained was one area inhabited by blacks. “It is a challenge to the sociological imagination to explain what were the mechanisms and strategies adopted by the group to retain their territory so coveted by the political and economic forces of the city,” commented Mota.
The community today occupies 32,000 square meters, the equivalent of three soccer fields. It is estimated that each square meter today is worth 12 million Brazilian reais (about US$ 6 million). This value has raised envy from every avenue of power, public and private, and repression has surged in various forms.
The community has already received four eviction notices, one private, one state and two city, the last one under Mayor Cesar Maia (2001-2009). Before this, Mayor Luis Paulo Conde in 2000 implemented the José Guilherme Melchior Park, which covered a good portion of the quilombo.
During that time a real estate company assumed the fight over the land. The president of the local neighborhood association, Anas Simas, who was then a friend of the quilombo, surprisingly moved her discourse to be in favor of the real estate company.
Although the principal cause of the persecution the quilombo has suffered is real estate speculation, there is consensus that racism has been a significant factor. “We know that it bothers many to have a quilombo in such a rich area. It is about everything: social, real estate and racial issues,” commented actress Zezé Mota, a friend of Luiz.
One case is particularly interesting. In 2001 the Rio Justice department ordered that the houses of the quilombo be chained shut to keep out the owners. The owners still have these same chains today, which they see as symbols reminiscent of their ancestors’s slavery. “Since they can no longer chain our ankles, they now chain our doors,” said Luiz.
At various times, the repression has been in the form of economics, restricting commercial activity in the quilombo. The Justice department has always alleged that in these areas, no commercial activity is allowed. The quilombo resisted, and today they still make their feijoada (a bean dish) on the second Saturday of the month to sell.
The income from the feijoada helps to sustain the community as well as a samba school which was begun by the community. One may even assert that the cultural activities have helped turn back the waves of persecution.
Luiz and Tia Nenê inherited from their mother their taste for samba and their musical talent. Their feijoadas have become famous since the founding of the samba school. In October of 2004, the community celebrated the official declaration of the Ministry of Culture recognizing the quilombo as the first urban quilombo of the country.
The concept of an urban quilombo has caused confusion, as the majority in social as well as academic circles understand the word quilombo to be an isolated, far-flung place.
“For a long time, we spoke of black rural communities as the way to characterize quilombos. However, we commonly forget that the city, the urban, the rural are always contextual, and consequently there is transformation of these spaces: the rural into the urban, or the urban into the rural,” commented Mato.
“What is today urban was in the beginning of the 20th century a web of swamps, rivers and lakes. These representations end up transforming themselves into preconceived notions about quilombos, whose concepts no longer fit these notions.”
Even the state legislation is beginning to define quilombos with other conceptual orientations. The Sacopã quilombo is now not the only quilombo in the city. In the Pedra do Sal region there is another community striving for legal recognition.
*Translator’s note: A quilombo is a community of descendents of slaves who ran away from captivity and founded these villages. Generally, these quilombos are located in rural areas.
Brasil de Fato