Memories on the Edge of Oblivion

Anthropologist André Cicalo, a researcher at the Free University of Berlin, shows in the documentary Memories of Forgetfulness a paradoxical truth: Rio de Janeiro, which was the largest slave port in the world until the his slave past. Pushed to the periphery, the poor Afro-Brazilian population is comfortably silenced in the name of a “racial democracy” that extols the myth of a miscegenation supposedly achieved in Brazil. The former place of the common slaves of slaves killed before the sale (the New Black Cemetery) in the port region is completely covered with houses and is strongly ignored by the state, which has little interest in rescuing the slave history of the region.


This essay proposes to discuss the scarce visibility of slave history and memory in the urban landscape of Rio de Janeiro, especially in the context of historical processes of urban reconversion, national mestizaje ideologies and recent affirmative policies in favor of the Afro-Brazilian population. The considerations presented here emerged from my process of audiovisual ethnographic research in the center of Rio de Janeiro and particularly in the port quarter of Gamboa, which was the largest port of slave trade in the world until much of the 19th century. Given the general ‘invisibility’ of this memory, I wonder how this ‘absence’ can be approached visually today, so that it does not become a permanent amnesia in the future.

Numerous authors such as Conde(1), Caulfield(2) and Abreu(3) described the process of urban reconversion in the center of Rio de Janeiro in the first half of the last century. The center of Rio, in the eyes of its rulers, was not a region worthy of a city with great aspirations in the international socio-economic context, especially due to its hygienic and social problems. It was here that the poor population was concentrated in slums (4) crowded with high crime rates, prostitution, and disease outbreaks. In addition, the center of Rio had an unusable port with a geography that hampered urban development due to its mountains, lagoons and small islands. The government’s social and physical sanitation project substantially reproduced Haussmann’s architecture in Paris: the city had to be not only beautiful and modern, but also had to “breathe” through large open spaces, since the crowding was one of the major causes of disease (5). The transformation has developed through the following points and phases:

1) Transform Rio de Janeiro into a wonderful city, emphasizing the style of Paris. Elegant boulevards, squares, parks, theaters, monuments and luxurious buildings were designed.

2) To create an efficient road infrastructure worthy of a modern capital.

3) Shift poverty from the city to the periphery. Whole blocks of the center were demolished, where the poor population was found.

4) In a second moment, the ideal of “beauty” and “health” was replaced by the ideal of “practical” and “rational”: most luxurious buildings built at the beginning of the 20th century were later demolished and, skyscrapers were built and the urban communication system was increased. Finally, the poor and black population moved away – in a violent way; entire hills were demolished, the harbor and the lagoons covered with earth; built tunnels and became part of the historic center in business area (6). This process, which continued under the administration of Carlos Lacerda in the 1960s, on the one hand increased the creation of favelas (illegal neighborhoods) also in the hills closer to the center, since a part of the population refused to move to the periphery of the city – quite frankly far from workplaces – and on the other contributed to immigration to the capital from other parts of Brazil. Although this new phase has been consummated through the ideas of communist architecture of Niemeyer, the division of the public space was kept in ‘private’. The ‘modern’ buildings were programmed in a clearly classistic manner, defining entrances and service elevators and segregated internal spaces; for example the small rooms of maids, usually dimly lit, between the laundry area and the kitchen.

In this process, the port area survived physically but remained totally isolated from the rest of the residential neighborhoods. With the gradual decay of the port and the social promiscuity in this area, the local bourgeoisie began to migrate towards the present ‘South Zone’ of Rio de Janeiro, whose most known districts are Copacabana and Ipanema. Other inhabitants returned to their countries of origin (especially Italy, Portugal and Spain). Thus, the connection of the center of the city with the neighborhoods of the south zone was favored, while the suburbs and other peripheral areas, whose population was mostly mestizo and black, remained more isolated (7).

As Campos (8) stresses, this process of social displacement can not be read without a consideration in terms of race relations. The sanitation of the city coincided with the forced centrifugal movement of the black population and its cultural expressions towards the periphery or the favelas that formed in the mountainous surroundings of the noble and central areas. This dynamic, according to Maite Conde, can be seen in the first documentary films about Rio de Janeiro. At the beginning of the last century there was an explosion of films that documented the transformation of the city into a modern and global capital. The black and popular sectors appeared marginally in the first silent films with their Afro-Brazilian folk expressions (dances, Carnival); however, they disappeared from the scene when the interest in projecting a more efficient and ‘European’ image of the Rio de January. Robert Stam9 and Araújo10 also explain how, with the development of Brazilian cinema spoken, blacks and natives have long been interpreted by white actors, marking a trend already present in the United States (see the concept of blackface in that country ). This fact alone shows aspects of how the social participation of ‘blacks’ and indigenous peoples has developed ambiguously through processes of invisibility and segregation; indeed, when these groups became more visible in the public and cinematographic sphere, they were often represented and caricatured by others.

According to Conde, the aspirations of modernity for a country with a colonial slave past, along with the ideology of racial democracy, hastened the rulers to cancel any physical and architectural traces of the slavery system12. However, the main effect of this policy was not to eliminate racism, but to silence it and remove it from public debate and partly from the face of national history. In this sense, the term “racial democracy” is used today more in the sense of its negation: a racist system that denies racism and is sufficiently capable of hiding its evidence.


Tia Lúcia, filmada pelo autor, entrando na sua casa no Morro do Pinto (Julho 2008). Foto (c) André Cicalò.

Aunt Lucia, filmed by the author, entering her house in Morro do Pinto (July 2008). Photo (c) André Cicalò.

At the beginning of my fieldwork, I was surprised that Rio de Janeiro, the largest slave port in the world until part of the century. XIX, did not present significant traces of his slave past. To explain this situation, it was not enough to observe that most of Rio’s historic center had been overthrown. Indeed, in what remains of the old part of the city, the traces of the slave past emerge significantly. The lives of slaves in the center of Rio de Janeiro (including arrival, sale, and forced labor) are recorded in the paintings of Debret and Rugendas or in archival-historical archives13. It is however absent in monuments and in the visual reading of urban space. In Rio de Janeiro there are no senzalas14 and pelourinhos15 that are magnified in other parts of the Atlantic where the slave past has been used to construct identity as well as for commercial purposes. The places of colonial Rio de Janeiro do not speak of the slave system, but of the white and rich families that have used it. An example is the area around Plaza XV, where the most noble sector of Rio’s historic center survives to this day. The explanatory panels of monuments do not tell us much about slavery, except that they emphasize their abolition by members of the royal family. In the center of Rio there is also a hidden, small and decadent ‘Museu do Negro’ in the Church of the Rosary, whose collection is extremely poor and limited, with no original objects and updated information. Also surprisingly few are the references to slavery in the National Historical Museum, which confirms the mystifying power of racial democracy.

In the port area of ??Gamboa, which represented the core of the slave trade in ancient Rio, the visibility of this story is equally minimal. The places of sale of slaves are not mapped or explained. In the same way, an archaeological excavation was never undertaken to the Slave Cemetery, cited by several historical sources and accidentally located by accident in 1996, during remodeling works in a private house. The José Bonifácio Cultural Center, the only Cultural Center dedicated to Afro-Brazilian culture, administered by the municipality, is very close to this dynamic: this Center has the name of a notable Portuguese, and the official plates do not even define it as Afro-Brazilian; their activities are very scarce and fragmentary in relation to the size of space. Among the workers at this Cultural Center there is a lack of information about the identity of the place. Several interviewees told me wrongly that ‘Jose Bonifacio’ was black; others consider that the Center should not be dedicated to Afro culture, but to all the ‘races’ and ‘cultures’ that make up Brazil. In May 2011 I was informed that this Cultural Center closed for reasons of structural reform. There is total ignorance on the part of the local population, and an absolute mystery on the part of the institutions, on the future function of the building.

It is important to emphasize that even though Gamboa’s port area played a significant role in the slave trade process, it is far less represented in Rio than in other Brazilian cities where the tradition of trafficking was much smaller, such as Belo Horizonte and São Paulo; even less represented than in English cities that had connections with this type of commerce without being object of the massive importation of slaves. In Liverpool and Bristol, for example, there are significant museological routes on slavery and black history, much more so than in Rio de Janeiro.

The context thus far described becomes even more important in the light of its interweaving with two phenomena:

1) the debate about the recent introduction of affirmative racial actions in Brazil, and of differential rights for ethnic and racial groups in Latin America, as a measure to rebalance the inequalities that traditionally affect these groups in the redistribution of public resources. The debate surrounding these actions has been enormous. In the opinion of some thinkers and part of public opinion16, “racial” politics would divide Brazilian society in a “black / white” bipolar form, according to a typically foreign model “imposed” from the United States in a more or less imperialist way. In this sense, affirmative actions of a racial nature would not only mean openly admitting the presence of racial discrimination in a country that built much of its national pride on ‘mestizaje’ and the absence of models of official racial segregation, as happened in the United States and South Africa, as they would also represent something purely antinational.

2) Gamboa is being targeted by a massive investment program, known as the ‘Porto Maravilha’ project, with the aim of transforming this degraded and neglected area of ??Rio de Janeiro into a residential and commercial space for tourism and the upper class , similar to what has happened in other cities in the world (Barcelona, ??for example), with great doubts about the impact of this process of gentrification on the less affluent population and on the forgetting of slave history in Rio de Janeiro. In fact, the ‘Porto Maravilha’ project did not present any element for the valorization of slave history, even for tourism purposes.

These two processes are strongly related to the visibility / invisibility of slavery in modern times, with their potential symbology for the language of the urban landscape, with the traditional ‘silence’ that Brazil reserves for the black and racial question, and the eventual reformulation of collective historical identities considered dangerous for national harmony.

In this context, a visual study of black historical memory in the center of Rio de Janeiro can only be done in terms of ‘absence’. An absence that is more emblematic of the history of racial democracy than of black historical memory. Giving visibility to the history of slavery is something that is seemingly antithetical to the preservation of a national pride built upon miscegenation, ignoring the possibility of rebuilding a new common identity on the basis of a shared collective tragedy. The acceptance of this approach, as it turns out, is not so simple; at least at the outset, seems to serve to foster divisions and hatred more than national understanding and solidarity. The most significant bibliographic reference I have found on this subject is not in Latin America but in South Africa. Annie Coombes, 18 in his History after Apartheid: Visual Culture and Public Memory in a Democratic South Africa (History after Apartheid: Culture Visual and Public Memory in a Democratic South Africa) shows how emblematic monuments of the nationalist pride of white communities have become collective symbols of a tragedy for the whole of society, and are nowadays highly significant to blacks (and whites) as being a crucial aspect of its history. The post-apartheid phase in South Africa has also promoted museological strategies that have been highly criticized for showing the suffering and tragedy experienced by black communities until 1994. Among them, reproductions of the interiors of homes and workplaces, as well as expressions produced in a context of institutional subordination with few possibilities of escape. Many museums in Johannesburg can be interpreted as the public memory of terror; there are entire sections dedicated to documentation in newspapers and audiovisual documents of homicides executed by the police, repression of the movement of protest of the black masses. The same journalistic and juridical resources that in the past served to justify white supremacy and discourage the opposition are now supporters who emphasize the national tragedy. There are shocking information and images that disturb the visitor and simultaneously promote a reflection to prevent the occurrence from happening again in the future.

This new institutional approach in South Africa is very different from what is happening in Rio de Janeiro. The difference is not only due to the diversity of the historical and political context of the two countries, but also to the institutional will to make use of a historically dramatic fact to reconstruct the collective memory and the national identity on aspects that have traditionally been hidden under governmental censorship. On the other hand, it is important to emphasize that the monuments of Apartheid were neither destroyed nor obliterated by the new democratic system, but enriched and reinterpreted to emphasize an unjust history and to “tame” the symbolic system of the Apartheid. The visual part of the preexisting South African national monuments has been reprocessed in an attempt to contextualize the past and “perhaps neutralize it through the objectification of its representations”. This strategy, according to Coombes, may have the paradoxical effect of “re-contextualizing symbolically aspects of the past, while opening the eyes on the processes by which certain stories are lived in the public domain.” Despite the criticism received in the same country where part of public opinion (including Nelson Mandela) was more favorable to ‘forgetting’ for reconciliation, Coombes notes that similar strategies, if implemented, would risk favoring ‘adequate amnesia’ ‘about the struggle for democracy and the sacrifices made during the struggle for liberation.(22)

Excerpt from the essay “Memories of a forgetfulness: questioning the invisibilities of black history in the urban landscape of Rio de Janeiro”, by André Cicalò

Introductory note and translation of the original into Spanish: Inês Thomas Almeida

This article was originally published in

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  • 19.(Coombes, 2003:53)
  • 20.(Coombes, 2003: 295)
  • 21.(Coombes, 2003:295)
  • 22.(Coombes, 2003:162)