Luiz Pinto, who has been fighting eviction for decades, at home with his dog. (Carolina Ramirez/The Huffington Post)
When Luiz Pinto was growing up, his parents wouldn't let the family talk about slavery. The issue raised ugly memories.
grandmother was born into slavery. She threw herself into a river
before Pinto was born, taking her own life after the son of a wealthy,
white landowner raped her. The subjects of slavery and racism became
taboo in the Pinto household, a sprawling set of orange brick homes
perched on a hilltop where Rio de Janeiro’s famed statue of Christ the
Redeemer is visible in the distance through the trees.
“I only knew her from photographs,” says Pinto, a 72-year-old samba musician.
days, Brazil’s legacy of slavery takes up much of Pinto’s time. He
travels across the state of Rio de Janeiro and back and forth to the
capital in Brasília, more than 700 miles away, to lobby for the land
rights of people who live in communities said to be founded by runaway
slaves. Such communities are known in Portuguese as “quilombos.”
According to Brazilian law, residents of quilombos have a constitutional
right to land settled by their ancestors -- and that right, though
rarely fulfilled, is quietly revolutionizing the country’s race
In the past year, as all eyes turned toward Brazil in
anticipation of the World Cup, international media offered ample
coverage of the country’s staggering inequality. Reports have
highlighted the stark contrast between Brazil’s hardscrabble slums and
its glittering soccer stadiums. What has received less attention is the
civil rights movement gradually gaining momentum throughout the country.
Brazil imported more slaves from Africa between the 16th and
19th centuries than any other country in the Americas. In 1889, it
became the last nation in the Western Hemisphere to outlaw the
institution. Today, more people of African descent live in Brazil than
in any country in the world besides Nigeria. People of color make up 51
percent of Brazil’s population, according to the most recent census.
and large, black Brazilians live in the worst housing and attend the
poorest schools. They work the lowest-paid jobs, and they
disproportionately fill the jail cells of the world’s fourth largest prison system.
This lopsided state of affairs, Afro-Brazilian intellectuals and the
country’s social scientists largely agree, is a result of racial
discrimination with roots in the country’s history of slavery.
has never experienced anything akin to the U.S. civil rights movement
or South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle. But the quilombo movement,
while still in its infancy, is challenging Brazil’s deeply ingrained
racial inequality. Ratified in 1988 after a two-decade-long military
dictatorship, Brazil’s constitution states that residents of quilombos
are entitled to a permanent, non-transferable title to the land they
occupy -- something analogous to the United States’ Native American
reservations, minus the self-government.
Now, more than 1 million
black Brazilians are calling upon the government to honor their
constitutional right to land. Among them are Luiz Pinto and his family,
who have fended off decades of eviction attempts and managed to remain
ensconced in their quilombo, known as Sacopã, in a neighborhood
gentrified long ago by wealthier, whiter Brazilians.
in Brazil stands in stark contrast to that of the United States, where,
as the author Ta-Nehisi Coates pointed out in a widely read cover story for The Atlantic
this May, Congress has repeatedly refused to pass a bill calling for a
simple public study on the impact reparations would have on the
descendants of slaves. The idea that the U.S. government would even
consider handing thousands of tracts of land to black communities is
Few Brazilian conservatives find the idea appealing,
either. Many of them have scorned the quilombo movement as an affront
to property rights and have tried to overturn the law in court. And
despite drafting the quilombo law in the first place, the Brazilian
government has been so slow to hand over land titles to the communities
in question that many applicants wonder if they’ll ever receive them.
they face an uncertain future, Brazil’s quilombos nevertheless contain
the seeds of what may well become the most ambitious slavery reparations
program ever attempted.
Luiz Pinto at home in quilombo Sacopã. (Carolina Ramirez/The Huffington Post)
trees and towering condominiums flank the cobblestone road that leads
to quilombo Sacopã. New Kias and Volkswagens line the street, while
gated parking lots protect more valuable SUVs. Virtually none of the
residents of this section of Rio de Janeiro’s Lagoa neighborhood, with
the exception of the Pinto family, are black.
There was a time
when only black people lived on the forested hillsides of Sacopã,
huddled together in makeshift houses of mud and bamboo. Pinto’s
grandparents traveled to the city by river with roughly 150 other
ex-slaves in the late 19th century, he says, and settled among the local
indigenous people, far away from the bustling city center to the north
or the middle-class residential areas that would later envelop them.
“The quilombos became favelas,” Pinto says, referring to the slums that surround Rio and many other major Brazilian cities.
razed much of Sacopã in the 1970s, when Rio’s growing middle and upper
classes pushed into the neighborhood and sent land values skyrocketing.
Local authorities expelled or relocated virtually all the black
residents, most of whom were considered squatters, from Sacopã’s
hillsides, clearing the way for high-rise condominiums populated by
wealthier, paler-skinned Brazilians.
Pinto’s nephew, José Claudio,
now 50, was 12 years old the first time the authorities visited
quilombo Sacopã and threatened to kick the family out because they
couldn’t prove ownership of the land. Two military police trucks rolled
into the driveway. The cops said the family’s houses would be
A lucky connection allowed the Pinto family to escape
eviction. It happened that the family’s lawyer was married to a
high-ranking military officer. In the days of Brazil’s military
dictatorship, which lasted from 1964 to 1985, the order of a general
carried far more weight than a stack of legal documents.
never forget it,” José Claudio told The Huffington Post. “The
subtenente, or whoever was in charge of the troops, saluted him and he
said: ‘No one’s getting kicked out of here.’ That was our first
The security afforded by the family’s loose connection
to the general lasted only as long as the military dictatorship itself.
In 1986, a year after Brazil’s return to democracy, the cops came back
to Sacopã, and this time they stayed. For one year, local authorities
stationed two round-the-clock policemen outside Sacopã and locked the
kitchen shut to keep the Pinto family from hosting parties or playing
“They chained us up here,” José Claudio said, rattling
a rusted lock that still dangles from the kitchen window. “We couldn’t
Today, visitors to the neighborhood might not even
notice the Pinto family’s cluster of houses, hidden behind a towering
condo, if not for the sign in the driveway declaring the community’s
constitutionally protected status as a quilombo.
received quilombo certification in 2004 after undergoing a lengthy
application process with the federal government. Instead of trying to
kick them out, the authorities now guarantee the group’s right to stay
while the government carries out the work of demarcating the land.
Still, as is the case with the vast majority of Brazil’s quilombos, a
complicated bureaucratic system has prevented the Pintos from receiving
the title to their land.
“Nothing happens,” Pinto says. “The headway we’ve made for quilombo land rights in this country is practically nil.”
Without a land title, the Pintos live in a state of limbo, the threat of eviction looming constantly.
Claudio Pinto holds the lock that was once used to keep the windows of
quilombo Sacopã's kitchen shut. (Carolina Ramirez/The Huffington Post)
Brazilians familiar with the term “quilombo” associate it with the
country's past rather than its present. The word has been in use for
hundreds of years, dating back to the colonial period -- roughly the
sixteenth century through 1825 -- when runaway slave settlements dotted
the Brazilian countryside. The most famous of those settlements,
Palmares, grew to more than 15,000 inhabitants and lasted nearly a
century before the Portuguese destroyed it in 1694.
term faded from use during the early 20th century, by the 1950s,
advocates trying to lend momentum to a nascent black Brazilian civil
rights effort began to resurrect it.
symbolic power of the quilombo appealed to former Congresswoman
Benedita da Silva. In 1986, after Brazil’s military dictatorship ended,
da Silva was one of 11 Afro-Brazilians among the 594 members of Congress elected
to draw up the country’s new founding document. She managed to convince
a body of lawmakers composed largely of light-skinned men to lay the
framework for a modern-day, Brazilian version of “40 acres and a mule.”
da Silva’s law, quilombo members own their land outright. They pay no
rent and no one, no matter how rich, can legally kick them out (with the
exception of the federal government, which is currently fighting
eminent domain battles in the courts with at least two certified
quilombos, whose respective claims overlap a Navy base and a space
The key to da Silva’s success was the law’s innocuous
phrasing. It specifies that descendants of residents of the quilombos
have a right to a permanent title to the land they occupy. But the term
“quilombo” was left legally undefined for years, implying that it would
be necessary for any such community to be able to trace its direct
lineage to a runaway slave settlement. Most of the assembly members who
voted for da Silva’s article likely viewed it as a symbolic gesture that
would affect only a handful of communities.
It didn’t work out
that way. In 2003, the left-wing government of President Luiz Inácio
“Lula” da Silva expanded the legal definition of the term “quilombo,”
issuing a presidential decree that categorized quilombo descendants as
an ethnicity. Under Brazilian law, people have the right to define their
own ethnicity for the purposes of social policy. With Lula’s new rule,
virtually any black community could become certified as a quilombo if a
majority of its residents decided to.
When Lula’s decree was
issued in 2003, there were 29 recognized quilombos in Brazil. As of
2013, that number had swelled to more than 2,400, comprising more than 1 million people, with hundreds more communities applying that have yet to be recognized.
government has certified quilombos in all but two of Brazil’s 26
states, from the tropical north to the industrialized south. There are
quilombos that encompass thousands of people and quilombos that consist
of just a few extended families. There are quilombos in the cities,
quilombos along the countryside, quilombos on islands and quilombos in
the rainforest. The land claimed by these communities totals about 4.4
million acres, according to the Brazilian federal government -- an area
roughly the size of New Jersey.
Asked if she knew her proposal would be applied so extensively, da Silva said that was always her intention.
course -- that’s what we were working for,” da Silva told HuffPost.
“[The article] wasn’t born just because I was at the Constitutional
Assembly. It was born because there existed and continues to exist a
black movement that includes academics, includes quilombolas, the
universities -- all dedicated to validating black people’s land rights.”
Yet the Brazilian government has shown little sign that it will
deliver the land titles promised by the constitution any time soon.
Itamar Rangel of the National Institute for Colonization and Land
Reform, the federal agency that carries out quilombo land titling, says
the constant delays owe to the necessity of negotiating a settlement and
indemnification with property holders. “Brazilian law defends the
property rights of any citizen,” Rangel told HuffPost. “Carrying out
this policy won’t be cheap.”
As of this year, only 217 quilombos
have received land titles. The Brazilian government issued only three
land titles in 2013, and another three the year before that -- the
lowest annual number since 2004.
quilombo movement is poorly prepared,” José Arruti, an anthropologist
at the State University of Campinas who studies quilombos, told
HuffPost. “Their communities began to organize and to understand the
political game a very short time ago.”
A sign in at the entrance to Sacopã announces the community's quilombo status. (Carolina Ramirez/The Huffington Post)
guitarist and singer with several records under his belt and a
following in Rio, Pinto inherited his vocation from his parents. His
father played the cavaquinho, a ukulele variation often used in samba,
Brazil’s national music, which evolved out of rhythms brought to the
country by African slaves. The songs his mother sang as she hung the
laundry to dry remain etched in Pinto’s head.
“She was a domestic
artist,” Pinto said, smiling as he recalled a tune his mother wrote
about the U.S. moon landing in 1969. “I’ve got a lot of her songs in my
repertoire that I play at my shows. She didn’t have the courage to
Music has helped Pinto’s land fight in more ways than
one. To receive certification as a quilombo, every community must pass
through a multi-step process involving three state agencies and a
government-commissioned study conducted by social scientists, who
document the cultural and historical characteristics that make for a
quilombo-specific ethnicity. For the researchers who filed Sacopã’s anthropological report in 2007, one of those characteristics was its music.
given me a lot of strength in this struggle,” said Pinto. “Being
onstage, you’re being heard by thousands of people, so you can explain
Hear Pinto sing his mother's song above.
heart of the Pintos’ quilombo is a covered space between the families’
houses, nestled among papaya and palm trees. Here adults gather,
children play and food is served on red picnic tables bearing the logo
for Itapaiva, a local beer. Some of the most legendary names in
Brazilian music -- Zeca Pagodinho and Beth Carvalho among them -- have
performed at the monthly parties Sacopã once hosted.
years, though, the local government has squelched those parties.
Neighbors in the towering buildings that flank the quilombo have
complained about the noise, and said the parking lot the family sets up
to earn extra cash is a violation of zoning laws that restrict
businesses in the neighborhood.
The open space that once hosted
famous names in Rio’s samba scene now sits idle, animated only on
Sundays when the family’s 28 members sit down at the red plastic tables
to an afternoon meal of feijoada, Brazil’s national dish, a stew of
black beans and pork.
Pinto said it’s unfair that the neighborhood
is zoned in favor of his whiter, wealthier neighbors. “The argument
they always use against us is that this is a strictly residential area,”
he said. “So we can’t do these things. But out there they’ve got
bakeries, they’ve got bars. It’s a cowardly way for them to destabilize
us so they can kick us out of here.”
Pinto and his grandson in the area of their quilombo that once hosted
lively parties. Neighbors' complaints have since shut down the events.
(Carolina Ramirez/The Huffington Post)
Former Brazilian Senator Demóstenes Torres of the Demócraticos 25 party, or DEM, ignited a controversy in 2010
when he called Brazil’s history of racial mixing “beautiful” and
expressly denied that black women were raped during slavery, even though
rape and other forms of abuse during that era are a matter of
historical record. (Torres himself has both African and European
Torres’ comments, however inaccurate, gestured toward
some widespread beliefs about race in Brazil. Like the United States,
Brazil built its early wealth on the backs of African slaves. But
historically, interracial relationships have always occurred far more
frequently in Brazil than in the U.S., and modern-day Brazil is a
largely mixed-race society where the terms “black” and “white” don’t
mean quite what they do in the United States.
Latinos in the U.S., many Afro-Brazilians view race on a spectrum where
skin color is measured by gradation. In 1976, when Brazil’s census first
allowed survey respondents to write in their race rather than picking
among the four options of white, black, “yellow” (Asian) and “pardo”
(mixed race/mulatto), respondents submitted 135 different terms to
describe their skin color. The dozens of self-selected shades included
“chestnut,” “dark white” and “regular,” as well as descriptions like
“black Indian,” “cinnamonish,” “navy blue” and “toasted.”
Pinto family itself encompasses a panorama of blackness, with both
dark-skinned members like Luiz and lighter-skinned members like José
Claudio, who nevertheless identifies as black.
“My mother married
a white man,” José Claudio said. “So I hear things. Sometimes white
people will say, ‘Oh, that black guy,’ I don’t know what. They don’t
know that I’m black too.”
Brazil’s widespread mixing of the races underpins the idea, popular in many quarters, that the country is a “racial democracy” in which members of all ethnicities live in harmony.
scientists and Afro-Brazilian intellectuals, on the other hand, have
long viewed this idea as wishful thinking, pointing to a growing body of
socioeconomic studies and statistics to bolster their case.
According to 2011 census figures, the most recent available, some 51 percent
of Brazilians identify as either black or mixed-race -- terms that
Brazilian statistics agencies often group together as simply “black.”
Among the poorest 10 percent of the population, 72 percent are black, according to a 2012 study by the Institute of Applied Economic Research. A 2013 study by the same organization found that 70 percent of homicide victims are black, while another study from 2010 found that 60 percent of the prison population is black.
reality may in fact be even grimmer than those numbers suggest. A
revealing 2011 survey of 2,500 Brazilians led by sociologist Edward
Telles asked each participant to identify his or her race and state his
or her household income and level of education. At the same time,
unbeknownst to the person taking the survey, the researcher would use a
palette with 11 shades running from off-white to nearly black to
identify the respondent’s skin tone.
Ordering the data by
self-reported race yielded mixed results. White Brazilians fared better,
but there was significant variation in education and income levels for
Brazilians of color. Ordering the data by observed skin color, however,
showed a sharp, repetitive pattern of inequality in which education and
income plummet as the respondent’s skin gets darker.
is pretty clear,” Telles said, explaining that while Brazil never
experienced explicit segregation akin to the United States, the
country’s history of slavery has molded a society where racism reveals
itself socioeconomically. “You wouldn’t think this is a largely black
country if you just looked at advertisements and who’s on the TV screen,
unless you were watching soccer. If you look at people in the stands at
the World Cup, they’re almost all white. How does that compare to the
people playing on the field?”
All of this is obvious to José
Claudio. “When someone sees a black guy in an imported car, they say
‘Damn, he must be a soccer player or a singer!’” he said. “What was left
over for black people was sports and music. No one thinks, ‘Damn, that
guy must be a doctor. Maybe he’s a lawyer or a pilot.’”
research, however, has yet to convince many on the Brazilian right that
reparations are the way to address racism. In 2004, conservative
politicians who would later go on to form the DEM sued the Lula da Silva
administration to overturn the presidential decree designating
quilombos as an ethnicity, accusing the president of illegally bypassing
Congress. (A representative DEM representative declined to comment for
this article, adding that the party no longer considers the lawsuit a
By summer 2010, the lawsuit had made its way up to the
country’s Supreme Justice Tribunal, where it has sat waiting for a
decision ever since. The suspense weighs like an anvil on people like
the Pinto family.
Meanwhile, quilombo certification and land titling continue to inch
forward. But overturning Lula’s decree would likely annul them,
destroying the movement overnight.
A view of Rio de Janeiro from the city's famous Christ the Redeemer statue. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
view of Rio’s Christ the Redeemer statue off in the distance is much
clearer from Ana Simas’ fourth-floor apartment at the bottom of the
hill. A psychiatrist with pale skin and shoulder-length brown hair,
Simas has called the neighborhood of Lagoa home since her birth in 1952.
seems an unlikely adversary for the Pinto family as they pursue their
quilombo land claim. Simas takes pride in her progressive politics. She
believes racism permeates Brazilian society. And she’s known the Pintos
for decades. When she married her former husband in 1989, a samba
musician named Jorge Simas, they held the wedding celebration at the
Pinto family home in Sacopã.
But the friendship began to fray in
1999, the year Simas was elected head of the neighborhood homeowners
association. Shortly after she took her new position, Pinto walked down
to her apartment and asked her to make a statement before the court in
support of his family’s land claim under Brazil’s squatter right law,
which they were using at the time as a defense against authorities who
were trying to evict them.
Simas refused. “It was the first time
over the years that I’d known him that I sensed something odd in the way
he was behaving,” she said. “It’s not up to me to decide if the land is
his. It’s up to him to prove if the land is his and it’s the judge’s
job to decide.”
As she took greater interest in the case, she
found more reasons to oppose it. The Pinto family’s claim extends across
an area designated as a nature reserve, which Simas refers to as “the
lung of the Zona Sul,” Rio’s ritzy southern section. In 2005, the
homeowners association joined a lawsuit filed by the Public
Environmental Ministry against the Pinto family and other alleged
squatters, accusing them of damaging the environment.
to doubt whether Sacopã was a quilombo at all. “I’ve never seen a
quilombo that was just one family,” she said. “All the other real
quilombos, like the quilombo of Jongo de Serrinha, are many families,
not just one.”
Curious for information about Sacopã’s origins, she
pulled the wedding certificate for Pinto’s parents from the local
archives. “Neither one of them was born there,” she said, producing a
photocopy of the document, which identifies the birthplace of both of
Pinto’s parents as a Rio suburb called Novo Friburgo. “What were they
doing being a quilombo here, if they’re from Novo Friburgo?”
Simas, head of the Lagoa neighborhood homeowners association, opposes
Sacopã's quilombo certification. (Carolina Ramirez/The Huffington Post)
is not the only one with questions about what does and doesn’t
constitute a quilombo. While Brazilian law tends to assign more
importance to a group’s culture than to its history, that idea has yet
to trickle down to much of the public.
Claudio Girafa, a white,
57-year-old civil engineer who comes to Pinto’s neighborhood on weekends
to watch the soccer games at his brother’s apartment, says it’s
important to him that quilombos prove their historical roots. “There’s a
lot of questioning in the area about whether [Sacopã] was really a
quilombo community,” he said. “I’m not against the idea of preserving
quilombos in principle, but I think it has to be very well proven
because it affects properties that were acquired later.”
researchers who filed Sacopã’s anthropological report confirming its
quilombo status in 2007 were aware that Pinto’s parents had been born in
Novo Friburgo. Pinto’s parents lived an itinerant life, traveling from
town to town and farm to farm in search of work before settling in the
late 1920s on the hill in Lagoa where the family lives today. Pinto’s
father was one of the workers who helped construct Rua Sacopã, the road
that snakes up the hill.
But Pinto maintains that his
grandparents had already arrived in the approximate area by the late
19th century, taking shelter in a cave lying within territory claimed by
the quilombo. And while the researchers couldn’t document the presence
of Pinto’s family prior to the 1920s, they wrote that the family’s
stories “seem to us very likely from the point of view of historical
What mattered for the anthropologists was that the
Pinto family’s collective memory pointed to the existence of a group
identity informed by a history of escaping slavery -- a quilombo
Still, the importance of this kind of group identity
can elude some Brazilians who have no personal stake in the quilombo
issue. Like many citizens, when asked if Brazil is a racist country,
Girafa is quick to say it’s not. But he believes that programs like the
quilombo movement and other forms of affirmative action only exacerbate
existing racial tensions by committing injustices against whites.
“There’s still discrimination, yes,” he said. “But what’s been done has
only made things worse.”
Pinto feels differently. For him, racism
isn’t just about being eyed suspiciously in rich parts of town, or
being told to enter through the back when he knocks on a door because
people assume he’s a servant -- indignities that many black Brazilians
Racism for Pinto means that his ancestors
were enslaved, and that once they were freed, his grandmother was raped
and his parents pushed into a slum. Racism means that after his parents
turned that slum into a home, the authorities tried to make him leave,
because now white people wanted to live there.
“Racism in Brazil is institutional,” Pinto said. “It’s everywhere. It’s very difficult to confront.”
his part, Pinto hopes to use the quilombo movement to shed light on the
country’s racial inequities. He said he was disappointed by the lack of
Afro-Brazilian participation in the protests against government
spending on the World Cup over the last year, which were largely led by
light-skinned, middle-class residents.
“The quilombo movement is
still very timid,” Pinto said. “We’re practically invisible to society.
So if we don’t go out now and show our faces in the street, go out and
protest, we’re going to be forgotten. We’re already forgotten.”
the Pinto family protests by continuing to balk in the face of eviction
threats and turning down offers of millions of reais, the local
currency, to abandon the place they’ve always called home.
Pinto often feels invisible in his own neighborhood. On a recent walk
with his grandson, he said, the two stopped at a plaza for a break.
Looking around, Pinto noticed they were the only two black people there.
“I feel racism much more strongly because I’m in a place where
only people with money live, and people with money are white,” he said.
“What I understand very well is that we’re black people in a place
reserved for white people.”
hold signs during a protest demanding better public services and
criticizing massive government spending on the World Cup. Pinto said he
was disappointed by the lack of Afro-Brazilian participation in the
World Cup protests, which were largely led by light-skinned,
middle-class residents. (Evaristo Sa/Getty Images)
Afro-Brazilians Demand Slavery Reparations Because 'Poverty Has A Color'
Viera Pereira holds a handful of dry soil on a patch of disputed land
his group has claimed under Brazil's constitutional right to reparations
for descendants of runaway slaves. (Carolina Ramirez/The Huffington
The dry grass crackled under Almir Vieira Pereira's shoes as he walked along the edges of the roça,
a small patch of land he's been fighting to plant on for years. He
grabbed a handful of soil and watched it puff into a smoky cloud as it
settled back to the ground.
Brazil's northeastern backlands are
known for their dryness. Perennial droughts have sent generations of
northeasterners fleeing from impoverished farming towns like this one
for the industrial cities of the South -- São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro,
Belo Horizonte. Barra do Parateca's soil had yet to recover from last
year's lack of rain.
But dry or not, the ability to walk freely
across this field marked a major victory for Pereira. He and a group of
slave descendants from the roughly 1,500-person hamlet of Barra do
Parateca have spent the last five years invading chunks of land across
the area that they say are rightfully theirs under a well-known but
haphazardly enforced article of the Brazilian Constitution. That law
guarantees permanent, non-transferable land titles
to Brazilians descended from the members of runaway slave settlements.
Such communities of descendants are known in Brazil as "quilombos."
is the world's fifth-largest country and relatively underpopulated, but
land ownership remains out of reach most of the nation's poor farmers,
many of whose ancestors worked the fields for European overlords. The
ability to plant one's own food marks the first step for people like
Pereira in a long march out of poverty and toward independence.
fight for land is all about producing food," Pereira, 39, said. "The
great thinkers of the world, they're thinking about creating things,
inventing things. We're still thinking about eating. If the government
really wants racial reparations, they have to at least give us the
possibility to think like equals."
Four years ago, anyone who
looked across this 15-acre plot would have seen razed earth littered
with broken ceramic tiles that had once served as the roof of a camp
shelter. The cops had wiped out that settlement after the neighbors who
owned the land, the Pereira Pinto family, failed to persuade Pereira and
his fellow quilombo residents to vacate the premises.
his group had had several run-ins with authorities before, but this
time was different. Normally, they would be allowed to finish the
harvest if they agreed to abandon the plot when they were done. This
time, police destroyed the crops in front of a crowd of Barra residents.
"Everyone was crying and we couldn't do anything," Pereira's friend, Ducilene Magalhães, recalled. "We just watched."
days, Pereira and Magalhães have arrived at an uneasy truce with the
landowners. Though the owners are in the midst of pursuing legal action
and have removed an irrigation system that once watered the field,
they're also reluctantly allowing the quilombo members to harvest crops
on a small patch of the property until the courts settle the dispute.
quilombos dotted the Brazilian landscape throughout the era of slavery,
which lasted from the 1500s until 1889, they faded into history during
the 20th century. Most of the legislators who approved the quilombo law,
ratified in 1988 as part of the new Brazilian Constitution, viewed it
as a symbolic gesture that would affect only a handful of families.
in 2003, a decree by left-wing President Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva
made it possible for virtually any black community to apply for quilombo
status, if a majority of its residents so decided.
order, the number of certified quilombos has skyrocketed from fewer than
three dozen to more than 2,400, with hundreds more in the process of
applying for recognition. In total, more than 1 million Brazilians are
demanding their constitutional right to land in what may become the
largest slavery reparations program ever attempted.
however, the program remains a dead letter for many. Despite a
constitutional guarantee and the lip service of almost 12 years of
continuous Worker Party-led government, only 217 quilombos have received
official land titles as of this year.
Impatient with the slow
hand of Brazilian bureacracy, quilombos across the country like Barra do
Parateca are invading the promised parcels of land, sometimes igniting
violent conflicts with their wealthier neighbors in the process.
photo, taken July 5, 2010, shows the ruins of the quilombo
association's makeshift shelter, which the police destroyed weeks
before. (Roque Planas/The Huffington Post)
who walk the lone paved street of the town of Barra do Parateca would
imagine that Brazil boasts the world's seventh-largest economy.
off the banks of the São Francisco river, about 400 miles into the
rain-starved interior of the state of Bahia, Barra do Parateca is
reachable only by boat or by a bumpy ride along a dirt road. Braying
donkeys wander freely, feeding on discarded cartons, plastic soda
bottles and spoiled food that lies in piles on the ground because the
town lacks regular trash collection.
The garbage embarrasses
Pereira. An evangelical pastor, he's thrown himself into building Barra
do Parateca's quilombo with the civic-minded, can-do attitude of a
budding politician. (He did, in fact, run for local office recently and
lost to a white man, which he said was a bitter experience for an
Afro-Brazilian running in a majority-black district.) He wears pressed
pants and button-down shirts, drinks soda instead of beer and wants
future generations of Barra do Parateca's students to speak
grammatically correct Portuguese, rather than the local dialects that
often disregard subject-verb agreement.
But building a better Barra is a job that would try the patience of even the most progressive-minded idealist. While the boost in social spending
during Brazil's past decade has helped alleviate the worst of the
poverty, few people in town own land or any other productive enterprise
that could lift Barra do Parateca into prosperity. Those who do have no
intention of handing it over to people like Pereira.
Facing a life
of toiling in someone else's field for a pittance or waiting to cash
government social assistance checks, many residents instead choose to
leave. In search of work, they head to cities like São Paulo, a
metropolis of 20 million located 850 miles to the south.
them wind up in "favelas," the violence-plagued slums that ring Brazil's
cities. Others migrate to the interior of São Paulo state to pick
oranges or cut sugar cane. In a town of roughly 1,500 residents, some 30
of Barra do Parateca's men left to work in São Paulo last year, all of
them fathers, Pereira says. Another 15 told him of plans to leave this
Despite the hardship, Pereira doesn't want to leave the
place where he was born. He wants Barra do Parateca to break out of its
rut. And he sees land ownership, and the independence that comes with
it, as the key.
By "land," he's quick to clarify, he means real
land -- not the tiny patch that his neighbors begrudgingly let his
quilombo use now. With land, Pereira says, he and his fellow quilombolas could produce their own food, with a little left over for sale in local markets.
"We don't want to keep depending on the government," Pereira said. "In Brazil, without land, you're no one."
donkey feeds on garbage tossed along the roads of Barra do Parateca,
which lacks regular trash collection. (Carolina Ramirez/The Huffington
Brazil is among the world's most violent countries, with a homicide rate of 25 per 100,000 residents as of 2012.
government report released last year suggested the persistent killings
stem from a "culture of violence" fed by murderous conflicts between the
drug cartels and other criminal gangs that have thrived in the cities'
favelas. In the northern city of Maceió, the homicide rate in 2011 stood
at a whopping 111 per 100,000, according to the report.
Brazil's overflowing favelas are a symptom of larger problems that
originate in places like Barra do Parateca, where waves of impoverished
farmers, many if not most of them descended from slaves, have fled the
countryside over the past half century. In 1950, the Brazilian census
placed the urban population at 31 percent. As of 2013, that figure has climbed to 85 percent.
is the one major factor that pushes Brazilians to leave the countryside
and crowd into the packed cities. Like in Barra do Parateca, land is
all but unobtainable with the wages most Brazilian farm workers make.
highly unequal distribution of land in Brazil is clearly an important
reason that Brazil's cities have grown in such a rapid, unequal and
violent way," Sean Mitchell, an anthropology professor at Rutgers
University who studies quilombos, wrote in an email to HuffPost. While
Mitchell thinks it would be "impossible to roll back the haphazard and
violent growth of Brazil's cities through reforms in the countryside,"
he added that "land reform would significantly alleviate violence in the
Land seemed an impossible dream for Pereira until
2005, when he helped found a local organization dedicated to addressing
racial inequality. While working with the group, he learned about the
Brazilian Constitution's quilombo clause: that communities descended
from runaway slaves were entitled to own the land they lived on. All he
had to do to gain access to the land was form an official association,
collect signatures from a majority of the town's residents and take them
to the country's capital, Brasília, to apply.
Barra do Parateca's history for evidence of its origins as a quilombo.
Very little has been written about the tiny town, but he managed to find
an account by a priest, published in 1991, that described the area's
origins as a "fazenda," or ranch, owned by a Portuguese family during
the colonial period. According to the document, the family raised sugar
cane and herded cattle using slave labor.
"Those were my
ancestors," Pereira said. "It was from that moment that we began to
identify, we began to understand our origins."
signatures from more than half the town's residents and took the
day-long bus ride to Brasilia to drop off the paperwork. The town became
a certified quilombo in January 2006, and along with its status came a new school and health clinic.
quilombo certification only extends to the town itself. The coveted
farmlands that surround Barra do Parateca remain the private property of
assorted ranchers and farmers.
And eight years after
certification, the government has yet to publish the legally required
technical study documenting Barra do Parateca's land claim, let alone
negotiate indemnization with all the current landowners or transfer a
title to Pereira and his community.
Representatives from the
Institute of Colonization and Land Reform, or INCRA, which carries out
the titling process, say they're overburdened by the massive number of
claims, which as of this year have reached 569 in the state of Bahia
alone, according to federal government figures.
constitution guarantees quilombos' property rights, INCRA can't simply
take chunks of land and hand them to new owners. Instead, it must
compensate the titleholders, who generally resist the agency's attempts
to take over their property, leading to lengthy legal disputes.
can't expropriate land -- we also have to indemnify," Itamar Rangel at
the INCRA's office in Salvador da Bahia told HuffPost. "Brazilian law
defends the property rights of any citizen."
That lack of
efficiency isn't unique to the state of Bahia. INCRA estimates the total
amount of land currently claimed by quilombos in Brazil to be around
4.4 million acres -- an area roughly the size of New Jersey.
But the government has issued just 217 land titles
as of this year, having granted only three last year and three in 2012.
At this rate, the growing backlog that now stands at roughly 2,200
quilombos won't be getting cleared any time soon.
frustrated with the pace of Brazilian bureaucracy, Barra do Parateca's
quilombo association stopped waiting and started planting. They planted
along the river banks. They planted on land just outside the town. They
rode boats up the river and walked into the forest to plant in isolated
fields, setting up campsites along the way. Today, when the quilombo
residents are able to harvest those crops, it helps supplement their
modestly stocked pantries and refrigerators.
usually fight back. As often as not, landowners find the clandestine
fields and let cattle loose to feed on the crops before they're
About a dozen landowners from Barra do Parateca are
battling the quilombo association's claims. Of all those fights, none is
more tense than the one involving the Pinto family.
Pereira Pinto, seated on a sofa at his home in Barra do Parateca, is
one of several people with whom the quilombo association has a land
dispute. (Carolina Ramirez/The Huffington Post)
Pereira Pinto, 71, isn't the kind of person you'd imagine as one of the
quilombo's biggest enemies. An aging man whose thick, sun-battered skin
folds neatly along his cheeks, Pinto walks with a limp, the result of
his father's inability to pay for a doctor when Pinto developed a benign
tumor in his left knee at age 10.
Although the tumor splintered
his tibia, forcing shards of bone through his skin, he spent his life
working as a field hand, one of the most backbreaking and poorly paid
jobs Brazil has to offer. He still has scars under his arm from the
years he worked in the fields while supporting himself with a crutch. He
remembers listening to radio broadcasts from Cuba's Communist
government in the 1960s, hoping that a similar revolution would make its
way to Brazil. But his experiences in recent years have tempered his
Pinto owns the piece of land where Pereira and his fellow quilombolas
have arrived at their uneasy truce. His son João Batista Pinto -- a
judge in the neighboring city of Guanambi who is entangled in a separate
land dispute with the quilombo -- has repeatedly called the cops to
kick them out.
After the police destroyed the quilombo
association's illicit crops in 2010, someone set a bus belonging to
Hélio Pinto on fire. The Pinto family suspects retribution, but no one
has owned up to the deed. Four years later, the bus's charred remains
still sit on the town's main road, now engulfed by a tree that has grown
Land holds much the same meaning for Hélio Pinto, who
is white, as it does for Pereira. The oldest of 18 children, Pinto was
born less than two miles from Barra do Parateca, where his landless
family lived on the property of a wealthier man named Antonio Bastos.
Pinto's family worked as "agregados," meaning they were allowed to live
on the land and use a chunk of it to grow their own food, in exchange
for their labor. Some experts have described the relationship, common in the Brazilian countryside, as something better than slavery, but not quite freedom.
day, for reasons unclear to Pinto, Bastos kicked the family out, along
with his other agregados. Pinto's father found new work as an agregado
on a ranch in what would become Barra do Parateca. This was in the early
1950s, and Barra wasn't yet a town -- just another tract of land owned
by a wealthy ranching family. After decades of working the fields, Pinto
scraped together enough money to buy the small patch of land that the
quilombo association now disputes.
The fighting has grown so
frustrating for João Batista Pinto, Hélio's son, that he doesn't even
want his parcel of land anymore. As a lawyer in the neighboring city of
Guanambi, he now has little use for it, and the bad blood created by the
land conflicts makes him feel uncomfortable visiting the town of his
birth. He would gladly give it up, he says, if only someone would pay
him for it.
It's not the first time someone has tried to take
over João Batista Pinto's small patch of land. In the 1970s, when Brazil
was under military rule, the Bahian government unsuccessfully tried to
relocate the town to accommodate a dam project. The INCRA expropriated a
series of tracts in the area, including João Batista's. So the land, in
theory, belongs to the government -- except that, as often happens with
Brazil's slow-moving bureaucracy, INCRA never paid him for it.
case has been pending ever since then, until the present day," João
Batista said. "Without payment, without indemnization. This happens all
over the place in Brazil."
Still, Hélio Pinto has trouble
understanding how Barra do Parateca could possibly be a quilombo. As one
of the few residents who's lived in the town since its establishment,
he knows that the original inhabitants were, like him, virtually all
white. Now, he says, the peaceful community he once knew has been torn
apart, and the land he labored for has been made worthless by the
political aspirations of black people from neighboring towns.
was never any quilombo here. There were never any slaves," Pinto said.
"Today most people here are black, there's no white people anymore. But
the blacks are all migrants. None of them are really from here."
The main street of the town of Barra do Parateca, Brazil. (Carolina Ramirez/The Huffington Post)
in the Brazilian media share the Pintos' suspicions about the
authenticity of today's quilombos. Television coverage often tilts more
toward his point of view than Pereira's.
One of the most famous
cases occurred in 2007, when Brazil's largest television news
broadcaster, O Globo, visited the quilombo of São Francisco do Paraguaçú
in the northern part of the country. O Globo's reporters asked
residents if they considered themselves quilombolas. Several people said
no. One man said he'd never heard of the term until recent years.
Another said he'd never heard the term at all.
In the final
version of the story, the producers did not air the comments of the
quilombo association's leaders or the interviewees who affirmed the
existence of their quilombo. The story erroneously claimed that the area
was not a historical site of slavery and that sugar had not been
planted in the region when, in fact, the ruins of a colonial-era sugar
mill lay just a short distance upriver.
The report sparked
protests in the community and deepened a rift that pitted neighbor
against neighbor, with some residents posting signs in front of their
doors reading "I'm not a quilombola, no." The federal government
re-evaluated the community's anthropological report, but it eventually
chose to uphold the group's quilombo certification.
support of the government, episodes like this have undermined the public
image of the fledgling social movement. Politicians who would go on to
form Democráticos 25, a conservative, pro-market political party, hoped
to take advantage of public doubts about quilombos' credibility. They
filed a legal challenge in 2004, arguing that Lula da Silva's decree
allowing virtually any group of black people to declare themselves a
quilombo illegally skirted Congress' authority.
By 2010, the case
had made its way to Brazil's highest court, which has yet to rule on
it. A decision in Democráticos 25's favor could annul all the land
titles issued under the law and strip thousands of communities of their
quilombo status overnight.
doesn't dispute that Barra do Parateca was once a largely white
community. He acknowledges that most of the town's black residents first
arrived about four decades ago -- including his mother, who was born in
a town on the other side of the river.
But he also takes a wider
view of his community's history. According to the priest's 1991
account, before the town existed, the area of Barra do Parateca belonged
to one large Portuguese landowner whose massive holdings stretched
across the hinterland. That man's claim encompassed a number of
neighboring majority-black towns, including the first certified quilombo
in the state of Bahia, Rio das Rãs.
"Before the community,
before the town, it was a fazenda," Pereira said. "So all of this black
population here in the Parateca region -- Pau D'Arco, Barra do Parateca
-- in reality, we're all the same people."
And anyway, all of
this is beside the point, as far as Pereira is concerned. Fighting over
these chunks of land for the last few years has made him rethink not
just poverty, but race as well.
"Slavery was abolished," Pereira
said. "But the black people around here -- my ancestors -- never had a
single title. Abolition happened, but we're practically continuing as if
we were slaves today. How come we don't get the right to reparations?"
charred remains of a bus set ablaze in 2010 remain standing on the main
street of Barra do Parateca, Brazil. (Carolina Ramirez/The Huffington
Brazilians' disagreement over how to define a quilombo stems in part from the country's historic reluctance to define who is black.
People either partially or wholly of African descent make up a majority
of the population, but unlike in the United States, Brazil never saw
widespread legal segregation, and racial mixing has been common since
the colonial period.
That legacy has made it difficult for
Brazilians to build political movements devoted to confronting racism.
Many Brazilians view their country as a "racial democracy," where the
lack of strict distinctions between "black" and "white" has fostered an
ethnically harmonious society.
Yet Afro-Brazilian intellectuals
and the country's social scientists have long dismissed that
interpretation, pointing to research and statistics that they say reveal
broad patterns of discrimination.
As of 2011, Brazilian black and mixed-race workers on average earned only 60 percent of the salaries of white workers, according to the country's national statistics agency. Some 70 percent of homicide victims are black,
according to a 2013 study by the Institute of Applied Economic
Research. Researchers at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro calculated last year that if the Brazilian population were divided along racial lines,
whites would occupy the 65th position on the U.N. Human Development
Index, while Afro-Brazilians would only reach 102nd place.
the expansiveness of Brazil's legal definition of "quilombos," it's hard
to mount an argument that Barra do Parateca does not qualify. More than
half of the Barra do Parateca community signed the petition to declare
its ethnic quilombo identity, as required. A social scientist visited
the town and verified the claim.
The lawsuits filed against the
quilombo's land invasions would, theoretically, be trumped by a decision
by INCRA to compensate the current landowners accordingly and seize the
property on behalf of the quilombo.
But INCRA's officials, 500
miles away in a building with a leaky ceiling, have yet to finalize the
paperwork, let alone issue a land title. They're responsible for the
nearly 600 quilombo claims across Bahia, some of which face crises more
serious than Barra do Parateca's.
Nevertheless, the lack of
progress infuriates the already frustrated quilombo association. When
asked who the quilombo movement's greatest enemy is, Pereira didn't
mention the landowners. Instead, he began talking about the government,
which catapulted the movement into existence in 1988, then let it
founder, leaving quilombo residents to wonder whether the constitutional
article will wither into a broken promise.
"The greatest enemy of the quilombo movement is the Brazilian state itself," Pereira said. "The slowness."
Viera Pereira seated in his mother's kitchen in the town of Barra do
Parateca, Brazil. (Carolina Ramirez/The Huffington Post)
Batista Pinto's anger at the quilombo association is no longer what it
was four years ago, when he sent the cops to break up its occupation of
his land. He's now resigned to put up with the irritation of the land
dispute while the courts and INCRA slowly sort the mess out.
like his father, he harbors resentment, and finds it laughable to think
Barra do Parateca could be classified as a quilombo.
"It's an old
concept," João Batista said. "To apply it to the contemporary world is
difficult. They're trying to apply that article in order to gain social
benefits, but they're doing it fraudulently."
Recalling the old
problem of how to define who is black in Brazil, João Batista pointed
out that his sister Heldina looks white, and then asked rhetorically if
he himself looks black. With his dark bronze skin and coarse straight
hair, he could belong to any number of Brazil's intermingling ethnic
combinations. In the United States, no one would call him white. João
Batista added that he and his family come from Barra do Parateca. Does
that make them quilombolas?
"It's not enough just to demonstrate
the presence of a black population, because if that were all you needed,
Salvador da Bahia would be a quilombo," he said. "Bom Jesús da Lapa,
Rio de Janeiro, all the other states. Brazil would be one giant
In the meantime, Barra do Parateca waits, and Pereira
enjoys his early morning walk around the roça while a friend hacks at
weeds with a machete. The soil might be more moist if Hélio Pinto hadn't
taken down the irrigation system he installed years ago. On the other
hand, the cops haven't come this year to kick the quilombo out and
destroy the small patch of plantings on the Pinto family's 15-acre plot.
In his mother's kitchen, Pereira sits down to eat a cut of
gristly beef with a side of rice, black beans and farofa, a yucca flour
that Brazilians sprinkle on their food to add flavor and make it more
filling. For Pereira, few things reveal more about Brazil's race
relations than his meals.
"This is the way I see it, the world is
what you're thinking about," said Pereira. "If you're hungry, what are
you going to think about? About food. So most of the world's poor only
think about food. They go to school and they're thinking about snack
time, about lunch, because those who are hungry only think about
Pereira said he envies the United States, a country
viewed by many Brazilians as more racist than their own, for electing a
black president. Why, he asks, in his country, where people of color
make up a majority of the population, does the idea of a black president
seem beyond the realm of possibility? Like most quilombolas, Pereira
isn't convinced that he lives in a racial democracy.
it's not, but Brazil is a racist country -- in all the ways that you
could imagine," Pereira said, pointing to the skin on his forearm. "In
Brazil, poverty has a color."