In 1985, the Black Women’s Collective of São Paulo gathered in Brasilândia, a district with one of the city’s largest concentration of African descendants, to celebrate the renaming of a public plaza for Luíza Mahin (Figure 1). Mahin is commonly remembered for her involvement in uprisings of enslaved and free Africans in Salvador, Bahia, in the 1830s, perhaps the most dramatic period of antislavery rebellions in Brazilian history. In the years following the thwarted revolts of the 1830s, Mahin fled Salvador to an unknown fate.1While Mahin is often described as a principal protagonist in the 1835 Revolt, historians have debated whether her participation is a sociohistorical fact or contemporary construction. In what is the most meaningful source testifying to her participation in 1830s revolts—in addition to her very existence, which some historians doubt—her son identified her as being involved in the Sabinada uprising of 1837–38. For an entry into the debate, see João José Reis, Rebelião escrava no brasil: a história do Levante dos Malês em 1835 (São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2003) and Dulcilei da Conceição Lima, “Desvendando Luíza Mahin: um mito libertário no cerne do feminismo negro” (master’s thesis, Universidade Presbiteriana Mackenzie, 2011). Her son, Luís Gama, meanwhile, was enslaved and transported south to the city of São Paulo. There, he obtained legal freedom and a law degree, which he used to spearhead antislavery campaigns in São Paulo’s courts through the early 1880s.
It is easy to pass by this often-sleepy plaza (Figure 2) without recognizing the revolutionary histories its name references. Older men frequently sip coffee over checkerboards, and São Paulo’s thundering buses break the relative quiet as they barrel by. A nondescript plaque bears Mahin’s name in the center of the square, without historical context or her visage. Mahin became a national symbol of Black feminism in the twentieth century, yet neither she nor Gama had ties to Brasilândia. Why, then, did the Black Women’s Collective lobby to place Praça Luíza Mahin here? The answers to this seemingly local, ostensibly straightforward question ripple far beyond Brasilândia. They require a re/mapping—both literal and figurative—of urbanization, racial identity formation, and sociospatial inequities in Brazil’s most populous, ethnically diverse metropolis.
Race and movements in contemporary Brazil
At first glance, the inauguration of Praça Luíza Mahin seems to adhere nicely to, rather than challenge, orthodox understandings of race in contemporary Brazil. The 1985 renaming parallels a swell of antiracist mobilization in the twilight of Brazil’s military dictatorship (1964–85). Historians have characterized that regime’s violent and racist practices—in addition to its caricatured promotion of the ideology of “racial democracy”—for galvanizing this era of organizing. This mobilization coalesced in the 1978 founding of the Unified Black Movement (MNU) in São Paulo. By most accounts, the MNU helped to reignite an organized antiracist movement that had gone dormant nearly 40 years prior. That earlier movement was stymied by the declaration of the fascist-inspired New State in 1937, which outlawed all political parties, including Brazil’s first Black political party, the Brazilian Black Front (FNB), headquartered in São Paulo’s Liberdade district. This accepted periodization focuses on two eras of organized black movements (1910s–30s and 1970s–on) and a type of Black self-determination defined by participation in formal, electoral politics.
Praça Luíza Mahin and Brasilândia, however, draw our attention to an alternative form of Black movements and a more literal definition of the term “movement” itself. This conception of movement foregrounds urban redevelopment, demolitions, and the displacement and local migration of African descendants in mid-twentieth-century São Paulo. These literal population movements of displaced migrants occurred in the supposed lull between the two seminal periods of antiracist organizing in the 1930s and 1970s. In these midcentury decades, predominantly nonwhite migrants moved to, settled in, and produced Brasilândia as a material place and a place-based black identity—a “Little Africa,” as some locals would call it. Following their migrations and the places they produced helps to recenter African descendants in São Paulo’s history. In addition, focusing on this history of displacement and resettlement points to an expanded conception of Black self-determination as a spatial practice in São Paulo and beyond.
Producing “Brazil-land”: A neighborhood off the map
Developers sold the first lots in Brasilândia—literally, “Brazil-land”—in 1947. By 1990, Brasilândia had become one of São Paulo’s most populous districts, topping 200,000 residents. Despite the size of its population, almost no published academic research exists in English or Portuguese about the place’s past. Those acquainted with the voluminous academic production about, and many locals’ unrestrained fascination with, neighborhood histories in São Paulo may find this absence surprising. I first encountered the place’s name in a 1989 article about “Black territories” by urbanist Raquel Rolnik. She termed Brasilândia São Paulo’s “Little Africa” and noted that 49 percent of the population was Black.2Raquel Rolnik, “Territórios Negros nas Cidades Brasileiras: Etnicidade e Cidade em São Paulo e Rio de Janeiro,” Estudos Afro-Asiáticos 17 (1989), 14. More recently, sociologist Edward Telles described Brasilândia as an exceptional place where, along with the neighborhoods of Madureira in Rio de Janeiro and Liberdade in Salvador, “Afro-Brazilian music and culture are produced.”3Edward E. Telles, Race in Another America: The Significance of Skin Color in Brazil (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004), 212. These references to the existence of a “Little Africa” in São Paulo challenge dominant, enduring representations of the city as a non-Black and immigrant metropolis, distinct from the supposed true “hearts of Africa” in Brazil: Salvador and Rio de Janeiro.
Map of the original Vila Brasilândia settlement (in orange).
The lack of published histories of Brasilândia is due, in part, to how the place was settled and grew over the years, which make it methodologically challenging to trace through the records housed in many of São Paulo’s historical archives. Those ways include two foundational issues facing residents and planners in Brazil and other cities of the Global South: displacement and informal urban development. The declaration of the New State in 1937 coincided with the appointment of urban planner Francisco Prestes Maia as São Paulo’s mayor. Prestes Maia had published an ambitious redevelopment plan for São Paulo, “Study for a Plan of Avenues for the City of São Paulo” (Estudo de um Plano de Avenidas para a Cidade de São Paulo), in 1930. He would enact his modernization plan during three terms as mayor (1938–45 and 1961–65).
Prestes Maia’s project entailed extensive demolitions throughout the historic city center, including in the districts of Bela Vista and Liberdade. In the 1940s these districts had some of the city’s highest concentrations of African descendants and bore deep ties to enslavement, abolition, and antiracist organizing. Those demographics and ties led São Paulo samba composer Geraldo Filme to describe these neighborhoods as two-thirds of São Paulo’s original “Black zone.”4Quoted in Marcos Virgílio da Silva, “‘Debaixo do ‘Pogréssio’: Urbanização, Cultura, e Experiência Popular em João Rubinato e Outros Sambistas Paulistanos (1951–1969)” (PhD diss., Universidade de São Paulo, 2011), 77. Demolitions spurred by the Plano de Avenidas razed buildings and spaces that many African descendants considered sacred and dislocated resident populations. Some of those residents migrated 12 kilometers north of the city center, rebuilding their homes in what would become Brasilândia. This familiar history of racialized displacement survives predominately in the memories of long-term residents.
Contemporary street view of the Chapel of the Afflicted in the Liberdade district, commonly described as a “Japanese” neighborhood.
Following the displacement that led to the founding of Brasilândia, the settlement’s early, meteoric growth occurred through a largely informal process of urbanization. The original settlement, in fact, remains “irregular”—the city’s classification for regions not up to regulatory code. A pattern of irregularity, which stemmed from opportunistic real estate developers, a lack of state investment, and a citywide housing shortage, would characterize the urbanization of the region around this original settlement in the geographically larger district of Brasilândia in the years following. Brasilândia would have, for instance, some of São Paulo’s earliest favelas, or informal settlements, and, by the 1970s, the highest concentration of them in the city.
Re/Mapping and Congo Road
In addition to conversations with long-term residents, digital mapping has provided me one way of reconstructing the sequence of demolitions, displacements, and informal urban development that led to the production of Brasilândia. This approach has, in addition, revealed geographies of African descent in São Paulo that were razed, dislocated, and reconstituted in the course of material changes to the city. For example, compiling a series of layers of historical maps from the early twentieth century indicated that, through the 1950s, one of the principal roadways in this region was named Congo Road (Figure 3). The name dates at least to the early nineteenth century and existed in the city’s official linguistic landscape until 1960. In that year São Paulo’s mayor renamed Congo Road after Elísio Teixeira Leite, the founder of a local stone quarry.
Congo Road points to an earlier chapter in the history of African descendants in this region before it was urbanized as Brasilândia in the 1940s. Until the mid-twentieth century, this area was part of the Nossa Senhora do Ó parish. In the nineteenth century, Nossa Senhora do Ó was a hub of slave-based agriculture and, in addition, of runaway settlements of the formerly enslaved or quilombos. The presence of quilombos and Congo Road in this parish suggests that African descendants displaced by 1930s–40s urban redevelopment did not choose Nossa Senhora do Ó for resettlement at random. Their movement to and urbanization of Brasilândia built on the foundations laid by enslaved and free people of African descent decades earlier.
Street view of Praça Luiza Mahin in the Brasilândia District.
This earlier spatial history also provides broader context for the motivation to place Praça Luíza Mahin in Brasilândia, just a handful of blocks from the former Congo Road. While the dictatorship and swell of Black movement activism in the 1970s–80s led to the founding of organizations like the Black Women’s Collective and the MNU, African descendants in São Paulo had not ceased to practice self-determination after the 1930s–40s. They remained on the move, even if that movement did not exhibit the most familiar features of organized political engagement. The 1985 tribute to Luíza Mahin recognized Brasilândia as a space of continuity that had provided autonomy and the prospect of survival to its residents in the midst of a slave society in the nineteenth century as well as the disruptive urban redevelopment projects of the mid-twentieth.
In addition to leading to Brasilândia’s urbanization, demolitions and displacements connected to the Plano de Avenidas helped to redefine São Paulo—the provincial capital of one of slavery’s final frontiers in the Americas—in dominant discourses as an ethnically immigrant, non-Black metropolis. While redevelopment pushed African-descendent populations to the city’s margins, roadway-oriented renewal paved the way for the remaking of central neighborhoods in São Paulo into ethnically-immigrant spaces. That remaking included state-sponsored projects in the 1960s–70s to transform the districts of Bela Vista and Liberdade into iconic “ethnic enclaves,” replete with visible markers that indexed Japanese and Italian immigrant ethnicity (Figure 4).
Sambas of demolition and displacement
New chapters in these mid-twentieth-century histories continue to unfold in real time. In January 2020, for example, São Paulo’s mayor approved the renaming of a plaza in Brasilândia after Marielle Franco, the Rio de Janeiro city councilmember and Black feminist leader assassinated in 2018. The renamed site sits just three kilometers north of Praça Luisa Mahin along the former Congo Road. A month later, in February 2020, the governor of São Paulo announced the resumption of work on one of the city’s newest metro lines, which will span from Brasilândia in the north to the neighborhood of São Joaquim, just south of Bela Vista (Figure 5), in the city center. Planning for the metro, including expropriations, began over ten years ago; however, demolitions and construction only started in earnest in 2015. Work stalled after only a year when the Lava Jato operation ensnared the outfit coordinating construction. Once complete, the new line will undoubtedly improve commute times to and from the city center, which, via bus, can exceed two hours. The metro, of course, also portends more complicated changes: further demolitions; higher property values, rents, and taxes; and the specter of another era of racialized displacement.
A block north of the demolitions for the future metro station, musicians Luz Nascimento and Luizinho do Pandeiro regularly lead the other members of the musical group Samba do Congo in a song titled “Brasilândia’s Metro.” The founders of the group commemorated the former Congo Road, and the history of African descendants and samba in São Paulo more broadly, in the name of their collective. Nascimento and Luizinho coauthored this samba in 2013. An official ambassador of São Paulo samba and a photojournalist for the regional newspaper, Luizinho has snapped hundreds of photos of structures demolished for the metro. The second verse of their composition laments:
Que o metrô vai chegar
E por causa dele
A gente vai ter que mudar
The people are saying
That the metro will come soon
And because of it
We’ll have to move
In this and other sambas, the composers of Samba do Congo commemorate razed or dislocated spaces from the past and contest the literal and figurative silencing of those endangered in the present. While the stanza above references the threat of displacement, the song crescendos with an unequivocal statement of self-determination and the right to stay put: “I’m not leaving Brasilândia / Because I know / That progress is on its way.”
Banner image: Governo do Estado de São Paulo/Flickr.