Deeply Rooted in the Present: Heritage, Memory, and Identity in Brazilian Quilombos

Guest post by Mary Lorena Kenny

Mary Lorena Kenny is Professor of Anthropology at Eastern Connecticut State University. She is the author of Hidden Heads of Households: Child Labor in Urban Northeast Brazil (2007) and Deeply Rooted in the Present: Heritage, Memory, and Identity in Brazilian Quilombos 

Over the course of three hundred years, Brazil imported over five million slaves, more than any country in the Americas. One hundred years after abolition, the 1988 constitution included a clause guaranteeing quilombolas (federally recognized descendants of self-ascribed, traditional Black settlements) collective land titles as a type of reparation. Thanks to an international collective of scholars and activists, reparation policies and projects are gaining momentum.

There are an estimated four thousand quilombo communities in Brazil. The quilombola heritage policy (ideally) offers a legal instrument for enhancing social and economic inclusion, as the daily life for quilombolas is marked by a troubling history shaped long ago by slavery and colonialism. It is manifested today by some of the worst indicators in terms of access to healthcare, schooling, and basic infrastructure. Three quarters of the families living in quilombos are categorized as living in extreme poverty and receive public assistance. Deeply Rooted in the Present: Heritage, Memory, and Identity in Brazilian Quilombos maps some of the ways these communities address the still unresolved legacies of slavery through empowering narratives of resistance, land rights, material practices (heritage), and activism. I felt it was important to highlight how past practices are linked to contemporary conditions of exploitative, slave-like labor practices, violent conflict over access to land, and police violence targeting people of color. Woven throughout the book are discussions of how quilombola heritage policies are tied to these social, economic, political, and racial realities of the country.

The book is for general readers rather than specialists in anthropology or Brazilian studies.

The chapters focus on the history of slavery in Brazil, the quilombola movement, and a case study to examine some of the issues and challenges for these “maroons” (communities formed by persons fleeing slavery). Since their inception, the quilombo heritage policies have been stalled by bureaucratic obstacles, violent conflict over land rights, and shifts in the definition of quilombola. One of the first chapters discusses some of the trials and tribulations of field work, which in my experience garners many questions from students. At the end of the book, there is a section of further readings for those who would like to explore more deeply some of the issues raised.

Overall, the material can be useful for generating discussions on how people give meaning to where they have been, who they are now, and (ideally) where they can go in a shifting political, economic, and social context. Re-conceptualizing “who we are” has disrupted some core historical and cultural beliefs. How quilombolas see themselves does not always coincide with how others view them. Opponents claim that the land grant program is unconstitutional and illegal. They argue that slavery ended 130 years ago in Brazil, and that quilombolas are irrelevant in the twenty-first century. They assert that acknowledging a quilombola ethno-racial claim to land as a land reform strategy is corrupt because it provides free land to undeserving recipients, is exclusionary because it encourages groups to invent an identity that did not exist before, and excludes poor, non-quilombolas. This policy, they argue, encourages racial polarity, which is seen as un-Brazilian and imported from a US model that does not correspond to the Brazilian reality of race relations. They contend that it is misguided and does little to help the quality of life for residents in traditional Black settlements. Strong, vocal objection to the reparations program is made by powerful people: agro-industrial oligarchs, logging and mining companies, the military, real estate developers, and, most recently, those responsible for preparing roads and stadiums for the FIFA World Cup and the Olympics, during which time quilombolas were threatened with expulsion and activists have been murdered.

Students will recognize the generational differences in how groups articulate their reality, with some younger members questioning the usefulness (politically, economically, and socially) of “taking on” this identity. The material is framed by key questions in anthropology about identity, heritage, and culture. It includes an appendix that lists ways students can explore their own heritage and identity, including virtual, online communities, and contemporary issues such as gun control, gender, and BlackLivesMatter. In-class or field projects can explore how heritage is expressed in material objects or physical and oral forms. Since so much of the history of enslaved and marginalized groups has been muted, invisible, outlawed, or excluded, students can explore places, monuments, or rituals that have significant religious, political, or social value for different groups, noting which ones have a louder voice or bigger “footprint.” They can tie their own family histories to changes in their community (e.g., the closing of car or textile factories, urban renewal, extreme weather conditions, forced relocation, or resettlement) and note how this larger context has shaped the lives of the members of the community. Students can identify cultural practices in their own community that have continued, disappeared, or reemerged in a new way (e.g., death and burial practices, dance, music, language, food). Which ones have led to a revalorization of social identity, or new source of income? Can they identify development projects that have led to impoverishment, social dislocation, and the erosion of heritage (e.g., oil pipelines and dams built on Indigenous sacred territory)? They can also investigate how development projects have led to clashes over cultural heritage, e.g., construction of a building that unearthed a graveyard, or a heritage building scheduled to be demolished for modern development.

Overall, the book shows how social action can lead to change, how groups give meaning to who they are, and in the process, disrupt historical narratives, re-articulate social relations, and foment political agency.