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The invention of indolence

Thesis that denounces the racism built into the myth of sloth in the state of Bahia is going to come out in a book

REPRODUction from the book "O BRASIL NA VISÃO DO ARTISTA"Street scene, by Emil Bauch (1858): only the “slothful” slaves used to work hardREPRODUction from the book "O BRASIL NA VISÃO DO ARTISTA"

Certain citizens of the state of Bahia, when they are called slothful, even take it as a compliment. Musicians Dorival Caymmi and Gilberto Gil, for example, have accepted with gallantry the indolence that is attributed to them. The proverbial sloth, they argue, is a trait of the cultural identity of Bahia, an expression of a way of life in which work need not be opposed to leisure. According to the thesis “The myth of Bahian sloth”, defended at the University of São Paulo (USP) in 1998 by anthropologist Elisete Zanlorenzi, then origin of this stereotype has nothing benign about it. It was made up by the Bahia elite with the objective of depreciating the black population, the overwhelming majority of the local population. This goes back to the times of slavery, and got second wind as a reaction to the Golden Law (Lei Áurea in Portuguese which abolished slavery in Brazil).

Defended in 1998, the thesis has a repercussion inside and outside the academic world, but only now will it be published in book form, with the launch scheduled for the end of the year. The work sustains that the easygoing life and famous aversion to work attributed to the Bahia people has no basis in reality. Elisete went to research, for example, the relationship between the calendar of festivities in Bahia and showing up to work. She made some curious discoveries.

A company headquartered in the Camaçari Petrochemical Complex, 41 kilometers from Salvador, recorded less staff absences during Carnival in 1994 than its branch in São Paulo. Another remarkable fact: at the end of the 1980’s, amongst people occupied in the Metropolitan Region of Salvador, 50.4% worked more than 48 hours a week, and 35.8% from 38 to 47 hours a week. They probably did not work more because there was no more work. Amongst the six major metropolitan regions in the country, Salvador holds the record for unemployment and informal labor, a phenomenon that affects with particular vigor the 80% of the population who are Afro-descendents.

According to the anthropologist, Sloth slope (Ladeira da Preguiça), in the center of Salvador, is a symbol of prejudice. In the days of slavery, and afterwards as well, those who complained of the steep slope, carrying on their backs the merchandise disembarked in the port, were blacks – “slothful” in the disdainful view of the whites, who, from the windows of their mansions, would call out: “Come up, you lazy one”. The intense northeastern immigration in the last 50 years made racism flourish in the South and in the Southeast.

Outside Bahia, the term “Bahian”, according to the Houaiss Dictionary, means foolish, black, mulatto, ignorant and braggart. And it refers to unqualified workers coming from all the state of the Northeast. As the road that handled the exodus was the highway Rio – Bahia, in São Paulo and in the southern region, the immigrants from the Northeast were indiscriminately called “Bahians” – just as many Americans, uninterested about what happens to the south of the Equator, mix up the capital of Brazil and Buenos Aires. “Deprecating the northeastern immigrants as lazy was a way of excluding them”, says Elisete. She points out the two major factors that drove prejudice: the disregard of the government for qualifying the labor force, and the intolerance of the European immigrants, who did not want to be put on the same level as the poor Brazilian with whom they contended for the labor market and the urban space.

The thesis by Elisete Zanlorenzi, a professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Campinas, is more feted than well known – hence the importance of its publication. It has a strong repercussion at the end of the 1990’s. To this date, summaries are circulating in chain letters on the Internet, probably propagated by the proud people of Bahia. The texts of some e-mails were reinforced with data that is not even to be found in the thesis, in a curious anonymous collaboration with the research. “There are details and even declarations between quotation marks that are not mine”, Elisete says. “Every month I receive e-mails form researchers interested in studying the theme, which is why I decided to take care of the publication”, she says. Sociologist Octavio Ianni (1925-2004) – who took part in the examination board in 1998 – pointed out, at the time, the main contribution by the work: suggesting the attribution of sloth as a subtle and disguised – as it is laughable and folkloric – of racism.

A descendent of Italians and Germans, Elisete, who is from São Paulo, moved to the Northeast at the end of the 1970’s and lived in Salvador between 1980 and 1984. In the Bahia apital, she prepared her dissertation for a master’s degree, about the popular movement from the Calabar district, an old invasion by 8,000 inhabitants that real estate speculation tried, in vain, to banish from a noble region of the city. It was at that time that the racism built in to the question of sloth called her attention for the first time. On a Sunday afternoon, she became impressed by what she saw at a party frequented by people from the elite in Salvador, politicians, lawyers and businessmen. “They started to complain about the sloth of the black employees, while they were being served by them. The blacks were the only ones working there”, she recalls.

She went to investigate the historical reasons for the phenomenon. “Neither the Abolition of slavery nor industrialization were capable of inserting large contingents of Afro-descendents in Salvador into the formal labor market”, the anthropologist says. Until recently, the blacks would remain pushed aside from the best jobs and the better paid activities in Bahia. In their majority, they would work in the informal market, like small retailing, providing services, and unskilled labor. “Salvador was immersed in traditional relationships, and many of its districts had an almost independent life”, she explains. This only started to change from the 1960’s onwards, with the installation of the Aratu Industrial Center, and, in a more marked manner, in the 1970’s, with the installation of the Camaçari Petrochemical Complex, which absorbed the local labor force and helped to forge a pioneering Afro-Brazilian middle class.

“But the capitalist vision of the value of time and the meaning of work, stamped in the image of time is money, did not succeed in modifying the day to day relations, nor to remove a dose of affectivity from the spaces in labor relations”, the anthropologist explains. In parallel, the engaging side of sloth took shape. Describing a Salvador of the first decades of the 20th century, Ary Barroso and Dorival Caymmi helped to build an exotic and paradisiacal image, which won over the world in Walt Disney’s film “Have you been to Bahia?”. It was not an invented image. The value that time and work has for the people of Bahia, says the thesis, is strongly influenced by candomblé. “In the philosophy of candomblé, one’s obligations are something that one chooses, one is not forced to do them”, explains Elisete.

“At bottom, the concept that work is not the main aim in life, that work and leisure are not in opposition, comes from the African tradition. Which does not mean that people do not work. On the contrary, they work hard, but without placing work as a central objective of existence, and taking good care of the relationships that occur outside the sphere of work”, she comments. The thesis scrutinizes the concept of time in Bahia. It says that although formal relations are guided by the clock, that is, they respond to the capitalist logic of time, informal relations follow a flexible time.

“There are many people in Salvador do not use a watch”, Elisete observes. “This fact could be justified by the low spending power of the population, but the question goes beyond this aspect, because it is not an object that costs a lot. If it were indispensable, watches would certainly be used more.” Between one encounter and another, the thesis observes, a third one may occur, and the people who marked the encounter know that the rigidity of the times is open to the unforeseen. “What the utilitarian and rigid mentality conceives as delay, appears in the Bahia Afro-descendent vision as a possibility for an occurrence”, the anthropologist says.

The cricket and the ant
The study is punctuated with interviews with personages from Bahia, like João Jorge, a director of the Olodum group, Vovô, a director of Ilê-Ayê, Normando, a director of the Popular Culture Center, and Júlio Braga, an anthropologist from the Federal University of Bahia. “They all stated that work is an important sphere of life, but that life is not restricted to work, since leisure, family and friends are important”, Elisete recalls. “Normando said that the fable of the cricket and the ant is an invention of the western mentality, without any connection with the African matrix.”

Like nobody else, composer Dorival Caymmi has embodied the image of the indolent Bahian. There are no doubts that his tranquil and rascally temperament fits the image – but there is an immense distance between that and calling him slothful. “He has always woken up early, and even when he had been working at night, he would make a point of sitting at the breakfast table with his children”, says the composer’s biographer and granddaughter, Stella Caymmi. He fashioned over a hundred songs, was a battler for copyright legislation, but he liked to cultivate the reputation of being slothful. To turn down appointments that he had no time to honor, he would simply reply that he couldn’t go because he was slothful. In one of the adverts he did, for a rum, in 1957, Caymmi already appeared playing the guitar lodged in a hammock. Nothing more false. Caymmi, says granddaughter Stella, never liked hammocks. What he did like were rocking chairs, as in the photograph that illustrates the opening of this article.

Later on, the tropicalist musician Gal Costa, Caetano Veloso, Maria Bethânia and Gilberto Gil were to incorporate the image of Bahia sloth. “It was a way of saying that they were different, that they did not belong to that urban world where they were arriving”, says Elisete. Interviewed by the researcher, Gilberto Gil explained: “Sloth is a spice that Bahia offers Brazil. Sloth produces in an unaccustomed way, it produces unimaginable benefits. It overcomes obstacles by the capacity for going round them and not passing straight over them… It’s water, it’s the feminine, the obscure. I am an adept of this view, because this is the salvation of the world”. Gilberto Gil, let it be said, has never had a quiet life. When he moved to São Paulo, at the beginning of the 1960’s, he used to work in a company by day and sing at night. Today, 62 years old, he reconciles the commitments of a minister with the agenda of shows.

The tourist industry has learned how to exploit this vein to attract multitudes of stress sufferers from all over the country. Do you want to rest, go to Bahia, the land where the party never ends and nobody is concerned with the clock. This began in the 1960’s. It was in those days that the capital of Bahia underwent a major urban surgery, with the objective of boosting tourism – and it was discovered that the myth of sloth had a delicious appeal for the outsiders. Since then, the Bahians have been working hard to create an illusion capable of entertaining thousands of unwary. The illusion that in that part of the world, nobody likes to work.