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The utopian torch

The hundredth anniversary celebration for Darcy Ribeiro highlights the anthropologist's contribution to sociology and education

Luciana Whitaker / FolhapressDarcy Ribeiro, in his Rio de Janeiro home, from a 1995 recordLuciana Whitaker / Folhapress

In one of his final interviews, anthropologist Darcy Ribeiro (1922–1997) recounted fleeing from the hospital where he was undergoing cancer treatment to finish the book he considered his crowning achievement: The Brazilian People (University Press of Florida, 2000). In the same interview, he recognized that he was a man “of many hats”: he was an indigenous ethnologist, anthropologist, educator, public manager, militant politician, and novelist. But he claimed to have failed in his mission of making Brazil what it “could be.”

On the hundredth anniversary of his birth, his legacy is being commemorated across the country. Rio de Janeiro State University (UERJ) declared 2022 “The Year of Darcy Ribeiro” and scheduled several events. In March, the Institute of Advanced Studies at the University of São Paulo (IEA-USP) held a seminar about his influence on Brazilian education. The University of Brasília (UnB), which was founded by the anthropologist, among others, combined its 60th anniversary celebrations with the 100th anniversary of its first chancellor. In the publishing world, the autobiography Testemunho (Testimony), originally published in 1990, is being republished by Editora Record, with a preface written by journalist Eric Nepomuceno. Editora Elefante, in turn, is releasing Os futuros de Darcy Ribeiro (Darcy Ribeiro’s futures), compiled by Argentine sociologist Andrés Kozel, of the National University of General San Martín (UNSAM) and by political scientist Fabricio Pereira da Silva, of the Federal University of the State of Rio de Janeiro (UNIRIO).

Arquivo Central da Universidade de BrasíliaIn the Dois Candangos auditorium, Darcy participates in the inauguration of UnB, in April of 1962Arquivo Central da Universidade de Brasília

“Darcy Ribeiro is a fascinating figure and one of the most prolific Latin American authors who prognosticates the future. In some of his works, he appears quite vocal remarking on utopian and dystopian alternatives for Brazil and Latin America,” notes Pereira da Silva. “This is an excellent time to reexamine his ideas, his utopias, and projects.”

Born in Montes Claros, Minas Gerais, Darcy earned a degree in social sciences from the Foundation School of Sociology and Politics in São Paulo, in 1946, under the guidance of German ethnologist Herbert Baldus (1899–1970). Baldus recommended him to work with Field Marshal Cândido Rondon (1865–1958) in the Indian Protection Service (SPI), where he remained from 1947 to 1955. During this period, he dedicated himself to the ethnography of indigenous peoples, including the Kadiwéu, the Kaingang, and the Bororo. With brothers Cláudio (1916–1998) and Orlando Villas-Bôas (1914–2002), he helped create the Xingu Indigenous Park, in 1952. Based on this experience, he published his first books, such as (Indigenous cultures and languages of Brazil) and Arte plumária dos índios Kaapor (Feather art of the Kaapor Indigenous people), both published in 1957.

Niels Andreas / FolhapressThe anthropologist before the round table “Education: Free or occupied territory?” at SBPC, in São Paulo (1988)Niels Andreas / Folhapress

“It was in the field, as an SPI professional, that he developed these concepts of Indigenous and Brazilian people. The theoretical bases of his work were largely formed during this period,” says historian Carolina Arouca Gomes de Brito, of the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (FIOCRUZ). In a report presented to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), in 1952, Darcy criticized the idea that Indigenous peoples peacefully assimilated into the Brazilian population, showing that Brazil’s formation involved the extermination of Indigenous peoples.

His career as an educator began at the Getulio Vargas Foundation’s Brazilian School of Public and Business Administration (EBAPE-FGV), in Rio de Janeiro, where he taught Brazilian ethnology for two years. At the same time, he cofounded the Museu do Índio (Indian Museum) in 1953 and, two years later, created Brazil’s first graduate course in cultural anthropology. Upon leaving the SPI, he lectured at the University of Brazil, now known as the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). During this period, he developed work with pedagogue Anísio Teixeira (1900–1971), a preeminent intellectual in Brazilian education and an advocate for full-time basic education (see Pesquisa FAPESP issue nº 303). His influence would endure throughout Darcy Ribeiro’s career and materialized in the project for Integrated Centers of Public Education (CIEPs), which were full-time schools established in Rio de Janeiro in the 1980s. At the time, the governor was Leonel Brizola (1922–2004), with Darcy as his lieutenant.

While in exile, Darcy dedicated himself to the ambitious project focused on the “anthropology of civilizations”

Darcy and Brizola became close in the 1960s, when the anthropologist from Minas Gerais became involved in national politics. He was the Minister of Education during the parliamentary period of the João Goulart administration (1919–1976). Upon Brazil’s return to a presidential system, he became chief of staff of the Presidency. After the 1964 coup d’état, his political rights were revoked. During the military dictatorship (1964–85), the anthropologist spent 12 years living abroad. It was a decisive period for consolidating his views, according to Darcy himself, who referred to the exile as the time during which he discovered himself as a Latin American. In the countries he visited—Uruguay, Venezuela, Chile, Peru, Costa Rica, and Mexico—he helped create and reform universities, as well as lecture at various institutions.

In Uruguay, Darcy was introduced to the work of sociologist and historian Manoel Bomfim (1868–1932). The author of A América Latina: Males de origem (Latin America: Evil origin; Garnier, 1905) became one of his paragons, as he opposed the social and racial theories of his time by stating that the cause of Brazil’s problems was not ethnic diversity, but the very logic of colonization. “Bomfim wrote of eugenics at the time, but was already refuting arguments based on racial inferiority,” points out sociologist Adélia Miglievich-Ribeiro, of the Federal University of Espírito Santo (UFES). “He also emphasized that the way to overcome any backwardness lay in the ability to emancipate ourselves from colonialism and assert ourselves as a sovereign nation. Thus, he proposed a comprehensive national education project.”

Darcy Ribeiro FoundationIn the territory that is now Mato Grosso do Sul, the anthropologist with Kadiwéu face paint, in 1947Darcy Ribeiro Foundation

While in exile, Darcy dedicated himself to the ambitious intellectual project focused on the “anthropology of civilizations.” In 1968, he published the Portuguese edition of Civilization Process (Smithsonian Books, 1969). In 1970, The Americas and Civilization (Dutton, 1971) and Os índios e a civilização (The Indians and civilization; Vozes). Also, as part of the same theoretical impulse, he released Os brasileiros: Teoria do Brasil (Brazilians: Theory of Brazil; Vozes, 1972) and O dilema da América Latina (The Latin American dilemma; Paz e Terra, 1978). In The Americas and Civilization, the anthropologist proposes classifying a continent’s populations according to the relationship they had with colonization. Groups that could simply reproduce their European way of life on the other side of the Atlantic, as in the northern United States, Canada, and in parts of Argentina, are called “transplanted peoples.” The descendants of the pre-Columbian empires, which are found mainly in Mexico and Peru, are “witness peoples.”

And finally, there are the “new peoples,” in countries such as Cuba, Venezuela, Colombia, and Brazil. These are formed by the transmutation of old identities. This idea reappears in The Brazilian People in the form of “nobodyness,” a concept that describes the formation of the Brazilian population from the violent encounter between Europeans and the Indigenous peoples. The latter sought to turn newcomers into relatives by promoting marriages between colonizers and Indigenous women—the so-called “cunhadismo” (from Portuguese cunhado, “brother-in-law”). The children born of these partnerships, however, denied their mothers’ culture and aspired to that of their fathers, which was not accessible to them, according to the anthropologist. The same violence would later occur among the Africans forcibly brought over and prevented from continuing their lineages in the new land.

“The Brazilian people tell a story of terrible suffering: colonialism, the decimation of Black and Indigenous peoples, violence against women, land grabbing, and the destruction of cultural heritage,” says Miglievich-Ribeiro. “Darcy carried the utopian torch and believed that something new would be born from this nobodyness. But this does not happen naturally. In his view, only through political struggle can we overcome the condition of subalternity.”

Darcy Ribeiro FoundationTwo years later, among the Urubu-Kaapor, in MaranhãoDarcy Ribeiro Foundation

Darcy Ribeiro’s critique of colonialism, analysis of Latin Americans, and appreciation of the Indigenous point of view make his work a source of inspiration for researchers in the field of postcolonial and decolonial studies, according to Pereira da Silva, who cites as examples the Argentine semiologist Walter Mignolo and North American cultural theologist Gloria Anzaldúa (1942–2004). “They are reinterpretations and appropriations, because when he published these terms, they were not yet used. The trend towards evolutionism and Eurocentrism in his early years gave way, during his exile, to a more diversified version, in which Latin America appears as a hub of civilization,” he says.

Pereira da Silva also identifies Darcy Ribeiro’s influence on Latin American concepts that emphasize the continent’s plurinational nature and Indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination. In his earlier works, the anthropologist stated that continued colonization and miscegenation would lead to the disappearance of Indigenous peoples. In the 1970s, however, he began to identify the emergence of resistance movements and identity affirmation by Indigenous peoples in several countries, including Brazil.

“He sees that Indigenous peoples develop national identities. They will not disappear. Then he begins thinking in terms of countries with multiple nationalities, such as federations. This precedes discussions on plurinationality that will develop in Bolivia and Ecuador, leading to constitutional processes like the one taking place today in Chile,” he says.

Arquivo Central da Universidade de BrasíliaOn March 15, 1995, when he received an honorary doctorate from the institution, the UnB campus began to be called the Darcy Ribeiro CampusArquivo Central da Universidade de Brasília

According to Miglievich-Ribeiro, although Darcy adopted ways of thinking that set him apart from mainstream postcolonialism, such as the pretense of explaining universal phenomena, the core of his project is similar to that of other precursors of this trend, such as the Martinicans Frantz Fanon (1925–1961) and Aimé Césaire (1913–2008). “Everyone tried to create a narrative based on those who lived through the experience of colonial exploitation,” she summarizes. “What unites them is the understanding that Latin Americans were shaped by colonialism. These are scholars who do not accept European universalism as an explanation of the world.” In 1976, Darcy Ribeiro returned to Brazil and revealed another professional title: that of novelist. He published Maíra (Vintage Library, 1984), a novel strongly anchored in his experience as an ethnologist. This was followed by O mulo (The mule; Nova Fronteira, 1981), Utopia selvagem (Wild utopia; Nova Fronteira, 1982), and Migo (Migo; Guanabara, 1988).

Despite having been a university chancellor, founder, and reformer, Darcy spent most of his career outside of Brazilian universities. However, he never stopped reflecting on his higher education project. He published books such as A universidade necessária (The necessary university; Biblioteca, 1971), in which he exposed his project based on interdisciplinary studies, investment in advanced scientific research, social commitment, and shared decision-making with the student body.

Brito, of FIOCRUZ, describes the UnB project as “a multidisciplinary center for academic training, a precept that is still considered to be at the vanguard within Brazilian universities.” According to Pereira da Silva, Darcy’s project for the universities was unsuccessful. Nevertheless, institutions such as the Federal University of ABC (UFABC) and the Federal University for Latin American Integration (UNILA), in Foz do Iguaçu (Paraná), incorporated some of his ideas. “These institutions were inspired by the UnB project, which was aborted by the 1964 coup d’état,” he says. The innovations introduced affected the core curriculum at the start of undergraduate programs and the format of interdisciplinary institutions, instead of departments dedicated to one classic discipline.

As lieutenant governor of Rio de Janeiro, between 1983 and 1987, in addition to the CIEPs, he designed the State University of North Fluminense (UENF), located in Campos dos Goytacazes, founded in 1991. That same year, he was elected Senator by the Democratic Labor Party (PDT), a position he occupied until his death. Darcy Ribeiro was married to anthropologist Berta Gleizer Ribeiro (1924–1997) between 1948 and 1975, and designer Claudia Zarvos between 1978 and 1990.

Scientific articles
BRITO, C. A. G. de. Integração não significa assimilação. O estudo de Darcy Ribeiro para a Unesco na década de 1950Acervo. v. 34, n. 2. 2021.
MARTINAZZO, C. J. et alA atualidade do diagnóstico e da crítica de Darcy Ribeiro (1922-1997) à educação brasileiraCadernos de História da Educação. v. 19, n. 2. 2020.
MIGLIEVICH-RIBEIRO, A. e ROMERA JR., E. Revista Interinstitucional Artes de Educar. v. 3, n. 2. 2017.
MÜLLER, H. D. C. M. A universidade necessária: Desenvolvimento nacional e produção científicaRebela. v. 10, n. 1. 2020.
OLIVEIRA, J. P. Proteger os índios e descolonizar a pesquisa: Darcy Ribeiro como antropólogoRevista Mundaú. n. 8. 2020.

KOZEL, A. e PEREIRA DA SILVA, F. (orgs.). Os futuros de Darcy Ribeiro. São Paulo: Elefante, 2022.