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The very dissimilar Bahia

Research done in the USA reveals the rich culture in Salvador


In the 1950’s, the then luxury Hotel da Bahia was opened in the center of Salvador, primarily to accommodate foreign tourists. On its wall, a large mural by artist Genaro de Carvalho (1926-1971), called “Regional Festivities”, presents a scene that could be seen on the streets of that “historic and picturesque” land, as the artist described it at the time in the local press. On the canvas are the famous Bahian female acarajé [dish made from black-eyed peas fried in dende oil and served with a dried shrimp paste] sellers, dressed in sumptuous white clothes, with cloths and turbans, just as in the nineteenth century, who wash the steps of the Bonfim Church under the protection of Iemanja, the orixá [deity] of the Candomblé religion. For American historian, Anadelia A. Romo, from the University of Texas, this episode – the hotel, the mural, the painter’s statement – sums up one of the main tensions observed in Bahian society, not only at that time but also today: the traditions, seen as peaceful and static, are still alive day to day, however, urban, dynamic and unequal.

Undoubtedly, this traditional Bahia, as painted by Genaro, is what you see at the main tourist sites and still publicized by travel agencies and guides. The history of how this image was shaped between 1888 and 1964 is told by Anadelia in “Brazil’s living museum – Race, reform, and tradition in Bahia”, a work published by the University of North Carolina. The research began when she was still an undergraduate student of Bahian history at Princeton University and was taught by Bahian historian, João Jose Reis, then a visiting professor. For over a decade, the interest persisted and her study included several visits to Brazil to research Brazilian archives. Anadelia completed her Ph.D. in history at Harvard University and is now a professor in the area of Latin America, at the University of Texas.

Who is interested in this image of a “living museum?” As the researcher explains, various sectors have appropriated and benefited from it. Reinforcing Africans ties, for example, helped strengthen the identity of a large part of the population of African descent. “It was not an easy process, given the racial and cultural discrimination that exists and is centuries old,” she says. The tension, nevertheless, remains. “After all, this did not translate into greater equality and is one of the central problems I discuss in the book.” If, on the one hand, Afro-Bahian culture is incorporated into official discourse, on the other its inhabitants have suffered over the century because of the negligence of the state in providing them with welfare, social mobility and access to health and education, as the researcher describes.

Bahia, which had its days of splendor up to the nineteenth century, began the twentieth century in a deep stasis – a period of economic distress that, in the 1930’s, was described by local intellectuals as “the Bahian enigma.” The mystery of such ostracism is later analyzed in detail by historian Katia de Queiros Mattoso, in her book “Bahia in the nineteenth century – A province in the Empire” (Nova Fronteira), the result of her PhD thesis at the Sorbonne: after her defense she would be the first incumbent of the chair of Brazilian history in that French university.

Therefore, this black and mulatto, poor and quiet Bahia, still without the marks of progress, is remodeled based on new formulations of race and culture, as Anadelia A. Romo describes it. The African cultural presence – it is estimated that the number of slaves brought mainly to Salvador and other cities of the Recôncavo Baiano region was 4 million – soon became one of the attractions for tourists from other parts of the country and abroad. It was to inspire artists, writers and composers from Bahia and other parts. Jorge Amado was the creator who most exalted the city in his work, but the image of Bahia as, in short, a mystical and unusual place was also spread by the contribution of composers such as Dorival Caymmi, also from Bahia, and Ary Barroso, from Minas Gerais; painters like Carybé, an Argentinian, and ethnographer, Pierre Verger, a Frenchman.

The idea that there existed a “racial democracy” in Bahia – in comparison with the American model of the time, which was extremely stratified – began to attract foreign researchers back in the 1930’s. Under the coordination of UNESCO, a major survey was launched at the beginning of the 1950’s, when intellectuals like São Paulo’s Florestan Fernandes came onto the scene, for whom racism was hidden under the appearance of the mixture. “What is interesting to observe is that ‘racial democracy’ is now being rejected by academics from the south of the country, like São Paulo, but many of them in Bahia continue to defend it as if Bahia were an exception,” says the American researcher, who is now dedicating herself to studying the exchange between Brazilian and American anthropologists.

From the 1970’s, the view that there was a “racial paradise” was replaced by another, that there was a “racial hell”, as says anthropologist Jocélio Teles dos Santos, director of the Center for Afro-Oriental Studies, a professor at the Federal University of Bahia and author of, among others, the book “The power of culture and culture in power: the symbolic dispute of the black cultural heritage in Brazil” (Edufba). According to dos Santos, Brazil was seen as a tolerant Catholic and Portuguese America in opposition to the Protestant and despotic America, which was the United States. “In recent decades there has been an ever-increasing politicization and the culture of revindication has emerged,” he says. What is curious is that the paradox is maintained, the researcher adds. Successive governments, on the right or left, have reinforced the idea of a traditional Bahia, linked to Africanism, and at the same time there are still unmet needs for public policies against racial inequality.

The interest of North American historians in Bahia is very big and growing, above all for those who are researching slavery and black cultural history, says historian, Joao Jose Reis, a professor at the Federal University of Bahia and the author of pioneering books, like “The Slave Rebellion in Brazil”, “Death is a Party” and “The Invention of Freedom”, edited by Companhia das Letras. “This story of “racial democracy” is a bit old now. The Brazilian black – including the Bahian – and not only the black, but the anti-racists in general, want him to become a reality, but he’s not. Just look at the last campaign of hatred against people from the Northeast on the Internet recently. It’s the same cultural hotbed of racism,” recalls the historian.

João José Reis says that Bahians have already got used to the Idea of a strongly “African” Bahia: they eat acarajé, they dance to the sound of Olodum and Timbalada and they dress in white on Fridays. There are no organized groups of supposed whites who preach racial supremacy, as occurs in other parts of Brazil. Quotas were adopted in our Bahian public universities without the racial conflict predicted by anthropologists and part of the media. “Bahia is, however, racist like the rest of Brazil, but in a less organized way. All the time denunciations of racism appear in the press and the killing of young blacks from the outskirts is taken as something natural. It’s the blacks who are on the streets as beggars, crazy. There are extremely few blacks among the local elite,” he says.