A man greets Manoel Seabra, 94, the oldest man at the community of Quilombo Sao Jose, descendants of African slaves, during a Afro-Brazilian culture celebration marking the anniversary of the abolition of slavery, in Valenca, in Rio de Janeiro state May 17, 2014.
Hundreds of years after Brazilian slaves first fled to rebel communities called quilombos, remnants of those outposts of freedom live on in the heart of Rio de Janeiro.
Often the quilombos were established in remote places — better to get away from pursuers.
However, three founded in Rio have survived as living testaments to a tradition at the core of Brazil's complicated racial history.
Of course, Afro-Brazilians do not need to escape slavery anymore, but in a country riven by racial inequality and historic injustices, the quilombos now serve as focal points for resistance of a more contemporary kind.
The Sacopa quilombo is one of the city's best kept secrets, a beautiful area of tropical forest that has ended up being surrounded by the high-rent Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas neighborhood.
Back in the 19th century, long before the fancy apartment buildings sprang up, this was where slaves seeking freedom would gather, starting new lives. The population grew and, around it, so did Rio.
"We're still here because I have been very stubborn. They tried everything to take this land from us but we have the rights," said Luiz Sacopa, 74, who is the eldest living descendant of the original slaves.
He says he has lost count of the attempts by people to oust the quilombo.
One neighbor planted marijuana on the plot to try to incriminate them.
Then, citing noise complaints, the Rio state court stopped the quilombo from hosting cultural events like feijoada feasts and classes in capoeira, a dance-like martial art developed by fugitive slaves.
That was "a very hard blow," Sacopa said.
"We were very respectful, always ending everything by 8:00 or 9:00 pm," said another family member, Jose Claudio Torres Freitas, during an event staged on official Black Consciousness Day.
"This is the only day we're allowed to do anything," he said.
The modern-day quilombos like Sacopa do have some legal protection.
In 2003, then leftist president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva signed a decree regularizing boundaries and titles for descendants of quilombo slaves, who are collectively known as quilombolas.
However, the bureaucratic procedures are complex and while the three quilombos in Rio de Janeiro have been recognized, they are still waiting for the second stage of the paperwork to be completed.
The Pedra do Sal quilombo, right in the center of Rio near the port, is where many slaves went soon after arriving on ships from Africa.
The site is also rich in cultural significance as a key location in the development of the still thriving Afro-Brazilian religion candomble.
But legal uncertainties mean few of those from the 25 families descending from the original Pedra do Sal community live there anymore.
"The neighborhood wasn't like this back then — it was very isolated," said Damiao Braga, the quilombola leader.
"But it was gradually invaded and swallowed by the city. There were many disputes, including with the Catholic church."
Even recognition from UNESCO for the nearby Valongo Wharf, where slave ships used to dock, has not helped much.
"We have international support but the disputes remain. Empty buildings have been taken over and once that happens, it's not easy to reverse," Braga said.
Out in the west of Rio, where most of the Olympic Games took place in 2016, quilombola descendant Adilson Almeida helps oversee yet another of these pockets of history.
His ancestors founded the Camorim quilombo after escaping back in the 16th century. When slavery ended, the family returned and set up a community there.
In this out of the way area, the quilombolas went about their lives until 2014 when the 20 resident families woke up to find construction work starting: the woodland that was historically theirs had been picked as the site of housing for Olympic referees.
In this case, the quilombo had yet to receive the paperwork from even the first stage of the registration procedures to obtain legal protection, and the land was never returned to the community.
But Almeida still has hopes.
Archeologists found thousands of artifacts from the 16th and 17th centuries during research there last year, and the disputed area has been named an official archeological site by the National Institute for Historic and Artistic Patrimony.
"Now we have a solid legal base and it would be hard for something like the 2014 invasion to happen again," Almeida said.
10 Things Afro-Brazilians Want You to Know
An Afro-Brazilian procession to celebrate the month of black consciousness in Sao Paulo
Back in 2002, according to the Estado do S. Paulo newspaper, former U.S. President George W. Bush reportedly asked Fernando Henrique Cardoso, then-president of Brazil, "Does Brazil have blacks, too?"
For Brazilians, this statement showed a stunning ignorance of the country, which is the fifth largest in the world and is one of the seven-largest economies. But ignorance about Afro-Brazilians and their culture is nothing new. The history and the voices of Afro-Brazilians are often muted.
As eyes begin to wander from Rio de Janeiro as the Olympics end this weekend, here’s a parting shot of what I’ve learned about Afro-Brazilians from years of conversation with black activists in Brazil:
- Brazil has the dubious honor of being the last country in the Western Hemisphere to end slavery (in 1888) and the country to import the largest number of African slaves, more than any other country in the Americas, from the 1500s to 1850.
- People of African ancestry, according to the first national census of 1872(pdf), represented more than 65 percent of the population; this includes blacks and people of mixed African heritage. Also, by 1872, more than half the people of Brazil were free people of African heritage. In the census of 1872, 15 percent of the population remained slaves.
- Afro-Brazilian slaves, in particular, left a disproportionate imprint on the culture of Brazil. Evident in almost every aspect of the culture and economy, Afro-Brazilians not only were responsible for producing sugar, as stereotyped, but also developed the early infrastructure and architecture; were cowboys; were responsible for the culinary traditions; and, in the colonial period and during the early national period, were over-represented as health care workers. Afro-Brazilians contributed to every aspect of the economy as workers.
- All the main cultural forms of Brazil have a base in Afro-Brazilian culture. Once thought of as barbaric or backward, these traditions are now part of Brazil's national identity. For example, samba, the national music of Brazil, was the focus of enormous police oppression throughout the 19th century until the 1930s. Playing samba music and dancing to it was illegal throughout Brazil. There are examples in the 19th century where African instruments were prohibited, and people engaging in samba music were arrested and punished.
- This was also the case with capoeira, the Brazilian martial art, and a beautiful dance form, which was created by Africans and was also outlawed and prosecuted by the police until the 1930s, when it became part of the national culture.
- People of African heritage in Brazil never had a reconstruction period as in the United States. There was no Freedmen's Bureau, and there were no major literacy programs as in the United States. Ex-slaves had very few options for social mobility. Also, new vagrancy laws were used to target ex-slave populations throughout the Americas to harass blacks who were not willing to continue the same exploitative labor practices from their slave past. And while there was no law prohibiting blacks from voting, most people of African ancestry were not eligible to vote because the 1891 constitution made literacy a requirement to vote.
- In the early 1930s emerged an organization called the Black Brazilian Front (Frente Negra Brasileira). This group was the first black body to run explicitly black candidates for political office and one of the first civil rights organizations to fight for and defend the Afro-Brazilian population. This group was started in Sao Paulo but had affiliates in several states in Brazil, including Bahia and Rio Grande Sul. The Black Brazilian Front would never elect a single black candidate. But it was able to start a school and advocate on behalf of many Afro-Brazilians for their civil rights. Although segregation was not de jure in Brazil, it was de facto. One of the examples was a black skating rink in Sao Paulo that the Black Brazilian Front was able to integrate. Also, the group was able to prepare Afro-Brazilians to obtain jobs in the public sector of Sao Paulo.
- Afro-Brazilians engaged in other protest organizations, like A União dos Homen do Cor (the Union of Men of Color) an organization that was formed in 1943 in Porto Alegre and would establish 10 chapters throughout Brazil. Another prominent black group was Teatro Experimental Negra (the Black Experimental Theater), which was formed in Rio de Janeiro in 1944 and was the first black theater in Brazil whose particular purpose was to raise consciousness about history, culture and the black experience in Brazil and throughout the Diaspora.
- During the military dictatorship in the 1970s, a new black movement emerged called Movimento Negro Unificado (the United Black Movement). Brazilian black activism was in some ways similar to today's Black Lives Matter movement in the United States in that it was and is a decentralized movement that is centered around social justice and fighting against anti-black attitudes. In 1978 one of the most important points was the organizing over the killing of Robson Silveira da Luz by the police.
- These black movements in Brazil have had many successes, such as the installation of affirmative action and the teaching in schools about Africa and people of African ancestry. Also, in recent years, many self-identified Afro-Brazilians have been elected to political office. There are agencies in Brazil at the local, state and national levels that are combating discrimination against blacks, Native Americans and LGBT communities. But the struggle for ending anti-black attitudes continues for people of African descent in Brazil.
On slavery in Brazil:
-The African slave trade and slave life.
-Brazil comes to terms with its slave trading past.
-Slavery in Brazil: Brazilian scholars in key interpretive debates.
-Photos reveal harsh detail of Brazil's history with slavery.
On racism in Brazil:
-In denial over racism in Brazil.
-Brazil's color bind. Brazil is combating many kinds of inequality. But one of the world’s most diverse nations is still just beginning to talk about race.
-The challenges of being black and upper class in Brazil.
-Race relations. Slavery's legacies.
Other interesting links:
-From samba to carnival: Brazil's thriving African culture.
-Afro-Brazilian History, Beats and Culture.
-Brazil markets its African culture.