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The above .GIFs and text below were presented live in my stead by performer Ayana Evans at Panoply in Brooklyn on October 31, 2014 for the show Empathy Play, the first by the Social Health Performance Club. The piece primarily deals with the cinematic representation of two folk/popular Afro-Brazilian comedic legends and how this relates to the nation's identity as supposedly 'post-racial'.



"[…] opposite to what happened in the United States [and the British/French, and other European colonies], where the black population was purposely segregated from the white population in order to eliminate or significantly diminish the possibility of racial mixture, in Brazil [and the Spanish colonies], the goal was to encourage inter-mixture so that all traces of the black race would eventually disappear from the country within a period of about 100 years."
- BlackWomenOfBrazil blog

"In the aftermath of the abolition of slavery in 1888, Republican-era (1889-1930) Brazilian elites believed that the newly freed Afro-Brazilian population, which was assumed to have retained its ‘backward’ culture, would impede Brazil from taking its place among the developed industrial nations of the world. At the same time, theories of scientific racism were infiltrating Brazil, and Brazilian elites sought to ‘whiten’ the country’s population – an ideology best captured in Modesto Brocos y Gómes’ 1895 painting A Redenção de Cam (The Redemption of Ham – from the Bible’s Book of Genesis). This painting depicted embranqueamento (whitening) – the ideal that through European immigration and miscegenation, every Brazilian generation would become whiter [and thus better]. Brazil’s embrace of this ideology promoted the notion that all Brazilians lived in racial harmony, and that any discrimination Afro-Brazilians suffered was a function of social class, not of race. This has historically deprived several Afro-Brazilian civil rights movements of their solitary target for mobilization."
- Lesley Anne Warner

“Between the years 1880 and 1930, about 5 million European immigrants, mostly of Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and German descent, entered the country with a large majority settling in the most southern states of the country, Paraná, Santa Catarina, Rio Grande do Sul. Today, 79.6% of the residents in these three states define themselves as white. The whiteness that is associated with these three states are the result of an ‘interest of disseminating in Europe a civilized and whitened image of a country that always was described by Europeans as a piece of Africa in the Americas’."
- BlackWomenOfBrazil blog

As an artist, and a second-generation, passport-holding Brazilian, it is precisely this legacy of societal whitening and Afro-denial in Brazil, which preoccupies me at the moment. What I will share here tonight thus represents the empathetic portrayal of an identity that is and simultaneously is not mine, as I do not know for sure.

Tonight I want to focus on the varying visual representations of two popular Afro-Brazilian cultural icons, which for me are emblematic of the complexities of internalized anti-blackness throughout the society

The first, Saci Pererê, is described in legends as a one-legged, black male trickster that lives in the forest. The story is said to derive from the indigenous people of Brazil, the Tupi-Guarani, and birds they observed. One of which makes the onomatopoeic sound "saci, saci", which gives the folkloric character its name, while the other was a small black bird with a red head, which hopped on one leg and deftly avoided hunters.

Thus the Saci was initially associated with protection. The African slaves likely adapted the indigenous people's Saci, turning him into a black man/boy, who smoked from a pipe and traveled in whirlwinds, perhaps a vehicle with which to avoid the slave owners. The portuguese colonizers eventually got involved with the legend as well, and at some point, Saci became more of a malignant spirit, who wore a red Phrygian cap and granted wishes to whomsoever "caught" him and removed his cap.

The element of Saci's travel with the wind recalls a very interesting caribbean and meso-american connection. The Mayan god of winds, Huracan (whose name means "one-legged" according to some sources), and which is also a Taíno word, which we have adapted into "hurricane", comes to mind. There is also the Aztec Tezcatlipoca, associated with storms, depicted with one human leg and one snake-body leg, and associated with obsidian, with blackness.

So in the early 20th century, this man Monteiro Lobato creates the modern depiction of the Saci Pererê, an incredibly annoying forest spirit, of the darkest skin, who tortures rural families by spoiling their milk, over-salting their food, burning the black beans, and braiding the hair of their horses. Only when imprisoned in a bottle, which carries obvious slave-era overtones, will the Saci be docile enough to deal with. The popular version of the story, which Lobato the eugenist created depicted Saci being captured by and instantly befriending a small white farm boy, to whom he reveals various secrets of the Saci culture (there are many Sacis living in the forest).

The only two other black characters in the legend (a suspicious, maternal domestic worker and a kindly old man, a preto velho who lives near the forest), when interacting with the Saci, express fear/distress towards the man-creature, especially as it concerns Saci's "friendship" with the white family that employs these folks. In this, the legend reproduces characters that resemble the familiar mammy-esque archetypes found in the North American South.

The problematic nature of most representations of the Saci in Brazilian culture are too numerous to name here, but there have been, however, attempts to save the visual legacy of the Saci. In the late 50s, a left-leaning comic artist Ziraldo Alves Pinto introduced a version of the popular legend that re-focused the story to show Saci in their natural habitat--with forest animals and indigenous peoples. The idyllic setting of these stories, the author would later recall, were symbolic of the pre-dictatorship times in Brazil, an era categorized by lofty, peaceful, utopian ideals.

The military regime would shatter those ideals. It is interesting to note that in the mid 2000s, a modern redux of Pinto's version appeared on Brazilian television (on the coat-tails of a parallel redux of the problematic Lobato version) during the beginnings of the current Socialist Party-led government reign, which can also be said to foster narratives of idyllic unity amidst the glaring realities of inequality and racism still prevalent throughout the country.

The second popular character I am introducing is the (visibly) Afro-Brazilian comedian, musician, television and film star known as Mussum. Given the country's history of black erasure and racist miscegenation, Antônio Carlos Bernardes Gomes' characterization of Mussum (beginning in the late 60s) could not have fit better within the then-militarized status quo of Brazilian society. Mussum was not only a drunk, a swindler, a woman beater, a loafer, crude, and uneducated--he is also remembered for his vehement anti-blackness. Called "azulão" (big blue) by the rest of his comedic troupe (white brazilians), some of Mussum's most famous lines involved a comedic device in which any challenge to his masculine/intellectual identity was met with a curt, race-denying response such as: "negão é o teu passádis" ("black is your ancestor!") or "quero morrer prêtis se eu estiver mentindo" ("if I'm lying, I want to die black").

I've only just begun to demystify for myself the notion of racial democracy in Brazil and to scratch the surface of my family’s cultural origins as well as popular visual representations of blackness in the media, though with the recent airing of a new soap-drama "Sexo e as negas" ("Sex and the niggas"), it seems that there is no shortage of material from which to study and draw new conclusions.

The impetus for this entire investigation came from the chance discovery that over the past 10 years, the Brazilian government has sought to combat the growing influence of Western “Ralouìn” (Halloween) traditions in the country with an alternative celebration on October the 31st, Dia do Saci.

- Ian Deleón