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130 Years After Abolition, Quilombo Sacopã Resists Through Traditional Feijoada and Samba

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On Saturday, May 12, Quilombo Sacopã organized a traditional feijoada and samba event in the context of May 13 marking 130 years since the abolition of slavery in Brazil. The community consists of around 40 members of the Pinto family, descended from its founders, Eva and Manoel, who arrived in Lagoa at the start of the twentieth century. At that time, Lagoa was a semi-urban periphery of the city of Rio. Eva and Manoel migrated to the city from the Nova Friburgo municipality, where their parents and grandparents had been slaves. Such migrations in the aftermath of abolition were common, as many recently freed slaves and their descendants did not wish to remain where they and their ancestors had been enslaved.

Since then, the family has struggled to remain on their territory, resisting evictions. In the 1970s, when Lagoa urbanized and gentrified, the military dictatorship forcefully removed the neighborhood’s favelas and poorer residents, also targeting the Pinto family. At first, the Pintos fought to remain on their land through an adverse possession process. Since 2004, they have been in the process of demarcating their territory as a quilombo. Lagoa is today an upper-class, white neighborhood—91% of its residents are white—with one of the highest per capita incomes in the city, as well as one of the highest per square meter prices. The community is located on what is today Rua Sacopã, from which it derives its name.

According to Article 68 of the 1988 Constitution’s Temporary Provisions, quilombo communities have the right to the lands on which they live. There is some confusion, however, about what a quilombo is. Historical quilombos were communities of runaway slaves and could be found in urban and rural areas. Contemporary quilombos, on the other hand, are urban or rural slave-descendant communities who have developed cultural and/or religious traditions that are linked to their black ancestry and are inseparable from their territories. Often, a community begins to self-identify as a quilombo because it is experiencing land conflicts, so that quilombos are, today, also a movement for land rights. Their territories are indispensable to their cultural and physical survival. Many emerged as quilombos, therefore, only after the 1988 Constitution. In the city of Rio, Pedra do Sal, Camorim, and Sacopã are the three urban communities currently identified as quilombos.

Celebrating Sacopã

On Saturday, the community recognized the anniversary of the abolition of slavery with mixed feelings. As Luiz Sacopã, the president of Sacopã’s association, explained, “black movements do not celebrate this date, because the abolition brought a certain freedom but no dignity, and, until today, we still have not achieved this dignity.” Abolition ended Brazil’s slave-based economy but previously passed laws, such as the Land Law of 1850, prevented recently freed slaves’ access to lands, and independent Brazil continued to deny substantive citizenship to its black and indigenous populations.

For Sacopã, the event itself marked an opportunity to challenge this lack of dignity and respect. The family is prohibited from organizing events in its territory, even though Article 215 of the Constitution guarantees quilombolas’ right to practice their culture. In the 1980s, Sacopã was famous for its pagode and samba events known as Só na Lenha, at which residents served a traditional feijoada, cooked on firewood. However, noise complaints by the neighbors led the police to prohibit the community from continuing this important tradition. Só na Lenha was not only a major source of income for the community, but also an important expression of their black ancestry. Family members such as Luiz and the late Tia Neném were themselves samba singers and composers.

The neighbors’ complaints led to accumulating fines and several police interventions in the territory. For a period of time, the police even locked up the communal kitchen and two police officers lived in the community to surveil the family 24/7. Despite Sacopã’s recognition as a quilombo and as a Special Area of Cultural Interest, residents’ constitutional right to express their culture has so far not been respected. “We are celebrating this occasion,” Luiz explained, “because we are legally prohibited from holding any type of cultural manifestation on our land.” Therefore, on May 13 and November 20 (Black Awareness Day, or Zumbi Day), the Pintos organize a feijoada and samba to test the reaction of Rio’s justice system. As Luiz put it, “for us [May 13] is a sad day, but it’s a day when we can manifest our culture.”

The Saturday event therefore had the political purpose of bringing visibility to this ongoing injustice, and of reenergizing residents’ struggle for land in Lagoa. As Sacopã member Cláudio noted, such cultural manifestations are important in passing on a sense of belonging and pride to the younger generations by showing them that the community has “a specificity and history of resistance on that territory.” This younger generation, such as Cláudio’s children, has been forced to grow up detached from these cultural traditions.

Despite these ongoing challenges, Sacopã residents Tina and Márcia served their famous feijoada, while the Sacopã samba group and singer and composer Noca da Portela guaranteed a lively atmosphere. Other musicians, supporters, and politicians attended the event.

The land struggle continues

Similar to indigenous land rights, quilombo land rights come in the form of a collective land title, and are implemented through an administrative process with more or less seven stages. Sacopã is currently approaching the sixth stage, in which invaders living on a community’s lands are removed and compensated. The last milestone in their demarcation process was in 2014, when Sacopã received the “portaria de reconhecimento” documentation, which recognized the community as a quilombo and delimited the collective land. “Since then,” Luiz stated, “things have calmed down a bit. We feel a bit more secure.”

Since 2003, the regularization of quilombo land titles has fallen under the responsibility of the federal institute INCRA. In the past five years, however, the budget for the demarcation of quilombos has been drastically reduced, further slowing down and complicating an already lengthy process. One consequence of this budget cut is that it hinders the removal and compensation of invaders on quilombo lands, so that several communities, including Sacopã, have been forced to reduce the perimeters of their traditional territories to exclude the plots invaded by outsiders.

Besides delays in the demarcation processes, quilombolas throughout Brazil have also been facing growing incidents and threats of violence, which affect several types of political activists throughout the country. In 2017, the number of quilombo leaders murdered in Brazil increased to 14, compared to eight documented murders in 2016 and only one in 2015.

Still, Sacopã stands as evidence of the power of resistance. The family, after all, has remained in its territory and continues to thrive, resisting real estate speculation, privilege, and racism in one of Rio’s wealthiest neighborhoods.