Legalizing Identities: Becoming Black or Indian in Brazil's Northeast

Legalizing Identities: Becoming Black or Indian in Brazil's Northeast

Legalizing Identities: Becoming Black or Indian in Brazil's Northeast

Legalizing Identities: Becoming Black or Indian in Brazil's Northeast

Synopsis

Anthropologists widely agree that identities-even ethnic and racial ones-are socially constructed. Less understood are the processes by which social identities are conceived and developed. Legalizing Identities shows how law can successfully serve as the impetus for the transformation of cultural practices and collective identity. Through ethnographic, historical, and legal analysis of successful claims to land by two neighboring black communities in the backlands of northeastern Brazil, Jan Hoffman French demonstrates how these two communities have come to distinguish themselves from each other while revising and retelling their histories and present-day stories.

French argues that the invocation of laws by these related communities led to the emergence of two different identities: one indigenous (Xoco Indian) and the other quilombo (descendants of a fugitive African slave community). With the help of the Catholic Church, government officials, lawyers, anthropologists, and activists, each community won government recognition and land rights, and displaced elite landowners. This was accomplished even though anthropologists called upon to assess the validity of their claims recognized that their identities were "constructed." The positive outcome of their claims demonstrates that authenticity is not a prerequisite for identity. French draws from this insight a more sweeping conclusion that, far from being evidence of inauthenticity, processes of construction form the basis of all identities and may have important consequences for social justice.

Excerpt

In the poverty-stricken backlands of northeastern Brazil, since the late 1970s, groups of peasants have been recognized by the government as either indigenous tribes or descendants of fugitive slave communities. In this book, I explain how two such groups, who are neighbors and kin, came to selfidentify as ethnoracially separate, calling upon different federal laws for recognition and land. I was introduced to the area that would become my field site through the Centro Dom José Brandão de Castro, a nongovernmental organization, which only a few years earlier had been linked to the Catholic Church. Knowing of my interest in Native Americans with African ancestry in the United States, a Brazilian friend had mentioned to me that he knew of a group of “black people” in the northeastern state of Sergipe who had been issued cards by FUNAI, the national indigenous protection agency, identifying them as members of the Xocó Indian tribe. When he put me in touch with the Centro staff and I expressed interest in learning more about the Xocó, they explained that the crux of their work at that time was with the neighboring village of Mocambo. The majority of Mocambo residents, most of whom had kin among the Xocó, were rural workers who, the year before, in 1997, had been recognized by the Brazilian government as a community of descendants of fugitive slaves (quilombo) under a one-sentence provision (the “quilombo clause”) of the 1988 Constitution, the first democratic constitution since the military regime took power in 1964. This set the stage for an unimaginable situation, by U.S. standards: two neighboring, related communities whose fates had, for generations, been completely intertwined, were now separated by ethnicity, race, politics, and land. Each community was recognized by a different federal government agency. One is considered Indian and the other black, although all are descended from Africans, Indians, and Europeans.

Intrigued by such an ethnoracial and demographic configuration, I traveled to Sergipe in May 1998 for the first time. When I arrived at the singlerunway airport in Sergipe’s capital, Aracaju, the first thing I noticed was a mural on yellow tiles in the baggage claim area. It portrayed a group of dancing Indians with shafts, feather skirts, long hair, and geometrical designs on . . .

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