Academic journal article Afro - Hispanic Review

Spaces of Silence and Efforts toward Voice: Negotiation and Power among Quilombo Communities in Southern Bahia Brazil

Academic journal article Afro - Hispanic Review

Spaces of Silence and Efforts toward Voice: Negotiation and Power among Quilombo Communities in Southern Bahia Brazil

Article excerpt

Brazil's quilombos and the quilombola people living in these communities are emerging from centuries of social and political neglect. Just a few years ago, it seemed that people rarely talked about quilombos, communities founded by fugitive slaves resisting slavery that are today comprised of their descendents. However, today quilombolas are increasingly highlighted in scholarly studies, development efforts, conservation initiatives, government projects, and contemporary films.1 In 2007, the Brazilian government committed two billion reais over four years to projects under the Quilombo Social Agenda program, an indication of the increasing importance of such communities to government and civil society agendas.2 Furthermore, non-government organization projects with quilombos have surged over the past decade, while academic research on these communities has also grown steadily since the mid-1990s (French, Legalizing Identities; Leite, "Os quilombos"; Reis and Gomes).5 One Brazilian anthropologist notes, "Nowadays in Brazil quilombo is a word that means transformation. It is present everywhere from popular manifestations to state political affairs" (Leite, "Post-Utopian Quilombo" 2). Others observe, "Quilombo has taken a prominent place in Brazil's rich forest of symbols" (Price 246). Perhaps Joana, the twenty-two year-old leader of a quilombo association in Southern Bahia most aptly characterizes this emergence from centuries of relative obscurity into the contemporary public sphere with her wry observation: "Now we're right up there next to the indigenous!'H

This growing visibility, however, belies a lesser-told story about many quilombos throughout Brazil. Despite their emerging presence on state and civil society agendas, quilombolas nevertheless confront myriad challenges in their daily lives, particularly in their efforts to become officially recognized, gain titles to their lands, and combat poverty. As one quilombola woman named Cecilia laments, "No one comes to our communities. They are completely forgotten, completely jogadala slang term for 'cast off'] . . . without water, without jobs." Furthermore, Joana, despite her recognition of the growing popularity of projects with quilombos throughout Brazil, still describes her community as a place where "ninguém chega" ("no one arrives"). "The mayor was supposed to come here," she describes. "I got everyone together. We sat waiting all day. But he never came." Comments such as these, particularly in light of the growing focus directed toward quilombos, reveal a contemporary paradox. Uncovering the deeper roots of this paradox is essential for illuminating not only the challenges faced by quilombolas today, but also the subtle ways in which history, race, class, and power continue to shape the lives of these people as well as their ability to organize as a growing social movement in Brazil today.

Drawing upon ethnographic research conducted in the South of Bahia region of Brazil during periods from 2006 through 2009, I argue that, while the voices of quilombo communities and quilombola people are seemingly rising to the fore, they nevertheless confront very real "spaces of silence"-ways in which their realities are forgotten, ignored, and discounted even amidst the very structures and institutions charged with giving them voice. Michel Rolph Trouillot claims silencing can take place through erasure, the failure to consider particular realities, as well as through what he calls "banalization," the stripping of context and power (96). Applying Trouillot's framework to the experiences of quilombo communities, I reveal distinct yet interrelated "spaces of silence" that circumscribe quilombolas' lives; spaces of silence in governmental and legal bureaucracies and erasure and banalization in negotiations with state and civil society actors around development projects. These spaces are not only tangible places like governmental offices, courtrooms, and public meetings; they are also discursive, ways in which the challenges of quilombolas today are absent, or silent, often amidst the very spaces intended to highlight their plight. …

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