A museum for the working class in Brazil

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A museum for the working class in Brazil

In Brazil, people often blame the favela residents for poor sanitation and living conditions. But in Rocinha, the biggest favela in Rio de Janeiro, there is a project to tell the true story about the people who live there.


Firmino in Rocinha. Credit: Alessio Perrone

From the top of a hill over southern Rio de Janeiro, Antônio Firmino of Sankofa Museum, points at the rich neighbourhoods of Lagoa and Leblon.

‘Freed black slaves used to live there,’ he says. ‘When they kicked them out, in the early twentieth century, many came here. But many people don’t know that.’

He is talking about Rocinha. It the biggest of Rio de Janeiro’s more than 1,000 favelas. It is the favela with the most people in South America. This is where Firmino lives. On two hills, Rocinha has between 100,000 and 200,000 mostly working people and they have only poor infrastructure and sanitation.


The Rocinha favela in Rio de Janeiro,Brazil, July 24, 2016. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly

‘History does not tell our story,’ says Firmino, a black Brazilian. He wears dreadlocks and a t-shirt reading Se a Cidade fosse Nossa, ‘If the city were ours’. History is another battleground in Brazil. Since taking office in January 2019, Jair Bolsonaro’s government has said that Brazil never had a military dictatorship, racism is not a problem, and slavery was good for Afro-Brazilians. And so some say that Bolsonaro is ‘rewriting history’.

The problem is worse in the country’s favelas. More than 11 million residents suffer negative reports from the media as well as the terrible social housing. Most people in the favelas are peaceful low-income workers. But because of the drug gangs, the media report the favelas mostly as places of violence, crime, and poverty.

So, there are plans have sprung up to tell the true story about communities, the fight to make living conditions and lives better, and to help residents understand the politics. They differ from most social work done in favelas. These often try to find a way out of disadvantaged communities through sports, music and education.

So now there are projects to show that the communities have dignity and to teach them about history and politics to help the residents against any future abuse.


A self-organized volunteering project in Rocinha lays new pipes. Credit: padre Theory Linard via Sankofa

In the northern favela of Maré, for example, they organised a census to make it harder for the government to treat the many peaceful favela residents ‘like they don’t exist’. Elsewhere, residents made a Museum of Evictions as a record of the long battle against displacement.

In Rocinha, Sankofa gets the community to make their own history and asks them for old photographs and documents.

‘This is our museum: we want to tell a story that people only normally tell as a tragedy,’ says Firmino. ‘And we want to tell it from the workers’ point of view. The people should tell their own story.’

The usual story is that the migrants arrived in Rio from Brazil’s northeast in the 1950s, squatted on the land, and started the favela’s low-quality living. The story blames the poor residents for their living conditions.

But Sankofa’s archive of documents, Firmino says, shows that Rocinha’s history starts from oppression. For example, before the favela, white settlers wiped out the indigenous peoples in the hills. Then, at the start of the twentieth century, the first houses came after a landowner illegally sold land to low-income workers and did not build basic infrastructure to go with the new homes.


In the 1980s a group works to improve sanitation in Rocinha's Rua 3. Credit: padre Theory Linard via Sankofa

Soon, they kicked out many freed slaves from the more central areas of Rio de Janeiro and they looked for shelter in Rocinha. Only after all this, in the 1940s and 1950s, northeastern immigrants arrived to find shelter there already.

This story of the favela’s history, Firmino says, shows how thousands of people were in fact neglected, and how they had to fight for the few basic improvements. In the early days ‘there were no sanitation, no health-care and no schools,’ Firmino says. ‘The first school, the Escola Francisco De Paula Brito, was built in the 1970s – many years after the favela was born.’

The Sankofa Museum, whose name comes from the word ‘Sankofa’ of Ghana’s Twi language, whose meaning roughly expresses the need to study history in order to understand how people live in the present, is still carrying out grassroots research.

The Sankofa Museum has ‘museum tea’ sessions, when they invite the oldest residents to look deeply into the favela’s history. Residents share their oldest memories, documents, and photographs. Sankofa then pits them into its archive.


To raise money for the demonstrations, communities organized parties and dances. Credit: padre Theory Linard via Sankofa

The museum is a moving museum and does not have a building. Its members take residents and tourists on historical tours of Rocinha and explain the history and talk about the working class, peaceful, and more surprising things about life in the favela. They show and talk about the shops, the ecological park, and the working class residents waking up at 5am to work in Rio’s richest districts.

Sankofa also organises exhibitions in Rocinha’s squares and schools; There they use their photographs to tell the story of the residents’ past struggles. Often, struggles were mutirões, collective demonstrations in which residents worked together for free to improve their community.

First, residents called their neighbours to the streets. Then, they laid pipes, fixed houses or did sanitation work. Finally, communities often organized parties to make money for future demonstrations. Firmino says that residents demanded to ‘be treated like citizens, have running water, basic sanitation, and urbanization’.


Residents marching through Rocinha in the 1980s, calling on others to take part in the mutirão. Credit: padre Theory Linard via Sankofa

Firmino says that Sankofa believe that ‘People without a past are people without a future, and they will believe everything the elites say about them.’

But also, he says that knowing their history could make favela residents see how most of the improvements in Rocinha came from political struggles.

‘The sanitation we have was from the residents,’ says Firmino. ‘The community health centre was also from the residents. And the Pasarela (the first bridge across a motorway dividing Rocinha from nearby neighbourhoods, and linking it to the rest of Rio de Janeiro). And the schools.

‘Residents will see that nobody will give them anything – change won’t come from outside,’ Firmino says. ‘They’ll have to fight for it.’



(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)