Meet The Quilombos, Brazil’s Afro Community


How creativity forces important dynamic social change

Rio’s Afro-Brazilians have long united black consciousness through carnival and samba. But now communities are making spaces that celebrate black identity — through food, art and music — to resist inequality and redefine the national culture. Kiratiana Freelon, who moved to Brazil to write about the “blackest country outside of Africa”, reports for Mondes.

Here in Rio de Janeiro there’s an expression: you can make a plan for Rio, but Rio has a plan for you. It’s a phrase that I came to understand for myself on my first trip to the city in 2003, when I thought I was going to visit a samba school but ended up discovering what Brazilians call a quilombo.

It was a three-week trip to Rio – my first in Brazil – and I joined a Saturday samba party at the Salgueiro samba school. The term ’samba school’ is a little misleading. While they often offer classes, the schools are really a series of Black community organisations with one goal every year: to mount a parade of dancers, floats and drummers to compete for the title of grand champion at the Rio Carnival. Black Brazilians formed the Salgueiro samba school in 1953 when several groups from the favela of the same name in the north of the city fused together.

That night’s event was in preparation for the 2003 parade, so it was called an ensaio – a rehearsal. Everyone was dressed head to toe in red and white – a memo I didn’t get, so I felt out of place in my blue jeans. The night included a performance by a samba music band as well as the school’s dancers, whose frenetic style of dancing (in high heels) intimidated me. But the night reached its peak when Salgueiro’s bateria furiosa began to play. Perched overhead in a balcony-like drummer’s box, more than 50 percussionists began to beat out the rhythms of the school’s samba song for that year. Below, thousands of people belted out the lyrics as the costumed school members filed by in a procession. At the time I didn’t realise I was witnessing one of the greatest Black cultural manifestations in Brazil.

The word quilombo originates from the Quilombo of Palmares, a self-sustaining ’maroon’ community of escaped enslaved Africans, formed in Brazil’s northeast in the 17th century. The community, led first by Ganga Zumba and then by Zumbi dos Palmares, grew to more than 20,000 residents in what is now the state of Alagoas. Even today, in a country where around 56 per cent of Brazilians identify as Black, there are still thousands of modern-day rural quilombos, communities that have held on to their African heritage due to limited contact with cities. Urban quilombos do the same, but their work to preserve Black culture is more difficult, making samba schools even more of a wonder. These are places of resistance – against racism, cultural erasure and environmental destruction – where Black Brazilian culture is preserved and revered.

It was a desire to see the Blackest country outside of Africa that prompted my first trip. Like many in Brazil, I am a descendant of captured Africans who were forced to cross the Atlantic to become slaves in their new American homes and forge a place for themselves in the new American experiment. Twelve years after that first visit – drawn by the chance to write about Afro-Brazilian culture and news – I moved to Rio and made the city my home. It’s only reflecting back, that I realise how much of what I now call “Afro Rio” was hiding in plain sight.

After slavery ended in 1888 in Brazil, the area encompassing the current neighbourhoods of Saúde, Gamboa and Santo Cristo became known as Pequena Africa (Little Africa). While these neighbourhoods were never ethnically homogeneous, the physical and cultural presence of Black people, just one or two generations removed from their African ancestors, was strong. And the late 19th-century immigration of baianos from the northeastern state of Bahia to Rio also brought the Yoruba-derived Candomblé religion to the area. The Candomblé priestesses – influential Black women – held drum-filled religious gatherings in their homes.

A decade ago, only the most undaunted ventured to Rio’s long-ignored port neighbourhoods that lie between Providência and the water. In 1996, workers renovating the house of a local woman, Mercedes Guimarães, found bones in her back garden. She later learned the bones belonged to an estimated 20-30,000 captured Africans who had died soon after arriving in Brazil, their remains disposed of in what could only be called a dump. She transformed her house into a museum dedicated to them: the Instituto Pretos Novos (New Blacks Institute). It’s the largest known slave cemetery in the Americas.

An 1826 drawing by French painter Jean-Baptiste Debret illustrates two nameless African women stirring large vats of corn porridge and selling it on the streets of Rio to working African men. The drawing, titled Black Women, Sellers of Angu, shows a grim reality for Black women, enslaved or freed, in Brazil. Cooking in the kitchens of their patrons or selling food on the streets to working passers-by might have sustained their livelihoods or even purchased their freedom, but this informal work often prevented them from receiving their culinary due. Thankfully, this is now changing. Not only are Black Brazilian female chefs and entrepreneurs now leading a new wave of high-end Afrocentric restaurants in Rio, but Brazil’s mainstream media is finally recognising them.

For the past nine years, Maria Júlia Ferreira’s mission has been to reconnect Afro-Brazilians with angu corn porridge. Angu, once a simple, nutritious staple in Afro-Brazilian households for generations, fell out of favour as Brazil’s wealth increased and due to the stigma of its long-held identification with slavery. “My reason for making angu is rooted in the spirit,” Ferreira says. “It’s natural for me to prepare this kind of food. My mother always made it, so this is me connecting to a culture that has been erased.” Over in the bohemian neighbourhood of Santa Teresa, Kananda Soares has created a cocktail bar – Agô-Bar da Encruza – that honours Brazil’s religions of African origin. “Agô (in Yoruba) is a request for permission in movements of passage, entry or exit,” Soares says. “I learned that at the crossroads, there is the energy of the orisha Exu, owner of the paths. In my childhood, I was taught to respect the crossroads, and whenever we go through a crossroads, we must ask for agô (permission).”

Just a 15-minute walk from the Copacabana Palace, A Belmond Hotel, Andressa Cabral’s restaurant Yayá Pop Comidaria Brasileira sits on a tree-lined street, one block from the beach in Leme – a rare, privileged location for an Afro-Brazilian female chef. Like Agô, Yayá focuses on cuisine full of axé, food significantly influenced by the Candomblé religion. In the earthy restaurant, an open kitchen dishes out Inajá fish, which is covered with smoked shrimp and a coconut palm oil sauce; chicken and okra; and moqueca, a coconut milk and palm oil shrimp stew. And it’s not gone unnoticed: Cabral now hosts Iron Chef Brasil on Netflix and Drinks e Petiscos on a Brazilian channel.

But it’s Madureira, a northern suburb an hour’s drive away from the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema, which is Rio’s largest urban quilombo. It was here in 1993 that a group of young Cariocas wanted to start a baile charme, a party where crowds of dancers follow choreographed routines to new jack swing, R&B or hip-hop soul.

“Madureira is the capital of the periphery,” says Jones MFjay, one of the party’s founders. “We were kids from the ghetto and wanted to listen to our music in a relaxed setting.” They threw their first party in Madureira on a residential street. One year later, they moved it to a space underneath a viaduct – Viaduto de Madureira – where the party continues to this day. Every Saturday, around midnight, thousands of people (mainly Black) from Rio and its suburbs flock to the viaduct to dance until dawn.

Almost two decades after my first visit to the Salgueiro school, I returned. But this time was different. Now a member, I took part in the initially postponed 2022 Rio Carnival parade with the school. The theme: resistance. Salgueiro, in tune with the global resonance of the Black Lives Matter movement, launched an hour-long-plus spectacle of Afro-Brazilian achievement, promise and defiance. A section of women dressed up as Mercedes Baptista, the first Black woman to dance at Rio’s Municipal theatre. One float featured a 32-foot-tall obelisk with the word racismo inscribed on it; during the parade, a man scaling the obelisk physically pulled it down in a symbolic act. This was a true testament to the very meaning of that specifically Brazilian word, quilombo.

Kiratiana Freelon is a journalist based in Rio de Janeiro – find the full copy of her essay in Belmond’s ’Mondes’, Volume II. Rio’s legendary Copacabana Palace, A Belmond Hotel, celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2023.

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