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How Black Communities Redefined São Paulo, Facing Down Racism And Poverty

São Paulo is 400 years old, but the outlaying areas beyond the historic center are relatively new. They were born out of poverty and have given rise to resistance and culture, especially through music.

How Black Communities Redefined São Paulo, Facing Down Racism And Poverty

Groups of Islam Resistance poets gather at Roosevelt Square in central SP in honor of the B-Boy Banks Back Spin.

Matheus Souza

SÃO PAULO — Despite being 400 years old, a considerable part of São Paulo was created in the last 70 years, especially the neighborhoods on the outskirts of the Brazilian city. But what was the process of building these neighborhoods?

When talking about “peripheries” in Brazil, many people have an idea of what the term represents — even without saying the city, it is already possible to imagine the so-called places and people, the level of income, skin color and even the neighborhood infrastructure. And in general, this picture is not far from reality.

Thousands of huddled houses, dirt streets
This is the hill, my area awaits me
Screaming at the fair (We're coming!)
Trust me, I like that, more human warmth
- Translation of Racionais MC’s, in “Fim de Semana no Parque”

However, a few decades ago, the "periphery" did not represent anything much beyond the obvious — that is, places far from the central region. It was from the 1980s onwards that this began to change and the term acquired meanings beyond geography.

Social, racial and identity factors were incorporated largely because of cultural movements that translated the common feelings of those who lived in these spaces into art. One of these movements is rap.

On the periphery, joy is the same
It's almost noon, the euphoria is general
That's where my brothers, my friends live
And most around here look like me
- Translation of Racionais MC's, in “Fim de Semana no Parque”

Brazilian peripheries, as we understand them today, have among their origins the city of São Paulo. Although 400 years old, the city only became an economic power in the middle of the 20th century, which was also when the population started to grow until it became the largest in the country.

Imprinted by segregation and full of traces of slavery, the São Paulo urbanization model served as an example for many cities across Brazil, which today show a battle between the erasure and resistance of Black populations.

Most people here look like me

São Paulo did not always have a region that could be called peripheral. Until 1900, the city was much smaller, and most of the 240,000 residents at the time lived in the small triangular region between the Tietê and Pinheiros rivers.

In that context, the distances covered in everyday life were relatively short and different social groups — poor and rich, blacks and whites, Brazilians and immigrants — used to share the urban space, live in proximity, and met on the streets.

Those were the first years after the abolition of slavery, which occurred in 1888. However, racist ideas continued to determine how the city was organized. It was also influenced by eugenics, a movement that emerged in Europe which, disguised as science, defended the whitening of society with the false idea that white people are genetically superior.

Map of the urbanized area of São Paulo until 1929. In blue, the Pinheiros river, in the lower left corner, and the Tietê river, which crosses the upper part of the image from one side to the other.

Racist ideas and planning

In addition, the main political leaders of the capital were white and remnants of the landowner elite that commanded the coffee trade, the same elite that had taken advantage of the enslaved workforce until then.

“There was an understanding that Black people were inferior, incapable of performing quality work, that they were only useful if they were enslaved,” says Ramatis Jacino, a professor at the Federal University of ABC, who researches the transition from enslaved to free work in the city from São Paulo.

“These ex-slave-holders were used to not paying any wages, and when black workers refused to work that way, they considered it an insult”
- Ramatis Jacino, professor at the Federal University of ABC.

So, at the same time that the city advanced in technology and expanded industry to different economic sectors, Black workers, who until then were the biggest workforce in the entire country, began to be systematically excluded from the market.

The situation used to be seen in job advertisements published in newspapers, in which employers prioritized immigrants and white people in hiring.

“The work that Black people could do were those who were on the fringes of the system, not those who were part of the main production chains,” says the professor. “There were some Black people, yes, but always in a smaller number.”

The exclusion from the formal market placed most of the Black population in a constant situation of precariousness, which was also reflected in the occupation of space. Jacino points out that, until the middle of the 19th century, the center of the city of São Paulo was mostly inhabited by Black families, who lived in small swiddens or farms.

“They basically lived where the Cathedral is today, in the region they called ‘south of the Cathedral’, which today is Liberdade, and in the region of Brás,” he says. “With the growth of the city and the enrichment of the elites because of coffee, these spaces were occupied by the richest and, later, by immigrants, and Black people ended up being expelled from the center.”

Era of the car

From the beginning of the 20th century onwards, São Paulo continued to grow in terms of territory, income and the number of inhabitants. In a few decades, the city was already the largest economic center in the country. This attracted the next great wave of new inhabitants, which began in the 1950s, and whose main group was poor Brazilians from other regions of the country, especially the North and Northeast.

But when they arrived, the city was already turning to another logic of urban organization. One of the significant changes of the period was the introduction of the automobile. Inspired by the United States, São Paulo began to shape itself around individual and wheeled transport.

From the 1930s onwards, the implementation of the Plan of Avenues by the engineers Prestes Maia and Ulhôa Cintra began, which established the logic of radio-centric distribution of public roads, that is, from the center to the edges.

Investment in rail transport, which had advanced and crossed the city in the previous century to transport coffee production, was replaced by the construction of large highways.

Theoretical scheme of the Plan of Avenues designed by Ulhôa Cintra and Prestes Maia, who was also mayor of São Paulo in the periods of 1938-1945 and 1961-1965

Fernando Oda/Wikimedia Commons

A city divided in two

At the same time, there was also a big change in the housing model for the popular classes, until then based mainly on rent. The Tenancy Law, enacted in 1942 during the Getúlio Vargas government, determined the freezing of rents, which ended up making the business less profitable.

“It ceases to be interesting to invest in rent, so this market goes into decline and the population that used to live that way will not be able to continue because the supply drops a lot,” says Professor Ana Barone, from FAU-USP (Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism at the University of São Paulo).

In this period begins the formation of what, today, we call the peripheries of the city. “This population, which has few resources but manages to pay their rent, will start saving money to buy a peripheral lot where they will build their house.”

So, the city was divided in two. In the central neighborhoods were the wealthy groups formed by traditional white families and descendants of foreign immigrants who managed to ascend socially throughout the century.

On the peripheries, the working class settled down with the majority being formed by migrants from the North and Northeast of Brazil, as well as Black and non-white people who had always been in São Paulo but never had the opportunity to improve their lives. That continues to this day.

From forest to city

"When I arrived it was all bush” — this phrase has already become a popular expression and sometimes even a joke, but, for some residents of the outskirts of São Paulo, it is a very literal statement.

A little over 40 years ago, many neighborhoods in the city that today have a large population, shops, schools, health clinics and subway stations were literally rural areas, farms or even virgin forests.

“I thought the big city was better to live in, Taubaté was small,” says Ana Candida da Silva, 87, who settled in Capão Redondo, southern area, when it was still a bush.

Ana lived first-hand the oscillations that marked São Paulo in the second half of the 20th century. Born in Taubaté, she moved to the city in her youth in search of work and a better life. For a few years, she lived in a boarding house in the Liberdade neighborhood, until the owner of the property gave up on the tenancy.

She and her ex-husband already dreamed of having their own house, when they ended up moving to the southern area. “We paid rent, it was difficult, so he was always looking for land to buy,” she says.

The two arrived in the region in the early 1960s, and even today Ana lives in the same place, with her daughter and granddaughter. One of the pioneers in the neighborhood, she speaks proudly of the house, which, even while she was pregnant, she helped to construct with her own hands.

“It took us seven years to build this house, we didn't know what a holiday was, a Sunday, nothing. There was a Portuguese man on the other side [of the street], where there was a farm, and on Saturday and Sunday he would pick up people he knew and bring them to help build.”

What Ana describes was normal in that period, not only in Capão Redondo area, but in several of the neighborhoods of São Paulo that became the residence of the poorest workers after the center became too expensive.

At that time, it was common that the only infrastructure offered was a bus line that connected these new neighborhoods to the central region. The residents organized themselves to build the residences, individually or in collective efforts, in a movement that was called self-construction. It was a process that took years and consumed a large part of these people's salary and free time.

From a social and political point of view, it was at that moment that the peripheries began to develop a more expressive culture of their own.

From these legacies, something new began, which took a more definite shape with the hip-hop movement.

View of Sao Paulo.


The birth of Brazilian hip hop

In the 1980s and 1990s, young people from different neighborhoods in São Paulo got together at the São Bento Metro, in the center of the capital, to exchange references about hip-hop culture, imported from the United States, and bring it to the national context. Several important names in Brazilian rap came from there.

Unlike the older residents, who arrived in peripheral neighborhoods and built them from the first brick, hip-hop pioneers are part of a generation that was born and raised in an already more consolidated periphery.

It was they who, through music, began to define what it meant to be peripheral, addressing issues that took years to be widely observed by academia and the media.

“The hip hop movement gave a push, enunciated a regulatory ethic that the residents of the periphery would later apply in their practices,” says Tiaraju Pablo D’Andrea, a professor at Unifesp (Federal University of São Paulo).

Tiaraju studied the role of cultural movements in the formation of the so-called "peripheral subject", which is the individual who starts to claim the periphery as part of their identity, and that finds in art one of the main tools of political action.

Of the various collectives and artistic movements that influenced the emergence of the peripheral subject, inside and outside of rap, the one that caused the greatest impact was the quartet formed by Mano Brown, Ice Blue, Edi Rock and KL Jay. In other words, the Racionais MC's.

X-Ray Brazil

In the 1980s and 1990s, the outskirts of São Paulo faced an accelerated increase in poverty, violence, incarceration and mortality of the black population.

The songs released by Racionais MC’s in that time — on the albums “Holocausto Urbana” (Urban Holocaust, 1990), “Raio X Brasil” (X ray Brazil, 1993) and “Sobrevivendo no Inferno” (Surviving in Hell, 1997), in addition to the EP “Escolha o seu Caminho” (Choose your path, 1992) — indicate a special concern to denounce this reality and seek ways to combat it, in addition to bringing references to the urban context of the time.

In most of these songs, racism is indicated as the focus of social conflict. However, by geographically positioning themselves, they recognize the importance of territorial dynamics in this system.

For Professor Tiaraju Pablo, the conception of peripheries that Racionais help to propose is based on three ideas: denunciation of social reality; the need for the pacification of territories; and the union of the different neighborhoods of Brazil.

From here I see a snapper of the year
All equipped and an uncle leading
With their children by their side, they are going to the park.
Euphoria, electronic toys
Automatically I imagine
How the kids from the area must be
Probably running back and forth
Playing ball barefoot on the dirt streets
Yeah, play the way they can

- “Weekend in the Park” by X-Ray Brazil

Racionais MCs at the Virada Cultural festival in Sao Paulo.

Wikimedia Commons

Colors & Values

The group's project was updated as the country's reality changed. “Nada como um dia após o outro dia” (Nothing Like a Day after another day, 2002) expands the variety of people and situations portrayed in the work, interspersing moments of exaltation and joy with others of melancholy and revolt.

The next album, released only in 2014, reflects a very different country, in which, for the first time, the Black and poor population began to have broader access to previously inaccessible spaces and products.

Cores & Valores” (Colors & Values), starting with the name, has economic power as its main theme, showing Black people who, for the first time, had the financial freedom to spend on things other than their own sustenance and survival. But it's not an album about gratitude or overcoming, it's a reckoning.

This disc also explores the tensions that this new social configuration caused, since it did not come without conflicts.

Then you leave the ghetto,
But the ghetto never leaves you, do you get it, brother?
Are you driving a car?
The whole world is watching you, understand?
Do you know why? Because of your origin, do you get it, brother?
It's the way you live, it's black drama
I didn't read, I didn't watch
I live the black drama
I am the black drama
I am the fruit of black drama

- Talks about Mano Brown in “Negro drama”, in Nothing like a Day after another day

Professor Tiaraju Pablo argues that one of the main legacies of the work of the Racionais MC's was breaking certain myths about the history of Brazil incarnated in São Paulo, such as the idea of racial democracy.

“The 1990s was the decade in which the city boasted that it had the largest fleet of helicopters in the world, in which closed condominiums proliferated, in which shopping centers were inaugurated at the same time that favelas in the center were being eradicated,” he says.

“There was a very strong discourse of a winning São Paulo, full of opportunities, of wealth,” he reflects. “The work of Racionais came to say ‘Look, there is a place in this city, a place that is hidden in the discourse and that we need to give visibility to'.”

That place is the periphery.

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How Parenthood Reinvented My Sex Life — Confessions Of A Swinging Mom

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red tinted photo of feet on a bed

Parenting v. intimacy, a delicate balance

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Every weekend, we went to the Cuban art factory and ended up at the CornerCafé until 7:00 a.m. That September morning, we were very drunk, and in that second-floor room of my house, it was unbearably hot. The sex was otherworldly. A few days later, the symptoms began.

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