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(Re)membering the Quilombo: Race, Ethnicity, and the Politics of Recognition in Brazil




Elizabeth Farfán

Joint Doctorate of Philosophy in Medical Anthropology

with the University of California San Francisco

University of California Berkeley

Professor Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Chair

African ancestry and collective resistance to slavery play a central role in access to constitutional rights for Brazilians living in rural black communities denominated comunidades remanescentes de quilombos. In the effort to repatriate lands to the descendants of quilombolas or fugitive slaves, the Brazilian government, together with the Brazilian Anthropological Association, and Black Movement activists, turned rural black communities into national patrimony through a series of public policies that emphasize their ethnic and cultural difference by connecting them to quilombo ancestors.

Article 68 of the 1988 Brazilian constitution declared that any descendants of quilombos who were still occupying their ancestor's lands should be recognized as owners and granted land titles by the federal government. With the help of NGOs, rural black communities are re-learning their identity and becoming quilombos in order to obtain the land and social rights they need to continue surviving. While the quilombo clause may seem like an important historical change in the ability of black Brazilians to use the constitution to their advantage, it is important to ask what the stakes are of becoming a quilombo for the residents of a community. Here I explore the ways in the quilombo recognition process has significantly impacted the lives of a community in São Francisco do Paraguaçu in the Recôncavo of Bahia.

Engaging with scholarship that questions multiculturalist policies, new forms of citizenship, and the re-construction of colonial subjectivities into modern political identities, I argue that the quilombo clause, and the bureaucratic system built to support it, recycles a romanticized and nostalgic story of slavery and resistance in colonial Brazil through a process I call (re)membering. Here, I illustrate the ways in which the once colonial "quilombo" has been re-imagined into a new differentiated community (the comunidade remanescente de quilombo) rooted in ethnic and cultural difference for the purpose of distributing collective rights to black citizens. I contend that by focusing on the cultural difference of rural black communities, the quilombo clause ignores the racialized political and social discrimination that these communities have faced historically and continue to face. Although the quilombo clause was meant to address the history of discrimination and exclusion of black communities, it has actually led to social confusion and conflict surrounding the validity and authenticity of a differentiated identity for quilombo descendants.

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