Danielle M. Roper, Provost’s Postdoctoral Scholar, Romance Languages and Literatures
The drumming gets louder as I walk through the doors of the popular night club Malegría in La Paz, Bolivia. A carnivalesque beat, it is the type of rhythm that makes you want to sway your hips, throw your hands in the air and march down a street. Boom ba da boom ba da boom. You cannot escape that beat of the drum.
But Malegría is too small for marching. Instead, I dance my way through the thick crowd of tourists and patrons to the front of the circle they have formed around the group of black drummers and singers performing the “Saya.” The Saya is the signature dance and musical genre of Bolivia’s black populace. The word ‘saya’ is the name of the music and dance form, the term for the cyclical call-and-response in the music, and it also refers to an ensemble of musicians who perform the genre. This performance troupe is the Movimiento Cultural Saya Afro-Boliviana (MOCUSABOL)—the most important troupe in Bolivia.
When the lead singer sings, the drummers respond in unison. A dark-skinned black man with long dreadlocks bangs the tambor mayor (large drum). Another man with tightly braided corn rows grins and chuckles. Suddenly, he starts to rapidly scrape the cuancha—a long wooden instrument that he holds on his shoulder. It sounds like a record scratching against the booming of the drums. The lead singer suddenly belts out a high-pitched tune and the chorus responds loudly. My friend Coral—a member of MOCUSABOL—turns on the light of her phone to help me record the performance. But upon seeing the performers up close, I am confused. Why are these black performers dressed in traditional indigenous clothing?
I am a performance theorist whose research focuses on the relationship between racial formation and performance in Latin America and the Caribbean. I came to the Saya through my work on racial impersonation in Bolivia and Peru. In my investigation of blackface in the Andes, I examine imitations of blackness by indigenous and mestizo subjects in two neo-folkloric dances: the “Tundiki and the “danza de caporales.” Many of the performers I have interviewed have erroneously claimed that these dances emerge from or are based on the Afro-Bolivian Saya. In acts of impersonation, the Saya functions as a stand-in for blackness itself. Such distortions of the genre and of blackness have sparked bitter controversy. When the Saya emerged in the 1980s, it became a crucial counterpoint to stereotypical representations of blacks and a central platform for black activism. Its popularity also indexes the role of performance in the articulation of black racial projects in the Bolivian context.
The Saya surfaced after Bolivia’s Agrarian Reform in 1953, when many black cultural practices and forms had disappeared as blacks migrated to the capital. In 1976, a group of elders from Coroico—a town in Nor Yungas—re-constructed the Saya for a coffee festival. Six years later, under the guidance of the elders, a set of Afro-Bolivian high school students decided to perform the Saya for the annual patron saint fiesta dedicated to the Virgin de la Candelaria. When they danced in the town’s parade, the Saya was reborn. These students would found Movimiento Negro which would later become MOCUSABOL.
At Malegría, the lead singer of MOCUSABOL is a young light-skinned black girl wearing a pollera (a traditional indigenous skirt) and she has two long trenzas (plaits) in her hair. The men wear sandals, traditional pants and a large belt. Coral explains to me that these are Aymara (indigenous) impositions on the black community. The Saya is from Nor Yungas—a province of La Paz whose population is largely comprised of descendants of enslaved blacks and indigenous people. Through its fusion of Aymara and black cultural forms, the dance encapsulates the fraught relationship between black and indigenous subjects in the region and in the broader nation-state. The lead singer’s mother is indigenous and her father is black. For many mixed-race people of African descent, like the lead singer, to perform the Saya is not only to embrace one’s black heritage, but it is also a means of publicly declaring one’s blackness. In sites where racial categories are nebulous, performance can function as a device of racialization and of racial differentiation.
Given Bolivia’s celebration of a mixed white and indigenous polity, the Saya became a crucial mechanism for countering the erasure of blackness in the national imaginary. The lyrics of many of the songs invite black Bolivians to join in and dance the Saya, and to publicly embrace their own blackness. As more blacks joined and formed dance troupes, the Saya facilitated the formation of black publics and black collectives. Today, there are several Saya ensembles across Bolivia including Saya Mauchi, Tambor Mayor, Orisabol, and others. These groups offer support and resources to Afro-Bolivians particularly black migrants to large cities. They typically use the income from performances at night clubs and fiestas to fund anti-racist organizing, cultural education, and programs geared towards black empowerment.
Their performances operate as sources of transmission linking the historical and contemporary struggles of black Bolivians.
One song says:
Ahora ya no es el tiempo de la esclavitud
¿Por qué tratas a mi gente con tanto rancor?
Now is no longer the time of slavery
Why do you treat my people with so much hatred?
Songs often recount the story of black liberation and will offer praise to Manuel Isidoro Belzu—the Bolivian president who freed enslaved blacks in the nineteenth century.
MOCUSABOL shouts Belzu’s name tonight and suddenly, the lead singer dances the pracan —a set of fast circular turns marking the end of the performance. Its circularity is an apt metaphor for the cyclical nature of the Saya itself, the back and forth of cries against racial oppression and celebrations of black liberation, and the temporal shifts that seem to merge the past with the present as performers tell the stories of black experience.
 The turn is also danced at the beginning of the performance and is also referred to as the ‘praca.’
Templeman, Robert. “We Are People of the Yungas, We Are the Saya Race.” In Blackness in Latin America and the Caribbean: Social Dynamics and Cultural Transformations, by Norman E. Whitten and Arlene Torres. Indiana University Press, 1998.
“To be a mother is a gift from God. A child is inside you and there is pain when they are born, but you are happy and you kiss their arms and legs. But when this happens, when you lose your child in such a tragic way, it is a pain and sadness that is unexplainable. You carry it with you. And more so when it is like my case, or Ana’s case, which is about a people and about security and those people that are supposed to give security are creating more misery and death for human beings, it is hard. When I heard pa-pa-pa-pa I looked around for my son. Where is My Son! It was then that I felt the hand of the government in my womb. And it is still there.” (Dona. Santana, Mother of one of the victims/Militant—React or Die! Campaign)
“The pilgrimage from the Police Station-Hospital-morgue, or Police Station-Hospital-morgue-Child and Adolescent Foundation (FUNDAC), or Police Station-Hospital-Morgue-Cemetery, has been the routine for Black families headed by Black women.” (Andreia Beatriz dos Santos, Coordinator/Militant—React or Die! Campaign)
The above quotes from Dona. Santana (pseudonym), a mother-activist who lost her son in what has come to be known as the Cabula Massacre, and Andreia Beatriz, coordinator/militant for the React or Die Campaign, represent important starting points for theorizing state violence against Black women. This is a theme that my research directly engages. Both of these women’s narratives demonstrate that state violence penetrates intimate spaces for Black women: the body (through the womb, through the cries over the death of a child, through walking to and from various sites that signify death and violence) and the family (through no longer being able to mother a child, or young children growing up without a loved one). It is in this context that my research takes a Black feminist approach (i.) to understanding how state violence impacts Black women in intimate ways. Thus, using ethnographic approaches, I examine how Black women describe, understand, and navigate state violence, and other forms of violence in their daily lives. Further, I investigate how Black women also lead movements that connect and confront different forms of violence in their lives and communities.
Five months after the Cabula massacre, I traveled to Salvador, Bahia for the second time to conduct pre-dissertation fieldwork in June 2015. During this time, I met with organizers from the React or Die Campaign as well as the mothers or partners of those who were killed in the massacre. On Friday, February 6, 2015 military police officers from RONDESP (Special Military Operations Forces (ii) raided the working class, majority Black neighborhood of Cabula in Salvador, Bahia in Brazil. The officers maintained that they entered into a gun battle with 30 men who were hoarding arms and criminal paraphernalia. However, witnesses claimed that they were unarmed. In the end, police killed 12 Black boys and young men between the ages of 16 and 27. A separate investigation found that the police entered the community, rounded up the boys on a small plot of land, used as a soccer field by neighborhood youth, and executed them one by one (iii).
On Monday, August 24, 2015, React or Die held its 3rd Annual (Inter)National March against the Genocide of Black People. The March represented a culmination of yearlong organizing efforts, community work, and familial support for victims killed by state violence. The march was scheduled to commence in front of the Public Security Building downtown, but early on that Monday morning, around 9 a.m. I watched over 200 people gather outside of the State University of Bahia, located in Cabula. Organizers, supporters, mothers, family members, and loved ones were to walk through the streets of Cabula, to the community of Villa Moisés, where a memorial service was held for the victims of the Cabula Massacre, on the very plot of land that their lives were taken.
Preparations for the memorial stone in Villa Moisés, August 24, 2015. Activists from the React or Die Campaign took these photos. I was given permission to include them in this blog post.
Forming two lines, organizers, mothers, friends, and other family members walked through the street chanting, “Against the Genocide of Black People, no step back” and “We want Justice.” Upon arrival in Villa Moisés, we stopped just before descending into the community. Around us, there were many two-story townhome-like structures. Hearing the chants for Black life and the demands for justice, an older woman came out and stood on her patio, looking over the rail. At that time, one of the coordinators of the React or Die Campaign took the megaphone to greet the community members: “Good Morning Villa Moisés. We are here in memory of the dead. We are marching today for our lives. Villa Moisés will not be forgotten.” The woman who stood out on her patio responded by raising her fist in support, giving us a blessing to enter.
The procession proceeded down into Villa Moisés. Upon arriving at the site where the 12 boys and young men were killed, four straight lines were formed. Mothers, sisters, aunts, fathers, supporters, organizers came to the front to present themselves and to speak the names of those killed. After each person was named the galera (crowd) in unison yelled “presente (present):”
Ricardo Matos, Presente! Júnior, Presente! Anjos, Presente! Adailton, Presente! Alessandra, Presente ! Fatima, Presente! Amarildo, Presente! Maria Vitoria, Presente!
One by one, family members, mothers, partners spoke up about their fight
“As we gather, we encounter our force, our power, our ability to live. We have become the voices for our sons and daughters, and we won’t allow the continued murder of young Blacks to destroy our lives. Their blood is not so cheap that we allow their murders.”
“We cannot go one step back! We can’t let this tragedy continue. Every single day, we encounter another mother grieving, another body laying dead in the street — we will not let this happen any longer. We have to fight, we have to react…While there is even one little voice screaming deep down there, in the end, that voice will be representing all of our dead.“ (Ana Paula)
The words of Ana Paula resonated with me, and reminded me of the first time I read Audre Lorde’s poem “A Litany of Survival” in Lyndon Gill’s course on Erotic Subjectivities. As a Black Caribbean Feminist, Lorde tells Black women throughout the diaspora that we must speak, “remembering we were never meant to survive.” The words of Ana Paula and Audre Lorde speak to the transnational dimension of Black women’s power: Ana Paula’s words were a response to the poem, a continuation of a conversation across space and time. Andreia echoed the same conversation: “Our pain is transnational. Our fight is transnational…Joquielson, Presente! Jonathan, Presente! Rakia Boyd, Presente! Tony Robinson, Presente! Aiyana Jones, Presente! Everson, Presente! Kaique, Presente! Sandra Bland, Presente! Jackson Cavalho, Presente! Trayvon Martin, Presente! Mike Brown, Presente!”
The mothers and family members who spoke are experts in their own right—they have searched for children when they were disappeared, unidentified in city morgues, or located in clandestine graves in the outskirts of the city. These Black mother activists vocalized their criticisms of governmental impunity and necropolitics throughout Brazil. They exposed the particular experiences of Black mothers, a theme explored in the literature on gendered racial violence in the Americas (v.).
For me, it became clear that even in the face of government indifference and attacks, these women created a network of support and autonomous organizing, creating a grassroots organization fighting against a genocidal state responsible for the deaths of their children and thousands of others. At the end of the memorial, people gathered around a plaque in memory of victims of state violence. The memorial stone read “’We continue to live and fight for Black people in the diaspora’ Campaign React or Die!” This inscription reminded me of Patricia Hill Collins’ words: “motherhood can serve as a site where Black women express and learn the power of self-definition, the importance of valuing and respecting [themselves], the necessity of self-reliance and independence, and a belief in Black women’s empowerment.” (vi).
As the memorial came to an end, everyone walked to Engomadeira, a nearby community where some of the surviving family members of the Cabula massacre lived, to have lunch. Around two o’clock in the afternoon, we made our way to the headquarters of the Military Police, where the march itself would commence. More than 5,000 people gathered on the street. The march would end outside of the Office of the Secretary of Public Security for the State of Bahia. The beginning and end of this march were significant for many reasons. The women of Reaja directly confronted the state and the “official story,” not only of Cabula, but of other cases of anti-Black violence across Brazil, and throughout the African diaspora. Their physical presence in front of the Military Police Headquarters and the Public Security office was a practice of unveiling the intimate violence and suffering perpetrated against them, their families, their sisters, and their communities. Their presence highlights the central place that Black women occupy in the history of organizing, (vii.) making visible the pain, suffering, and violence that the state, reporting, and news media ridiculed and made to be a spectacle. Mothers were holding large signs depicting their slain children. Women spoke the names that the state tried to erase. Shouts erupted from the crowd, such as “They try to deny our humanity,” and “the dead too have a voice.”
Mothers marching in front of the Military Police Headquarters, August 24, 2015
Just like the land upon which the young people were killed in Cabula, the streets in front of the buildings were transformed into spaces of resistance against genocide. Through occupation of the streets, the courtrooms, government offices, Black women disrupted these spaces, reconfiguring them as sites for collective grieving. Their activism disrupts a narrative of “what (whose) life is worth, a narrative that says that Black life is worth less and that life itself can be valued based on race, economic status, gender, etc. (viii.) During the memorial ceremony, one of the family members said, “Their blood is not so cheap that we allow their murders.” “As we gather, we encounter our force, our power, our ability to live.” The acts of re-membering their loved ones, collective grieving and making public the pain and suffering at the hands of the state, provide a language (whether verbal, emotional, or embodied) for these women to articulate their experiences and to take political action. Organizing, activism, re/memory and grief are engaged as central, pivotal, and diasporic sites for theorizing Black politics and liberation (ix.).
i. This approach draws on and contributes to scholarship that situates Black women’s organizing as key sites for the production of theory and knowledge. See for example, Cardoso, Cláudia Pons. “Amefricanizando o feminismo: o pensamento de Lélia Gonzalez.” Revista Estudos Feministas 22, no. 3 (2014): 965-986; Perry, Keisha-Khan Y. Black Women against the Land Grab. University of Minnesota Press, 2013; Smith, Christen A. “Facing the Dragon: Black Mothering, Sequelae, and Gendered Necropolitics in the Americas.” Transforming Anthropology 24, no. 1 (2016): 31-48; Collective, Combahee River. ‘A Black Feminist Statement’. na, 1982.
iv. Activists from the React or Die Campaign took these photos. I was given permission to include them in this blog post.
v. Perry, Keisha-Khan Y. Black Women against the Land Grab; Smith, Christen A. “Facing the Dragon; Rocha, Luciane de Oliveira. “Outraged mothering: black women, racial violence, and the power of emotions in Rio de Janeiro’s African Diaspora.” PhD diss., 2014; Rocha, Luciane de Oliveira. “Black mothers’ experiences of violence in Rio de Janeiro.” Cultural Dynamics 24, no. 1 (2012): 59-73; Smith, Christen A. Afro-Paradise: Blackness, Violence, and Performance in Brazil. University of Illinois Press, 2016.; Also see the Transforming Anthropology special edition (24, no. 1) “Sorrow as Artifact: Radical Black Mothering in Times of Terror.
vi. Collins, Patricia Hill. Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. Routledge, 2002.
vii. James, Joy. Shadowboxing: Representations of Black feminist politics. St. Martin’s Press, 1999; Perry, Keisha-Khan Y. Black Women against the Land Grab;
viii. Gumbs, Alexis Pauline. “We Can Learn to Mother Ourselves: The Queer Survival of Black Feminism 1968-1996.” PhD diss., Duke University, 2010, 50
ix. Cardoso, Cláudia Pons. Amefricanizando o feminismo; Perry, Keisha-Khan Y. Black Women against the Land Grab; Smith, Christen A. “Facing the Dragon; Collective, Combahee River. ‘A Black Feminist Statement’; Rocha, Luciane de Oliveira. “Outraged mothering”
On May 25, CLAS will cosponsor “Grief as Resistance: Racialized State Violence and the Politics of Black Motherhood in the Americas,” a transnational conversation with Black mothers who have lost children to state violence. Mother-activists from the US, Brazil, and Colombia share their struggles and strategies of resistance against police violence, mass incarceration, and the unrelenting injustices facing Black communities around the world.
Keshia L. Harris, Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Comparative Human Development
Traveling to Brazil to begin my dissertation reminded me a lot of skydiving. Before arriving here, I was anxious because I didn’t know exactly what to expect in terms of data collection. As often as I embark on these journeys, I always find it challenging to leave home for an extended period of time. As I began to reflect on how things have progressed since I arrived in Brazil, I remembered ascending into the sky on the small plane to go skydiving a few years ago. Similar to having been in Brazil before but this time starting my dissertation, I was accustomed to flying in an airplane but had never experienced jumping out of one. I was so nervous before making the jump that I was sure my heart would explode out of my chest. Then we jumped and it was the most amazing experience I’d ever had in my life. Starting my dissertation in Brazil has surpassed that experience.
Taken at a Saturday English Learning Course in Itacaranha (suburb of Salvador)
As I write this, I am in Salvador, a city with a population of approximately 3 million residents, located in Northeast Brazil. During this productive and life-inspiring 10 weeks, I’ve been fortunate to conduct research at five high schools located throughout the city of Salvador.
The goal of my dissertation is to answer the following questions: (1) how do postsecondary goals and perceptions of educational equality vary by skin color and socioeconomic status among Brazilian and Colombian adolescents, and (2) what role does perceived discrimination play in shaping postsecondary goals? To respond to these questions, I am conducting a mixed methods study in Salvador, Brazil and Cartagena, Colombia. The mixed methods approach includes quantified survey questions and qualitative interview questions. The survey responses will be analyzed by quantitative regression analyses to measure effects of factors such as perceived discrimination and skin tone differences on academic achievement and postsecondary goals. Interviews provide the opportunity to explore reasons why adolescents are choosing future educational paths and what factors have contributed to their decisions.
Why these two cities? Besides the fact that they’re absolutely beautiful places to conduct research, they have similar histories of political and economic influence within their countries and illustrate divergent conceptions of what it means to be of African descent in their nations.
Salvador is located in the poorest region of Brazil, the Northeast. The city was founded as the first capital of Brazil in 1549. The city’s location on the coast of the northeast region made it a prime port of entry for the importation of African slaves during the colonial period (1500-1822). The city flourished as the country’s economic center due to slave work on tobacco and sugar plantations in the 1800s. It was the country’s richest and most highly populated city. Salvador remained the capital of Brazil until 1763, when the nation’s wealth shifted to a new capital, Rio de Janeiro. Salvador is the present capital of the state of Bahia and is currently the third largest city in Brazil with a population of 2.9 million (2013 census). Although Salvador has the highest population of the country’s African descendants, Brazilians with European physical features make up the city’s elite population (Perry, 2013).
Cartagena is also situated in one of the nation’s poorest regions, located on the northern coast of Colombia. The city was founded on June 1, 1553. Cartagena was the first Colombian city authorized for the trade of African slaves. During its colonial era from 1533–1717, the city’s coastal location made it a primary trading port for gold, silver, and African slaves; hence, its current high population of African descendants (Telles, 2014). It is currently the fifth largest city in Colombia with a population of 988,000 (2011 Census). Cartagena is the capital of the Bolívar state of Colombia.
While Cartagena and Salvador have similar colonial pasts, present day discourses of multiculturalism are quite distinct. The political language of African descent culture is more dominant in Salvador than any other Brazilian city (Perry, 2013; Pinho 2008). Residents of Salvador associate pride with African heritage while still appreciating the country’s multiethnic national discourse (Pinho, 2015). However, many Cartagena residents who are physically representative of African-descended populations frequently identify as mulatto or mixed race despite having one of the highest African descent populations in the nation (Lasso, 2006; Streicker 1995). Thus, I explore how social inequalities and skin color stratification in education are understood differently among youth in two cities with similar histories and economic inequalities, but with divergent discourses of racial difference.
Thus far, in Salvador, I’ve administered 338 surveys and conducted 40 interviews with high school seniors attending schools in working, middle, and upper class neighborhoods in order to obtain a variety of socioeconomic experiences. My research mentor here, who is a professor of psychology at the Universidade Federal da Bahia (UFBA), connected me with some of his graduate students who have either taught or done volunteer work at high schools throughout the city. Additionally, I established contact with the principal of the private school in my sample through my host mother’s son, who is a former student. Networking has been a huge contribution to my progress. After I contact the high school principals or coordinators, I enter the schools, meet the staff, get a tour of the school, and either schedule the start date for data collection or immediately enter the classrooms to administer surveys (interviews come after I’ve spent more than one week in the schools, in order to build rapport with students). For the most part the data collection process has been a more positive experience than challenging. However, some of the challenges that I have experienced were not being allowed to collect data at a few private schools and having to reschedule data collection periods due to weekly school administrative strikes in all of the public schools in my sample.
There is absolutely no way that I could discuss the progress of my research without mentioning the current state of the country. Since I arrived, the nation has voted to impeach its first female president, multiple protests have erupted all over the country, the prices of oil and food products have drastically increased, and job loss and business closings are at an all time high. This is all occurring in the midst of economic recovery from the 2014 World Cup and preparation for the 2016 Olympics. On a positive note, I’ve been able to incorporate these topics into my interviews, which the participants have been more than willing and enthusiastic to discuss. While many Brazilians with whom I’ve spoken, including those of various ages not participating in my study, have expressed feelings of discouragement, distrust, and demoralization, a remarkable number remain hopeful that their country will improve with time. I end with an expression that I learned from one of the girls who participated in my study: “A esperança é a última que morre” (Hope is the last to die).
Taken at Two of the Five Research Sites
Perry, K-K. Y. (2013). Black women against the land grab: The fight for racial justice in brazil. Minneapolis, MN: The University of Minnesota Press.
Pinho, P. (2015). Bahia is a closer africa: Brazilian slavery and heritage in african american roots tourism. In African Heritage and Memories of Slavery in Brazil and the South Atlantic World. Cambria Press.
Pinho, P. (2008). African-American roots tourism in brazil. Latin American Perspectives, 35(3), 70-86.
Streicker, J. (1995). Policing boundaries: Race, class, and gender in Cartagena, Colombia. American Ethologist, 22, 54-74.
Telles, E. (2014). Pigmentocracies: Ethnicity, Race, and Color in Latin America. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press.
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