Revista Væranda

“Compartilhe com seus companheiros de viagem e venha curtir a Bahia” (“Share with your travelling companions and come enjoy Bahia;” from the Bahian Tourism website).

First coined by Alfred Crosby in 1972, the term “Columbian Exchange” refers to the collision of the Old World (Eurasia, Africa) and the New World (the Americas) catalyzed by Columbus’ arrival in the Americas in 1492, with a focus on the ecological implications of this collision (Crosby 1972). Scholars have paid considerably more attention to this transformation from a Western perspective, giving precedence to how Europeans biologically changed and were changed by the Americas. However, it is essential to study the impact of other identities on the Atlantic world, especially African and indigenous American perspectives. To this end, the concept of the “Atlantic World” has gained considerable traction of late to emphasize how the landscapes and peoples of Africa, the Americas, and Europe became intertwined after the Columbian Exchange, with a particular emphasis on patterns of trade, migration, imperialism, and the African Slave Trade (Brown 2021).

            In the context of the African Slave Trade, scholars have often emphasized how enslaved African labor was used by Europeans to power plantation-style agricultural production of commodities such as sugar and coffee to fuel imperial wealth. Tsing and others have termed this historical era the Plantationocene to recognize the transformative and often destructive effect plantations had on the social and environmental landscapes of the Americas (Tsing 2012). It is crucial, however, to recognize that Africans were not merely passive recipients of the atrocities of the Plantationocene. Rather, Africans arrived in the Americas with a lifetime of traditions and agricultural practices and used this background to actively shape the world in which they found themselves. More recently, scholars have articulated how enslaved Africans in Brazil and the Caribbean resisted the monocultural regime of the Plantationocene by cultivating food plots for subsistence and sale to the market (Carney 2020). For example, enslaved Africans of Yoruba descent brought with them to Brazil dendê[i] and its related foodstuffs such as acarajé and moqueca, which have come to figure prominently in the national cuisine of the nation.

            Some of the most important guardians of Afro-Brazilian gastronomical traditions in Brazil are the Baianas de Acarajé, Afro-Brazilian women who sell acarajé and other foods on the streets of Salvador and Rio de Janeiro. Post-abolition, the newly formed Brazilian republic incorporated elements of this Afro-Brazilian legacy into the national character, including the construction of the Baiana as a cultural icon. However, real-life Baianas resist this essentialization and continue to carve out spaces for themselves through spiritual leadership, political activation, and economic participation. In this paper I will first establish Baianas de Acarajé and their organizing agency, the Associação das Baianas de Acarajé, Mingau, Receptivo e Similares (ABAM), as important agents of food sovereignty in Bahia and the urban centers of Brazil. Then, I will analyze the encounter between the organization ABAM and FIFA in 2014 over the creation of a “zone of exclusion” in Salvador to argue that the Baianas leveraged their position as a cultural icon to maintain their right to food sovereignty in the face of the homogenizing force of globalization.

[i] Dendê is the Brazilian Portuguese term for oil palm. This term has origins in Kimbundu, a Bantu language spoken in Angola (Watkins 2018, 141).


Selling Acarajé as a Source of Female Resistance, Empowerment, and Sovereignty

            Though scholars have paid more attention to armed slave rebellions such as the Malê revolt in Salvador, the Baiana de Acarajé figure emerged out of a form of female resistance to slavery through the practice of selling street food to earn money for manumission. In the urban centers of Salvador and Rio de Janeiro, it was common for enslaved women to sell crafts and food on the streets, giving their masters most of the profits but retaining a portion for themselves (Ivester 2015, 5). One such street food is acarajé, a dish that features ground black-eyed peas mixed with onions and salt and formed into a ball, then fried in palm oil and sometimes served with vatapa or caruru (Lima 2010, 242). The dish has origins in Yoruba gastronomy and is known as akara in Yorubaland, where it is still consumed (Ogundele 2007, 52). Linguists suggest that the term acarajé evolved from the cry of Yoruba-speaking vendors, “O acará jé ecó olailai ô,” an invitation to buy the akara (Lima 2010, 245). Given its African origins and economic potential, the resistant qualities of acarajé can be considered two-fold. On the one hand, by selling acarajé, enslaved women could participate in the market and create opportunities for their own social mobility. Additionally, through the insertion of a distinctly African food into the colonial landscape, enslaved women actively contributed to the creation of the new culture of Brazil.

            Perhaps what distinguishes acarajé from other types of street food the most is its spiritual connections. Acarajé was and continues to be a sacrificial food in the Afro-Brazilian religion of Candomblé and those who prepare it most often practice the religion, wearing white to display their affiliation (Watkins 2011, 20). Therefore, many traditions associated with Baianas de Acaraje are religious in origin, such as performing rites at the beginning of the day to purify and make sacred the space they will use (Lima 2010, 239). Rita Maria Ventura dos Santos, current president of ABAM, explains the relationship between the commodification and religiosity of acarajé as thus: “It [acarajé] became commercialized, but its essence comes from religion, and so we need to preserve this. We want it to be respected, because the religion is at the heart of it[i]” (Rita Santos, translation by the author). In that respect, selling acarajé offers a form of economic and spiritual empowerment for Afro-Brazilian women, a demographic which faces the layered barriers of racism and sexism in the country.

            Along the lines of empowerment, in 1992 the Baianas de Acaraje formed a formidable coalition called the Associação das Baianas de Acarajé, Mingau, Receptivo e Similares (ABAM). Headed by Rita Santos as mentioned above, the national organization ABAM works as a broker between the vendors and state and municipality entities to ensure the right of Baianas to continue their craft with all of its cultural and spiritual meaning. According to the group’s most recent statute, ABAM also works to combat poverty, racism, and religious intolerance, as well as seeking to employ and empower Afro-descended women (ABAM 2021). ABAM has almost 4,000 members across Brazil and an active social media presence on Facebook (ABAM 2021). Critical victories of ABAM include having Baianas de Acaraje recognized as a national cultural heritage by the Institute of National Patrimony and Historic Artistry (IPHAN) in 2004, establishing November 25th as the official National Day of the Baiana de Acaraje, and erecting a Memorial das Baianas in Salvador in 2009 (A Bahia Tem Dendê). The memorial receives over 25,000 visitors a month and allows the public to appreciate the cultural history and significance of the Baiana de Acarajé (Rita Santos, A Bahia Tem Dendê).

            In addition to their organizational capacity, ABAM engages in issues of food sovereignty and biodiversity. The first global conference held on food sovereignty in 2007, the Declaration of Nyéléni, defined food sovereignty as

“The right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts the aspirations and needs of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations”( Declaration of Nyéléni 2007).

Most literature on food sovereignty either focuses on the side of production, such as La Vía Campesina, or the side of consumption and ensuring communities have access to “healthy and culturally appropriate food” (Declaration of Nyéléni 2007). As such, scholars have paid less attention to the role of intermediaries such as street food vendors in connecting local producers and consumers through sustainable food systems. However, ethnographical work conducted by Watkins on palm oil landscapes in Bahia found that six out of seven dendê vendors interviewed in Salvador were Baianas de Acaraje (Watkins 2011, 12). The Baianas interviewed both sold whole bottles of palm oil and used large quantities of palm oil in their preparation of acarajé, palm oil which was produced by small-scale artisanal producers on the Costa do Dendê of Bahia (Watkins 2011, 12). As argued by Carney, small-scale producers of dendê in Bahia carry on the heritage of subsistence plots created by enslaved Africans on plantations and thus represent islands of biodiversity in the sea of ecological destruction of the Plantationocene (Carney 2020). Therefore, Baianas de Acaraje and ABAM perform vital work in the realm of food sovereignty by connecting sustainable producers of dendê with urban communities in a culturally significant way.

[i] The original quotation, as told during an interview with the project A Bahia Tem Dendê : “Estamos tentando alinhar os núcleos e as associações justamente dentro dos terreiros que é para preservar a nossa cultura e a nossa essência, porque o acarajé, querendo ou não, ele é uma oferenda de terreiro, é uma oferenda para Oyá, é uma oferenda para Xangô. Então, a gente não pode perder isso. Ele se tornou comercial, mas a essência dele vem da religião, então a gente tem que preservar isso. A gente quer é respeito, pois a religião está no coração.”


FIFA and the “Zones of Exclusion”

            Given the existence of this sustainable and culturally relevant food network in Bahia, the attempt by FIFA in 2014 to prohibit Baianas from operating outside of football stadiums represented a challenge to food sovereignty. FIFA, or the International Federation of Association Football, is the international governing body of association football that organizes world tournaments such as the FIFA World Cup and the FIFA Women’s World Cup. Since the 1980s, the organization has moved towards partnering with large, multinational corporations (MNCs) such as Coca-Cola and McDonald’s for its events, mimicking the rise of neoliberalism and globalization during this era (Sugden & Tomlinson 1998). These partnerships involve corporations paying FIFA millions of dollars in sponsorship in exchange for exclusive sale rights for the duration of the World Cup (Ivester 2015, 2-3).

            In addition to pointing out the exclusivity of policies such as these sponsorships, activists have also criticized FIFA for its connections to forced displacement and urban “beautification” projects endeavored by countries hosting the World Cup. For example, the shack dweller’s movement in South Africa, Abahlali baseMjondolo, campaigned against the government over a series of evictions enforced in preparation for the 2010 World Cup (Steinbrink, Haferburg and Ley 2011). Steinbrink, Haferburg, and Ley use the term festivalisation to describe the economic, social, and political impacts of Global South countries preparing to hold an international sports competition (Steinbrink, Haferburg, and Ley 2011).

            As it underwent festivalisation in preparation for the World Cup, Brazil approved the “World Cup Law,” restricting the large informal food sector in favor of MNCs. The law established two-kilometer “exclusion zones” outside of all World Cup stadia, granting FIFA and its sponsors’ exclusive rights to advertise and generate profit in these areas (Ivester 2015, 3). FIFA enforced this exclusion by hiring private security firms to police the area (Ivester 2015, 3). The Brazilian economy, like many other Global South nations, includes a prominent informal sector of street vendors and merchants, who often rely on large festivals and events to generate a profit from the increased activity (Ivester 2015, 3). The FIFA exclusion zones not only prevent these informal workers from their livelihoods, but they also insert in their place giant corporations from the United States like McDonald’s and Coca Cola. Scholars often use the spread of McDonald’s across the globe as a symbol of globalization and the dominance of US culture (Belk 1996). In that respect, FIFA’s creation of exclusion zones only serves to reinforce this form of cultural domination over local economies.


Organized Resistance to Exclusion

            Given this threat to their livelihood, ABAM used the cultural weight of the Baiana to form a successful campaign against this zone of exclusion. As articulated above, past work on the part of ABAM had led to the institution of monuments, holidays, and recognition of the cultural significance of the Baiana de Acaraje to Brazil (Bahia Tem Dendê). Though Afro-Brazilian identities had been largely repressed and policed during the 19th century, in the 1930’s and onward the Vargas administration sought to use the discourse of mestiçagem to create a new national identity distinct from Brazil’s colonial past (Osei 2020, 3). Mestiçagem, or racial mixture, was most often constructed through “the black or mulata body, as represented by the dancing baiana” (Osei 2020, 3). The Brazilian state continues to center the Baiana and Salvador in its self-representation, such as through the promotional material seen on the official tourist website of the government of Bahia (Fig 1). Therefore, the Baiana’s position in the Brazilian national identity gave ABAM a considerable degree of leverage for bargaining for the right to sell in the exclusion zone, especially compared to other street vendors with less recognition.

ABAM’s campaign utilized organized protests, social media campaigns, and even directly addressed then-President Dilma Rousseff. ABAM has an active social media presence, and they used this presence to spread recognition of their fight against the exclusive zone. For example, the hashtag “#NãoQueroMcDonalds, #QueroAcaraje” (“I don’t want McDonald’s, I want acarajé”) trended on Twitter and was shared by nearly 2000 people (Ivester 2015, 9). ABAM also used the international petition platform to organize an online campaign for their cause which garnered over 17,000 signatures (Araujo 2015). Finally, when the newly rebuilt Arena Fonte Nova was inaugurated in Salvador, a group of Baianas delivered a copy of their petition directly to the visiting Dilma Rousseff (Ivester 2015, 7). As a result of these efforts, FIFA permitted six Baianas to set up in the exclusive zone outside of the Fonte Nova during the World Cup, though they did not allow any Baianas to sell acarajé inside the stadium (Ivester 2015, 9). Still, their actions set the precedent for other street vendors to enter into FIFA’s exclusive zones, including tapioca at Arena Pernambucano in Recife, Tropeiro (“Cattleman’s Beans”) in Belo Horizonte, and Amazonian river fish tambaqui in Manaus (Ivester 2015, 9). Though ABAM’s victory may seem minor, it represented the first successful campaign by a street vendor to sell food in the exclusive zones.


            In activating against FIFA in 2014, ABAM fought to preserve not only the economic livelihood of Baianas de Acaraje, but also their right to carry on a religious tradition with roots in the period of slavery in Brazil. During the Atlantic Slave Trade, Africans forcibly brought to Brazil to work on plantations brought with them agricultural practices and a variety of cuisines, which they used to forge a new, Brazilian culture. Brazil builds its identity off of these African elements such as the Baiana de acarajé and ABAM has leveraged this cultural significance to win important victories for the vendors, such as disrupting FIFA’s traditional zones of exclusion.  Future research could examine the longstanding effect of ABAM’s resistance on FIFA’s practices, specifically in the context of whether traditional foods were able to be sold during the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Mari Knudson

Mari Knudson

Mari Knudson is a fourth-year Environmental Studies major with a minor in Latin American and Caribbean Studies. During the summer of 2019, she received a Foreign Language Acquisition Grant from the university to study Portuguese for two months in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. She is especially interested in sustainable agriculture and food justice movements, both in the US and in Brazil. Mari wrote “Baianas de Acarajé as Agents of Resistance” for the course Food Justice and Biodiversity in Latin America taught by Professor Diana Schwartz Francisco in Spring 2021.


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