Rua Treze-de-Maio. Foto Patricia Oliveira

A Path through the South
The 13th of May and a portrait of Brazil

The historian Patrícia Oliveira takes a stroll down memory lane in São Paulo’s Bexiga neighborhood, to remember how significant this particular street has been as a source of knowledge about the Black and immigrant populations’ contributions to the construction of the country.

The love of the street. This steadfast and inseparable sentiment, elaborated in fine detail by the poet and journalist, João do Rio (1881-1921), wields its power to unite us, level us and bring us together. Armed with this love and strength of motivation that it brings us, we will pursue the parallels between a public path that meanders through São Paulo, its city and history and, more broadly, the South of the world.

I begin with the basic notion of territory, the street as a space of transit, where one lives and lives together, that connects A to point B, multifunctional from the urban perspective, but which highlights above all the power of those who interact and react in it within the urban context. The soul of a street is expressed by the materiality of its facades, houses and local businesses, as it is by the people, their aspirations and experiences. We speak, therefore, about living, surviving, existing and resisting in a socially constructed space, as different from that of walled homes as it is, also, from the whole broader city. It is a fertile terrain for the exploration of identities and also to identify correspondences with other points around the globe, thinking in gradations: from the street to the neighborhood, from the neighborhood to the city, from the city to the country, from the country to the hemisphere.

The 13th of May, in the city of São Paulo, is a street in a neighborhood that arose out of a quilombo (Maroon community), inserted within a megalopolis, built on the sweat and blood of so many migrants, in a country in the South of the world. There is a layering of social classes on social classes in a space that has resulted from and witnessed historical transformations on a world macro-scale, impacting the neighborhood on a micro-scale.

The shadow of a past without reparations

The trajectory of the South of the world is indelibly expressed in its footpaths and externalizes all the inherent contradictions of the process of the abolition of slavery in Brazil, which came late, imposed by the North to the South, and which resonates today in the shadow of a past without reparations. By the mid-19th century, with the waning of the use of slave labor as a result of the global restrictions on the capture and trafficking of Africans, the arrival of European immigrants had a significant impact on the region of Bela Vista, where “The Thirteenth” is located. The objectives of the European colonial impositions on the end of trafficking were not as noble as those argued in public oration.

Slavery was incompatible with the liberal capitalist ideas in vogue at the time and should be abolished in all world markets, including those in the South. Immigration, with subsidies from the Brazilian State, came to replenish the labor force, with the backdrop of eugenicist ideas of whitening the society, in addition to the effect of a smooth transition to the way of working, which neither favored new recently arrived workers nor former slaves, but rather, the elite landowners, who caused a dramatic slowdown of the end of slavery in the country.

At a local level, immigration – which in the Bela Vista neighborhood, as well as in the 13th of May Street, today has a strong sense of pride and identity – contributed to the historic erasure and expulsion of a large part of the region’s Black population to peripheral areas of the city, as well as to the stigmatization of the internal migratory flows within the country in the 20th century, particularly those from the Northeast. All of this has transformed the street and the region into a small cosmos that is representative of the advancement of an idea of the nation’s progress, constituted here in a way that is considerably complex.

A street in living flesh

A structural question about the ideal city is just that: how to incorporate populations of diverse origins, and this area informs us about the complexities of the Brazilian migratory process, as integrative, as exclusionary, as harmonious and negotiated, as it is simultaneously threatening and conflicting. It is a street in living flesh. Lexically ambiguous, whether as a point of access into Italian cafeterias or Afro-religious celebrations. The space of the Northeastern restaurant, of the staunchly suburban periphery’s bookstore, of the ecumenical ritual in the Catholic Church, of critical reviews. It is no exaggeration to say that Bela Vista, our Bexiga, is Afro-Italo-Northeastern. And the 13th is the place where there is a concentration of pride, struggle, tension, assimilation, indignation and the celebration of so many origins.

The toponym would carry out its officially conciliatory role, were it not for the sensitivity of people and groups debating sensitive, apparently inoffensive issues, which are fundamentally about memory. I am inferring that the 13th of May is an attempt at retrieving Black history in Brazil, motivated by the thinking of the São Paulo native, and why not say of the Brazilian in 1916, the date the name was changed.

The 13th of May, 1888 is a reference to Princess Isabel’s signing of the Abolition of Slavery, and is today, in 2017, often questioned socially by highlighting the stance of a princess of a slaveholding Empire, by showing the great hypocrisy of plundering, imprisoning, torturing and abandoning entire populations to their own destiny, and also by highlighting the active initiative of someone who was responsible for slavery, and not of someone who resisted and survived it.

The 13th, a day of struggle

Currently, social movements are taking to the streets and to stairways, an important topographical symbol marking social determination in the region, to show that the 13th is a day of struggle, reparation and celebration of a diverse Bexiga, and not as a memorial. It is unrest in the streets, questioning the State’s unaccountability, souring official impartiality and complicating the meanings of a name that could be Tebas, the enslaved builder, Zumbi dos Palmares or Dandara, in order to acknowledge the strength of the quilombos. And even Luís Gama, the fairest of quibbling lawyers.

To love the street is to acknowledge the necessity to extrapolate its dictionary and encyclopedia definitions, because concepts do not contain explanations about such a symbolic place. The dense flow of memory from the 13th of May is an important source for gaining knowledge about the contributions of Blacks, migrants and immigrants in the construction of Brazil, because although a universe with physical and visual boundaries, it engages a lively soulful struggle that goes beyond its borders. It is universal. And daily struggle for acknowledgement, for memory and the use of the city’s public spaces to tell the story of those who built it.

Patrícia Oliveira is a historian and librarian, completing her Master’s in Human and Social Sciences, a Black woman from the periphery, whose academic research focuses on places of Black memory in the city of São Paulo, tracing her roots.

“13 on the 13th” is a film that was made on the 13th of May of 2017, meandering through the street of the same name, in the Bixiga neighborhood, in order to record the events of that date and talk with residents and frequent passers-through about the area. Amongst bridges and tension, narratives were developed. The mini-doc is directed by Adriana Terra, journalist and documentary filmmaker, and Oga Mendonça, art director and video maker. ​

Translation: Sara Hanaburgh