Social Issues

Anti-racism protests prompt rethinking of Brazilian colonial-era folk heroes

By Carla Samon Ros

Sao Paulo, Jun 17 (efe-epa).- The wave of worldwide anti-racism protests triggered by George Floyd’s death late last month in police custody has sparked a re-examination in Brazil of colonial-era trailblazers known as “bandeirantes,” whose exploits are commemorated in that South American country with different statues and monuments.

Police in Sao Paulo, the country’s economic engine and biggest metropolis, have had to maintain round-the-clock vigilance around one of these statues to avoid the type of vandalism now affecting monuments in the United Kingdom and the United States.

The descendants of Portuguese colonizers, the bandeirantes (literally “flag-carriers”) were adventurers who began exploring the interior of the Americas in the 16th century in search of material wealth and slaves.

The point of departure for these adventurers was Sao Paulo, where today monuments to their feats dot the city and the governor’s official residence is even named Bandeirantes Palace.

But some critics say those tributes are unwarranted because they promote and celebrate racism, slavery and colonial domination.

“They operated on the periphery of the law” and “one of their main activities was to hunt Indians and enslave them,” architect and urbanist Nabil Bonduki, a former Sao Paulo municipal councillor, said in an interview with Efe.

The myth of the heroic bandeirante is closely tied to the construction of Sao Paulo’s identity and dates back to the 19th century, when the city’s elite “remade” these explorers as valiant heroes for the purpose of “enhancing their own origins,” he said.

“They minimized the issue of slavery and the atrocities against Indians” to “build a whole imaginary universe around these figures,” naming streets after the bandeirantes and celebrating them with monuments and works of art,” said Bonduki, who is currently a professor in the University of Sao Paulo’s School of Architecture and Urbanism.

He added that the creation of the “bandeirante myth” served to “uplift the Sao Paulo race, which is closely tied to a certain xenophobic vision,” at a time when the city was experiencing the arrival of a lot of foreigners.

Though the debate over Brazil’s bandeirante monuments is not new, it has been revived since Floyd, an African-American man, died of cardiopulmonary arrest in Minneapolis, Minnesota, after a disturbing May 25 incident – captured on video by a bystander – in which a white police officer knelt on the suspect’s neck for nearly nine minutes after he had already been handcuffed.

One of the most controversial monuments is Julio Guerra’s giant statue of bandeirante Manuel de Borba Gato, which was inaugurated in 1963 and is located in Sao Paulo’s Santo Amaro neighborhood.

Borba Gato (1628-1718) made his fortune by capturing Indians and selling them into slavery, although he also was a “fugitive from the law” and a gold smuggler, Brazilian writer and journalist Laurentino Gomes says on his Twitter account.

Gomes believes that Borba Gato’s statue, like the city’s other monuments, “are part of the country’s historical heritage” and “should be preserved as objects of study and reflexion.”

But others have taken to social media to demand that the statue be removed.

“Borba Gato has to fall,” said an attorney and professor of diversity and discrimination policies at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, Thiago de Souza Amparo, who added that removing the statue is about guaranteeing citizens’ right to lend new meaning to figures who were formerly honored.

“I wonder what would be destroyed with the fall of the statue of Borba Gato other than the self-image of a society that extols genocidal murderers as national heroes,” the attorney said.

To preserve the monument, Sao Paulo authorities on June 8 established round-the-clock police protection.

Another monument at the entrance of Ibirapuera Park, the city’s green lung, also has been a target of criticism.

Inaugurated in 1953 to commemorate Sao Paulo’s fourth centennial and known as the Monument to the Flags, that granite sculpture measuring 50 meters (164 feet) long and 16 meters high and sculpted by Victor Brecheret celebrates the 17th-century settling expeditions by the bandeirantes and shows a group of Indians and blacks pulling a canoe and being led by white men.

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