Notes on the Margins: A View on Black Authorship in the Literature of Rio Grande do Sul
A perception exists that Gaúchos, the name given to those from the southernmost Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul and epitomized in a historical figure akin to the cowboy, are white, introspective consumers of yerba mate and churrasco (barbecue); an emotionally distant bunch given the immensity of the Pampas and their chilling weather patterns. This belief circulates even in the most remote regions of Brazil. Some observers highlight our many similarities with the neighboring countries of the Rio de la Plata and our detachment from elements long considered central pillars of Brasilidade: the sun and heat, the Tropics, the Amazon, Carnival, and people out in the street.
A standardization of Gaúcho traditions began in 1948 with the establishment of the Gaúcho Traditionalist Movement (MTG). The Movement has deliberately erased indigenous and Black subjects from the cultural formation of the state. This manufacturing of Gaúcho Traditionalism was motivated by young students, children of wealthy landowners from the Campanha region of the state’s interior, who pressed for and presided over the “revival” of rural life by transporting it to the state capital of Porto Alegre, a young city that will celebrate its 250th birthday in 2022.
According to research by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), Rio Grande do Sul possesses more terreiros, spaces for the practice of African traditions, than any other Brazilian state. Still, the “invention of Gaúcho tradition” neglects cultural elements that have developed out of African and indigenous traditions. Nonetheless, Black Gaúcho subjects and culture prosper, with more than 50,000 terreiros throughout the state, where Black communities express their beliefs and foster narratives of strength and resistance transmitted through their African roots. Practitioners in terreiros carry out mainly two traditions: Umbanda, a religion with African, indigenous, and European influences; and Batuque, a form of Candomblé with several regional variations. Why, then, conceal this Black presence and praise only the state’s supposed whiteness?
Denying the African presence is a way of masking the violence committed against formerly enslaved Black peoples in the region. Gaúcho Tradition presents the European immigrant as the protagonist of the state’s development through free and non-enslaved labor. Today, European surnames, in the vast majority, characterize the names of Rio Grande do Sul’s many multinational technology and production companies. Still, history dates the arrival of the first Africans to the region in 1717, when they began working on charqueadas, plantations where salted meat was dehydrated into jerky for export. Beyond the physical violence of these torturous circumstances, Black bodies suffered through the southern climate, a cold and damp region only exacerbated by the dreadful slaughter of cattle, the horrible stench, and the presence of venomous animals. It was an absolutely ruinous deathscape where enslaved peoples were sent to work until they perished.
Another fact near and dear to the Gaúcho’s heart is the Ragamuffin War, which resulted in a declaration of independence of the Republic of Rio Grande do Sul from the Empire of Brazil. Black subjects fought bravely throughout this decade-long dispute, which ended with the surrender of the Gaúcho leaders, faced with a lack of financial resources to continue their separatist struggle. Black soldiers fighting in the Gaúcho ranks were promised freedom from bondage if Rio Grande do Sul were to successfully secede from the Brazilian Empire. With the Porongos Massacre, the last battle in the War, the Black Lancers battalion fought until near decimation. The surviving Black soldiers were reenslaved and, after the abolition of slavery in Brazil in 1888, they and their descendants were pushed into the margins of this former Slavocracy, in complete absence of any political project designed to integrate Black communities into the new social structure.
Thus, the literature of Rio Grande do Sul, as a reflection of the historical processes of the region, presents and represents these facts in its narrative praxis. Recurrent tropes include the settlement of German and Italian immigrants, territorial disputes with Spanish America, and political negotiations central to the formation of the peoples and identities of Rio Grande do Sul. Érico Verissimo (1905–1975), one of the state’s most renowned authors, is best remembered for his O tempo e o vento (Time and the Wind) trilogy, a literary series divided into O Continente (1949, The Continent), O Retrato (1951, The Portrait) and O Arquipélago (1961, The Archipelago). The novels narrate the saga of the Terra-Cambará family, from the first, European occupation of the Continente of São Pedro (Continent of Saint Peter), the first name given to the territory, up to 1945.
Black authors likewise address these topics; however, their literary creations highlight Black figures in the cultural formation of the region, bringing forth into the debate the erasure of Afro-diasporic elements in the configuration of Gaúcho Tradition, and laying bare enduring racism carried out through actions that have sought to silence Black voices. These revindications often touch a raw nerve with the “honorable and elite”, white sectors of the state’s population, so endlessly deserving of glory and valor for their ceaseless labor and struggle.
With the intention of introducing a selection of expressive Black voices, I underscore four Black writers from and producing in Rio Grande do Sul: the pioneering Maria Helena Vargas da Silveira and Oliveira Silveira, and the contemporaries Paulo Scott and Jeferson Tenório.
Afro-Gaúcho writings are inspired by ancestry, by those who came before us. In this sense, I underscore Maria Helena Vargas da Silveira (1940 – 2009) and Oliveira Silveira (1941–2009). These two forerunners share very similar trajectories. They were both born in cities in the interior of Rio Grande do Sul where the cruelty of racism is more intense. They migrated to the capital Porto Alegre and were students at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul. They participated in Black movements, published with independent publishing houses, and are both known and celebrated for their antiracist struggle, in addition to being elementary and middle school teachers. Vargas da Silveira became fondly known as Helena do Sul (Helena from the South) while holding a position in 2005 in the Brazilian Ministry of Education's Secretariat for Continuing Education, Diversity, and Inclusion (Secadi) and the Palmares Cultural Foundation in Brasilia, the country's capital. There, she aided in inaugurating affirmative action laws aimed at creating a quota system for the entry of Black Brazilians into the education system and civil service roles. Helena do Sul was a writer and educator, born in Pelotas, a city that owes its historical economic development to the presence of charqueadas. She published eleven books: novels, poetry, short stories, crónicas and satire; among them, the novel É Fogo (1987, It’s Fire), Meu nome pessoa. Três momentos de poesia (1989, My Person Name. Three Moments of Poetry) and the collection of short stories Odara. Fantasia e realidade (1993, Odara. Fantasy and Reality) where she recounts with characteristic irony the experiences of Black women in Brazil. Her work reassembles collective memory through narratives of Blackness, including elements and fragments of ancestral memories, and Afro-Brazilian traditions and culture. Recurring themes in her writing also feature Carnival and Samba school parades in the city of Pelotas. In the short story “Despatrimônio” (Unpatrimony) found in Odara, the opening image satirizes Brazilian historiography extolling the figure of the white hero and rendering invisible all other participants in the forging of the nation:
A sala é secular. Uma sala social de nobres marginais, oprimindo marginalizados nobres. Lúgubre, infestada de mofo, acolhe nefasta arte. Nas paredes, quadros funestos respiram a poeira de pretensa eternidade de ranço cultural.
Na escuridão do tétrico ambiente, os espelhos sem brilho, com nuances espectrais maquiadas de suor, lágrimas e sangue. São iaôs prisioneiros, negros imobilizados na moldura deprimente de horrendo quadro chamado História. No alto, a coroa; no chão, os pelourinhos, esboços desumanos, ensaios sem vida.
A sala é secular. Acolhe nefasta arte. (Silveira, 1993, 8)
[The room is age-old. A social chamber of marginal nobles, oppressing marginalized nobles. Mournful, infested with mold, it shelters ill-fated art. On the walls, ominous paintings breathe the dust of the supposed eternity of cultural spoils.
In the darkness of this miserable scene, the lackluster mirrors, with spectral detail made-up with blood, sweat and tears. They are imprisoned priestly daughters of saints, Blacks immobilized in the depressing frame of a horrendous painting called History. At the top, the crown; on the floor, pillories, inhuman sketches, lifeless essays.
The room is age-old. It shelters ill-fated art.] (Silveira, 1993, 8)
The poet Oliveira Silveira, from Rosário do Sul, a city 250 miles west of Porto Alegre, located in the heart of the Gaúcho Pampas and close to the border with Uruguay, established himself as a resident of Porto Alegre where he completed high school and soon after graduated with a degree in Portuguese and French from the Instituto de Letras (Institute of Literature) at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul. He was one of the founders of the Grupo Palmares (Palmares Group), allied with the Movimento Negro Unificado (Unified Black Movement) in the capital of Rio Grande do Sul, and the initiator of November 20th as a celebration of Black Consciousness Day on the same day the great Brazilian quilombola leader Zumbi dos Palmares died in resisting colonization and enslavement by the Portuguese. Silveira’s university experiences influenced his dialogues with poets throughout the African diaspora: the compelling Roteiro dos Tantãs (1981, Play of the Tan-Tans), whose title alludes to the sound of a drum, a common cultural element and point of communion in countries of the African Diaspora, embraces literature, history, geography, and cultures throughout the Americas. The poem “Haiti” contains an epigraph by Aimé Césaire (1913–2008) from the very visceral Cahier d'un retour au pays natal (1939, Notebook of a Return to my Native Land) in which the Martinican poet reports that it was in Haiti where, for the first time, Blackness rose up and declared its own humanity. In the poem “Em Cuba” (In Cuba), Silveira dialogues intertextually with Nicolás Guillén: “Em Cuba/ um afro coração/ nos versos de Guillén; tantã latejando a América” (In Cuba/ an Afro heart/ in Guillén's verses; tan-tan thumping America”). The last verse typifies the poet’s own notion of Americanidade, as he identifies with the Cuban Guillén, one of the very few Black writers referenced in Spanish American literature circulating in Brazil at the time, whose poetic compositions likewise emphasized oral traditions: the tan-tan pulses and beats and forges memory. The tan-tan underpins African cultural traditions and reaffirms roots that white society has endeavored to erase. In “Platinos” (Those from the River Plate), the words milonga, tango and malambo (common musical rhythms in Rio Grande do Sul and the bordering River Plate nations of Uruguay and Argentina) bring Silveira’s poetic self closer to his brethren on the other side of the border; brothers and sisters with whom he shares the coldness of both the climate and the callous relationship between Blacks and whites: “Milonga, tango, malambo/familiares/essas palavras/quentes/me agasalham” ("Milonga, tango, malambo/familiar/these warm words/shelter me"). Silveira also published the books of poems Banzo, saudade negra (1969, Banzo, Black Nostalgia), Décima do negro peão (1974, Décima of the Black Farmhand), Anotações à margem (1994, Margin Notes) among many other texts that recover African origins and decry the treatment of Black subjects in this southern region of South America, as evidenced in the poem “Obrigado, minha terra” (Thank you, my Land) published in Pêlo escuro – poemas afro-gaúchos (1977, Black Routes – Afro-Gaúchos Poems): “Obrigado charqueada/ por minhas feridas salgadas (...) Obrigado pelo preconceito/ com que até hoje me aceitas/ Muito obrigado pela cor do emprego/ que não me dás porque sou negro (...) Agradeço de todo coração/e sem nenhum perdão” (“Thank you charqueada/ for my salty wounds (...) Thank you for the prejudice/ with which you still accept me today/ Thank you very much for the color of your vocation/ that you deny me because I am black (...) I thank you with all my heart/ and without mercy”).
Recently, two novels by Black writers and set in Porto Alegre have been published by major publishers: Paulo Scott’s Marrom e Amarelo (Brown and Yellow, Alfaguara, 2019) and Jeferson Tenório’s O avesso da pele (The Reverse Side of Skin, Companhia das Letras, 2020). The latter is already in the process of being translated into French and Italian and set for publication in Portugal. Scott’s novel addresses issues of Colorism, who is or is not considered Black, the frustrations and privileges of existing in a miscegenated nation and furthermore, in a region characterized by European immigration. Marrom e Amarelo debates the contradictions of the binary logics of skin color in Brazil.
O avesso da pele also addresses these subjects, as the narrator relates the life and trials of his father, a teacher, and the violence he suffered at the hands of the police simply for being Black. Tenório was born in Rio de Janeiro but resides in Porto Alegre. In his previous novels O beijo na parede (2013, The Kiss on the Wall) and Estela sem Deus (2018, Godless Estela), by way of adolescent narrators and protagonists, the author addresses both family and state abandonment, which both condemn Black children to lives on the street, with no supervision or guidance. The characters search for meaning in their lives, with the aid of books they encounter by chance. Tenório's protagonists are Black flaneurs circulating in the city, but, unlike the classic archetype (Leopold Bloom in Joyce’s Ulysses , or Horacio Oliveira in Cortázar’s Rayuela, for example), they are not aloof or unconcerned figures; on the contrary, a Black subject must always be on alert when walking down the street given the infinite everyday risk factors to their health and safety.
Interestingly, a large share of Black writers from the Brazilian South dedicate their creative efforts to poetry: Ronald Augusto, Eliane Marques, Lilian Rocha, Ana dos Santos, Duan Kissonde, Marlon Ramos, Richard Serraria, Fernanda Bastos, the Sopapo Poético collective, among so many others, bring forth lineage, memory, and social commentary through the active participation of Black subjects in the cultural construction of Rio Grande do Sul.
I have borrowed the title of this essay from Oliveira Silveira’s previously mentioned poem "Margin Notes,” and the subtitle from an article published in Revista Ponto e Vírgula (Period and Comma Magazine) in 1995, with the intention of aiding Afro-Gaúcho history and literature in transcending marginal spaces and exposing it beyond regional borders, positioning Black communities and Black cultural production as legitimate and effective constituents of citizenship in Rio Grande do Sul and Brazil.
Translated by Ryan Morrison
Ryan Morrison is a PhD student in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Texas at Austin. His research interests include the poetry and lifework of Afro-Gaúcho poet Oliveira Silveira, transnationalism and Border Studies as applied to the Pampas of southern Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina, Blackness at borders, ethnography, and popular culture.
Liliam Ramos is a Latin American scholar, woman, and professor of Literature and Latin American Studies at the Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS). She has translated the books Memória de mim by Cuban poet Teresa Cárdenas and Textos selecionados (essays) by Dominican philosopher Yuderkis Espinosa Miñoso. The publishing house Figura de Linguagem in Porto Alegre will publish both volumes in August and December 2021. In her classes and daily life, Liliam teaches to decolonize our society, focusing on the alternative epistemologies expressed by Latin American writers. She studies Afro-Latin American Literature, translating and elaborating didactic materials devoted to supporting Black cultures and fictions in elementary education.
In our eighteenth issue, we feature the work of beloved Cuban poet Reina María Rodríguez alongside that of João Cabral de Melo Neto, renowned Brazilian poet and third Latin American winner of the Neustadt Prize. We also highlight Latin American women poets, indigenous literature from Brazil, new works in translation, and a return to the essay through the words of Mariano Picón Salas.