By Devon Snyder
This picture was taken while I was studying abroad in Brazil in the spring of my junior year. The scene depicts the winding streets of Pelourinho, the historic center of Salvador, Bahia. Located along the central coast, Salvador was the first capital colonial city established by the Portuguese, and was the final destination of the Estrado do Côco, the Coconut Road, which received thousands of slaves from the time of the city’s founding in 1500 to the 19th century and the rise of European Abolitionism. During the height of the slave trade, Pelourinho was the site of punishment and discipline. The neighborhood derives its name from the whipping post, or pillory, that was located in the central plaza. Today, under the shadow of the two of the city’s oldest churches, small booths selling acaraje and hair beads occupy the space where this fixture once loomed.
While I was not aware of the specific history of the city, I knew going into the program of Brazil’s infamous “racial democracy” and the continuing contention between the country’s dominant Afro-Brazilian population (the country is home to the largest African diaspora) and the predominantly White individuals occupying positions of power. More than half of Salvador’s population identify as “Brown” (or of mixed heritage), with nearly one fourth identifying as “Black.” (These numbers must be considered critically, as there are still many negative associations with the “Black” identity, and many Afro-Brazilians prefer to consider themselves mulatto/a or “multiracial”).
A significant portion of these individuals resided in and around Pelourinho. Indeed, the neighborhood has historically consisted of a mosaic of low-income housing units and decaying colonial architecture. It wasn’t until 1985, when Pelourinho was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site that the city began to funnel monetary and developmental resources into the neighborhood. Subsequently, this remodel resulted in the displacement of hundreds of families, many of which stood as living representations of the African heritage the government was attempting to preserve.
It is within this contradiction then that I find myself considering the topic of social justice. Yet it is not its application that concerns me, but rather the concept of social justice as a state of mind. Ideally, those that like to think of themselves as champions of social justice and equity do not merely do so in praxis, but attempt to apply the theory within their individual world views. Assuming this to be true, what happens when an individual of this sort finds themselves in a space like Pelourinho, which, despite its tainted history is inarguably visually and recreationally stimulating? This is a question that I often found myself wrestling with, as I attempted to rectify my experiences as a visitor with the guilt that came from my knowledge of the neighborhood’s colonial and contemporary tradition of violence.
As the year anniversary of my leaving approaches, I can honestly say that even though I am no longer surrounded by Perlourinho’s pastel facades, this anxiety plagues me still. It remains dormant within me, an idiosyncratic remnant far more valuable than any souvenir. The weight of it lies not in its resonant need to be confronted and conquered, but in understanding how to channel this anxiety in a productive manner. This, to me, is the struggle of social justice. How do we, as advocates and allies, attempt to turn a critical eye to the world without falling victim to cynicism and paralysis?