What a Difference a City Makes: Conducting Research in São Paulo

Muse - Brazil - Metro
Art in the Sumaré Metro Station

I have always considered São Paulo my home away from home when in Brazil, though most of the time I’ve spent here has been for personal enjoyment or work purposes. I had never experienced the city as a researcher. Though after short exploratory research trip to “Sampa” in June, and now a week’s worth of recent study, I can safely say that when it comes to conducting archival research in Brazil, my goodness what a difference a city makes.

Ironically, I had never considered São Paulo (city) as a location for my research. On the other hand, Campinas, a city just a short drive from Sampa, had always been on my list. It’s known for UNICAMP, one of the highest ranked universities in Brazil and home to one of the best historical research facilities in the region: Arquivo Edgard Leuenroth. My initial plan to work exclusively in Rio and then Campinas. However, during one of my first weeks in Rio, I visited the Arquivo Nacional, where one of the librarians pointed out that the best source for documents related to my research were housed at the State Arquive of São Paulo. Though a point of frustration at the time, I’m glad that she suggested that I visit Sampa for research purposes. If it hadn’t been for that moment, I most likely may not have ended up here having the best research experience in Brazil to date.

Muse - Brazil - Library
Camões Statue at the Biblioteca Mário de Andrade in São Paulo’s Centro

I think it’s worth taking a moment to describe exactly what I am doing here in the first place. As I’ve mentioned before, writing about the act of conducting archival research is not exactly exciting or interesting. As a great historian (who will remain nameless) once told me: historical research has no real methodology. You go to the library or the research institution. You find documents. You find other documents related to or mentioned within the previous documents. And so on, and so forth. There’s no major science to the exploration bit. How you interpret your findings, however, does require a little more methodology. And further, how you chose the research topic in the first place lends itself tofar more riveting discourse.So I will not bore you with the details of microfilm viewing or rifling through stacks of yellowed police files. I will, however, divulge a bit of my research.

Ever since I began studying Brazilian history, I’ve always been fascinated with Brazil’s treatment of race, and in particular those who were at the forefront of theorizing on that very subject. Brazilian national (and racial) identity dominates the work of authors like Gilberto Freyre, who is credited as one of the founding fathers of the theory of racial democracy in Brazil, for better or for worse. Though most of his theories are now subjected to intense scrutiny for their sexism, racism, extreme reductivism, and historical inaccuracy, they continue to exist in the popular discourse in Brazil. It was through his work that I eventually came about my topic.

After living and working in Brazil off and on for several years, I wanted to learn about its history and its connection to other Lusophone (Portuguese-speaking) countries. I had met many Angolan and Mozambican exchange students during my time working and traveling throughout Brazil. I had noticed the constant references to Portugal, despite it having long relinquished imperial rule of Brazil. There seemed to be some invisible thread linking the nations of the former Portuguese empire beyond that of language. I was interested in exactly how and why those ties had formed and how they had changed over time.

Thus I began my initial thesis research by proposing a study of reactions to Gilberto Freyre’s works Aventura e rotina (Adventure and Routine) and Um brasileiro nas terras portuguesas (A Brazilian in Portuguese Lands), both of which he wrote in the early 1950s after a trip throughout Portugal and its colonies (at the request of the Portuguese dictatorial government, then under the power of Antonio Oliveira Salazar). Freyre was already wel-known throughout Latin America for his theories on the so-called unique ability the Portuguese possessed for practicing a gentler form of slavery and for race-blind governance. He coined the name for this phenomenon  (as he saw other colonial powers as highly savage in their practices and/or racially exclusionary) lusotropicalismo (Luso-tropicality).

Flattered by Freyre’s assessment, Salazar and his advisors considered such theories relevant not only to the past, but to the present. Brazil could be an example of what was to come for Cape Verde, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, and Angola in Africa or Goa in Asia. And if the Portuguese were wholly responsible for Brazil’s success, they most certainly could be trusted to deliver similar if not better results in their contemporary colonies…or so went the theory.

As I worked through literally all of the issues of O Jornal (a popular Rio-based newspaper) from the 1950s, I found nothing but praise for Freyre and agreement with his feelings on the Portuguese empire. Article after sycophantic article spoke volumes of the Portuguese people, their government, and their practices throughout the Ultramar, the name designated for their overseas territories. I knew I had to dig deeper.

I then decided to search other papers. I also expanded my focus. It was bigger than Freyre. There was something else at play. On both levels of discourse, popular and elite, an intense connection to Portugal and all of its decisions, no matter how flawed, had been presented as the norm. Colonialism, despite its ills, was being championed. I smelled a rat. There must have been some writers who dissented. After all, there had been uprisings in Portuguese Africa for ages and as early as 1953, formal organizing against the Portuguese government for its practices in Angola. The fact that none of this received coverage seemed odd. And on the rare occasions that dissent to the Portuguese government found a place on the pages of Brazilian mainstream newspapers and magazines, the bias in favor of Portugal was deafening.

I decided to work with the 1950s (and early 1960s) primarily because I noticed several absences in many of the works I had read on the relationship between Brazil and Africa during the same period. Most historians had chosen to focus on the relationship between Brazil and non-Lusophone African nations. Or they focused on Brazil and Portuguese African’s relationship during slavery. Or they focused on Brazil’s relationship with African nations (including those of the Portuguese empire) in the late 1960s and early 1970s during the most intense years of uprisings/war in the colonies. I wanted to learn more about the discourse surrounding Portuguese Africa (and Asia, though mentioned even less) during the 1950s and early 1960s. These were  the catalyzing years of the wars that erupted in the Ultramar territories in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They also mark a period of political freedom in Brazil immediately prior to the military coup of 1964.

I chose to focus on written materials (newspapers and magazines) from São Paulo and Rio as they had the largest literate population and the highest rate of print material consumption and production. In addition, Rio was then the nation’s capital (Brasilia became the capital in 1960), so its population remained well-connected politically. It is also the source of the largest Portuguese immigrant population during the same period (many of them fleeing Portugal or its colonies in search of political and economic freedom and/or safety). Meanwhile, São Paulo, though it possessed less of a connection to Portugal diplomatically or demographically, it was (and remains to be) Brazil’s commercial capital. It was also home to several alternative papers that challenged the status quo on race relations, governance, and diplomacy.

After a little digging, I found papers from the alternative press (predominately papers affiliated with leftist political parties and/or São Paulo’s black press) who were willing to challenge popular notions of Portuguese propensity for colonial governance. I also found several articles in SENHOR (“Mister”), a short-lived, Rio-based, monthly men’s magazine (a bit like GQ), that openly targeted Freyre and his colleagues and their false and highly censored reports on the Portuguese colonies. In terms of my thesis, I’m analyzing how the opinions of such authors (those for, against, or ambivalent to the actions of the Portuguese empire) were emblematic of nuanced shifts in popular understandings of Brazilian national identity (one that had very much been shaped by authors like Freyre). The Portuguese colonies, Portugal, and Brazil had all been used as models, paradigms, even theoretical proxies for one another in bizarre ways, as if they were interchangeable, one in the same, despite their varied economic, social, cultural, and governmental realities.

Luckily, being in São Paulo (and sporadically, Campinas) has made this inquiry much easier. Rio is lovely, but as I mentioned, it’s a hassle and a half to conduct archival research there due to tons of unexpected occurences. “Burocracy” is a bit of an expletive here in São Paulo, thankfully, and it’s a difference I noticed early on during my exploratory trip at the end of June.

During those few days in São Paulo, I visited the Arquivo do Estado de São Paulo. It was exciting to see the institution in person after having been exposed to its wealth of digitized items online for a separate project about the black press in Brazil. When I arrived on the first day, I asked how long the wait would be for viewing requested items. The security guard looked at me, confused. “I believe you can view things on the same day, miss.” I later asked the people at the reception desk, just to confirm. They literally looked at me like I was insane. “Yes, the same day. When you request something, they bring it to you and you can look at it.” Wow. It was like night and day when compared to my experience at the Arquivo Nacional (where a business week’s worth wait was required to view documents). At the São Paulo State Archive, I could also bring my computer and camera, sans registration, extra paperwork, or notarized documents from NYU. I was in research heaven.

While there, I found several police files from the 1960s of an Angolan student living in Brazil as a refugee (Angola’s war for independence against the Portuguese began with several major uprisings in smaller cities in the early 1960s). The student was under police surveillance because of his vocal stance against the actions of the Portuguese colonial regime in his country. He noted that it was not the Portuguese that had angered him, but instead their unjust acts against his people. Nevertheless, his activism kept him on the infamous watchlist of the DOPS (O Departamento de Ordem Política e Social / The Department of Political and Social Order), Brazil’s version of the CIA).

After finding similar files on other refugees and political exiles, I decided to earmark the São Paulo State Archive for future work. I also spoke with the archive’s head librarian, who suggested that I check out the Biblioteca Mário de Andrade and several other archives while in São Paulo. With a new list of institutions to visit in São Paulo firmly planted in my mind, I returned to Rio in hopes of finding other documents, magazines, and papers that contained useful material. Unfortunately, with the strike, my research was set back a few days. Also, considering I did not have permission to photograph or copy any of the materials I found, I was typing up all the articles. This tedious and incredibly time consuming task took a bite out of my drive, but I kept my fingers crossed. I hoped that when arrived in São Paulo again at the end of July I would be able to continue any work in progress from Rio.

Muse - Brazil - Library
Biblioteca Mário de Andrade

When I returned to São Paulo, the Biblioteca Mario de Andrade was the first visit on my list. Once again, I went in prepared for bureacracy and instead came away relieved. I could bring in my camera! my computer! my mp3 player! even water! And the icing on the cake was that any item I requested from microfilmed materials could be digitized. On top of the convenience factor, the librarians there are incredibly knowledgeable and truly go out of their way to help. One librarian was so helpful that when I requested three books, he came back with about ten others that he thought would be worth checking out because of the related subject matter. He added my name to a list of research topics that is circulated throughout the library in the instance that anyone has additional research leads. He also sent me a list of other archives/libraries to check out, and even invited me to a presentation led by a Mocambican journalist currently working and studying in Brazil because he thought it could add to my research and allow for networking opportunities!

After several visits to the BMA, I decided to check out the Edgard Leurenroth Archive at the University of Campinas. Though in total the trip requires a 3 hour commute (1.5 hr on the bus from São Paulo to Campinas, then 1.5 hr on the city bus to travel from the bus station in Centro to UNICAMP’s enormous campus), it is definitely worth it. The archive is known for its large collection of leftist political documents, including the paper collection of Brazilian communist leader Luís Carlos Prestes, documents from Astrojildo Perreira (another leftist political leader/activist), and hundreds of pamphlets from nineteenth and twentieth century labor movements. The archive also holds several pieces on Brazil-based research on Africa and Afro-Brazilians.

Muse - Brazil - UNICAMP
Inside UNICAMP’s Arquivo Edgard Leuenroth

While working at the AEL, I have focused on several archives that contain documents from leftist leaders and academic institutions that engaged in active research and/or dialogue with Lusophone African peoples during their respective anti-colonial movements. From the few visits I have made to AEL thus far, I have found quite a valuable contribution to my research: a collection of academic journals released by the Cândido Mendes Center for Afro-Asian Studies, all of which account the cultural, academic, economic, and political connections between Brazil and Africa in extensive detail. There are articles on interpreting Angolan poetry, the Mozambican education system, the varied stages of Portuguese colonialism (as compared to other forms), and so much more. These pieces detail the degree to which Brazil viewed Africa, and in particular its Lusophone nations, as cross-continental brethren with whom forming a relationship went beyond language.

Needless to say, since I have been in São Paulo, I have been able to accomplish a large amount of research in a very short period of time. My success thus far has come as quite a relief considering the “research anxiety” I felt in Rio. I’ll be heading back to the State Archive of São Paulo later this week to dig around for more pieces. After months of renovations, their periodicals section has re-opened.

I simply cannot wait!

Posted by Wendi Muse – MA Candidate at CLACS at NYU

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