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In Santo Cristo, a neighborhood in the marvelous city of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the construction of a new building, Porto Maravalley, promises to usher in a new age of technology startups in the city. Currently, the construction of the technology and education hub—which directly references Silicon Valley—is happening in an abandoned warehouse in Rio’s Port Zone that spans more than 3.59 square miles.
But if you walk 30 minutes, to the very end of Mauá Square, the Museum of Tomorrow, a science museum that was built in an attempt to revitalize the Port Zone, sits like a spaceship, and to its left, the Rio Museum of Art (MAR) towers over the sidewalk that leads visitors deeper into the city. These three buildings, as well as the installation of a tram system in the area, are part of an urbanization project that has ebbed and flowed since 2009—gaining steam when Rio hosted the Olympics in 2016 and the World Cup in 2018—to make the area into the city of the future.
Amid these investments, the Port Zone is filled with Black activists, researchers, and curators who are passionate about reckoning with the city’s past. The Port Zone, which spans the neighborhoods of Saúde, Gamboa, Santo Cristo, and Caju, was the biggest slave port in the Americas from the last few decades of the 18th century up until 1830, receiving an estimated 700,000 enslaved Africans, with some sources estimating the real number being closer to 1 million. After the abolition of slavery, free Black people used the area to build communities designed to preserve African religions and cultures within a society that increasingly wanted to erase any memory of slavery.
Walking inland, past the graffitied warehouses and toward the neighborhood of Gamboa, the historical landmark of Cais do Valongo can be seen, protected by a few metal barriers. The site, where historians estimate at least one million enslaved people arrived in the 20 years it functioned in the 19th century, was nearly erased twice in Brazilian history: In 1843, it was remodeled to remove evidence that enslaved people were chained to be sold there, and in 1911, it was landfilled to build a square.
Though Black researchers had known for decades that the site was hidden under the ground, it wasn’t officially rediscovered until 2011 when the city began doing construction for the 2016 Olympics. “This rediscovery marked a new era of Black memory in the city of Rio,” says Thais Matos, a Black geographer and researcher at Universidade Federal Fluminense. “It signified that Rio is an undeniably Black city, even though there are attempts at erasing this history.” Matos says Black activists and researchers, who’d already been working to preserve the territory, strategically used the Port Zone urbanization plans to argue for the preservation of the site, highlighting the violent history of slavery in the area and also emphasizing how the urbanization project was removing residents from the area. “The universities in the city would never have enough money to do this excavation.”
But this strategic use came with a price. “The city understood that it wasn’t in the city’s interest to continue to erase that history anymore,” Matos explains. “They thought this history [could] be appealing for tourists coming to our city.” Hoping to capitalize on this discovery and not lose the momentum of construction, the city agreed to preserve the site, and UNESCO declared Cais do Valongo a World Heritage Site in 2017.
For community activist and photographer Maurício Hora, who has lived in Morro da Providência, the favela (working-class neighborhood) that towers over Gamboa, his whole life, the city’s begrudging preservation of Cais do Valongo wasn’t an attempt to honor Afro-Brazilian culture. Instead, it was about profit, allowing white-owned businesses to move into the area and edge out Black residents. As Tara Nelson details in a 2019 story for RioOnWatch, these white-owned businesses, including YouTube, have moved into the area.
Hora mentions Largo da Prainha, a spot recently highlighted as one of the best spots in the city in a New York Times package about Rio. “Nothing on that square belongs to us. We don’t have animosity with anybody there,” he says. “The problem is that that area became a money-making space because of our culture. Our intentions in the area were never commercial.”
In his studio in Gamboa, where large photos of his community are displayed on the wall, Hora says that the city’s projects in the Port Zone have brought opportunistic entrepreneurs to the area who haven’t hesitated to capitalize on his neighborhood’s Black history. “I call it afro-opportunism. This is an area that will stop being Black because of businesses that push Black people out.”
This money-making machinery came to a head in March 2022, after business owners in Largo São Francisco da Prainha—a historical square where Black women used to host and feed people who escaped slavery—had a disagreement with a local all-women samba band, Moça Prosa, that had been holding monthly shows in the public square for nearly 10 years. Newly opened bars in the areas disputed Moça Prosa’s right to perform in the square because the band sold their own drinks to cover the costs of their performance. While bar owners argued that this could cut into their profits, Moça Prosa refused to perform for free.
After a number of meetings, the parties couldn’t reach a consensus, so Moça Prosa decided to move to a nearby property that was given to them by the city. YES! reached out to the city of Rio for comment, but received no response.
“We aren’t new here, we aren’t opportunistic,” Moça Prosa producer Ana Priscila da Silva told O Globo at the time. “We just want to come back to where we used to play after we were forced out because of the pandemic.”
Practically, Hora also says the projects have disrupted public transport in the area, particularly because of the tram system that was implemented to connect Rio’s city center to the Port Zone. Hora and other sources interviewed for this article say the system works well for people who come from the outside of the Port Zone, but the buses the local population depended on to reach other neighborhoods were removed to make space for the tram. “I used to be able to go anywhere in the city from here because of the buses,” Hora says. “Now we only have the tram.”
Preserving Buried History
In 1996, civilians doing construction work in their home about 10 minutes away from Cais do Valongo discovered a cemetery where newly arrived Africans who died right after arriving in the port were buried. Merced Guimarães dos Anjos and Petruccio dos Anjos alerted the authorities about their discovery, but the state didn’t offer resources to preserve the site at the time.
In 2005, the New Blacks Institute of Research and Memory (IPN) was founded, with private resources and funding. Today, the institution survives on ticket costs, private partnerships, grants, and a postgraduate degree offered by the institute’s educational branch. Upon the discovery of the cemetery, the state promised to research the findings, but Guimarães dos Anjos says that never happened, and she had to take preservation efforts into her own hands. In 2017, IPN almost closed due to lack of funding.
“For 27 years, since the archeological discovery, the Institute never had effective help from public authorities,” says Alexandre Nadai, spokesperson for IPN. “We have to charge entry to the museum because we don’t have a sustainable way to keep the doors open otherwise.” While the Museum of Tomorrow receives financial support from the state that maintains its free entry, IPN has to charge entry to keep itself above water, receiving 41,000 visitors in 2022 alone. “We are educating people on racism, but we never have the guarantee that we will have enough money to be functioning tomorrow,” Nadai says.
The Port Zone is full of places like IPN, where residents and activists took it upon themselves to preserve Black history—places Black researchers know are significant but haven’t been deemed historically significant by the city.
If you walk five minutes from IPN, you’ll come across a house where the belongings of Tia Ciata, one of the foremothers of samba itself, are shoved into a tiny, rectangular space that Matos says used to be a public bathroom. The space is managed by Ciata’s living descendants, but they don’t receive public funding for their work. The Morro da Providência, which Hora says is the first favela in the world, is not marked as such. In the old neighborhood of Santa Rita, another cemetery for enslaved people lies beneath the tracks of the tram system, but there isn’t a single plaque marking the significance of the location. The afroxé group Filhos de Gandhy, founded by port workers in 1951, is currently struggling to raise money for maintenance works in their venue.
“We have to preserve this memory, so [slavery] never happens again,” Nadai says. “But in a structurally racist country, things in Rio are only given value when someone will benefit from it financially. No political party fights for Black people, for the Black cause effectively. There aren’t many Black people in the government, and every 23 minutes, a young Black person is killed in Brazil.”
For Hora, who co-wrote an op-ed for The New York Times in 2012 about the construction being done in the Port Zone at the time, the city’s interest in revitalizing the area doesn’t include the people who already live there. “They don’t think about the people who are from here,” Hora says. “That’s the big problem when a place is set to be transformed by public authorities.”
When approached for comment, the city of Rio said there is a concern for preservation of Afro-Brazilian history in the Port Zone but did not provide a response to questions about the impacts of gentrification in the area. “The city has created the African Heritage Circuit in the Little Africa region, which includes Cais do Valongo, [and] coordinated the process to make it into a World Heritage Site by UNESCO,” the statement said. On the inclusivity of the Porto Maravalley project, the city said the hub will have diversity and inclusion policies “for Black people and LGBTQIA+ populations,” and that their education branch, Instituto de Matemática Pura e Aplicada, will have 100% of students funded by scholarships.
Bringing the Past Into the Future
In March 2023, Brazil’s first lady, Janja Silva, and the new Minister for Racial Equality, Anielle Franco, visited IPN. Nadai hopes the incoming federal administration, which has reestablished the Cais do Valongo management committee, will be favorable to the institute’s concerns and needs. However, the Port Zone has three branches of government that exercise their authority—municipal, city hall, and federal—which can complicate juridical processes of preservation.
“We understand that our cause is supra partisan,” Nadai says. “We have a good relationship with many branches of the government, and we use that dialogue to not let people from the outside of the neighborhood profit off Black culture.” Nadai and the staff at IPN hope that one day, governmental policies will enable the institute to stop charging, making their work more accessible to all. “Our wish is that there’s a state policy that gives us better sustainability and longevity,” Nadai says. Despite Porto Maravalley’s promise of inclusive policies, it’s difficult to understand why state funding isn’t directed to the institutions that already exist in the Port Zone of Rio.
Until then, the people who live in and love the Port Zone of Rio will continue to do the preservation work that keeps Afro-Brazilian memory alive.