Episode 6: We Honor Our Religion With Our Acarajé
With guest host Dr. Vanessa Castañeda and Tânia Pereira de Jesus
Jamie Andreson Welcome to the bilingual podcast Brazil Culture Connections. My name is Jamie Lee Andreson and I am the creator of this project. In this final episode “We Honor Our Religion With Our Acarajé” of our first season Baianas em Foco, we have with us two incredible women. We have our guest host, Vanessa Castañeda. She is an interdisciplinary researcher writing her doctoral thesis on the daily politics of Baianas and the National Association of the Baianas de Acarajé. Vanessa began her research in 2013 and will continue her convivality, friendship, and academic relationship for many years to come. Welcome, Vanessa!
Vanessa Casteñeda Thank you, it is an honor to be here with you all.
JA And we have our guest, Tânia Pereira de Jesus. She is a Baiana de acarajé, ialorixá Toya, and nurse technician—a mother, a woman, a friend. Welcome, Tânia, it’s a pleasure to meet you.
Tânia Pereira de Jesus Good morning. The pleasure is mine. Mother Iansã who blesses, who is a woman, who is the orixá responsible for the acarajé, who opens up the paths that protect you.
JA Thank you. So for this interview, we welcome Vanessa to carry out the conversation with Tânia and introduce her relationship with the Baianas de acarajé of Salvador. So Vanessa, thank you so much for your participation.
VC Thank you, thank you. And thank you, Tânia, for accepting this invitation and for always giving your kindness, your wisdom, your love, not just to your guests from the food stand, but to everyone. And thank you as well, Jamie, for always supporting so many women all over the world in an academic way, in a platonic way. Thank you so much.
So Tânia, I wanted to ask you: you...how did your trajectory as a Baiana de acarajé begin? How did you learn, how did you begin to sell acarajé on the street? Tell us your story.
The final episode in our first season Baianas em Foco features guest host Dr. Vanessa Castañeda as she interviews the Baiana de acarajé and Candomblé priestess Tânia Pereira de Jesus. Baianas are street vendors, generally older, Black women, who sell various foods associated with the city of Salvador; the most famous of which is acarajé, a black-eyed pea fritter fried in palm oil with origins in West Africa. These street vendors are often referred to as the “postcards of Bahia” as they are cultural icons of African heritage and regional Afro-Bahian identity. Vanessa and Tânia discuss the relationship between the acarajé sold on the streets and its religions origins in Candomblé, the women’s political engagements within the field of Brazilian cultural politics and the current challenges they face with the COVID-19 pandemic.
TPJ Sure. I’m a government employee. And throughout life, we have highs and lows. And during a certain period of my life, I went through some hard times. As a daughter of [the goddess of the sea] Iemanjá, I live near the beach. I went to the beach, and I spoke with my mother Iemanjá. Give me a way out of this situation. Lead me so that I can get beyond this moment because what was important was for me to make money to support my family. And the worst was I didn’t want to agree to be an Iyalorixá. I went through really hard times. I was speaking with my mother Iemanjá in front of the beach, Boca do Rio, when I returned home, I turned away from the sea to the front. I saw myself sitting on the sports court selling acarajé. I arrived at my priestess’ temple, which is nearby, and I said, “I’m going to sell acarajé.” I didn’t know how to sell acarajé on the street. I knew how to prepare it for the temple, which is different, and I left taking everything from my mãe de santo—the food stand, seasoning, clothing. One day, a irmã de santo [sister-initiate] took me to the jungle to get banana leaves, because everything gets sold. When we arrived in the dense jungle here in the area of the Boca do Rio beach, she began to cut the husk, the banana leaves, and the dry husks of the banana. She started a fire to burn the bananas, so that the leaves became soft, dehydrated and we could handle them. When I saw that fire to remove the leaves. Oh, my daughter. I began to cry. My irmã de santo Ekedi, [Marias] das Dores, she said: “Look, shut your mouth, as the fire is going out! I never had my fire go out in the jungle.” But, my daughter, even today I always tell this story because it was impactful. It was the beginning of many things. I began selling [acarajé], and I had a little money to buy some things, but then I didn’t have enough to buy other things, and I sold the acarajé for 50 cents at that time. If I didn’t have money to buy tomatoes, I would hope to sell some acarajé in order to buy tomatoes. And to the clients I would say, “Oh, excuse me, I forgot the salad, the boy is already coming [with the tomatoes],” but it was because I really didn’t have it. One day on TV, in the news, there was a call for Baianas de acarajé for a meeting in a hotel. I went. And then I met at the time Clarice, who was the president of ABAM. It was ABAM. And then I got involved. I began getting involved because she is in Itapuã, near the health clinic where I worked and close to where she lived. I got involved. I would work as a Baiana de Receptivo at events without experience. I took clothes from my mãe de santo, who enjoys the merrymaking of organizing us, of giving us safety, giving support when I started this new life. Today I am thankful for what I have, the best acarajé—10 out of 10. I have taken many courses, which is very important, a lot of knowledge, I learned many things, I was a candidate amongst the 250 Baiana candidates. I made it to the finalists of the Baiana de acarajé symbol of carnaval, I made it to the top 10. And for me it was a source of pride, because participating as a symbol of the carnaval means the name stays with us. My mother used to say that although the person may die their, name will live on. So, I learned a lot from acarajé. I learn each and every day. I am always open to newness, in terms of all acarajé and life, in my profession, in my day-to-day and in religion. We will never know everything. So, it is an immense pleasure to be a Baiana de acarajé, receive people, make acarajé. Here people eat with satisfaction. It’s very gratifying. So, it is very important for us to make this culture of ours, to preserve our culture from the orixás.
"I learn each and every day. I am always open to newness, in terms of all acarajé and life, in my profession, in my day-to-day and in religion. We will never know everything."
Tânia Pereira de Jesus
VC Thank you, Tânia. How wonderful! I got goosebumps all over listening to your story. And something you said that I thought was really beautiful was how you got involved in the trade, in the profession of Baiana de acarajé through axé, through candomblé, as you ended up conversing with Iemanjá, and that was when you received this path to begin selling acarajé. So could you speak on the difference between acarajé of the temple and acarajé sold on the street? Because I think many people, especially tourists, who come to the food stand and eat acarajé don’t know there’s a difference between secular food and sacred food. And you, as someone inside of axé, could you talk a little about this?
TPJ Yes, acarajé, the history of acarajé, or the Baianas de ganho—the first women entrepreneurs who sold acarajé [during times of slavery], sold their delicacies so that many of them could buy their freedom for their families, and to help the men of the sugar mill... And in the past acarajé was sold in a basket with hot pepper sauce. She would go and peddle. . Afterwards, it was fried on site [to be sold] on the staircases at the outdoor plazas. And from there the food stands were beginning to appear with acarajé and later cocada [coconut sweets] also began to appear in the food stands. But the difference between our acarajé in the Candomblé temple and that which we sell [on the street] is that our acarajé at the temple is only the acará [black-eye pea fritters] that we offer to the orixá and to the people, it is served pure [as in, no fillings]. Right? To Iansã, to Iansã. For Iansã and for Xangô. We decorate them with big, beautiful shrimp on top. The acará from Iansã is round. And the acará of Xangô is kind of long, kind of oval-shaped, which is the difference of the male orixá, right? And the tabuleiro has many sides or fillings. There is the hot pepper sauce, salad, shrimp, and then the vatapá and the caruru. The salad appeared in the years when we had issues with the shrimp, so the salad was brought as a side item to help, but not to be part of the main dish.
VC You said a little before that you had learned how to make and prepare acarajé at the temple, but later you took a course with ABAM.
TPJ Yes, at ABAM. We take various courses on food handling and selling to become qualified, and it’s a matter of working with people with street food, with acarajé in the street, it’s a matter of hygiene, of food handling, of quality, of handling food to offer street food of quality, adequate for the population. We don’t have to throw out the dough that goes sour because now we have ice. These days we have coolers, we have ice that we put the salad on to prevent it from going bad and sitting in the sun. So these things started modernizing. And we are being more open to learning, learning to become qualified to offer quality food. At the Temple it is different because we make the acarajé that is served at the celebrations cold. We make it and Iansã distributes it in the basket, as it is in the celebration of Iansã, she comes out distributing the acará on the trough. If it’s a caruru, it will be cold on the offering plates. So, the difference is pretty big between the acará of the temple and the acará in the street. In the street, people want the acará already hot, so we fry it there and people eat it in the moment while it is hot. And in the temple, we fry it, pack it up, and offer the acará of Iansã and Xangô in their offering room [quarto de santo] and to the others we offer it cold. We do that during the feeding moment of the orixá ceremony.
Acarajé (black-eyed pea fritters) and the Tabuleiro (food stand) - featuring shrimp, vatapá, caruru, cocada (coconut praline), bolinho de estudante (sweet tapioca), and abará. For full explanations of these foods, listen to our English language episode with Dr. Castañeda.
VC Something I thought was important to say was that you said that Baianas de acarajé are professionals because they have to take courses on hygiene, food handling, food quality, and financial education. So, the Baianas de acarajé are professionals. They are educated, informed, and you said that the Baianas de acarajé have to maintain a certain level of tradition because they are very important cultural figures, but they also must modernize, become open to learning.
TPJ Exactly. In the past acarajé was sold by the daughters of Iansã who were chosen to make and sell acarajé to pay for their obligations. The porridge [mingau] was sold by the daughters of Nanã who were chosen to sell porridge. And many daughters of Iansã were chosen to sell fato [cow intestines], which today we no longer have, [these women called] fateiras—this tradition has ended. The cow intestines were sold by the daughters of Iansã as well. And they stayed at the front of the butcher’s shop and sold cow intestines. Today we don’t have these women anymore, these fateiras, but the tradition of acarajé remains. And the courses today for the Baiana de acarajé professionalized the Baianas. We have a way for the Baiana de acarajé to take many courses. Acarajé is also protected by the IPHAN, as Immaterial Heritage of Brazil. So, all that only makes our profession of the Baiana de acarajé grow and be valued, and it values our religion more too. Because since we began to obtain knowledge, we haven’t changed the tradition in candomblé, in that we haven’t changed the tradition of acarajé but we have valued it with our job as professional Baianas de acarajé.
VC I think it is also very important to talk about how the craft of the Baiana is recognized as immaterial heritage. And I think having this recognition helps, as you said, makes people value the Baianas de acarajé. Do you think it being immaterial heritage has made any difference in society valuing the craft, the Baianas, the work, the profession? Could you talk a little about your experience before and after the heritage, if there was any difference in society?
TPJ Yes, there are many differences, mainly the Association. The Association grew a lot in these years. We had 3 presidents. We currently have Rita, who is a warrior woman, Rita Ventura, our president who fights so much. She even dresses like a Baiana. She’s a carioca Baiana [from Rio de Janeiro], because Rita was not born in Bahia, but she loves Bahia. She fell in love with the Baiana. And she is a woman who wore the traditional Baiana clothes. She fights with love so that the Baianas get everything, so that they get dignity, get victories and progress with many things, which we have had under this past administration. Because Rita continues on, and I know she will continue to succeed in gaining even more for the Association of Baianas. She is a warrior woman. So, we only have room to grow and seek respect as well. The Baianas who sell [acarajé] today are looked at differently, people already have a different attitude toward the Baianas, the Baianas who sell in Pelourinho, right? So this different attitude adds value and when the public values the professional, the professional values the product as well. And what is this product exactly? It is our religion [represented] through the acarajé. The acarajé is involved. Who doesn’t arrive in Salvador, set foot in the airport, in the bus station and wants to see a Baiana right away? And we have to value that because there are plenty of well-known Baianas but there are also Baianas from the neighborhood who sell marvelous products. There are Baianas from small neighborhoods who are not well-known and whose products are very good. So, these Baianas have to be there [with the Association], and receive support as well so that Baianas develop, grow, so that their products are valued. Right? Because there are people who sell acarajé today out of necessity. I began selling acarajé out of financial necessity. But there are people who really are in need who learned with someone else, who learned through the day to day work and each day that passes we do it better and better.
"Acarajé is also protected by the IPHAN, as Immaterial Heritage of Brazil. So, all that only makes our profession of the Baiana de acarajé grow and be valued, and it values our religion more too."
Tânia Pereira de Jesus
VC Yes, something you said that I thought was very important is about the Baianas from the neighborhood, who you said need support, and it’s true because many times they are going through financial difficulties, and they don’t receive the same support nor the same look of affection as other more well-known Baianas from more touristy places do. You have an outlook...a desire to unite all the Baianas in solidarity.
TPJ Yes, if one Baiana is growing it will add value to the craft. If the acarajé by a neighborhood Baiana is good, it makes our food more valuable, the food of the orixá. Because the acarajé is from the orixá. It comes from religious origins. And we have to try to preserve it, we can’t let the question of religiousness disappear. It has to be connected to religion. We have to always be preserving the religion, the African origin.
VC Yes, the Baianas of acarajé are very complex because the Baianas de acarajé are cultural figures, they are religious vehicles, they are micro-entrepreneurs, they are many things, they are mothers many times, right. So the Baiana de acarajé is a super important person for the culture and the history, and the history of resistance in Bahia, Brazil.
TPJ It is, and the tabuleiro, the Baiana de acarajé [who sells] with tabuleiro, she becomes a mother, a friend, a psychologist, a teacher. Why? Apart from just [working at] the food stand, we get to know people, people who feel, who confess, who pour their hearts out. The food stand many times is [like a] psychologists’ office. Because we hear many situations, many things. And we always have advice to give.
VC This is true. This is true.
TPJ There’s something else. Every so often someone comes to the food stand. They ask for an acarajé. We never deny them. The religion of candomblé is the religion that feeds the most in the world. Because in the candomblé religion, everything we have is divided. If there is a celebration, there is always something to offer. And it is the same thing at the food stand. There is always someone who asks for an acarajé and we never stop giving it.
VC This is something I saw when I was there, I saw many Baianas at the food stand. If someone comes to their food stand and says they don’t have any money, many times I saw the Baianas prepare them an acarajezinho, as even while not having money themselves they will share. They will give.
TPJ Exactly. Because sometimes it is our own orixá testing us, right? So we can’t deny them. If someone is hungry, you have to feed them. Right? So, an acarajé that they leave eating with will bring another client. Because someone will go walking around, and on that walk someone else will breathe that smell of acarajé and will want to buy one. We will earn a path to prosperity. And we will get more clients.
VC I think that was a really nice way to think about it. If you give, you will get even more.
VC Just to wrap up, I wanted to ask you one more question now that we are in the delicate moment of the pandemic, which you said you actually caught COVID twice, and your daughter was admitted to the hospital. So, I know also that the situation in Brazil is very difficult—everywhere, right?—and how was the pandemic...how has the pandemic affected you, other Baianas de acarajé or the craft? What is the situation with the pandemic like right now?
TPJ Look, the pandemic affected many Baianas, mainly the Baianas at the beach, the Baianas of the plaza. I sell in the plaza. My spot is the plaza. The plaza was already difficult. Now it is worse. Events, Baianas who work at events are in a difficult situation because all the events have been suspended. And there are so many Baianas, like neighborhood Baianas, Baianas who are more...who are not quite as privileged. They are going through hard times. The Baiana de tabuleiro who sells food as their primary job, behind that Baiana there exists a family. There are children, grandchildren. There are Baianas who with their food stands support their children and grandchildren. So, these Baianas are going through difficult times. There are Baianas who are experiencing really difficult moments. Here there was a city that had Baians who went to the stadium because they couldn’t afford their homes. They were evicted from their houses. Right? So, there are Baianas who are really going through, went through hard times. Rita Ventura, the president, she made many campaigns, she distributed many basic care baskets, we created many partnerships, we made a partnership with Coca Cola to help Baianas get back to work. I always, however much you do, it’s just a drop of water in the ocean. You can’t take into account all of them. Oh, all the Baianas are associates, we know all the Baianas—no. It’s hard. We won’t say that. Baianas were the first businesswomen, Bainas de acarajé. So, it’s hard for us to take all of them into account. But just a few, we can take care of a drop of water in the ocean.
VC Certainly, because there are even Baianas who decided to sell [acarajé] now who the Association doesn’t even know exist. Because there are thousands, three thousand, maybe even four thousand Baianas in Salvador. There are many [Bainas].
TPJ Many more, because there are Baianas from other neighborhoods on other streets who don't have access [to the Association], because we won’t say that the Association will reach all of them or be everywhere, no. It works by one [Baiana] coming [to the Association] and then calling another over. There are even those who accept being part of the Association and there are those who don’t accept and [and say], “Oh, I just sell here at my door inside of my house, ok?...”
VC And something I thought was interesting was that the Baianas, as well as the Baianas with food stands, are social people, right. Because you go to the street, as you said, you’re a teacher, you’re a psychologist, you’re a mother, you’re a friend, people come and say, “Hi, Baianas, how are you doing?” They give hugs, they stay there sitting and eating acarajé. So, I think it must be very hard for the Baiana’s spirit during this pandemic, not being able to go out in the street, feeling the clients’ energies, that affection. I think it must be a difficult thing to stay at home all alone without any power to share these good energies with people in the street.
TPJ Yes, this contributed so much to Baianas becoming depressed, and aside from the pandemic, we lost many Baianas. We lost many colleagues due to COVID, we lost many friends. And we miss that warmth, that embrace. We like to hug, Baianas like to smile. What is the postcard of the Baiana de acarajé and the welcoming Baiana? It’s our smile. These days, we smile with our eyes. We smile with our eyes, because the masks don’t allow us to otherwise. It is difficult. So, many Baianas are depressed from being at home, not being able to be out there, and experiencing difficulties. So, it is very, very, very depressing.
Tânia Pereira selling at her tabuleiro in Salvador during the pandemic.
VC So, Tânia, to wrap up here, I just wanted to ask you, because there will be people listening who don’t know much about the Bahian culture. Would you like to say anything about the Baianas, about acarajé or about the craft? Just so people can understand a little better the culture, the history, the tradition, the reality. Could you say something you think is important?
TPJ It is fulfilling to be a Baiana de acarajé. We make ourselves look nice to welcome guests, as the food stand is our living room. The tabuleiro represents our work. So, there is the food stand, well organized. It is our room where we receive our visitors. Right? It is our Ilê [sacred land]. It’s as if it were the barracão [Candomblé ceremonial hall] where we are together with all the delicacies that we offer in the acarajé, abará, cocada. And some delicacies include vatapá, caruru, which was added to the food stand [menu]. We have bolinho de estudante [sweet tapioca dough], which has tapioca, then it gets fried, then rolled in cinnamon and sugar, which is just wonderful, it’s a little ball, it’s called bolinho de estudante, which was the cheapest thing that existed at the food stand when I first began. And the students could buy it since it was cheap, so it became the bolinho de estudante, despite the fact it had another name that the Baianas used in the past. Ok? Secondly, they say the name was given by students from the university, UFBA (Federal University of Bahia). The tabuleiro is fulfilling, it’s fulfilling to get dressed, it’s fulfilling to look nice to receive our clients, our friends, take a photo, have ourselves a nice food stand, take photos, advertise our work. And to thank the orixá, thank the orixá Iansã for giving us strength, thank Xangô, for selling out acarajé, divulging our religion.
VC How nice, thank you so much Tânia. It was marvelous to converse with you. I’m very thankful. And I can’t wait to come back and eat acarajé there with you all again. Next time, I want to help you prepare everything.
TPJ I congratulate you for your work, for the dissemination of our culture, of the acarajé from the Baianas de acarajé, for the study, because we take care of the cultural part and you take care of the educational part, the educational part: a documentary, which is very good to make a documentary to tell our stories.
VC Certainly. It’s important to do that together.
TPJ I congratulate you on the study. I want to accompany you always. I congratulate your advisor, your friend, and I am here for whatever you need that I can help with. I don’t know, we’ll never know everything. At each day break, life brings us a box of surprises. Each day we open one of them. And in this box we have so many surprises. So that’s all. Adupé orixá, Adupé to my mother Iansã, Adupé to you all, which means thank you so much.
VC Thank you so much, like in Spanish, muchísimas gracias.
This episode was recorded between Jamie Lee Andreson, Vanessa Castañeda and Tânia Pereira de Jesus on June 10, 2021. The audio editing was done by me. I thank the help of our team at Brazil Culture Connections, the interns from The Pennsylvania State University, Amanda Talbot, Madeleine Tenny and Belle Hattingh as well technical support from Jonatas Borges Campelo. The music is called “Brazilian Capoeira Dance” by Akashic Records, with fair use.
Thank you very much for the attention, support, and exposure! Muito obrigada!