J What a beautiful story, it’s very rich, certainly. Let’s jump back to the present a bit. I want to know about your life experience and career with Portela, but also about your personal life. How is the periphery defined in an urban geographic and social context?
R Well, today I’m certain of it, but it was a sentiment I carried within me. First of all, the place of belonging. The periphery is a place of belonging. And I am more aware now than ever before that the periphery is very powerful. It is very powerful because it is pedagogical, it is civilization, and it doesn’t rely on the centrality of decisions—it exists by itself. So, my experience from the periphery, which is here, began spontaneously through play. After, it became a practice…a practice of activism. And today it is a fountain of academic learning, of knowledge. So, I went through all these stages as a person, as a professional, as a researcher. So, it’s difficult to peel apart one face from the other because the researcher has to have at least some level of impartiality. But it’s hard because I can’t deny my ethnography. I can’t deny my experience, my construction as a political subject, as a historical subject, as a cultural subject. I can’t deny my trajectory. So the importance of the periphery is immense to me. I have to be grateful for being a man of the periphery. The only thing I can say is how important it is for my existence, for my resistance, and for my daily practice, because we understand what it is, what solidarity is, what empathy is, what friendship is, a sense of belonging, what collectivity is. So this…everything about the periphery, everything I am as someone from the periphery, is because I have lived and am thinking about them—all the peripheries.
J Yes. Thank you so much for sharing that. Would you like to comment on the relationship between the periphery and Brazil in terms of politics or not?
R We should because…because for example, I was there. I saw the news in Rio de Janeiro and in all the national editorials from the other states, but specifically in Rio de Janeiro. And just before coming to talk with you, I was seeing that just under the government of the current governor there were 34 Black young men killed in alleged confrontations with the military police, and on the other hand, a mother, who at the very least is a complice in the murder of her own son, received the benefit of house arrest, which was the case of the boy named Henry Borel. That white, although peripheral, still white family belonged to the political elite, thus she received the benefit of house arrest yesterday evening. And on the other hand, there is the concept of genocide that is promoted against the Black and peripheral populations, but above all, Black men. We see that it is this justice system that puts young Black people in jail that, through photo recognition and people without any…without the right to defend themselves, end up imprisoned and remain imprisoned, forgotten. So, if it weren’t for the press’s work to give them a voice and at the very least demand that these cases be reviewed, because the judges are white. They are white men. So we stop to think, because this is the political context of this country, especially in current times, as we are in a government that, when it was justly and democratically elected, wants to deny democracy, it wants to deny rights, it wants to deny freedom, it wants to deny, it wants to deny diversity. So it’s complicated. So it’s a government that when it took office it exposed everything bad that existed in Brazilian society until then. Brazilian people were known as cordial, but then the masks came off because Brazilians are not cordial; Brazilians are misogynistic. They are homophobic. They are racist. So, there is hate toward the poor. So this face…this ugly face of Brazil began appearing because when [the Bolsonaro government] was elected, this government gave a sort of license so these people could take justice into their own hands and stay within their white privileges, their hierarchical structures. It is to defend their heritage [and generational wealth]. These patrimonialistas have been defending their privileges since 1500. So the context? The peripheries are abandoned, and not just abandoned, they are the target of a politics of extermination.
J It is crucial to bring these power dynamics and the violence that is faced to light. Every day the periphery is a place of wisdom, of solidarity, of so many good things. But we can’t forget what it faces and that it is always under attack as well.
R Yes, and on the news, on the morning news when they cover urban mobility, we are seeing that the more transportation services, health and education services are privatizing, the worse it becomes for the peripheral population, because that’s the population that suffers, because they are the ones who are…those who live in the city center have their health plans, they have their…they have subways, they arrive in these peripheral neighborhoods, they have the means to pay for an Uber, they have drivers, etc. So they don’t know what this reality truly is. These policies are meant to erase, the policy of erasure, of extermination, of massacre.
J Yes. The tourists who come, the foreigners who watch, who come to celebrate the carnival, don’t understand anything about what’s really going on. So in part this is what I want to bring to an international public as well. And from my understanding, the samba enredos [stories or plots] are social commentary, right? And I wanted to hear from you if you could tell us about a memorable story from Portela’s trajectory.
R There are several, especially the ones in my memory. “Legends and Mysteries of the Amazon” was a story with which Portela was champion in 1970, and “Lapa em Três Tempos” (“Lapa in Three Eras”) in 1971. I thought it was so great because I live on the outskirts of Lapa in Rio de Janeiro. I am living here in this region. It took me decades. I was very prejudiced against the city center because I thought it was abandoned. I thought no one lived there, but I thought people only worked in my [mind] as a child. Then I discovered a very nice residential area with an incredible cultural diversity.
J I want to visit!
R Yes, come, come! So it's good because I can lead this exchange. As a man of the periphery, I am always traveling through Centro [a neighborhood in downtown Rio de Janeiro), the outskirts, the center, Lapa and Oswaldo Cruz and Madureira. For me, it is just an enriching experience. So it’s a fantastic story because it put in the scene a character that I have heard of but has since turned into a star—with all the possible wordplay, which is “Ilu-ayê” (“Tree of Life” in Yoruba). In 2022, this story is 50 years old, and was realized by Candeia, Antônio, Candeia Filho, and that very Antônio Candeia Filho became an inspiration to me, not just as a person but as a leader, a composer, an artist and Black intellectual. Because aside from having idealized this story, he was a samba artist, a man, a very complex person. He had several roles in the construction, in his construction of a citizen, a person, a samba artist. He is a tragic hero, I call him a tragic hero because he was born within Portela; he is the son of Portela, portelenses (people of Portela). Candeia was his father, he was called Candeia Velho, who created the front commissions in the samba schools. So he’s a…he’s organic, he’s…what do people say…he’s the root of the school, but after he took different paths, he became a cop, he became defiant cop, he got shot, actually here near Marquês de Sapucaí, as a result of a traffic altercation. He became paraplegic, he became bitter, and after he became a great leader for the Black movement. He was a very interesting figure. And of the many different legacies he left behind, we have a book called Escola de Samba: A árvore que esqueceu a raiz [Samba School: The Tree that Forgot its Roots], in partnership with Isnard Araújo, [on] the founding of the Grêmio Recreativo Escola de Samba Arte Negra Quilombo, a study about Paula da Portela. It’s a fantastic musical piece, marvelous. It’s emblematic. So the story this year, “Ilu-ayê,” brings me these references. The other story that I liked as well was in 1995, which was the year in which—after several disagreements, separations—many portelenses returned to the school. The school was recognized as the best from that carnival, but it ended up losing the championship by a half point. But I paraded that year in the previous parade, and aside from ‘95, ‘87, it was my first parade in the “Dove of Peace,” which was based on the poem by the writer Wagner Ayala. Another really important story for me was in 2014, “Um Rio de mar a mar: do Valongo à Glória de São Sebastião” (“A River from Sea to Sea: from Valongo to Glória de São Sebastião”), because the story is of my own authorship. I am the author of this story. I did all the research and the school accepted it. And in 2017, Portela was champion finally, after 30 something years. So these are the most important stories. And now, this year, “Boabab Portela” will talk about the importance of the baobab [tree from Africa]. It is precisely a tribute to the 50 years of “Ilu-ayê.”
J And for those who don’t know what baobab is, it’s a tree, right?
R It’s the millennial tree that exists in Africa and exists also in Oceania and was transplanted to Brazil, particularly in Pernambuco and Rio de Janeiro. So it has all this symbology because it references ancestry, memory. And it is legacy. So I think it is important to tell this story and Potela, at its 99 years [of existence], has a lot in common with the baobab because it is bushy, it gives fruit, it works with ancestry, with memory. So they have a lot in common…
J It’s a home as well, right?
R Exactly, a home deserving of respect.
J With really deep roots.
R Deep and solid.
R Thank you.
J It’s really awesome to follow Portela’s trajectory and now get to know everything that happened. And we spoke a little about the political context, the challenges that it faces. But I wanted to give some space for you to share the reality of working in this area of culture today.
R It’s really hard because, like I said a little while ago, we have governments, public instances of power…in the municipality of Rio de Janeiro, we had a mayor from the Neopentecostal church, from those Neopentecostal Protestant churches. We have a governor who follows the same line [of belief] and a president who also tries to dress up like a Catholic, sometimes like an evangelical, but he’s really just a dictator or dictator’s project. So it’s hard. The [current political] culture doesn’t have space because the culture–everything having to do with thought, critical thinking, awareness–doesn’t interest these governments because they are paths to liberation, they are liberating paths. So they don’t want people who are liberated. They don’t want people who are free in their bodies, minds, and speech. They don’t want that. So the context, working with culture is very difficult because we don’t have a financial incentive. We practically have no policies for culture. Right now, yesterday, this president of the Republic vetoed a law, a law project that would benefit millions of workers in the cultural area. He vetoed it because the law is called Paulo Gustavo, and he does not think this is government policy. I saw the universities. We will see the cases of national heritage. Why did the National Historical Museum catch fire? Because historically, especially in non-progressive governments, there isn’t a policy for the preservation of heritage memory. So the National Historical Museum, which belongs to UFRJ (the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro], caught on fire and suffered a fire due to a lack of investment, because the university invests in research, science, teaching, and extension. And in UFRJ’s case, this is more serious because it is the owner of material assets in terms of buildings, archives. It’s massive. It invests in teaching, research, and expansion. It invests in heritage when it should belong to the Ministry of Culture’s competent entities, whose secretary was even demoted. And the budgets keep on shrinking more and more, especially under this government. So working with culture isn’t easy, it’s not easy in the eyes of the public power of governments, but it also doesn’t have due recognition by the media, the creators of opinion, of intellectuality. It is the media, in this case, the carnival media, which is a type of media dedicated to samba schools that has this agenda. With the samba schools, people only see the carnival. They don’t see that the samba school exists the entire year, in the Portela Cultural Department, we have a very strong agenda, very powerful, very diverse, which values Oswaldo Cruz do Madureira’s territory, which values the exchange of knowledge, which values the racial ethnic agendas, and gender identity, but this doesn’t have visibility. So it’s hard. It’s a daily struggle. It’s very difficult.
J I can only imagine. I want to emphasize everything you are doing as an educator as well as a cultural producer, despite the current Brazilian government where you don’t have support, you don’t have the resources to carry all of this out. So it’s even more incredible that you are still resisting, that you continue on.
R Yes. We can rest when we are dead, right?
J Right. Because there are references to the ancestors who have already passed away…
R Exactly… We talk about Portela, Zé Kéti, the founders, the women. So we have these references in the name of these people, these subjectivities that we work with.
J And speaking of these ancestors. Could you talk a little more about the process of creating PortelaWeb and the website’s objectives?
R Yes, our idea, firstly, was a group of fans who met on a closed list from a website domain. So at that time, our origins, in the early days of the internet, in the late ‘90s, mid ‘90s, 2000s, people got to know each other and, by affinity, they were grouping together, creating specific sublists for us. We created a list with Portela fans. And from there, there was the idea to create a website, a website for the school, as the school didn’t have anything like that. It was right at the beginning of the internet and it went live on November 15, 2000. So what was the idea? It wasn’t just to tell the history of Portela, but also the history of the portelenses. What is the history of Portela? The history of the carnivals. So it was a work to reconstruct the school’s parades from 1932, but it is even a little before that: the history of the formation of the association, the history of the populations that migrated and populated Oswaldo Cruz and the crossing of cultures of people from different African origins. And we began to reconstruct Portela’s history, but also value the characters [within it]. So truthfully, the goal was to work with memory, the school’s memory, the school and the people’s memory, the memory of the [historical] characters. Because it’s very easy to talk about Paulinho da Viola, João Nogueira, Clara Nunes, but we always had the goal of redeeming people who are not anonymous, who don't have due respect. So we seek to work on these fronts.