November 20th, Dia da Consciência Negra or Zumbi dos Palmares Day has been a holiday in the populous states of Rio and Sao Paulo since the 1960s, though not everywhere in Brazil. Public holidays are declared by federal, state and municipal legislatures – the 1932 Paulista Revolution, for example, is a holiday in the state of São Paulo only.

A fine statue of Zumbi dos Palmares in the centre of Salvador da Bahia

Black Consciousness Day marks the death of Zumbi dos Palmares, a 17th century military leader of the African and mixed-race slaves who had escaped to the settlements known as quilombos – or smaller mocamabos (huts or hide-outs), ladeiras (slopes) or magotes (heaps, piles) – in the interior.

In the same way that Jesuit priests had established viable settlements or missões in the interior, the quilombos practised agriculture, while also using less ethical means to survive. And like expeditions against the missões, military expeditions were mounted to punish and destroy the settlements, which included poor white Brazilians. As an incentive, captured quilombolas became the property of their captors.

Bust of Zumbi in the capital Brasilia

In such turbulent times it’s easy to imagine that raid, theft, extortion, enslavement and violence were practiced on all sides. It’s an unclear and loaded history in which the academic authority seems to be Stuart B Schwartz, a Yale historian and Portuguese speaker. He has made new primary sources more accessible through translations into English.

A film about Zumbi’s predecessor, his uncle Ganazumba (‘great lord’ in Angolan Bantu) made in 1963 by Carlos ‘Cacá’ Diegues was not released until 1972, after the military dictatorship in Brazil had ended. He also made “Quilombo” in 1984 – its scenario overlaps with the 1965 theatre piece by Augusto Boal which Boal considered “the biggest artistic and popular success of the Teatro de Arena of São Paulo.”

Zumbi continued to be a favorite in Arena’s repertoire during the 1960s and early 1970s. Produced also in the 1970s in Nancy in France and in New York, last week this piece was revived at the SESC Pompeia theatre in Sao Paulo.  Arena Conta Zumbi is part of an extended programme at SESC Pompeia celebrating the contribution of Boal to Brazilian theatre.

The SESC Pompeia programme about Augusto Boal’s work

Avenida Pompeia is a Sao Paulo thoroughfare which rises steadily north east from the Vila Madalena metro station to the crest of a hill, then descends the slope in one long straight line as far as the Marginal which runs along the Tietê River. Vila Pompeia is a gentrifying suburb with a growing number of restaurants and small businesses, and abundant street art, extending even to the pavements. The Avenida trees in the central reservation lit up for Christmas are a fetching sight.

Avenida Pompeia descending towards Vila Pompeia

Down in Vila Pompeia proper, the buildings are lit for Christmas too. Headlights of ascending and descending cars play on the undersides of the car park carriageways as if in concert with the decorations. A far cry from the landscape of the quilombos

Vila Pompeia by night

P.S. Don’t know why I didn’t publish this when I wrote it in November 2012 …