“Surviving in Hell”: Right, but where is hell located?

Guest post by Derek Pardue

In my recent book for the 33 1/3 series on the iconic 1997 recording of the rap group Racionais MCs, I mention several places in the city of São Paulo, Brazil. I include little maps for reference, as I weave together short stories inspired by the album and my experience in the city. Clearly, “hell” for Racionais is located in the precarious urban periphery and that “surviving” requires storytelling and making noise. It is also clear that the survival stories spread out across the city and beyond. And, even now, nearly 25 years after the album’s release, with the ubiquitous sharing across social media platforms, people desperately need public spaces to congregate, exchange ideas, protest, play live music, do street theater, ride skateboards or just hang out.

In particular, I point out that soon after meeting Racionais in November of 1995, I traveled to Largo Treze de Maio, the May 13 Square, located on the far south side of São Paulo, and purchased a cassette tape of the group’s previous album, Raio X do Brasil, containing the hit track Fim de Semana no Parque. I was staying at a boarding house (pensão), also on the south side, near another historic and controversial landmark, Borba Gato.

Largo 13 de Maio is a square, named in homage to May 13, 1888, the official date of the abolition of slavery in Brazil. At the time, this area was not incorporated into São Paulo but rather part of another municipality called Santo Amaro (now a district of São Paulo), a locale of countryside homes and a central cathedral, far from the urban bustle during the industrialization and modernization movements of the time. Since the 1970s May 13 Square has become an intense center of formal and informal commerce, a point of encounter. In many ways, the square represents one more site of contestation around black geographies in urban Brazil. 

During the 17th century, Portuguese settlers under leaders such as Manuel de Borba Gato forayed into indigenous territories committing acts of genocide in the name of “civilization.” During the late 20th century, the route in between these urban landmarks was a burgeoning logistics infrastructure of faith, conversion and trade. A road of hell and promised salvation.

The burning of the immense statue of Borba Gato in mid-2021 was cathartic for many and represented a subversion of generations of suffering, not only human but environmental as the choice of arson conjures the destructive fires set by land grabbers in the Amazon for purposes of commerce and conversion. Manuel de Borba Gato would certainly have approved of the current strategy of the government to continue indigenous genocide bolstered by violent greed and a blind belief in neoliberalism.

The burning of the Statue of Borba Gato, in mid-2021

The hell that Racionais tell us about in Sobrevivendo has been burning for a long time. And the performative and political acts of trying to take back control of that hell continue. In urban Brazil, hell is both an expansive place and an emotion of revolt.

Derek Pardue holds a PhD in Cultural Anthropology and is an Associate Professor in Global Studies at Aarhus University, Denmark. He has conducted fieldwork and archival research in Brazil, Portugal, Denmark and Cape Verde. 

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