restricted access 2. Religion and Race in Brazil
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2 Religion and Race in Brazil For a nation often cited as the most Catholic country in the world, Brazil’s religious pluralism is particularly striking. While Catholicism still dominates as the nominal religion of the majority of Brazilians, a significant minority frequent Protestant churches, African-derived religious centers, and even Buddhist temples. This chapter focuses on how people of African descent involved with Catholic, evangelical Christian, and Candomblé organizations have engaged issues of Afro-Brazilian identity and struggled against racism in Brazil. In terms of numbers of members and relevance to the construction of ethnic identity, these are the most important religious groups in Afro-Brazilian communities today. Brazil has often been referred to as a racial democracy. Proponents of this view have cited as evidence Brazil’s lack of de jure segregation, seeming lack of overt racial hostility, and the existence of widespread racial mixture and cultural syncretism in Brazil. Since the 1970s, however, there has been increasing recognition of racial discrimination and major differences between the life chances of whites and nonwhites in Brazil. Especially in Bahia, those involved with the black movement often use religious symbols and practices to affirm a positive Afro-Brazilian ethnicity and to mobilize people against racism. In the chapters that follow I explore some of the complexities and contradictions that arise from the use of ethnic emblems in anti-racist campaigns. The state of Bahia, where my anthropological fieldwork took place, is located in the northeastern region of Brazil. Bahia is a poor state in the poorest region in the country and is home to the highest proportion of people of African descent in Brazil. Most Afro-Brazilians are concentrated in a coastal area called the Recôncavo, once the home of Brazil’s booming sugar plantations and the center of its slave trade. Today this area is an important focal point of racial consciousness in Brazil. 10 Chapter 2 The Recôncavo includes Salvador, the capital of Bahia, known as the Rome of Afro-Brazilian religion, and rural Cachoeira, renowned for its deeply rooted Afro-Brazilian traditions. The rural area of the Recôncavo in which Cachoeira is located, commonly referred to as “the interior,” has served as Salvador’s agricultural hinterland since the colonial period (Nishida 2003). For centuries, Salvador has represented urban cosmopolitanism in contrast to the rustic provincialism of the interior (Schwartz 1985). Salvador is the fourth largest city in Brazil, with a population of about 2.6 million people (IBGE 2005). Hailed as the “most African city outside of Africa ,” Salvador is the cradle of Afro-Brazilian culture and the homeland of Candombl é. In colonial times, Salvador served as Brazil’s major slave port, and the surrounding Recôncavo formed the core of the traditional sugar plantation economy. It was here that Afro-Brazilian cuisine and traditional practices such as capoeira (an Afro-Brazilian martial art) emerged. Although most major Afro-Brazilian political organizations and movements were founded in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, the Afro-Brazilian community in Salvador has done much to define, culturally speaking, what it means to be Afro-Brazilian. Figure 1. A hilltop view of a typical residential neighborhood in Cachoeira. Across the river is the town of São Felix. Religion and Race in Brazil 11 Religion, Race, and Social Mobilization in Brazil Catholicism has long been an integral part of religious practice in Afro-Brazilian communities. Roman Catholicism was the official religion of Brazil from its initial colonization until the proclamation of the Brazilian republic at the end of the nineteenth century. During most of Bahia’s colonial history, Africans and their descendants in Brazil practiced their traditional African religions primarily in the context of the Catholicism of the sugarcane plantation. Thus, it was within the framework of Catholic institutions and practices in a slave-holding society—in other words, in the context of religious and social subordination— that a coherent Afro-Brazilian ethnicity emerged. Later in the colonial period and during the Brazilian empire, groups of Afro-Brazilians became involved with various forms of resistance that were often based in religion. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, for example, Maroon colonies of escaped slaves (quilombos) were common, the largest of which was Palmares, with a population of perhaps twenty thousand (Bastide 1978). The most famous ruler of Palmares was Zumbi, who is still a powerful political and religious icon for many Afro-Brazilians today. Africanderived religion and popular Catholicism were central to life in settlements like...


Subject Headings

  • Brazil -- Religion.
  • Salvador (Brazil) -- Religion.
  • Religion and politics -- Brazil -- Salvador.
  • Ethnicity -- Brazil -- Salvador.
  • Ethnicity -- Religious aspects.
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