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The Americas 57.4 (2001) 497-524

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Vanishing Indians:
The Social Construction of Race In Colonial São Paulo *

Muriel Nazzari


Much has been written about race and race stereotyping in Brazil in relation to African-Brazilians and their mixed African-European descendants. The situation of Indians and their mixed-blood descendants has been studied much less. In fact, the word mestizo as it is used in Spanish America does not translate well into Portuguese, for in Portuguese a mestiço can be any mixture. In the case of Brazil, it can mean either a descendant of Indian-European parents or of African-European parents.

This paper studies racial classifications in seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth-century São Paulo. São Paulo was a unique region in colonial Brazil and, because of its unique history, these findings cannot be automatically extrapolated to all other parts of Brazil. São Paul was very poor, especially if compared to the northeast, and later to Minas Gerais, the center of the gold and diamond mining region. Though the town was founded in 1554, it lacked exportable natural resources until the late eighteenth century, so that the economy was partly based on the raising of a few cattle and crops for subsistence or for sale locally or to other regions of Brazil. The labor needs of Paulistas (inhabitants of São Paulo) were met through exploratory and slaving expeditions called bandeiras that replenished their Indian labor force or else provided captives to be sold to other parts of Brazil. Though there were a few African slaves in São Paulo in the seventeenth century, the settlers could not afford them in substantial numbers until the second half of the eighteenth century.

Until quite recently the historiography on São Paulo has avoided dealing with racial categories. In fact, demographers and other historians who have [End Page 497] worked with eighteenth and early nineteenth-century São Paulo censuses or parish records have rarely mentioned race. Maria Luiza Marcílio's pioneering demographic study of the city and the follow-up works of Elizabeth Kuznesof, Alida Metcalf, and others use only two categories for the eighteenth century, free and slave. 1 This paper seeks to fill the void.

The eminent Brazilian historian Sergio Buarque de Holanda estimated, using contemporary sources, that in the early part of the eighteenth century Indians were 80 percent of the population of São Paulo. 2 One hundred years later, the censuses taken in the city of São Paulo used only three categories: white, black, and pardo, a synonym of mulatto. 3 Yet yearly eighteenth-century São Paulo censuses used six racial categories to classify people, including two terms for Indians and one for descendants of Indian and European parentage.

If early nineteenth-century censuses only listed three categories, what had happened? Had the Indians and mestizos actually disappeared over those hundred years? A look at the late eighteenth-century censuses shows that Indians were very few, mostly those remaining in the aldeias, the word used in Brazil to designate an Indian village established and administered by whites, whether religious orders or lay persons. 4 However, mestizos continued to appear in the censuses as a sizeable part of the free population right until the last decade of the century. These facts suggest that mestizos came [End Page 498] to be classified differently, but what happened to the Indians is less clear. They may have migrated away, or most of them may have had mestizo descendants, or even come to be so classified themselves.

This paper seeks to demonstrate that, though many Indians and mestizos did migrate, those who remained in São Paulo came to be classified as pardos. It will also show how censuses are not neutral documents that report only "facts" but are themselves instruments of state and elite control that reflect the social construction of race. This construction takes place at different levels: the local level and the crown level.

I have organized the paper in the following fashion. The first part...


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