- How are They Dying? Politicizing Black Death in Latin America
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Robson Silveira da Luz was a 27-year-old black man from São Paulo, Brazil. He was a worker and a father, who on June 18, 1978, was falsely accused of stealing fruit from an outdoor market. The police tortured him, and he died in custody. His death [End Page 38] sparked protests that ended in the founding of the most important black political organization in Brazil: the Unified Black Movement Against Racial Discrimination (MNU-CDR, later called the MNU). Amid denunciations of the police and calls for justice, the family of Robson Silveira issued a statement:
The circumstances that ended in the death of Robson are not isolated from all of the other forms of abuse of power and the repression that we all are subject to when there continues to be death squads and [people like] Abdala [the police chief in charge of the precinct where Robson was tortured] who act on their own. It’s because this, to a certain extent, is permitted. We feel it in our own flesh the need for the minimum of individual rights [to] be respected, like the right to life. We do not believe it is right that in exchange for bananas, or rice, or beans, or meat, whatever food item, that someone would lose their life at the hands of the state.
The letter went on to ask for the solidarity of anyone who was against “the abuse of power,” “racial discrimination,” and the violation of “individual rights.” It was signed, “May, 1978, 90 years since the Abolition [of slavery], the Family of Robson Silveira da Luz.” In including “90 years since abolition,” Robson’s family underscored the continuities between black life under slavery and contemporary practices that dehumanize black people. Moreover, as tragic as the death of Robson Silveira was, his family emphasized that it was not an isolated incident.
State violence against black people didn’t stop with the end of Brazil’s military dictatorship in 1985. And the criminalization of black communities doesn’t end at Brazil’s borders. Throughout Latin America, a decadeslong fight against racism has developed. While black movements have made some strides in compelling states to recognize racial disparities—helping to pass anti-racism legislation such as collective land rights for black rural communities in a number of countries and affirmative action laws in Colombia and Brazil—they have struggled to force governments to acknowledge racism in their criminal justice systems. Today, the movements are coalescing across borders and recognizing the similarities of their campaigns. The fight for racial justice in Latin America precedes Black Lives Matter in the U.S., but the movements are acting increasingly in solidarity with each other.
THE RACIAL PARADISE MYTH
Latin America is perhaps the last place one expects racialized state violence to take place. While it is a region with deep histories of authoritarianism, abuses were generalized, never specifically about race. Latin America was seen a place of racial transcendence, evident in its lack of ethno-racial conflict, long tradition of racially egalitarian laws, and of national, rather than ethno-racial, identities. Upon independence, Latin American states extended citizenship to all ethno-racial groups, including the descendants of enslaved Africans, which in some cases made up over half of the population. Moreover, as the U.S. banned interracial mixing and marriage, many Latin American countries embraced it. In fact, mestizaje—or the cultural and biological mixture between different peoples (e.g. European, African, and indigenous)—was not only widespread, it was held as the foundation of national identity in the Andean region and in countries like Brazil and Mexico. [End Page 39]
This is likely why, throughout the 20th century, visitors to Latin America described the region as a racial paradise of sorts. One Brazilian diplomat suggested before the United Nations in 1978, “even though there is a multiplicity of races that live within our borders, racial problems simply do not exist in Brazil.”
State officials in Colombia, too, argued that the prevalence of race mixture, a tradition of...