On Saturday, Shine a Light began the first in a series of new projects addressing issues of land rights and race in southern Brazil. We'll be keeping you up to date in this space over the next months, but here is some background.
Brazil was the last country in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery, but long before the Princess Isabel signed the paper to manumit the slaves, black men and women had taken their freedom into their own hands. Millions fled into the jungles and deserts of Brazil's backlands to create small communities and even several independent countries, like Palmares. With the end of slavery, these "quilombos" were often forgotten, but in Brazil's progressive 1988 Constitution, the framers made a nod to the injustice in the country's past by recognizing the land rights of the decedents of runaway slaves who still live in the quilombos.
In the south of Brazil, this right to ancestral land has brought the quilombos into conflict with many of the traditional powers of the region. Communities close to large cities have given up their claims in exchange for a pittance from real estate speculators, while more remote quilombos face threats from ranchers, lumber interests, and developers of tourism. Until the government formally recognizes the extent of their land, the promises of the Constitution are a dead letter.
In 2014, Shine a Light will begin a long-term series of projects with children from these black communities, first teaching kids how to make films and other digital media, and then (with the help of history professors from the local university) to develop oral histories of the quilombos. In this way, children, parents, and grandparents will all participate in the judicial process that confirms their tenure on the land, not through legal briefs but through documentaries, historical comic books, and historical re-inactions where children represent the roles played by their great-great grandparents in resisting slavery.
We expect two important results from this work: First, we will make an important contribution to the quilombos' struggle to gain legal title to their land. The second consequence may be even more important: though Brazil has become increasingly egalitarian over the last decade, social mobility into the elite is still restricted by who can pass the rigorous exams into the Federal University system. Few children from quilombos even try to pass the test: in one study we did of five public schools in the south of the island of Santa Catarina -- schools where many students are the descendants of slaves -- not a single graduate went on to the Federal University. By bringing children from quilombos into contact with university professors, and with the world of formal learning, we will break down the high wall that has long excluded blacks from Brazil's elite.