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Shine a Light teaches the digital arts to marginalized children all over Latin America, so that their communities can come to see themselves -- and show themselves -- in a new light.

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Digging up history in a runaway slave colony

Kurt Shaw

    We came to the Morro do Fortunato Quilombo, in southern Brazil with plans to help the community document its history as a refuge for freed and runaway slaves; this sort of oral history is a required part of the application for a quilombo (runaway slave colony) to win land rights from the Brazilian government.  Perhaps the greatest surprise for me has been how little work it has taken: the community takes pride in its history in a way I have seldom seen, and the names of the founders of the village are constantly on everyone's lips, even though they died more than 100 years ago.

    On Saturday, we sat with three of the quilombo elders to talk about the founding of the Morro do Fortunato.  Vitor Cardoso, who has been running the project for Shine a Light, had been doing a lot of archival research on the community -- birth and baptismal certificates, wedding records, etc -- and he wanted to see how the documentary evidence stacked up against their well-remembered oral history.

    Many quilombos were founded by runaway slaves: they fled the brutal fields of sugarcane and manioc and made a life for themselves wherever they could.  Some of the largest quilombos, like Palmares in Brazil's northeast, became more populous than the Portuguese colonies on the coast.  Morro do Fortunato is different: the people there remember that the land came as a gift to the freed slave Fortunato.  "He got it as a gift from his father," Maurício Machado explained.  "Ignácio was his father's name, at least that's what my grandfather told me, and in that generation, they still kept 'Inácio' as a surname."

    "It isn't on his birth certificate," Vitor replied.

    "We really want to know who that man was, and how he had the land to give such a huge area to Fortunato."

    Everyone chatted for a while, trying to remember the names of landholders on both sides of the quilombo, until Vitor, the historian, remembered something.  "The slaveholder who owned Fortunato's mother was named Ignácio Pereira da Silva," he interjected.  "It's not that uncommon a name, but it is more than a coincidence."

    "The stories tell us that Fortunato was a light skinned man, short and very, very strong," explained another of the elders in the community.

    Was Fortunato the son of the landholder with his slave?  Vitor had discovered that she was a recent arrival from Africa, and had been bought in a market in Ribeirão, in the south of what is now Florianópolis.

    As the conversation continued, an even more interesting hypothesis emerged.  Though the quilombo has few documents of sale or deed, people there remember clearly the names and surnames of all of the landholders around them for generations.  "We don't have the deed of gift when Ignácio gave this land to Fortunato," Vitor said, "but maybe the family is still around here.  Any Pereiras or da Silvas who still own land here?"

    "The still down the hill, where there is the sign that they vend cachaça [moonshine]: the owner is a Pereira," Maurílio responded, and quickly they had traced the bootlegger's family back three or four generations.  His family had owned the land as long as the quilombo had been there; the clearing in the valley could well have been the center of a large plantation.  Ignácio Pereira da Silva could well have given the forest on the mountain to his illegitimate black son.

    Children have been the lead researchers on the project, asking questions and making small films about different elements of their quilombo.  As they listened to the conversation, I wondered if they understood the big deal that was happening in front of them, the intellectual adventure of digging up history: not the tales of kings and generals, but their own community.  The excitement was palpable among the adults, and I hope that the kids, as they grow up, continue to take as much pride in their history as their parents and grandparents do. 

    As we do more research in the archives and in the quilombo, I'll keep you up to date on these mysteries!