Brazil was the last country in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery, but long before 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.
Two weeks ago, Shine a Light began 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.
Last Saturday, we did some wonderful filming with a group of ten kids from the community of Morro do Fortunato, high on the mountain above the tourist town of Garopaba. Today it is a tourist town... when Fortunato founded the place as a young slave who had just won his freedom, the town's only fame was as a whaling center, the Nantucket of the south.
We began the project in a simple way, asking the kids -- from 4-10 years old -- to tell us about their community. One boy showed the house where he lived, and pointed to the fruit trees his mother had carefully pruned. The whole group then ran through the deep mud to the stream that rushes down the valley; one boy told a story of a friend who had almost drowned, while that friend -- who was filming at the time! -- protested that it didn't happen than way at all. The smallest children then showed the well-maintained playground their parents had built, and all of the kids became distracted on the slides, swings, and merry go round.
Finally, we interviewed one of the kids' grandfather, and he told about the games he played as a kid, pointed to how the community had changed and improved. Far from the nostalgia for the past we hear from many older people, he was excited to explain how much better life is today. And then, just as we were getting to the meat of the interview... the skies opened up in a tropical downpour.
Next week, we will continue the interview and move on to the history and day to day life o the community. With kids as enthusiastic as this group is, the project is going to be great!