Our Fire this Time! The Favela As Zone Of Death And Insurgent Spatiality


What is a favela? Answering this question is answering five hundred years of an ugly history. The favela is a spatial metaphor for understanding the Brazilian national project. And yet, although much has been written about the favela, it remains a troubling conceptual and political category. If in the sociological/anthropological imagination of Brazilian academic elite it continues a contested signifier (the debate favela vs. periphery, class vs. race is all but one dimension of the scholarly debate), for those inhabiting such space it does not require too much to understand its place in the Brazilian racial imagination. As a Black spatiality, it is a signifier of violence, crime and disorder and its residents are cast as a permanent threat to urban life. In a structural antagonism to what city life entails, the favela is the negative reference to which legality, state protection, civil life and the very right to the city is defined. The favelado occupies, if the reader wills, a geography of social and physical death. Such ontologico-spatial position is not more pronounced than in the visceral making of the city of São Paulo as an anti-Black societal space. Brazil’s financial center (the city alone represents respectively 10% of the Brazilian GDP) brings in its flag, in its historic monuments and in the names of its streets, the history of antiblackness. The city’s motto itself, “Non ducor, duco” (I lead, I am not led), illustrates the arrogance and geographic totality of a city born out of Black slavery. From São Paulo, in the 16th and 17th centuries departed the expeditions by the so-called bandeirantes to “conquer” indigenous and Black territories in Central Brazil. Nowadays, the myth of bandeirantes as the brave paulistan men who expanded civilization to the countryside is alive in the monuments, streets and in the antagonist views the city’s paulistanos bear against the predominantly Black and indigenous immigrants from the north and northeast parts of Brazil. Within the Brazilian geography of race and poverty, São Paulo is the center of prosperity made possible by the industrious and laborious work of European immigrants and endangered first by former slaves and then by those running away from hunger and draught and now by those descendants of both groups living in the city’s sprawling favelas.

And still, São Paulo’s history of spatial violence is not unique to this city. This space-based subjugation is a fundamental aspect of urban modernity in Brazil. In the national narratives of progress, to be modern and civilized, Brazil would have to resemble Europe in its cities and population. In the Brazilian racialized regime of citizenship, the city is a text through which one can read my country’s ugly colonial history and its afterlife. In the post-slavery context, Brazilian cities incorporated such whitening ideology through state hygienist policies that aimed at “civilizing” the country, a racially-coded word for criminalizing Black urban life. In São Paulo’s wake of the slavery abolition in 1888, as the paulistan coffee-based aristocracy mourned the loss of slaved-labor and feared a Black freed urban population, the downtown area was redesigned by European architects to create spatial strategies of Black contention. As Brazilian geographer Raquel Rolnik has shown in her work, the new urban order was an ideological artifact for whitening São Paulo. How? Through urban zoning that favored European immigrants access to land, by crack downing on Black collective houses known as cortiços, and through the criminalization of Black urban survival — the newly freed slaves were submitted to harsher penal code against vagrancy and street-vending. These policies also comprised a new zoning code that facilitated white immigrant’s access to land and demolished Black housing.