Given my interest for culture, arts and socio-political change, my thesis supervisor (Rural Development Sociology in the specialisation Sociology of Development) recommended me to go to Recife, a big city in the state of Pernambuco, northeast Brazil. Pernambuco has united people from African, indigenous and European ancestry since colonial times, while strong discriminative tendencies have always persisted in the ways in which society is divided.
Cultural expression forms such as arts, celebrations, religion and clothing play a crucial and instrumental role in discourses around the identity of Recife and Pernambuco and the existence of racism. While in existing literature a lot had been written on these cultural expression forms and the ways they are used by the government and other institutions, I have not come across any ethnographic studies of the ways in which people make use of these cultural expressions in their daily lives. Therefore, after having lived in the city for two months, I specified my research aim to the study of ways in which marginalized people in Recife use cultura negra (black culture) to deal with and improve their situations of socio-political exclusion. My thesis is an ethnographic study into the ways in which marginalized people in Recife, northeast Brazil, use cultura negra (black culture) to deal with and improve their situations of socio-political exclusion.
For a period of six months I lived in the poor community Chão de Estreals, where I was active as English teacher in a community centre and at an Afro-Brazilian community arts school. I lived with an elderly Afro-Brazilian lady who has 15 children and over 50 grandchildren, many of whom lived with or near us, and many of whom were engaged in Afro-Brazilian arts. They regularly took me to cultural activities, as well as to political meetings inside the community. I moreover attended cultura negra events all over the city, where I got in touch with audience members. Many of them invited me to their favelas (poor neighbourhoods), to join them to meetings of their Afro-Brazilian religions, rehearsals of their music or dance groups, or to meet their family. Next to observing and participating in these activities, I did in-depth interviews both with participants of the cultura negra scene and with representatives of the government and black activist movements, to compare how they look at the meaning of cultura negra in different ways.
I found that the word ‘negro’ for many participants of the cultura negra scene in Recife is not so much about race or skin colour anymore. Next to skin colour, it is about being part of a group of people who are not accepted, valued and included by society at large, but who despite this are proud of who they are. In fact, the cultura negra scene unites a diverse group of people who are not even all black-skinned, but who, like blacks, feel excluded from society because of their religion, financial situation, sexual preference, or because of the neighbourhood they live in. Cultura negra for my research participants has come to represent alternatives to mainstream society in its celebration of non-white aesthetics; its emphasis on creativity, expression and religion rather than on financial success; its lack of norms about how to behave; its values of appreciating differentness and taking care of each other and of nature.
It was a challenging experience, as I did not yet speak Portuguese upon arrival, and as I always had to be much more on my guard than in Wageningen, as a white girl in the poorest neighbourhoods of a huge city. I experienced a lot of things that I could have never imagined in advance, and I had to be very flexible with all of my research plans as I continuously experienced that you cannot control the situation in the field. Mainly, it was an interesting and very educative experience for me, as a white foreigner, to be able to participate for half a year in life in the margins of a city on the other side of the world.