Visiting Salvador, Brazil, a Land of Sensuality, Black Culture, and Violence
A tropical paradise with a racial paradox
Getting on the plane to Salvador gives you an idea of what’s ahead. Party atmosphere and the happy fragrance of beautiful brown people of all tones. My pineal gland is telling me: this is where you belong. The plane bounces up and down as it tries to pierce through the bubbles of super hot air, making its descent as we see the immense blue coast sculpted by beautiful beaches. Salvador is a city with many secrets.
After eighteen hours inside airplanes divided into three flights, I arrived at the Aeroporto Internacional Luiz Eduardo Magalhães. A newly constructed airport with all conveniences of the first world. Finding my way out to meet my two sisters, Ana and Lilian, was the hardest part of the trip due to my inability to find the exit. My brain was already at the melting point.
Whenever I feel bad about flying long hours I remind myself of how much efficient air travel is than traveling on a donkey’s back; this imagery somehow make me feel better
Typical Brazilian cityscapes surround the airport—a half-and-half mixture of poor and sorry dwellings dotted by ugly middle-class-looking buildings. The exuberant tropical vegetation with its exotic flowers is where our eyes find refuge. In the streets, we see beautiful black and brown people with happy smiling faces, oblivious of all problems only perceived by wealthier first-world visitors who never look as happy.
I notice the exquisite and unique light as we approach the ocean line. Salvador has an exquisite luminosity; the colors are alive and jump at you as if you have bumped up the saturation slider on photoshop.
But the friendly and warm human element is what strikes the heart. The level of sensuality in the city of Salvador is immediately noticeable. Everything looks and smells like sex in a peculiar tropical and innocent way. Everyone is warm and friendly, and the malice is elusive or not in your face, and one wonders about this unusual uninhibited combination. Tudo, tudo na Bahia faz a gente querer bem.
One word that includes all of the above is called “Axé.” In Yoruba, Axé means “soul, light, spirit, or good vibrations.” According to the Candomblé religion, axé represents the energy and power bestowed upon practitioners by the pantheon of orixás ”.
Coming from the U.S. winter and arriving in Salvador’s height of summer is a storm to the senses, not only in temperature and brightness; Salvador is relentlessly hot and humid and not for the faint. But the overwhelming good vibes of people around is what transforms the heat into fun.
But once we strip the beginners’ luck veneer, we see that Salvador is also dangerous. The reality of poverty, crime, and racism begins to sink in. My wishful thinking of “this place is OK” begins to fade fast.
My sister's friend takes us to Itapoã, a beautiful beach town nearby. We hear the car’s WhatsApp speaker ringing. It was her twenty-one-year-old daughter sobbing as she told her mother she and some friends had been brutally mugged. They were in a group but still were sacked in a arrastão. The pivetes aggressively stripped them of all their valuables and ran. This is a common occurrence in Salvador.
Realizing how unsafe this place is, takes a big bite out of feeling relaxed in Bahia. Not only because we fear for our safety but because we see the enormous social and racial apartheid that festers beneath the surface. This problem has a direct link to Salvador’s slavery past. This is a long story; let me try to explain.
The Portuguese were the largest slave merchants in the world, and Salvador was their main hub. Approximately 37% of all slaves taken from Africa were shipped to Salvador for processing before being sent to plantations throughout the country. Brazil has the largest population of African descendants outside of Africa. Eighty percent of the population of Salvador considers themselves black. And at the beginning of the 20th century, Salvador needed to reinvent its image.
Due to its massive black population, Salvador has been framed as a backward place at best, or worse; blacks were ridiculed with racist caricatures in early-century Brazilian newspapers. Those images deeply disturbed white elites guided by scientific racism and progressivism. These elites wanted to look modern and white.
During the 1930s and 1950s, Salvador adopted the image of Brazil's “black heart.” And the city’s old, racially based character, viewed mostly negatively, had to be re-invented.
The racialized imagery of the city became a symbol of pride, expressing racial harmony. The old caricatures of Black men gave way to Pierre Verger’s photographs or the colorful strokes of Carybe’s paints, vaunted by Jorge Amado’s complimentary writing.
Because of the intense racial mixing and inclusion in Brazil, the Brazilian strategy toward race promoted mythical images of “racial democracy.” In their interactions with popular sectors, Bahian elites positioned Salvador at the center of this myth.
Brazilian elites realized that Blackness, a unique element of Bahian identity, could be turned into a money-making tourism engine. Bahia’s cultural magic comes from producing an identity that accommodates Blackness in terms of culture but keeps economic disparities intact.
It is fair to say that Black people were responsible for creating the culture and symbology of the new Afro-centric change to a certain extent. There was, however, no change in the abysmal income inequality between Blacks and whites, and Black men and women continued to be relegated to precarious work conditions.
The rebranding of Black Bahia involved different popular sectors to varying degrees. There was an emphasis on the importance of Candomblé, ignoring capoeira’s influence, an African form of martial defense and dance. Due to its connection to the elite shaping the rebranding, candomblé had more influence. It demonstrated how elites could manipulate cultural policies according to their interests.
Even though social inequality, racism, and elite dominance are no strangers to Brazil and are present in just about every major city, Salvador presents a unique paradox. The Brazilian state of Bahia is one of those that most celebrate Blackness but also one that kills the most Black Brazilians.
In 2019, the Rede de Observatórios da Segurança (Security Observatories Network) reported that 96.9 percent of people murdered by the Bahia Military Police were Black, and 474 of the 489 identified victims of police intervention were Black or brown.
Elites can move to capture cultural policies and instrumentalize them according to their interests
Salvador remains an incredible place to visit despite its relative danger. Millions learn how to live with this sharp social contrast daily. Everyone coexists with criminality as if it was part of life because it is—a place divided between the rich and poor, black and white. Everyone is versed in negotiating this caste system, perhaps because it’s always been that way. Maybe one day, Brazil will be able to resolve its economic divide. But this might take a while.
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Photo by Bruno Oliveira