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This week in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, Afro-Brazilian priests held a 15-minute ceremony in remembrance of slaves whose bodies had been dumped into a fetid, open-air cemetery, often chopped up and mixed with trash. The priests were grateful to finally give the slaves at least the semblance of a proper burial centuries later. Wearing full-skirted white dresses and turbans, the religious leaders chanted blessings and sprinkled water on the concrete floor of a modest house — where, beneath their feet, were the remains of tens of thousands of African slaves who had died shortly after arriving from their horrific sea voyage.
Believe it or not, the remains were accidentally discovered in 1996 by a couple who’d purchased the property and sought to refurbish it. In the following years, the bones had stayed in pits opened first by construction workers, then researchers. People who visit inside the house are now able to look through glass pyramids onto exposed ground and view the remains of some of the approximately 20,000 men, women and children interred there. ”I thank God for this opportunity,” said Edelzuita Lourdes de Santos Oliveira, or Mother Edelzuita, a well-known leader of a house practicing the candomble religion. “We honored our ancestors today with songs left by them. What I’m feeling now is that these ancestors who for long years were buried here are finally living again,” said Mother Edelzuita.
It’s been a challenging journey not just for the slaves but also for the owners of the house and others seeking to recognize the tragic history in a multiracial country that has often avoided its legacy of slavery and racism. The owners of the house, Ana de la Merced Guimaraes and her husband Petrucio, have been very active in promoting research about their find and bringing attention to the remains. Over the years, they’ve relied largely on their own funds and the help of others to continue the project. In spite of the hardship, Guimaraes pressed on, feeling a responsibility to those whose bodies lay under her house. ”Nobody cared for them,” she said. “They died alone in a place where they didn’t know anyone. I thought, who is going to fight for them?”
Faced with red tape and paltry resources, the process was slowed but by 2005 Merced Guimaraes established a research and educational organization name the Institute of New Blacks. A state grant allowed her to offer classes by a variety of experts on Brazil’s African heritage. Last year, according to Merced Guimaraes, 930 people attended seminars. Upon the recommendation of the religious leaders, Merced Guimaraes and her husband were able to cover the gaping holes with glass and prepare the home for exhibit, utilizing city resources. Merced Guimaraes has also hosts yearly gatherings on occasions such as May 13, commemorating the day slavery was abolished in Brazil.
Researchers analyzing the bones at the cemetery confirmed some details already on the historical record: The bodies were mostly male and young, and they came from inland areas as well as the African coast. According to archaeologist Reinaldo Tavares, there is much work remaining to learn about the thousands buried there. ”Behind every Afro-Brazilian is a `new black,’” said Tavares. “These are the ones who died. The ones who lived gave rise to descendants who are now all over Brazil. We are making every effort to preserve this history and bring it to light.“ But the idea was to not only look at the country’s past but to think about where the country was headed, Merced Guimaraes said. ”We wanted to guide the eye toward the future,” she said. “We didn’t want to make this about people who are gone. This is also about people and a culture that are living.”
Also inaugurated this week was the adjoining New Blacks art gallery, with an exhibit called New Archaeology. The contemporary pieces from 17 artists use sound, video, photography, graffiti, stencil and photography to reflect the history of the neighborhood, the cemetery and the house. The works include a flexible plastic sculpture filled with blue and white beads, reminiscent of both the ocean the slaves crossed to reach Brazil and the beads they brought with them, and a giant clay pot that emitted a collage of sounds, including children playing and the music of Afro-Brazilian religious ceremonies. ”The idea was to have the old and the new coexisting in harmony, optimizing what each has to offer,” said artist and co-curator Gabriela Maciel. In the middle of the art gallery is another pit covered in glass, through which visitors can see remnants of a 17th century Tupinamba indigenous encampment that includes fragments of Portuguese pottery. It was discovered by researchers excavating the area to find the perimeter of the cemetery. ”Here we have the indigenous, the black, the Portuguese – it’s us, it’s Brazil,” said institute curator Marco Antonio Teobaldo.