Today we welcome a guest post from Patricia de Santana Pinho, author of Mapping Diaspora: African American Roots Tourism in Brazil, just published by UNC Press.
Brazil, like several countries in Africa, has become a major destination for African American tourists seeking the cultural roots of the black Atlantic diaspora. Drawing on over a decade of ethnographic research as well as textual, visual, and archival sources, Patricia de Santana Pinho investigates African American roots tourism, a complex, poignant kind of travel that provides profound personal and collective meaning for those searching for black identity and heritage. It also provides, as Pinho’s interviews with Brazilian tour guides, state officials, and Afro-Brazilian activists reveal, economic and political rewards that support a structured industry.
Mapping Diaspora is available now in both print and ebook editions.
Brazil has long fascinated foreigners, even before it was known as Brazil. The first Europeans to ever set foot on that vast stretch of land were Portuguese explorers/exploiters in 1500. In a letter to the king of Portugal, the scribe Pero Vaz de Caminha detailed the wonders of the newfound territory and its exotic inhabitants. He was particularly struck by the magnificent natural landscape and the nonchalant nudity of the indigenous women. 518 years later, we hear echoes of Caminha’s depictions in tourism representations of Brazil as a tropical paradise and of Brazilians as a naturally sensual people.
An average of six million international tourists visit Brazil per year. To make sense of why so many people travel to Brazil, it is important to consider how Brazil itself travels. The images of the country that circulate in global mediascapes have a powerful effect on either repelling or attracting visitors as well as in shaping their gazes and expectations. The way a country travels to the potential tourist may deeply inform the way the tourist travels to that country. As polysemic as potentially any other destination, Brazil appeals to a wide variety of types of tourists, whose respective imaginaries reveal more about where they are coming from than where they are going. From the European ecotourists, who travel in search of a pristine natural environment inhabited by noble savages, to the African American roots tourists, who envision Bahia as a “closer Africa” where they can encounter their diasporic counterparts, Brazil is a magnet also for international sex tourists, white and black, who fantasize about the stereotypical Brazilian woman, fully adorned with a Brazilian butt lift, hair styled in a Brazilian blow-out, and possibly also sporting a Brazilian wax.
The effect of the representations formed in the sphere of advertisement, especially of beauty products, on tourism imaginaries of Brazil serves as a reminder that tourism is not a separate or closed-off realm. It is, instead, constantly absorbing, while simultaneously releasing, ideas, projections, and desires. In some circumstances, a specific cultural realm or social actor may have greater influence over how portrayals of the country are traveling abroad. A case in point was during the civil-military dictatorship (1964-1985), when the military government founded the official tourism board EMBRATUR to deliberately produce and disseminate a colorful and joyous depiction of Brazil to counter the image of a totalitarian state that imprisoned, tortured, and disappeared its dissidents. Representations of semi-naked, samba-dancing mulatas were then deployed to portray Brazil as a festive country where its multi-racial people lived in harmony and celebrating life. Toward the end of the 1990s, when Brazil had returned to democracy but still agonized in the economic aftermath of the 1980s, known as the lost decade, cinema began to increasingly represent Brazil as a giant shantytown. Yet, instead of discouraging foreigners from visiting the country, this new form of commodification of poverty helped boost yet another type of tourism: the favela tours, a complex phenomenon that also reveals the geopolitical links between tourist identities and their desired destinations.
Despite Brazil’s appeal to such a wide range of tourists, the recent turn of events has unleashed a crisis of unprecedented proportions that may have, among other consequences, effects on how the image of Brazil will travel from now on. The election of Jair Bolsonaro in October 2018 is the culmination of a process of the turn to the right that has allowed racism, sexism, and homophobia to raise their ugly heads and mark Brazil as repulsive and scary. Several foreign tourists have taken to social media to announce that they will be boycotting Brazil for as long as it is ruled by a neo-fascist whose election has tainted the image of the country of carnaval. On the other hand, there are those for whom traveling to Brazil and supporting Brazilians to travel abroad, either temporarily or permanently, have become increasingly important resistance strategies. For the Brazilians who do not have the choice of leaving or who have made the decision to stay, international solidarity, in whatever way it travels or impacts travel, will be a crucial resource for the years to come.
Patricia de Santana Pinho, is associate professor of Latin American and Latino studies at University of California, Santa Cruz.