Carlos Cortez Minchillo, Dartmouth College
In Brazil, Neoliberalism, and even before it, elitist state-led policies of industrialization since the 1950s have generated abnormal levels of wealth concentration, migrant flows to urban areas, and quasi-legal social segregation. In poor, underserved areas of Brazilian big cities, dwellers have been abandoned to their own devices, living for decades now in the crossfire between a frequently abusive, corrupt police and murderous criminal gangs. Under such circumstances, citizenship must not be taken for granted: it is never an undisputable right, but rather something to fight for, against hegemonic sectors of society. Just to give a more precise idea of how resilient these social actors are, as I write this post conservative politicians representing the traditional elites in Brazil have overthrown a democratically elected president and retaken the power. Emblematically, one of the first decisions of the new government was to abolish the Ministry of Women, Racial Equality, and Human Rights. Also, all members of the new cabinet appointed by the acting president are white men.
This political setback runs counter a long and steady struggle of marginalized people in Brazil for social visibility and political voice. Literary venues that have mushroomed in poor areas of Brazilian metropolises in the past fifteen years have a lot to do with that. When I first started studying this cultural movement in São Paulo, I was particularly interested in checking how the controversially labeled “marginal literature” articulated a political and aesthetical counter-discourse. By attending poetry slam events, and through textual analysis and interviews, I wanted to examine the social dynamics and political impact produced by slam poetry, as well as the ways it potentially challenges aesthetical assumptions and well-established literary appraisal criteria.
As Brazilian geographer Milton Santos explains, in Brazil, the possibility of being a citizen depends, to a large extent, on where he or she lives. This perverse cartography of citizenship and the corresponding spatial segregation perpetuates educational, occupational and economic disparities and produces phobic symbolic representations. Very little room is left for positive roles and expectations. The underprivileged is depicted (or sometimes self-depicts) as illiterate, ignorant, idle, socially unadapted, threatening, violent. Often, they are seen as lazy “welfare scroungers” by those who oppose governmental social programs that in recent years were responsible for lifting about 40 million Brazilians from the poverty level.
The media and the arts contribute to consolidating many of these stereotyped identities, even when they expose Brazil’s societal flaws by adopting an empathic attitude toward those oppressed and vulnerable. A recent study by Regina Dalcastagnè shows that in a corpus of 258 Brazilian novels all Black characters are poor, and 58.3% of Black male teenagers are criminals. Thus, in Brazil, literature –or, at least, mainstream literature– does not necessarily reconfigure bigotry, despite potential good intentions underneath the lines of its often brutal realism.
But by using alternative channels, new voices are telling different tales of the city, and they are being heard. Frequently connected to hip-hop culture and social activism, a vibrant literary scene has been gradually expanding in marginal spaces of Brazilian metropolises. In the last years of the 20th century, initiatives like the communal organization of public libraries in poor neighborhoods or the distribution of poems written on recycled cardboards and attached to light poles prepared the ground for major changes. Since 2001 two types of spoken word events emerged in the peripheries of São Paulo: saraus and slam poetry. In common, both saraus and slams first occupied marginal and popular spaces not traditionally associated with literature: cheap neighborhood bars, abandoned squares, and unused areas inside metro stations. Also, they both rely primarily on oral performances, a largely neglected form of literary art. Even when printed, literary texts previously performed in saraus and poetry slams seldom circulate through conventional channels like mainstream publisher houses and bookstores. In other words, to some extent “marginal literature” redefines where and how literature circulates, and who creates, controls and consumes it. That’s what I have been calling the “seizure of the literary” by those who until recently were largely ignored as producers and recipients of literary texts. The casual and inclusive social space of slam poetry and saraus is a key leverage factor in a country where, according to a recent survey, 30% of the population has never bought a book, public libraries are inaccessible or in poor conditions, and schools are uninspiring or even hostile spaces.
Through literature performed in poor neighborhoods, marginalized subjects have been developing a stronger sense of citizenship and political agency. Especially among underprivileged youngsters, a sentiment of entitlement has recently surfaced, giving birth to deviant discourses and self-representations. As “marginal” writer Alessandro Buzo puts it on a poem, for affluent Brazilians a favela dweller carrying a book is a “contraindication”. The association between a favelado and a book represents a symbolic shift whose magnitude can only be assessed if we accept, together with Gramsci, that hegemonic confrontations are not limited to traditional political institutions. They require the deconstruction of common sense and the formation of new subjectivities. Literature, of course, plays a crucial role here. That explains why it is so remarkable that many marginalized Brazilians have elected literary gatherings as the embodiment of a distinct ethos and an alternative strategy for a non-partisan political struggle. Alternative spaces for experiencing literature, non-printed texts, and heterodox ways of circulating and trading printed materials are the foundation of an original literary system, providing room for non-professional authors, new audiences, and unusual poetic discourses. Not only do they stimulate literature as a vehicle for political messages, but equally importantly, they can transform the politics of literature and the aesthetic features of the literary object.
For those who live in the peripheries and favelas of São Paulo, saraus and slams establish a social and emotional network that can partially compensate for the lack of supporting institutions and services. They not only bring the same old literature to new audiences but also, most importantly, stimulate authorship among those who are usually considered uncultured. In saraus and poetry slams, people perform for their fellow neighbors, but as imagined communities, they create, perform and spread new images of themselves. In doing so, they consolidate a collective voice against a society that despises them. One may recriminate them for perpetuating a binary discourse in which the world is simplistically divided in two: on the one hand, “playboys”, “the system”, the rich, police officers and politicians; on the other hand, them, the marginalized. But who is to be blamed for using this binarism as a segregation tool in the first place? Before things can get better, peripheral citizens have to teach in very simple yet poetic terms what is like to be on the other side of society.