Brazil's quilombos, founded by escaped slaves, offer a window to the past

The communities are a testament to the resilience of Afro-Brazilian culture, but many struggle with a lack of services

Conceição Maria Viana, left 82, the oldest member of the Santo Antônio dos Pretos quilombo, with her daughter Suzete Viana, right.
Gustavo Oliveira

SANTO ANTONIO DOS PRETOS, Brazil — To listen to Conceição Maria Viana, a descendant of escaped slaves, is to hear the voice of Brazil’s once silenced past, buried deep in the forest amid the babassu palm trees.

Viana's grandfather, Benedito Zacarias Serra, was a runaway slave who founded one of thousands of clandestine settlements known as quilombos before slavery was abolished in Brazil in 1888.

Today, 126 years after slavery ended, Serra's quilombo lives on as a testament to the resilience of Afro-Brazilian culture, with about 100 families celebrating many of the same traditions — and facing many of the same challenges — from when Santo Antônio dos Pretos was founded.

Most quilombos are Portuguese- or Portuguese creole-speaking but a variety of African-influenced dialects have endured in pockets of cultural resistance, which have also held on to traditional African structures of community leaders and elders.

Some estimates suggest there were up to 5,000 quilombo communities across 24 states during 17th and 18th century colonial Brazil, with many hidden in remote parts of the thick jungle to conceal them from slavemasters and officials. They ranged from just a few dozen inhabitants to the biggest quilombo, Palmares, where the population reached an estimated 20,000 people after the Dutch invasion of Brazil. Palmares was invaded by the army in 1694 and its leader, Zumbi dos Palmares, killed on Nov. 20, which is now Black Awareness Day.

Conceição Maria Viana, 82, in the Santo Antônio dos Pretos quilombo, Codó, Maranhão state, Brazil.
Gustavo Oliveira

Today, the government’s Brazil Quilombola Program has mapped more than 3,500 communities, and provided many with land titles — a right enshrined in the 1988 Constitution — as well as social support, including bringing electricity to 20,000 quilombo homes between 2004 and 2008.

In a 2009 report, the special secretary for the promoting of racial equality said the land titles were a “historical redress.”

“In a society like Brazil’s, marred by centuries of widespread discrimination, it is not enough that the state refrain from discrimination in its laws,” it said.

But while many residents of the villages, known as quilombolas, now own the land they live on, some are still living without clean water, and with limited access to health care and education.

Viana’s small community of Santo Antônio dos Pretos, in the northern state of Maranhão, is cut into a clearing and surrounded by swamps and dense forest, where goats and dogs roam between the homes made of mud, branches and palm thatch.

It is linked by a single potholed dirt road to the nearest town of Codó, 30 miles away, and cut off from the rest of the world whenever rain makes the road impassable.

Santo Antônio dos Pretos is marooned in another era, frozen in time and swallowed by the towering palms and tamarind trees.

“I was born and raised here,” said Viana, 82, at the home she shares with her daughter Suzete Viana, 62.

House in Santo Antônio dos Pretos quilombo, Codó, Maranhão state, Brazil.
Gustavo Oliveira

Their simple mud house is neatly divided into three rooms, all cast with an orange hue from the sun filtering through the clay tiles. At the back there is a simple mud stove, embers still burning from Suzete Viana’s cooking. In the bedroom, a narrow bed is pressed against the wall and a hammock strung across the middle of the room.

Viana said that during her grandfather’s time, officials would raid the quilombos, hunting escaped slaves and returning them to their owners.

Quilombos were not only refuges from the brutal slave quarters, called senzalas, but they were also places where escaped slaves could freely practice banned religions with African roots, including Terecô, a form of worship carried out through music and dance.

“All the cultural dances and music started in the slave quarters, but the Terecô dance happened only in the forest where the quilombos settled because it was banned,” Viana said.

Viana recounted a family legend of Santo Antônio dos Pretos’ resilience and strength.

“There was a man called Lieutenant Vitorino who knew Terecô took place here and so he came here to Santo Antônio to stop the music.” 

The grave of the João Palacio, founder of the Santo Antônio dos Pretos quilombo in Codó, Maranhão state, Brazil.
Gustavo Oliveira

“When he got down from his horse, he was enchanted and he danced, he danced until he fell on the floor, he almost died from dancing,” she said, breaking into the song her grandfather sang when Lieutenant Vitorino came to shut down the celebration. 

“He never came back to Santo Antônio and he would always pass by another way, and whenever he met my grandfather, he lowered his head.” 

Thus, the community survived and its religious traditions lived on as a mark of defiance in spite of other difficulties.

Santo Antônio dos Pretos only got clean drinking water five years ago, thanks to a well dug by children’s rights organization Plan International.

“Before, the community drank dirty water, water not fit for consumption that animals also drank, and this caused a lot of sickness like diarrhea, cholera and malaria,” said Anselmo Costa, a technical assistant with Plan International in Codó.

“The rate of sickness among children and the elderly was really high and after the project was built, this changed significantly.”

For Viana, the oldest member of the quilombo, it had been a blessing after growing up with little to eat or drink.

“At my age, I prayed to God for this,” she said.

Like many, Viana’s family’s makes a living by harvesting nuts from babassu palm trees. The kernels are crushed and used to make oil, soap and cattle feed. Even today, Suzete cooks over hot babassu coals on a stove made from the same mud clay as the house.

“I used to get up early to break the babassu and leave without anything to eat. I used to go out, just a rock of salt in my mouth, and go to the field with just a prayer,” said Viana.

But while the well has brought hope, the community still lacks medical provisions.

Residents rely on herbal remedies to treat ailments like headaches and stomachaches — otherwise they must travel to Codó, an hour away by car.

Viana's other daughter, Vanda Moreira, 63, said, “Things improved a lot for us after we got clean water, and it would improve even more if we had a health center and better roads.”

“We need a medical center. If you need to see a doctor, you have to go to Codó, and if you don’t have a car, you have to go by donkey,” Moreira said.

Her sister Suzete Viana added: “Today, there are cars to take the sick but if we don’t have cars, we die here.”

Centro do Expedito, another quilombo community about 20 miles away, still does not have access to clean tap water and has little access to medical facilities. Centro do Expedito also struggles with high levels of illiteracy.

Naize Uelen Vieira Souza, a teacher at Centro do Expedito's school, said one challenge is impressing the importance of schooling onto parents who are often uneducated themselves.

“Education in rural areas is much more difficult. The children come to school without the support of their parents because their parents say, ‘I’ve survived being illiterate, my son can also live without learning to read or write.’”

The Tenda Santa Barbara Glorioso Santo Antônio church where the Santo Antônio celebrations will take place in the quilombo.
Gustavo Oliveira

“There are night classes but there’s a great resistance because of the culture; they spend a lot of time working in the field, they have children at home and so they have other priorities.”

Francisco Carlos da Silva, a farmer and leader of Centro do Expedito, said theirs was a different country from the one that hosted the soccer World Cup last summer.

“There’s the world, and then there’s the underworld,” he said. “We feel let down.”

But when the rest of Brazil’s attention turned on the FIFA event in June, the proud quilombolas also celebrated, focusing their efforts on the annual Santo Antônio festivities, which started on the same day.

The celebration pays homage to Saint Anthony — one of three saints celebrated during traditional June festivals across Brazil — but with extra significance in the quilombo named in his honor.

“We’re preparing too,” said Suzete. “It takes a year to prepare for the celebration and everyone here helps.”

The Terecô tradition is one of the surviving customs of the community’s African founders, preserved surreptitiously but now celebrated freely and proudly.

But there is one secret that remains with Conceição.

“My prayer is an old prayer, a strong one,” she said. “My mother taught me and my grandmother taught me. And it will stay with me until the end.”

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