Controversial São Paulo monument subject to debate amid wave of statue attacks

. Jun 13, 2020
bandeirantes borba gato statue sao paulo Borba Gato statue, in São Paulo. Photo: Gustavo Vivancos/CC

As anti-racism protests pop up around the world, demonstrators have started a wave of defacing, toppling, or destroying monuments dedicated to historical figures such as slave traders, Christopher Columbus, or — more specifically in the U.S. — confederate generals. Before the trend reaches Brazil, authorities in the southern São Paulo neighborhood of Santo Amaro employed 24-7 surveillance to protect the statue of Borba Gato, a monument to the “Bandeirantes,” the historic rovers that literally shaped Brazil, but left an untold trail of blood wherever they passed. 

In São Paulo, the Bandeirantes are considered a symbol of the state’s bullishness, which many locals believe led the region to become the country’s cultural, financial, and industrial center. People from São Paulo often like to call the state “Brazil’s engine,” and constantly talk about how they — almost by themselves — were carrying the rest of Brazil on its back.

</p> <p>In an <a href="">op-ed</a> entitled &#8220;Leave Gone With the Wind and the Borba Gato statue alone,&#8221; journalist Thaís Oyama — a columnist for news website UOL — wrote that attacking monuments is a way of erasing history. &#8220;Tearing down statues and tossing movies on a bonfire does not match the era of tolerance and the end of discrimination [protesters] fight for,&#8221; she wrote.&nbsp;</p> <p>Many don&#8217;t share Ms. Oyama&#8217;s point of view. On Twitter, lawyer Thiago Amparo said: &#8220;I wonder what would be destroyed with the removal of the Borba Gato statue, besides the self-image of a society that places genocidal men as national heroes.&#8221;</p> <p>As a matter of fact, this is not the first time the statue —&nbsp;often called a monstrosity for its kitsch architectural style and bizarre proportions —&nbsp;has been the subject of debate. In 2016, the monument was defaced in a protest against what the Bandeirantes stood for. At the time, authorities called the act &#8220;pure vandalism,&#8221; but activists called for the statue&#8217;s removal.</p> <p>To make the debate clearer, first we need to understand who the Bandeirantes were — and how they became symbols of São Paulo.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img src="ão-Paulo-teams-up-with-Chinese-lab-in-vaccine-tests-2.png" alt="São Paulo bandeirantes statue" class="wp-image-42362" srcset="ão-Paulo-teams-up-with-Chinese-lab-in-vaccine-tests-2.png 660w,ão-Paulo-teams-up-with-Chinese-lab-in-vaccine-tests-2-300x182.png 300w,ão-Paulo-teams-up-with-Chinese-lab-in-vaccine-tests-2-610x370.png 610w" sizes="(max-width: 660px) 100vw, 660px" /><figcaption>Borba Gato statue defaced in 2016</figcaption></figure> <h2>The role of the Bandeirantes in the construction of Brazil</h2> <p>Far from the <a href="">glorious depiction</a> of the Bandeirantes in paintings and statues, these were by no means distinguished members of society. Instead, they dressed in rags, walked barefoot, and barely spoke Portuguese, being fluent in <em>nheengatu</em>, a <a href="">supra-ethnic language of the Tupi-Guarani family</a>. In 1696, the Bishop of Pernambuco required an interpreter for a meeting with Domingos Jorge Velho, one of the most successful Bandeirantes. He would later write that he was &#8220;one of the biggest savages I have ever met.&#8221; The Portuguese Ultramarine Council would call them &#8220;barbaric men who lived off what they would steal.&#8221;</p> <p>As opposed to brave pioneers, the Bandeirantes&#8217; pillage-based lifestyle was perhaps closer to a typical depiction of pirates than national heroes. Professional hunters of indigenous people, they enslaved around 435,000 native Brazilians over a 150-year period, according to projections by historian Alfredo Ellis Jr.</p> <p>Considered men of extreme audacity and no scruples, they pioneered the lands of what are now the states of Minas Gerais, Mato Grosso, Goiás, and Tocantins. Always bare feet, they walked thousands of kilometers, reaching as far as Peru, Argentina, Bolivia, Uruguay, and Paraguay. Spanish Jesuit missionary Antonio Ruiz de Montoya once wrote that these men would cross valleys and mountains &#8220;as if they were strolling on the streets of Madrid.&#8221;</p> <p>They expanded the <a href="">dominion of the Portuguese Crown</a> much further than the 1494 Tordesillas Treaty with Spain would have allowed them. Through their exploits, Bandeirantes spread terror among native communities and colonial settlements in Spanish America. One story from 1750, told in the <a href=";pg=PT71&amp;lpg=PT71&amp;dq=ilha+do+bananal+bandeirantes&amp;source=bl&amp;ots=z15vRUm26v&amp;sig=ACfU3U3S7offOEBhtEV5qqNWfVDn4WHDVw&amp;hl=en&amp;sa=X&amp;ved=2ahUKEwjLiOv0rfzpAhWAK7kGHQmgC9Y4FBDoATABegQICRAB#v=onepage&amp;q=ilha%20do%20bananal%20bandeirantes&amp;f=false">book</a> <em>&#8220;Mensageiro&#8221;</em> (The Messenger), by Francisco de Queiroz Pires, epitomizes their modus operandi.</p> <p>A group of dirty men —&nbsp;bare feet and hungry&nbsp;—&nbsp;approach a Carajá indigenous community on the isle of Bananal, which is now part of northern state Tocantins. They convinced the native group that they had come in peace, and camped next to the village. One day, before the crack of dawn, they attacked while the tribe was asleep. &#8220;Women and children were killed with machetes, and those who were still alive, caught by surprise by the cowardly attack, were put in chains,&#8221; wrote Mr. Queiroz Pires.&nbsp;</p> <p>The captured survivors would start a 1,500-kilometer walk to what was then the village of São Paulo, where they would be sold as slaves to work on sugarcane plantations. &#8220;That community paid the price for showing hospitality and trust to white visitors.&#8221;</p> <h2>How they became a symbol of São Paulo</h2> <p>In 1840, then-Emperor Pedro II created the Brazilian History and Geography Institute, giving it the job of writing Brazil&#8217;s official history, freeing the country from the narrative of the previous colonizers. A public bidding process was won by German botanist and explorer Karl Friedrich Philipp von Martius, who then wrote Brazil&#8217;s first natural history collection in Rio de Janeiro. There were no glorious mentions of the Bandeirantes.</p> <p>Historiography would only raise these men to the status of &#8220;heroes&#8221; in the 1920s. &#8220;The Bandeirante is a key piece in the construction of the myth of São Paulo as a bullish land,&#8221; says Rodrigo Iacovini, a Ph.D. in urban planning and coordinator of the Citizenship School of the Pólis Institute.&nbsp;</p> <p>Until that moment, the city was secondary to Rio in cultural terms, and looked down upon as <em>nouveau riche</em> —&nbsp;São Paulo would only rise to economic power in the late 1800s, thanks to the coffee trade. &#8220;Placing the Bandeirantes as courageous men who gave origin to São Paulo would legitimize the state&#8217;s newfound status,&#8221; Mr. Iacovini told<strong> The Brazilian Report</strong>.</p> <p>Historian Danilo Ferretti wrote about the political use of the Bandeirantes in the 1920s. According to him, political elites from São Paulo mirrored themselves after the U.S., and wanted a <a href="">Mayflower Myth</a> of their own. &#8220;This new identity politics placed the people of São Paulo as a <em>avis rara</em>, an &#8216;exception of progress&#8217; among the rest of Brazilians — especially &#8216;those from the north,&#8217; seen as apathetic and over-reliant on the federal government.&#8221;</p> <p>&#8220;When we learn who the Bandeirantes were and what they stood for, we can understand the debate around keeping their symbols or tearing them down. It is important to dissociate such actions from &#8216;vandalism&#8217; — they are conscious political acts. A city&#8217;s skyline says a lot about its values and history,&#8221; adds Mr. Iacovini.</p> <p>&#8220;Public monuments are there to celebrate historical figures or moments in the history of a country. These &#8216;places of memory,&#8217; as coined by French historian Pierre Nora, lose their legitimacy when they celebrate values such as xenophobia, or racism,&#8221; says André Sena, who holds a Ph.D. in political history from the State University of Rio de Janeiro. &#8220;But their removal must never come from a unilateral decision of the government <em>du jour</em>. They must come from the evolution of society values.&#8221;</p> <p>Mr. Sena believes that such monuments could become symbols that would allow societies to reflect upon their past. &#8220;The removal of such pieces is legitimate —&nbsp;but not their destruction. They can be taken to a museum or to an institution dedicated to dealing with the issues they raise.&#8221;</p> <p>Mr. Iacovini, the expert in urbanism law, agrees. &#8220;The question is not whether to keep or remove the statue. We as a society should engage ourselves in discussing what it symbolizes — and which values we want to promote as a society. We must, together, choose which path to move forward.&#8221;

Gustavo Ribeiro

An award-winning journalist, Gustavo has extensive experience covering Brazilian politics and international affairs. He has been featured across Brazilian and French media outlets and founded The Brazilian Report in 2017. He holds a master’s degree in Political Science and Latin American studies from Panthéon-Sorbonne University in Paris.

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