The forgotten black history of São Paulo’s “Japantown”

. Jan 25, 2021
são paulo liberdade asian district Liberdade neighborhood, in São Paulo. Photo: Alf Ribeiro/Shutterstock

São Paulo, Brazil’s biggest city, turns 467 years old today. The history of this sprawling — and seemingly never-ending — metropolis is intrinsically linked to migration. From the arrival of the British and Americans to kickstart industrialization in the mid-1800s, passing through the waves of European and East Asian laborers in the post-slavery period, all the way up to today’s growing communities of migrants from crisis-ridden nations in Africa, South America, and the Caribbean.

A prime example is the central São Paulo neighborhood of Liberdade, known for being one of the world’s biggest Japanese communities outside of Japan itself.

</p> <p>Approximately 400,000 first-, second-, and third-generation Japanese immigrants live in the district, and while the area is also home to sizable Chinese and Korean populations, Liberdade has adopted a distinctively Japanese-Brazilian character.</p> <p>From the traditional restaurants and bars, to the cherry blossom trees and <a href=""><em>suzuran-to</em> lampposts</a> lining the main streets and newspaper stands selling Japanese dailies, walking around Liberdade does give the distinct feel of an authentic — if a bit kitsch — Japanese area. However, the district was traditionally a black neighborhood, a fact almost completely lost in the city&#8217;s collective consciousness.</p> <p>As the center of São Paulo began to expand in the 18th century, the neighborhood of Liberdade was first populated by freed or escaped slaves. Guilherme Soares, a journalist and cofounder of <a href="">BlackBird</a> — a tourism company organizing black history and culture tours around Brazil — explains that Liberdade was the site of São Paulo&#8217;s first <a href=""><em>quilombos</em></a>, which are communities originally formed by escaped slaves.</p> <p>Indeed, the neighborhood is a stone&#8217;s throw away from many of the city&#8217;s slave trade landmarks, now largely demolished and forgotten. At the northern tip of Liberdade sits Praça João Mendes, today home to one of the city&#8217;s main courthouses but which was historically the site of São Paulo&#8217;s pillory, where slaves were flogged in public. The city&#8217;s gallows were located just a few hundred meters away — on what is now the neighborhood&#8217;s main square, Praça da Liberdade — and São Paulo&#8217;s first open public cemetery was built just across the street, used primarily to bury those who were sent to death at the gallows.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img loading="lazy" width="1000" height="667" src="" alt="liberdade são paulo" class="wp-image-55580" srcset=" 1000w, 300w, 768w, 600w" sizes="(max-width: 1000px) 100vw, 1000px" /><figcaption>Street market in Liberdade. Photo: Dihandra Pinheiro/Shutterstock</figcaption></figure> <p>Mr. Soares notes that the only visual memory of Liberdade&#8217;s past of slavery is a small plaque on Praça João Mendes, denoting the location of the old pillory. Black rights activists are seeking for wider recognition to remember this part of history that is intrinsically linked to the neighborhood.</p> <p>Historian Solange Barbosa explains that Liberdade was also important for the passage of soldiers between São Paulo and the coastal city of Santos. “The troops that passed through (&#8230;) were mostly black. What happened was an erasure of the memory and the social, cultural and economic presence of black people in the process of forming the city of São Paulo, including in the neighborhood of Liberdade,” she explains.</p> <p>Indeed, the name Liberdade (freedom) comes from the struggle of the local black population. In the 1820s, black soldier Francisco José das Chagas, popularly known as Chaguinhas, led a rebellion because of unpaid wages and was sentenced to death. When he was taken to the gallows on September 20, 1821, the rope intended to hang him broke three times in a row, upon which the crowd in attendance began chanting &#8220;freedom!&#8221;</p> <h2>The arrival of the Japanese to São Paulo</h2> <p>Indeed it was the abolition of slavery that indirectly led to the arrival of Japanese immigrants, almost half a century later. The need for manual laborers to operate São Paulo&#8217;s booming coffee industry led the country to attract migrant workers from Europe in the late 19th century, particularly from Italy. Those who arrived, however, complained of unsatisfactory work conditions and low pay, causing the Italian government to cancel its immigration programs to Brazil.</p> <p>With this new labor shortage, Brazil&#8217;s coffee barons needed to look elsewhere for workers. As it happened, Japan had just abolished its feudal han system, casting throngs of rural producers into poverty. Many of them set sail for South America, setting up in Peru, Mexico, and Brazil.</p> <p>Seeking affordable housing, many of São Paulo&#8217;s newly arrived immigrants settled in Liberdade, and the neighborhood soon became a thriving Japanese community. In 1974, a joint initiative by the municipal government and local business owners saw Liberdade decked out as the veritable Japantown it is today.</p> <p>“From that moment on, there was a gentrification process in Liberdade, where it became more expensive. However, black people never left the neighborhood,” explains Mr. Soares. Indeed, black families would only be forced out of Liberdade by rising rent prices in the 1990s, giving rise to today&#8217;s image of being a purely East Asian district.</p> <h2><strong>Preservation of black memory</strong></h2> <p>In 2018, archaeologists uncovered bones from Liberdade&#8217;s old cemetery during a construction process. Local black movements then requested the creation of a memorial on the site, which has yet to be completed. São Paulo Mayor Bruno Covas promised to help build the memorial during last year&#8217;s re-election campaign, but no progress has been made since.</p> <p>“There are other stories inherent to the Liberdade neighborhood which are not told as they should be. That is why the black movement is working toward constructing this memorial, so we can tell black history better,&#8221; says Mr. Soares.

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Ariádne Mussato

Ariadne Mussato is a social media expert

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