Note from BW of Brazil: For decades, Brazil has developed its reputation as one of the most racially diverse countries in the world. After centuries of mixing between descendants of Africans, Europeans and Native Brazilians, the phenotypes of many Brazilians are often unique to Latin America’s largest nation. And although Latin America in general is associated with all sorts of racial mixtures, Brazil, while far from being the only nation that imported Africans to work in situations of enforced labor, is unique in the sheer numbers of Africans that arrived on its shores. Brazil received about 9 times more Africans than its northern neighbor, the United States. The cultural and racial mixture of the original three racial groups of Brazil was of such a widespread and intense nature that famed anthropologist Gilberto Freyre wrote that:
“Every Brazilian, even the light-skinned fair one, carries about with him on his soul, when not on soul and body alike…the shadow, or at least the birthmark of the native or the black.” (1)
For many Brazilians, this mixture has often lead to a confusion in terms of racial identity. When combined with centuries of deeply-ingrained negative connotations associated with blacks and Indians and it is understandable as to why others often avoid claiming identities as African descendants altogether. In the past few decades, Afro-Brazilian activists have made great strides in helping Brazilians of visible African descent proudly assume identities as either negros (blacks), or afrodescendentes. Another scientific breakthrough in recent years has also begun to help redeem the origins of the descendants of Africans that was robbed through the brutal process of enslavement. DNA tests have have been used in recent years to trace the specific regions of Africa where ancestors were most likely from and even calculate the percentages of racial admixture.
This writer has followed the development of these tests and will admit, I am not completely convinced of the validity of these tests as reports that for some reason haven’t been exposed in the media show that there are various problems with the reliability of such tests. Be that as it may, it’s still intriguing to contemplate the possibility of voyaging into one’s genetic and cultural heritage that for hundreds of years was thought to be lost forever. These tests may not be 100% legit, but who knows what possibilities may come forth in the future!
Brasil: DNA África – trailer
Documentary project ‘Brasil: DNA África’ helps 150 Afro-Brazilians trace their ancestral roots
By Dandara Tinoco and Claire De Oliveira Neto
It was a festa of Ogun celebrated with feijoada, jongo and capoeira that José Luis Pinto Jr., also known as Luis Sacopã, opened an envelope containing the certificate showing that he inherited something from his ancestors beyond the traditional elements of African culture. On the 23rd of last month, at 73 years of age, he read the DNA sequence with the address of their origin: their ancestors were Yoruba and lived in the territory of what is now Nigeria. The quilombo (maroon society) leader located in Lagoa, from where he borrowed his surname, Sacopã believes that the result of the examination of the information filled in gaps left by restrained accounts of his mother.
“I could tell she didn’t like to talk about the past. When we asked, she lowered his head, and walked away. Sometimes she let it out that my grandmother had been abused by the son of a master, a slave owner. After this, she committed suicide in a river. I was thrilled to learn about my ancestors. The result answered those who still doubted our legitimacy as quilombolas,” says Sacopã, who has two children, five grandchildren, three great-grandchildren and a few strands of gray among the black hair in braids.
The quilombola is one of 150 Brazilians, most of them black activists, whose ancestries are being mapped in genetic testing for the project “Brasil: DNA África”, of the production company Cine Group. Through tests done in a laboratory in Washington, in the United States, by a company called African Ancestry, ethnic groups were identified that gave origin to those chosen in five states that received enslaved Africans: Rio, Bahia, Maranhão, Minas Gerais and Pernambuco, where 4.5 million slaves were brought between the 16th and 19th centuries.
Anyone can buy one of their test kits and send this, with a saliva swab, for analysis. With a database of more than 30,000 indigenous Africans, the company says it can trace original ethnic groups. Tests are being done on maternal DNA.
More than a century after slavery officially ended in Brazil, DNA tests are giving Afro-Brazilians the intriguing chance to find out who they are beyond mere skin color.
“Above all, slaves lost their names and their identity. With these DNA tests, they can re-establish the connection,” said Carlos Alberto Jr, head of “Brazil: DNA Africa,” a series of five upcoming documentaries that aim to “restore the links broken by slavery.”
Slavery was abolished in Brazil 127 years ago, but the vast operation to force Africans to work the Portuguese colonists’ plantations and mines resulted in a black and mixed population that today accounts for just over half the 202 million total. DNA testing has opened the door to following that identity trail back.
After 127 years of abolition, a series of five documentaries of 52 minutes will show what producers define as a redemption of ties interrupted by slavery. Mixed reactions to the results and testimonials about the influences of the culture of African ethnic groups in the formation of Brazil will be in the material, which should be ready in July, highlighting five characters traveling to places where their ancestors came from.
“In the 19th century, there were eight Africans to every Portuguese and the idea of this project is also to show how Brazil was as much colonized by Africans,” Alberto said, pointing out that the white population was only boosted much later, in the 19th century, in a deliberate effort to change the country’s racial mix.
The first visit to the African continent in an attempt to rediscover his origins was the Bahian Zulu Araújo, director of the Fundação Pedro Calmon (Pedro Calmon Foundation), linked to the Secretariat of the of Culture of the State of Bahia. One month after receiving results indicating that he had a strain of the Tikar people, he visited Cameroon where a mostly Muslim ethnic group resides. He was received one December night by about two thousand people, including the local king, Ga Ibrahim.
“That was a surprise. I thought that like many in Bahia I must be Yoruba. I’ve had to change the identity I carried in my head for 62 years,” said Araujo, an expert in race relations. “I could confront, live, my origins. I understand the reasons I am the way I am: the physical and cultural similarities were evident. I saw people like me, of medium height and longilineal structure. I also recognize the fact that they are extremely musical,” said Araújo, who became something of a celebrity and figured into reports of local news as ‘the first Brazilian Tikar to return to his people.’ I can say that if there’s one thing any black person anywhere in the world would like to know, it’s his origin. In Brazil, it was taken from us in a sophisticated and brutal way. They destroyed documents of our ancestors and changed our last names, causing damage to self-esteem and socio-cultural development of human beings.”
To celebrate his new identity, he has had himself re-baptized Tikar in an Afro-Brazilian ceremony, he said. Now, his hope is that the 52-minute documentaries will help restore Afro-Brazilians’ sense of pride in knowing that they are not merely descendants of slaves.
“What interests me is in creating conditions to get over the process of racism,” he said.
A militant of the Movimento Negro (black movement), Araújo believes that the technological development that allowed the African Ancestry laboratory to investigate his ancestry can help to rewrite the history of blacks in Brazil. Influenced by common sense, he believed, as do many Bahians, he originated from Angola or Nigeria. Now, he says, there is the possibility of “rewriting the transatlantic path that they came to Brazil.”
Director Carlos Alberto Jr., alongside Alexandre Jordan, has a similar discourse
“We assume that slavery was a rupture. For afrodescendentes (persons of African descent), it was virtually impossible to know the origin of ancestors who were rounded up in various parts of Africa and taken to ports on the coast. With the advancement of technology, this situation has changed. In some way, the DNA test allows a tracing of that past,” he defends.
Jr. says that some results have also caused surprises. He cites the case of Mário Pam, a member of the traditional bloco afro Ilê Aiyê. Pam was disconcerted to learn that the analysis indicated that his ancestry was indigenous.
“Initially, the examination only investigates maternal ancestry. Because of this we requested that paternal origins be investigated. Each test takes two months to complete and, after a long wait, the result came back Portugal. Pam was disappointed, but this doesn’t deny that he is black. We believe that in such cases, people will look to add new cultural references,” opines the director, adding that, of the more than one hundred participants of the project, only five or six were not identified as of African descent.
CEO of Cine Group, Mônica Monteiro says that the idea for the project was born when an atlas on the transatlantic slave trade came to her hands.
“We were fascinated by that and thought we could tell this story in a different way. It’s amazing what we’re finding out. Although the port of Angola was one of the main ports of departure of enslaved blacks from the African continent, these men came from various places. We intend to talk about these different routes.”
For her, the genetic proof that there were many enslaved people helps to end prejudices from the affirmation of the existence of multiculturalism in Africa:
“People with different customs, languages and financial conditions were brought to Brazil. There are those who don’t like to say that their ancestry comes from men in conditions of slaves. We are showing that, in fact, they were warriors who crossed the Atlantic Ocean, they managed to survive and even raise families. We must be proud of our ancestry. But how we you love something that we don’t know?,” she asks.
Although he affirms that her “fraternal relationship” with Africa long predates the test results, the former chief minister of the Special Secretariat for Policies to Promote Racial Equality (SEPPIR) Eloi Ferreira de Araújo says that since receiving a certificate showing his origins in the Temne people of Sierra Leone, these ties have been strengthened.
“Knowing my origin has made me happier,” says the lawyer.
He points out, however, that the joy brought by the discovery is accompanied by reflections on what his ancestors went through:
“When I go to Sierra Leone, will Il find some Ferreira or some Araújo? No, since our last names were imposed by slaveholders. At the same time that is very special to make this journey into the past, it reminds us how evil the enslavement of Africans was and the need for repair. We must work intensively to correct asymmetries that still offend black men and women in this country.”
Thanks to the project, actress Zeze Motta — who won fame as the slave Xica da Silva in a 1976 film of the same name — found out she was an ancestor of the Yoruba tribe, located in modern southwest Nigeria and Benin.
“The film’s historian and scriptwriter told me that judging by my features, my roots might be Gurunsi from Ivory Coast,” Motta said. “For years I lived with this version and suddenly at 70, a scientific test has shown me I’m Yoruba from Nigeria. That has left me with an incredible mix of emotions.”
She recounted how during a trip to Nigeria in the 1990s, she felt an inexplicable sadness that only now makes sense.
“All these years I was asking myself where this pain came from and now after the test, I understand,” Motta said.
For some, the DNA tests have meant confusion.
Journalist Luciana Barreto, 38, said she couldn’t wait to find out the African roots she’s always assumed she had. “But when I opened the envelope I learned I am 100 percent indigenous to South America. I am perplexed,” she said.
“It was a shock. As a (black) activist, I know that indigenous peoples here were massacred and still are and I felt responsible because I’d only been fighting for one side of myself.”
Now she’s waiting to find her father’s origins through DNA taken from her brother, who carries the father-to-son Y chromosome.
She said the unexpected results she received have strengthened her determination to “counter a country that denies its history and its racism. Few Brazilians can speak out as I can, to cry out that yes we are racists, that yes we exclude, and that we still segregate.”
Another who was surprised to find out that his roots are not what he thought they were was Ivanir dos Santos, organizer of Rio’s annual march against religious intolerance since 2007.
After thinking he must be of Yoruba origin, “the DNA told me I’m 100 percent European on my mother’s side,” he said.
“I’m impatiently waiting to know the DNA on my father’s side,” said dos Santos, 60.
The documentaries, which follow the visits to Africa by five Afro-Brazilians, including Araujo, will be shown in September.
- Burke, Peter and Maria Lúcia G. Pallares-Burke. Gilberto Freyre: Social Theory in the Tropics. Peter Lang Publishers, 2008