Southern outskirts of São Paulo: A struggling tradition for justice and memory
(A version of this blog post in Portuguese is available here: Periferia sul de São Paulo: Uma tradição de lutas por justiça e memória)
The outskirts of the city of São Paulo carry a long past of oppression and human rights violations. In the 1990s and 2000s, three districts in the southern outskirts – Jardim Ângela, Capão Redondo and Jardim São Luís – were named by the press as the ‘triangle of death’ (cf. Kawaguti, 2008). In May 1996, Jardim Ângela was considered by the United Nations as the most dangerous urban region in the world, with 120 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants (Crowe et al., 2016). Most of the dead were young black men.
The level of murders has been reduced, but the territory has always been, since its occupation in the 1950s until today, one of the most precarious and vulnerable regions of São Paulo. Today these districts have a combined population of more than 920,000 people and have only one public hospital, only one subway station, and are among the 10 districts in São Paulo with the highest proportion of residences in favelas. The high inequality of São Paulo is well represented by the average age at death: 61.2 years for residents of Jardim Ângela, while some districts are around 80 years and the city average is 68.2 (RNSP, 2021) .
However, Jardim Ângela, Capão Redondo and Jardim São Luís also share a long tradition of social struggles that confronted these violations. My research addresses the work of the Center of Memory of Popular Struggles Ana Dias (CMLP), a collective that produces memory material focused on these three districts. In this text I present the struggling tradition that led to its arrangement.
Communitarian struggles in the context of the dictatorship
In the 1960s and 1970s, the territory saw the emergence of a large number of social movements organized around the Christian Base Communities (CEBs) (Pamplona, 2020). Each CEB was initiated as a small group of poor people who came together to hold religious celebrations and act on local issues in their territory. In general, CEBs were fostered by the Latin American Catholic Church, in particular by the Liberation Theology, a branch that interprets Christ’s project as one for the liberation of oppressed peoples (Betto, 1985).
There are estimates that there were around 80,000 CEBs spread across Latin America in the 1980s, meaning that there were potentially millions of people organized around this single model of popular organization (Valle & Pitta, 1994; Pamplona, 2020: 27). The majority of them was women. In a context of repression and political persecution by the Brazilian military dictatorship (1964-1985), the CEBs offered a new space for the emergence of social struggles in the peripheries, which was decisive for rebuilding democratic participation in the country (Sader, 1988). A strong example is the Cost-of-Living Movement, which was born from the CEBs in Jardim Ângela in 1973 and, after five years of growth due to its grassroots work and its articulation with other territories, on August 27, 1978, mobilized around 20,000 people in downtown São Paulo (Monteiro, 2015; cf. Pamplona, 2021).
In the southern outskirts of the city alone, the CEBs mobilized thousands of people for demands such as housing, schools, kindergartens, health centers, public transport, street paving and drinkable water. In addition to this variety of social movement, they also promoted acts of solidarity and care work. They offered craft workshops for family income generation, literacy classes, infirmary, cultural festivities, joint efforts to build houses and community centers, instruction on topics from health and sexuality to economics and politics, among other activities (Pamplona, 2020).
In the 1980s, these community-based struggles gave way to struggles for the country’s democratization (such as the Amnesty and the Constituent Assembly) and, from the 1990s onwards, their mobilization work was replaced by the social work of NGOs. Simultaneously, the memories of these struggles were gradually erased from the collective memory of their territories, which later led to the demand from social movements for the reconstruction of these memories.
Activism and memory in the old ‘New Republic’
In 1996, the news that Jardim Ângela was the most dangerous region in the world mobilized Catholic leaders in the region to organize a Walk for Life and Peace. Until today it is mobilized annually (in 2022 the 27th Walk was held) on every November 2nd, All Souls’ Day, and it always mobilizes hundreds to thousands of people from three meeting points to the São Luís Cemetery, where the Walk ends with a religious celebration.
The continuity of this mobilization was guaranteed by the Forum in Defense of Life (FDV), which was formed shortly after the first Walk. The FDV understands that the problem of violence is not just a problem of public security, but of connectivity between different public policies (Spink & Tavanti, 2015). Thus, the FDV is responsible for articulating various demands from the territory, such as health, environmental preservation, culture, leisure and education.
The Walk is a political act that denounces the genocide against the black and poor population of the peripheries and calls for policies of reparation and redistributive justice. As many Brazilian social movements claim, in diligence with their memories of oppression: despite having officially ended, the dictatorship never left the peripheries (cf. Borges, 2014). Accordingly, the Walk is also an act of memory of the dead. Names of young people murdered in the territory are printed on banners, posters and fabric ribbons. At the end of the Walk, the ribbons are attached to three crosses that were carried along the way. The chosen date (Day of the Dead) and the final destination of the Walk (the cemetery) are also important memory marks.
An old concern of the FDV is the recovery and dissemination of activist memories of the territory. The FDV emerges from these same struggles and recognizes their importance both for the conformation of the territory (from the pavement of the streets to the public services offered) and for the constitution of Brazilian democracy (as they were articulated and had nation-wide impacts). However, the accumulation of debates and actions carried out by the FDV, and its own model of organization as a forum, called for the formation of a separate group that could specifically dedicate itself to recovering these memories.
It is for these reasons that activists and academic researchers, members of the FDV and partner organizations, founded in October 2019 the Center of Memory of Popular Struggles Ana Dias (CMLP). Its main objective is to collect information about the activist memories of the territory, both through documents and research and through oral testimonies, and to produce accessible material in accessible language. Since 2020, the CMLP has been supported by the University of São Paulo, which offers scholarships to undergraduate students (selected by the CMLP) for the production of the podcast Memórias Quebradas. Nevertheless, it is a consensus among the group that CMLP’s practice cannot be stifled by the university; that it is the periphery that should occupy the university and not the other way around (Garcia, 2022).
The podcast systematizes, in an accessible format and language, historiographical, demographic and memory research materials about the territory. Its episodes range from theoretical themes, such as the importance of memory and registry for the formation of peripherical identities, to memories of social struggles such as those of the CEBs and the FDV. There is little information available about these territories, which required the producers to carry out a extensive work of research and systematization. It is a strong demonstration of collective work for the reconstruction of activist memories of a marginalized territory.
A tradition of mnemonic activism and activist memories
This tradition of social struggles carries, at its core, a vast practical repertoire of mnemonic activism. This is reflected from the religious celebrations of the CEBs, which sought inspiration from the critical reading of the Bible to understand their present struggles, and it extends to the public demonstrations of the FDV and to the motivation that led to CMLP’s formation.
At the same time, these groups claim the importance of recovering and keeping alive the activist memories of their territory, as a way of highlighting the agency and importance of past and present social movements. Such reconstruction of activist memories does not only speak of a past of oppression, it also claims the memory of their mobilizations and achievements.
Many of the same agents that organized social movements for housing, schools and kindergartens in the 1970s were present in the mobilization of the first Walk and in the organization of the FDV. From CEBs to the CMLP, it makes up a long tradition of social struggles that mobilize their memories as a form of historical conscientization.
Betto, F. (1985). O que é Comunidade Eclesial de Base. Abril Cultural/Brasiliense.
Borges, T. (2014, May 6). A ditadura continua nas periferias. Periferia em Movimento. https://periferiaemmovimento.com.br/ditadura-continua-nas-periferias/
Crowe, J., Maria, L., Simões, C., & Tavanti, R. M. (2016). Fórum em Defesa da Vida: 20 anos de resistência pela vida dos/as jovens que vivem nas periferias da Zona Sul de São Paulo. Estação de Pesquisa M’boi – Working Papers, 09. FGV/EAESP. https://bibliotecadigital.fgv.br/dspace/handle/10438/17142
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Pamplona, P. (2020). De casa em casa: Afetos e mobilização popular na memória de Comunidades Eclesiais de Base (Master’s thesis). Universidade de São Paulo. https://www.teses.usp.br/teses/disponiveis/47/47134/tde-28052020-184218/pt-br.php
Pamplona, P. (2021, Sept. 12). Como a mobilização das mulheres contra a carestia desmoralizou os militares. Jacobin Brasil. https://jacobin.com.br/2021/09/como-a-mobilizacao-das-mulheres-contra-a-carestia-desmoralizou-os-militares/
RNSP (2021). Mapa da Desigualdade 2021. Rede Nossa São Paulo. https://www.nossasaopaulo.org.br/2021/10/21/mapa-da-desigualdade-2021-e-lancado/
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Spink, P., & Tavanti, R. M. (2015). A segurança que queremos e o papel da conectividade: Uma introdução. Estação de Pesquisa M’boi – Working Papers, 05. FGV/EAESP. https://bibliotecadigital.fgv.br/dspace;commtd/handle/10438/17139
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Pablo Pamplona is a PhD candidate at the Universidade de São Paulo and a visiting doctoral fellow at the HCIAS. For his research stay, Pablo holds a scholarship from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) in cooperation with the Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel (CAPES, Brazil).