Black Girls in Ipanema

In highly segregated and unequal Rio de Janeiro, family photographs capture Black joy and the power of claiming the right to the city.

October 4, 2022

Duda stands in awe of the water in Ipanema, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, July 2012. (Katia Costa Santos)

This piece appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of NACLA's quarterly print magazine, the NACLA Report. Subscribe in print today!

Coming from a poor Black family in Brazil, I do not have many photos of family. Maybe this is why I am always ready to capture the moment with my semi-professional camera.

I was born in Rio de Janeiro, but my father was from Salvador, Bahia, and my mother from Juiz de Fora, Minas Gerais. They came to Rio at young ages looking for better work opportunities. Years later, in the 1950s, their paths crossed, and they married. My mother’s entire immediate family ended up in Rio as well, but this does not mean that we have any coherent information about her family experience in Minas Gerais or in Rio, for that matter. I am the one always asking questions, always interrogating family members on my mother’s side who care to tell their version of our family history—and there are many of them. On my father’s side, things are even worse. His family is still a mystery to my siblings and me. All we have is his father’s name.

This all adds to my obsession with registering our family’s experience in this country, as much as I can. I have interviewed them, recorded them, photographed them. I have been doing this since high school, when I started learning (poorly) about enslaved Africans in Brazil—though not much about slavery itself. The way our textbooks presented the Black experience in Brazil was as if Black people have always been here, first as enslaved people, and later as part of an endemic poor population. To fight the textbook images of Black people, I have developed a profound appreciation for photos of Black families in general, not only of my own family. Taking pictures became my primary task during any of our gatherings. I have become the guardian of my family’s pictorial memory.

The three little Black girls featured in the photographs I present here are my cousins: Maria Eduarda, Laryssa Vaz, and Gabriela Costa. Laryssa’s mother, Maria Eduarda’s mother, and Gabriela’s grandmother are my first cousins. So, these three little beauties are my second and third cousins, but they call me auntie, because in their view I’m too old to be their cousin, and that’s fine with me. I have been saving these photos for 10 years, revisiting them every now and then. But I have been studying, analyzing, and experiencing this city and country as a scholar for too long to contemplate these images loosely. I can’t help but go beyond their beauty to contemplate the much deeper meaning behind them.

I took these pictures in July 2012 in Ipanema, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It was the first time I had brought the three girls from their hometown to spend time with my sister Claudia and me. Since then, I have only done it a few other times. It was not the first time I had photographed them, though. I had spent eight years living abroad, and these kids used to have a hard time “locating” me in our family. Having people tell them that I had been in another country, living in another language, just made things worse. Sometimes, given the questions they would ask me, it seemed like they saw me as from another planet, and I was eager to change their misconception of me and my life. I figured that we should get to know each other properly now that we were living in the same country and the same state.

Once we arranged to meet in Rio, I immediately prepared my camera. When we saw each other, my camera was the first thing they noticed about me. But the streets of Rio seemed more interesting to them than my camera, and they relaxed in a matter of minutes.

Laryssa (left), Duda (middle), and Gabriela (right) gaze at the water. (Katia Costa Santos)

It took them three hours traveling on three buses with Laryssa’s mother to meet my sister and I in downtown Rio. They live in Jardim Ana Clara, in the city of Duque de Caxias, which is part of the Rio metropolitan area, and we were waiting for them at Cinelândia, in downtown Rio, around 26 miles away from their homes. From the downtown area, we took the subway to Ipanema, where we planned to stop by briefly on our way to my sister’s house, in Vila Valqueire, in the West Zone of the city. Everybody in this city knows that you don’t have to pass through Ipanema, which is located in the South Zone, to get to Valqueire. However, I wanted to take that unthinkable route so they could walk around that side of the city, which is so different from the city where they live.

When I was a child, my mother used to do the same with us, my siblings and me. We would hang out there, looking at the fancy boutiques, intimidating restaurants, and snobby cafés, childishly amazed by the very expensive, tall buildings. She used to tell us that we could and should go anywhere and everywhere in this city because, according to her, it belonged to us as well.

The Zona Sul (South Zone) of Rio de Janeiro is where Copacabana, Ipanema, Leblon, and other upscale beachfront neighborhoods are located. As Luiz Cesar de Queiroz Ribeiro and Filipe Souza Corrêa explain in a chapter in the 2017 book Urban Transformations in Rio de Janeiro, “the upper classes of the carioca metropolis—i.e., the groups of individuals who share large amounts of social, cultural and economic capital—are located almost exclusively in the area of the ‘South Zone’ of the city of Rio de Janeiro.” The authors emphasize that the “Rio de Janeiro Metropolitan Area is strongly organized according to a system of social distances and oppositions that fragment the different portions of society across the physical space of the metropolis.” This explains why, as poor residents of this city, we had to go to Vila Valqueire to get to my sister’s house. As Ribeiro and Corrêa put it, “the popular masses are located predominantly in the peripheral spaces of the metro area, and in part of the ‘West Zone’ of the city.” Most importantly, also according Ribeiro and Corrêa: “there is a clear projection of the dividing lines of the society of Rio de Janeiro in its physical space, in such a way that to live in one or another part of the metropolis demonstrates one’s position in the city’s social structure.”

In spite of this spatial segregation, my sister and I wanted the girls to feel comfortable going around the South Zone, just as my mother, who knew that area very well, had taught us to feel. My mother had worked as a housekeeper in the area from an early age. She spent basically her whole life in this city until she died from a stroke in 1988, when she was 49 years old. When she first came to Rio from the state of Minas Gerais, she was 9 years old. She came to Rio as a “companion” to a rich family’s child, with the promise that she would be a playmate for the child and that she would be enrolled in a public school. But everybody knew the real deal: my sharecropper grandparents were, in fact, sending one of their nine children to live with and work for a rich family far from home—it still happens frequently in Brazil. That was what happened to my mother. That was her life for a long time.

Later, my mother left that family’s home and started her life as a live-in maid in other homes around the South Zone. It is still not clear to me how she developed her understanding of the importance of education for people like us. It sounds obvious to us today, but for someone like her, with her background and at that time, it was notable. She strongly believed that education was the key to a better life, and that cultural experience was part of a good education. That is why, I suppose, she used to say that the whole city of Rio de Janeiro also belonged to us, poor Black residents.

This mindset made a significant difference in our upbringing in the housing project where we lived in the West Zone. I felt and still feel the need to take my little cousins to that other section of the city. Segregation is even greater in Rio today, due to what the authorities call “city development.” In his classic essay, “The Right to the City,” David Harvey says that such improvements—“urbanization”—have always been “a class phenomenon of some sort, since surpluses have been extracted from somewhere and from somebody…while the control over their disbursement typically lies in a few hands.”

I always try to make my little cousins understand that, as scholar Kim Butler states in her 1998 book Freedoms Given, Freedoms Won: Afro-Brazilians in Post-Abolition São Paulo and Salvador, “African descendants populate the margins of Brazilian society, but are at the heart of its national culture.” But I saved that lecture for another time. The goal that day was for the girls to have fun and relax in the company of aunties Katia and Claudia.

The girls did not know where we were going, and they did not care. They were just having fun, and it was beautiful to see them all excited. They sang and danced on the subway and in the streets, telling stories and asking questions about almost everything around the city just to make conversation. I was as happy as they were. Even though—or perhaps because—looking at them reminded me of one my favorite accounts of the population that historian Mary Karasch has called Afro-Cariocan. In her classic book Slave Life in Rio de Janeiro: 1808-1850, originally published in 1972, Karasch writes:

Africans did not live in Rio unchanged by those around them, but neither did their owners dictate all the aspects of their daily lives. Even within the constraints of urban life and in spite of their constant labor, slaves were active participants in the evolution of a new culture with its own language, etiquette, food, clothing, arts, recreation, religious and associational life, and family structure. It is this Afro-Cariocan culture, forged from the many cultural traditions of the first half of the nineteenth century, that continues to give cultural shape to contemporary Rio, where the samba is still danced, Central African instruments are still played, and African spirits are still honored.

When we got to Ipanema, we started walking around, looking for the nice public playgrounds. After the first stop, the youngest one, Duda (Maria Eduarda), suddenly told us she needed to use the bathroom right away. I took them to a cultural center right on the beach. I hadn’t realized that they did not know how close we were to the shore. Once we got to a street with a view of the ocean, they were almost speechless.

Duda turns to the camera. (Katia Costa Santos)

At first, I did not notice the amazement on their faces. I kept telling them that we would find a bathroom at the cultural center across the street. But it was as if they could not hear me. They started to point to the other side, the beach side, while begging: “Please! Please! Please! Let’s cross the street! Take us there! We want to go there! Please! It will be quick, please!”

I knew they would be impressed with the view, the beach, and seeing people hanging around on an ordinary day outside of the summer season. But I never would have guessed that it would be their first time seeing the ocean up close, in front of them, in front of us. Later, their parents told us they had seen it before, but only when they were toddlers. So, they hadn’t really seen it before. 

Their town has several beautiful waterfalls with which they are quite familiar, but no beaches. However, coming to Ipanema, for example, from Duque de Caxias is an ordeal, like it was for them that day: it takes at least two buses, or two buses and the subway, or two buses and a train. What’s more, the bus fare in their town is much more expensive than in Rio, especially for routes coming to Rio, which charge an intercity fare.

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Katia Costa Santos is an independent scholar from Brazil and lives in Rio de Janeiro. She holds a PhD in Romance Languages from University of Georgia with a minor in African American Studies and a Certificate in Women's Studies. She is a fiction writer and a translator.

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