"But What If I Should Need To Defecate In Your Neighborhood, Madame?": Empire, Redemption, and the “Tradition of the Oppressed” in a Brazilian World Heritage Site

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In the May 2008 issue of Cultural Anthropology, John Collins examines the human costs of turning the ruined colonial buildings in Salvador, Bahia into a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Pelourinho neighborhood (named for a pillory where slaves were whipped) was made glorious during the African triangle trade and later became a renowned red-light district. It has long embodied the racial and class violence that is as much a part of Brazil’s heritage as the Afro-Bahian food and music served up in the nightspots that now line its streets.

Collins details the types of knowledge and the systems of care used to turn buildings, bodies and practices into the signs of a common humanity that heritage projects value.“Because of years of interactions with a heritage bureaucracy that sought to configure them as symbolic ancestors and then, in a neoliberal period in which culture managers removed the majority whose unruly habits threatened the UNESCO site’s tranquility, a number of current and former Pelourinho residents have come to argue that they are a form of patrimony, or possessions of the nation,” Collins writes. Analyzing how people resist and re-appropriate such “patrimonialization,” Collins suggests that “heritage, more than just a technique for reifying social relations as a communal property, is a labile technology for charting the borders of, and making claims to, that belonging.”

A key figure in Collins’s account is Topa, once a respected resident of the decaying colonial-era structures of the Pelourinho. Topa’s “backtalk” and “gutsy insurrection” is described to illustrate a mode of understanding culture and politics that isn’t blind to the contradictions of history, unequal privilege, and enduring forms of racism.

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published additional essays on the subject of cities and urbanism. Oyku Potuoglu-Cook's essay "Beyond the Glitter: Belly Dance and Neoliberal Gentrification in Istanbul" (2006), Benjamin Chesluk's essay "'Visible Signs of a City Out of Control': Community Policing in New York City" (2004), and Michael Dear's essay "The Premature Demise of Postmodern Urbanism," (1991) are good references.

In addition, Cultural Anthropology has published essays on Brazil. Robin Sheriff's essay "The Theft of Carnaval: National Spectacle and Racial Politics in Rio de Janeiro" (1999), James Holston's essay "Autoconstruction in Working-Class Brazil" (1991), and David Hess's essay "Disobsessing Disobsession: Religion, Ritual, and the Social Sciences in Brazil" (1989), all describe issues relating to this area of interest.

Cultural Anthropology has also published a range of essays on heritage projects. Elizabeth Emma Ferry's essay "Inalienable Commodities: The Production and Circulation of Silver and Patrimony in a Mexican Mining Cooperative" (2002), Jonathan Friedman's essay "Myth, History, and Political Identity" (1992), and George Marcus's essay "The Production of European High Culture in Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Trust as Artificial Curiosity" (1990) are a few examples.

About the Author

John Collins is Assistant Professor at Queens College, City University of New York.

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