I was seconded to USP over the Brazilian ‘winter’ in 2015 – spending three months in Sao Paulo, where I was warmly welcomed by Professor Laura Izzara a few days after arriving in this enormous city. The SPECTRESS programme gave me the opportunity to develop a comparative project on indigenous recognition in constitutions in (ex)-colonial countries – in this case looking at what Australia could learn from Brazil. Currently, Australia is in the process of moving towards a referendum to change the wording of the Constitution to formally recognise Australia’s indigenous peoples as first peoples, traditional owners of the land and their distinct culture. In contrast, Brazil’s indigenous people have been recognised in the Brazilian constitution, in its current form, since 1988. I presented the first part of the research – entitled “Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Peoples and Cultural Trauma: A positive step or empty legalese in Australia?” – explaining the special role law has played in mediating cultural trauma amongst Australia’s indigenous population – in a lecture to master students at USP, and greatly enjoyed the stimulating discussion with the students following the lecture, particularly hearing their perspectives on the situation of Brazil’s indigenous population.
Living in Sao Paulo was an amazing experience – although I only began to feel properly at home in the last month. Everyone I spoke to before going to Sao Paulo (and many Brazilians on my arrival) had told me stories of violence and crime – leaving me too scared to venture out after dark at first. However, instead I was struck by the incredible friendliness and openness of the Paulistanos – even in a city of twenty plus million. The city is completely overwhelming at first – coming from a smallish city in the industrial heartland of Germany – in Sao Paulo there are high rise buildings as far as the eye can see. A few days after arriving I ventured into the Downtown area, which was a complete shock: an almost abandoned part of the city full of homeless people, drug addicts and crime. Some lovely old colonial buildings are still slowly crumbling amongst high-rise buildings with smashed in windows framed against the endless blue sky. But I quickly discovered this is only a small part of this vibrant and diverse city…which is full of amazing food, cultural activities and joyful music. While my ability to engage with the political situation was limited by me speaking two words of Portugese (‘Tudo Bem’) I was struck by the level of protest and political activity in the city – and Paulistanos were ever willing to discuss the ails affecting the Rouseff government.
While I was mainly in Sao Paulo for the length of the secondment, I did manage to see some parts of nearby Brazil. One highlight was interviewing members of an indigenous community in Paraty-Mirim – after a day-long bus ride, and hitching a lift with some friendly locals who also translated my questions. I was really surprised at one part of the exchange: I asked several young women – barefoot, sitting with babies in their teenage arms in the dust outside their community hall – if they knew they were recognised in Brazil’s Constitution and that it afforded them special rights. Yes, they replied. Was it important to them? Yes, they replied. Did they think it made a difference in their life quality or living situation? No, was the unhesitating answer from all three.
I was incredibly appreciative of the opportunity of undertaking research in Brazil made possible through the SPECTRESS Project and I’d very much like to thank Laura Izzara for making my stay productive and enjoyable.