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Legalizing Identities

Legalizing Identities: Becoming Black or Indian in Brazil’s Northeast

Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    Legalizing Identities
    Book Description:

    Anthropologists widely agree that identities--even ethnic and racial ones--are socially constructed. Less understood are the processes by which social identities are conceived and developed.Legalizing Identitiesshows how law can successfully serve as the impetus for the transformation of cultural practices and collective identity. Through ethnographic, historical, and legal analysis of successful claims to land by two neighboring black communities in the backlands of northeastern Brazil, Jan Hoffman French demonstrates how these two communities have come to distinguish themselves from each other while revising and retelling their histories and present-day stories.French argues that the invocation of laws by these related communities led to the emergence of two different identities: one indigenous (Xoco Indian) and the other quilombo (descendants of a fugitive African slave community). With the help of the Catholic Church, government officials, lawyers, anthropologists, and activists, each community won government recognition and land rights, and displaced elite landowners. This was accomplished even though anthropologists called upon to assess the validity of their claims recognized that their identities were "constructed." The positive outcome of their claims demonstrates that authenticity is not a prerequisite for identity. French draws from this insight a more sweeping conclusion that, far from being evidence of inauthenticity, processes of construction form the basis of all identities and may have important consequences for social justice.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-0577-7
    Subjects: Anthropology, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
    (pp. xi-xvi)
    (pp. xvii-xxii)
    (pp. xxiii-xxiv)
    (pp. 1-16)

    Over forty new tribes, including the Xocó, have been recognized in the Brazilian Northeast since the late 1970s.¹ These new Indians are composed primarily of African-descended individuals who possess few of the “traditional cultural diacritics,” who speak only Portuguese, and whose Indianness is “not always evident from their physical appearance” (A. C. Ramos 2003: 370), but who nonetheless self-identify as indigenous. Although the Brazilian government has legally recognized them as Indians, members of the press, the public, and academics have questioned their “authenticity,” in light of the popular representations of Indians derived from the Amazonian experience featured in films and...

  7. CHAPTER 1 Situating Identities in the Religious Landscape of the Sertão
    (pp. 17-42)

    The people who would become the Xocó Indians and the quilombolas of Mocambo share a common backland history, culture, and politics, all of which came to be mobilized and revised by them in the years since the first discussions of possible indigenous identity in the early 1970s. In addition to describing that common heritage, this chapter identifies the contradictory character of the place and culture of the rural hinterland that is known as the sertão.¹ My aim is to show how these historical contradictions informed and enabled the differentiation and legalization of Indian and black identities in a place where...

  8. CHAPTER 2 We Are Indians Even If Our Faces Aren’t Painted
    (pp. 43-76)

    An explosive conjunction of events led a small group of sharecroppers living on the land of their politically powerful patrons to take extreme action to declare themselves Indians. This action resulted in a radical change in their self-representation, self-experience, and cohesiveness. It also eventually provided them with land in the form of an indigenous reserve. The Xocó were the first of over forty new tribes in the Northeast to be recognized over the following two decades. In addition to the promise of land and government services, the Brazilian national myth of the Indian as pure, at one with nature and...

  9. CHAPTER 3 Constructing Boundaries and Creating Legal Facts: A LANDOWNER DIES AND A QUILOMBO IS BORN
    (pp. 77-104)

    When the quilombo clause was enacted in 1988, no one expected it to have much effect.¹ In fact, the clause, which provides that “survivors of quilombo communities occupying their lands are recognized as definitive owners, and the State shall issue them titles to the land” (Linhares 2004:818), was placed in the transitory section at the end of the Constitution because it was assumed there were very few quilombos and that all would be identified and granted land within just a few years. The Palmares Cultural Foundation, formed in 1988 under the Ministry of Culture, with a very small budget, was...

  10. CHAPTER 4 Family Feuds and Ethnoracial Politics: WHAT’S LAND GOT TO DO WITH IT?
    (pp. 105-132)

    Mocambo’s decision to pursue recognition as a quilombo and the land that was promised to come with it was made in the context of challenges by competitors, as it had been with the Xocó in relation to the Kariri-Xocó. Boundaries that had been porous before the law was mobilized swiftly became the subject of dispute, as did the grounds on which identity claims were either accepted or rejected. Unlike the Xocó, however, the people in Mocambo did not reach a consensus about the need for quilombo recognition. As recognition became a reality, Mocambo revealed itself to be less a unified...

    (pp. 133-153)

    A crucial element of the process of legalizing identity is the reconfiguration of cultural practices and their meanings. Culture in this context encompasses both “collective practices and beliefs, a repository of repetitive traditions and ready-to-hand responses” and “artistic rupture,” which is “inimical to coercive regimes” and can “pry open the door for maneuvering” (Sommer 2006:13–14). As the experiences of the Xocó and Quilombo Mocambo demonstrate, cultural practices are not invented from whole cloth but are refashioned within the constraints of the cultural history of the region at a particular place and time. In this chapter, I will explain how...

    (pp. 154-173)

    A cascade of changes in relationships and self-conceptions accompanied the recognition of Mocambo as a modern-day “quilombo.” At the same time, those transformations have been guided by, and continue to be associated with, continuities in practices, beliefs, and worldviews about race, color, ethnicity, and religion that were salient prior to the invocation of the quilombo clause and that remain embedded in newly configured narratives. This chapter is about one such narrative and the changes it reflects and has generated. It chronicles the transformation of a family story into the foundational narrative of those in Mocambo who came to identify themselves...

    (pp. 174-186)

    In this book, I have highlighted a series of productive contradictions that inform the personal and political changes integral to ethnoracial identity transformation in the context of new legal rights. Choosing to self-identify in a new way, to place oneself in a category with historically negative connotations or that represents a loss of some rights in exchange for others, is a gamble that requires courage and perhaps desperation. Decisions taken and acted upon with the belief that an improved life would be the outcome may also lead to unanticipated difficulties and sorrows. A series of contradictions were brought to light...

  14. NOTES
    (pp. 187-216)
    (pp. 217-236)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 237-247)