Borba Gato and the disputes over the country’s identities and memories

August 4, 2021


It was Saturday, July 24, 2021, when a group of young people dressed in black arrived in a truck and started to throw tires, spill flammable liquid on a statue that stands in the neighborhood of Santo Amaro, in the southern part of São Paulo, and set it on fire. Immediately, the media reported that the statue of Borba Gato had been set on fire. Authorship of the act was claimed by the group Revolução Periférica, which posted images of the action on social networks. In these same social networks an intense debate emerged about the legitimacy of the action. Some were against and others in favor. This is not an isolated fact in Brazil, much less in the world, especially regarding the connection of these monuments with modern slavery.

In 2015, in South Africa, students from the University of Cape Town removed the statue of the British imperialist Cecil Rhodes. According to the students, the monument signified the presence of racism ruling the institution and the country. In 2017, in the city Charlottesville, Virginia, United States, there were protests and clashes against the removal of the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Still in the United States, during the demonstrations against the assassination of George Floyd, the actions in favor of the removal of monuments that had a connection with the country’s slave past intensified and reverberated around the world.

In England, in June 2020, demonstrators against racism brought down the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston in the city of Bristol. In the same period, in Belgium, the statue of the colonizer Leopold II, located in the city of Antwerp, was the target of anti-racist actions. Also in 2020, according to the National Monuments Council in Chile, more than 300 monuments were targeted by demonstrators during protests for political change in the country. Similarly, the statue of Christopher Columbus was also toppled during protests in Colombia in June 2021. And now, in July of the same year, demonstrators during protests against President Jair Bolsonaro set fire to the statue of the bandeirante Manoel Borba Gato.

All these facts have something in common: the dispute over memory, that is, how facts should be remembered in the present that remembers them. To talk about memory is also to talk about belonging and the constitution of identities. The sociologist and historian Michael Pollak states that memory, especially collective memory, has the function of establishing spaces of belonging and, at the same time, defining limits for this belonging.

It is important to call attention to the fact that, in a plural and diverse society, to talk about collective memory is not the same as talking about uniqueness around it. The construction of a collective memory goes through the recognition of otherness, and this will generate a tension around the dispute for existing memories, which, in order not to be imposed as violence, is negotiated all the time. In a complex society, these spaces of identity and belonging are in constant friction. Pollak calls this context of disputes battles for memory.

To better elucidate this theory, here is an example. Probably, if you are over thirty years old, you have studied in history classes that the bandeirantes, with their typically European costumes in the Brazilian forests, were people who heroically explored and drew the borders of the country. It is necessary to stick to the fact that every narrative has an origin. And with the Bandeirantes it is no different.

In an interview to the Folha de São Paulo podcast Café da Manhã, historian and anthropologist Lilia Schwarcz says that this image of the bandeirante, or sertanista, was born in a very specific context of Brazilian history, which dates back to the end of the empire and the beginning of the republic, with the creation of the Instituto Histórico e Geográfico de São Paulo – IHGSP (Historical and Geographical Institute of São Paulo). In the search for the construction of an identity for the city of São Paulo and for the people from São Paulo, the Institute appropriated the image of the 18th century bandeirantes, from the mining context, re-reading it from the 20th century on, and transformed them into a synonym of courage, entrepreneurial spirit and wealth producer, characteristics that would be inherent to the people from São Paulo.

Going back to our example, initially, passing this identity as a symbol of the state of São Paulo and the people from São Paulo would not be a problem. However, by transmitting this romantic image of the brave pioneer, concerned with establishing the country’s progress, such pretension throws other stories and memories that disputed the identity of the paulistano underground.

In this case, this narrative hides the fact that the bandeirantes, besides being pathfinders, it must be said, only achieved this feat thanks to the territorial knowledge of the native peoples, were also mercenaries who enriched themselves by imprisoning and capturing blacks and natives. To do this, they used the most brutal methods of coercion available. Thus, when disputing the construction of the identity and the memory of the people from São Paulo, the Geographic Institute of São Paulo hid those facts that were of no interest for the constitution of the Paulista identity. In other words, the pioneer pioneer and symbol of progress had one of its faces hidden: brutality and violence. Something very characteristic of colonial modernity. This example serves to present the tension between the so-called official memory and the memories relegated to secrecy, which dispute society’s understanding.

However, for this official memory to be perennial, it depends on what Pollak calls the framing of memory. The work of framing memory takes as a starting point elements provided by history, as well as having to submit the alleged past to constant questioning of the present and the future, with the requirement of permanence. This process is produced by various actors, for example: historians, artists, television channels, youtube and social media, which can draw on various material sources, such as books, sculptures, buildings, museums and statues that express in their structures the reading of the intended memory. In the case of monuments, we often see them as part of the environment, without even questioning their origin.

It is important to remember that this perenniality of memory is not absolute, because, as mentioned above, if this work of framing memory does not take seriously the successive coherence of justification of its existence, the relationship of alterity, acceptance, and negotiation become violent impositions, which end up presenting fractures that expose the inconsistencies of the alleged official memory. It is at this moment that clandestine or underground memories, those hidden by the official narrative, emerge to demonstrate its fragilities. It is through these fractures that these underground memories come to demand political and social reparation and a critical reading of the past.

With this brief theoretical exposition, we can bring to the discussion the fact that monuments are not just structures incorporated to the environment, they carry in the present the glories and the violence of the past. Even in times of apparent normality and social harmony, monuments, such as those honoring slavers and torturers, are fixed in the present to demonstrate that that past, which is intended to depower, remains alive with the vigor of the material that builds them. A survey done in the United States shows that the number of statues honoring Confederate figures increased precisely during periods of greater gains for the country’s political minorities. In other words, the past making itself present before the progressive advances of people who had their memories suffocated.

Just as a curiosity, as a result of the discussion about the removal of statues around the world, the Department of Historical Heritage of São Paulo did a survey and found that in the city there are around 41 controversial works that pay homage to colonizers, slaves and leaders of the military dictatorship in the country. All of them disputing in the present the memory of the past.

So much so that seven days after the action against the statue of the bandeirante, a tribute to Marielle Franco, a black councilwoman executed by extermination groups in Rio de Janeiro, and symbol of the dispute of forgotten identities, was stained with red paint, with a drawing of a male genital in her mouth, with the words: long live Borba Gato. Whoever committed this act is probably nostalgic for the time when white, slave-owning patriarchy ruled.

Even if the action of depredating public monuments is legally considered vandalism, history doesn’t wait for a qualified and enlightened discourse to push it. It is made every minute, by the qualified, by the unqualified, by the rich, by the poor, by institutions or civil society, and especially by those people, for example, who had their identities and memories supplanted by these symbols that, for many, are neutral and, in some cases, serve only as a reference point in the city.

The argument that the bandeirantes “were people of their time”, a time of barbarity and brutality, is quite surprising. If this so-called argument is taken seriously, we will no longer be able to cast critical glances on slavery, colonialism or any kind of questioned action. What it does is to sustain the dangerous path of a single history, which disregards the numerous and diverse forms of resistance to the existing systems of oppression. Not to mention that in the bandeirantes’ period, hunting indigenous people was considered a crime, so they were “people of their time” who also committed crimes.

Statue of Borba Gato on Fire, in Santo Amaro, South Zone of São Paulo / Divulgação

Perhaps the reader may wonder if there is no other more democratic mechanism to question the presence of these symbols in the country. There are plenty of proposals, the best known of which are: taking them to museums; contrasting them with other monuments that show the other side, among many others. One example: after the statue of Edward Colston was dragged through the streets of Bristol and thrown into the city’s river, it was taken to the museum and the local administration will hold a public consultation to see what end it should follow.

However, many of the times people who find themselves vilified by these symbols do not have access to these channels and prefer to pay the price and risk of illegality. As Professor Vladimir Safatle states, in the face of such violence accumulated over time, the people who are victims of these symbols exercise self-defense by questioning the existence of these monuments. One wonders if the indigenous people who live at Pico do Jaraguá, one of the first places explored by the bandeirantes in the city of São Paulo, feel comfortable with the memory where their executioners are national heroes. In the same way, it is important to question whether black people feel comfortable with monuments that exalt slavers, just as if the victims of the military dictatorship feel comfortable with street names that honor torturers.

Whether illegal or legitimate, the action against the bandeirante statue managed to raise the national debate about these monuments. Certainly, the question made by the group Revolução Periférica in one of its videos has caught the attention of those watching it to try to answer: do you know who Borba Gato was? This spark of curiosity is enough to ignite the disputes about the country’s memory.

By Deivide Júlio Ribeiro [1].

For more information:

MOURA, Clovis. Rebeliões da senzala: quilombos, insurreições, guerilhas. 4. ed. Porto Alegre: Marcado Aberto, 1988.

POLLAK, Michael. Memória e identidade social. In. Estudos históricos. Rio de Janeiro, v. 5,n., 10, 1992, p. 200-212.

SCHWARCZ, Lilia Moritz. Sobre o autoritarismo brasileiro. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2019.

SCHWARCZ Lilia Moritz; Starling heloisa. Brasil: uma biografia. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2015

[1] Master’s and Doctoral student in Law at the UFMG School of Law, one of the coordinators of Alafia – Research and Extension Group on Law, State and Ethnic-Racial Relations at the UFMG School of Law and State Sciences.