Photographers' Blog

A living culture in downtown Rio

January 22, 2013

Rio de Janiero, Brazil

By Pilar Olivares

On the first day I appeared as a stranger, to photograph them without knowing their history or their story. The second day I understood what was going on and was able to talk with them at length about what they were doing. The third day I sat and had coffee with them, laughed with them, and listened to them talk about their villages and how hard it is to be in the city.

They are Indians from Brazil’s most remote corners, about to be evicted from the place where they have lived for over six years, the historic Indian Museum next to the famous Maracana soccer stadium.

The eldest of the group told me, “In the city you need money. You can’t do anything without it. In my village I just fish, live in the forest, and listen to the sounds of nature. What do I need money for?”

Marize, a member of the group who was raised in the city but has a warrior’s heart, remembers her Guaraní ancestors as she paints her face in the way that they did when they went to battle.

She can’t stop crying as we drink coffee and she recalls what happened four days earlier when a police squad was sent to evict them from the building they have been adamantly defending.

The police arrived but were lacking a court order, so the eviction was postponed.

The location of the Museum next to Maracana is both a curse and a blessing. The state government wants to tear the Museum down to make way for a massive parking lot and shopping mall for fans coming to the 2014 World Cup. But to the natives, the World Cup could be an opportunity for the Museum to show all the visitors that there are still tribes intact in parts of the country; Guajajaras, Pankararus, Guaranies, Apurinãs, and Pataxós, are some of the ethnic groups that coexist inside the Museum, which they’ve dubbed ‘Maracana Village’.

Such are the interests in play before Brazil 2014 – culture vs. ambition. The purpose of this building that is now nearly in ruins was always to show the origin of the native cultures, and that’s what the natives want.

Built more than 148 years ago, this was the first Indian Museum in Latin America. With the ignorance of anyone who recently arrived in Rio, I asked myself how this could be happening, and if it isn’t the obligation of the state to preserve the oldest historic buildings. I couldn’t understand how a city like Rio, known worldwide for its beauty, could be so neglected by its government.

The indignation of cacique Carlos Tukano, spokesman for the group, is evident. Tukano had a look of horror during the raid on Saturday. They had never lived a similar situation, on the verge of being evicted from the place they’ve called home since 2006. They don’t accept the thought of the building being demolished.

I could only wonder, will their living culture be allowed to die?

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