Historians' Books

Notes from Rio: the Always/Never Marvellous City

Daryle Williams , Amy Chazkel , Paulo Knauss |

Even the casual observer of international news will be painfully aware that 2016 has been an annus horribilis for Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Conventional media outlets, sports reporting, social media platforms, and parachute journalists have fed global readers a steady diet of depressing tales about petty robberies and grand larceny, muggings and murders, and civil engineering projects that are behind schedule and over budget. The past few months have brought detailed coverage of public safety officer protests at Galeão, the deadly collapse of a new coastal bike path between Leblon and São Conrado, the horrid gang rape of a young woman near Praça Seca, dismembered body parts washing onto the sands of Copacabana beach, the polluted shores of Guanabara Bay, the displacement of the poor at Vila Autodrómo, the boondoggles at Porto Maravilha, gay bashings, dengue fever and chikungunya, and the spectre of zika-related microencephaly.

Rio de Janeiro is the capital city of an eponymous state of the Brazilian federation playing an outsize role in a similarly dismal news cycle of national economic recession and political dysfunction. The elected governor has been on extended medical leave and acting governor Francisco Dornelles has declared a ‘fiscal calamity’. Notwithstanding a muscular mosquito control campaign, the wider public health system is in disarray; more than seventy public schools are under occupation by students protesting their poor quality of education. Several politicians representing the State of Rio in Brasília — former Chamber of Deputies speaker Eduardo Cunha and the far right's great white hope Jair Bolsonaro — star in the unfolding novela of corruption probes, presidential impeachment, and dizzying reversals of fortune. (It's not by mere coincidence that Cunha and Bolsonaro, among others, launched their national ambitions from Rio's fervent cauldron of faith-driven, right-wing political mobilizations.) The state's dire account books overshadow what once seemed to be a region's triumphant leap out from the shadows of mighty São Paulo into a global energy powerhouse.

As international coverage of all the darkest aspects of Brazilian public life reaches a pitch of intensity not seen since the early 1990s, the Very Loyal and Heroic City of Saint Sebastian of Rio de Janeiro hosts the Olympic and Paralympic Games in August and September 2016. Activists have labelled the first Games to be held in South America as the ‘Games of Exclusion.’ Others invoke the ‘Games of Filth.’ Mayor Eduardo Paes speaks of a ‘missed opportunity.’ In sharp contrast to NBC Sports' stunning wide-angle shots of the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas or Barra da Tijuca, the fouled waters of the rowing, sailing, and marathon swimming competition venues will be stark reminders that Rio 2016 is to remain mired in environmental spoliation long after the world turns its attention to Tokyo 2020 and beyond.

Even some lighter moments of pre-Olympics buzz have elicited satirical self-loathing. When Paes posted to Facebook a call to videogame maker Nintendo to release a Brazilian version of Pokémon Go in time for the Games, one online commentator retorted, ‘The aquatic Pokemon died of superbacteria. The terrestrial ones were assaulted and shot. The electric-powered ones exploded in the storm drains. The flying ones became drug addicts. The venomous ones grew obese after ingesting sewage and are now to be found in recovery.’

The Rio de Janeiro Reader: History, Culture, Politics (Duke University Press, 2016) went to press early 2015, in a somewhat happier time for Cariocas (as Rio's native-born have been known since the nineteenth century) and their beloved, put-upon city. The city of 6.4 million (in a metropolitan region of 12 million) had played a gracious and efficient host during the 2014 FIFA World Cup tournament. The national team's fourth-place finish after humiliating losses to the Germans and Dutch could not dampen the sense of accomplishment that locals had rallied to the occasion, as they had for World Youth Day (2013) and the annual extravaganzas of Carnaval, Gay Pride, and the New Year's Eve fireworks show on Copacabana Beach. (Perhaps the story of the Rio Olympics should be told through the many mega-events that preceded the XXXI Olympiad: the reception of the Portuguese royals in 1808, the 1906 Pan-American Conference, the National Exposition of 1908, the International Exposition of 1922, the 1950 World Cup, the 1955 Eucharistic Congress, the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit, the 2007 Pan American Games, and Rio+20 in 2012. Long after each of these festivities concluded, an altered landscape of public works, technical skill, disciplinary regimes, and a self-confident ethos of accomplishment endured.)

The clouds of crisis cast dark shadows on the Rio Reader by the time it appeared in print. The sprawling anti-corruption investigation now known as Lavo-Jato (Operation Carwash) has targeted Petrobras, the Brazilian oil giant headquartered in downtown Rio. The city's entrepreneurial classes confront denunciations, arrests, and plea bargains that have paralyzed the systemic graft that fuelled the earlier good days. A sharp drop in global oil prices has revealed the unsustainability of easy credit, profligate public overspending, and an overheated real estate market. It is now evident that renovations to the port have included the outrage of removals of the vulnerable.

While recognizing a change in the climate, the volume's editorial voice is still tempered by recognition that the problems of the moment are hardly novel. The three co-editors had personal experience with the difficult transition to a post-authoritarian order marked by the municipal bankruptcy of 1988, hyperinflation, and the spectacular spread of drug trafficking in the 1990s. We could bear witness that gut-wrenching scenes of street children huffing glue were part of the banality of exploited children sleeping in plazas and below overpasses. The inescapable smells of untreated sewage along the Canal do Mangue evoke the city's much longer history of using waterways to discard human waste, trash, and cadavers.

The historical research and document selection that went into writing The Rio Reader involved numerous descriptions of the city as a disorderly, pestilent, and otherwise hellish place impossibly crammed between mountains and hills, wetlands, and an Atlantic rain forest. We came to know of past episodes of violent tumult that punctuated municipal governance in revolts named after cachaça (1660), the penny farthing (1879-80), and a smallpox vaccine (1904). Systematic state violence against men and women of colour revealed themselves to be a fundamental fact of the city. The volume describes how the dislocations of recent public works were predated by the disruptions associated with sweeping urban reforms led by the hard-nosed municipal administrations of Pereira Passos (1902-06), Carlos Lacerda (1960-65), and Cesar Maia (1993-97), among others. The Rio Reader, then, lends historical depth and context to today's despair. It educates the observer how and where to take a longer, more studied view of the dreary international news coverage that has harped on the negative in the run-up to the Opening Ceremonies.

The volume simultaneously equips the reader to take some delight in the vignettes of wonderment that have always coexisted with the disgust: the approach to the illuminated city by sea, Corcovado mountain shrouded in the mist, the street vendor's hustle, the poetic lament of an old-school samba, a parade down the Sambódromo, a wall niche honouring Escrava Anastácia. The Rio Reader dwells upon the pageantry of a feast day at Penha and the escapist romance of Hollywood musicals like Flying Down to Rio (1933) and Nancy Goes to Rio (1950). The volume celebrates the recuperation and memorialization of Valongo's intimate history with Africa and enslavement. The Rio Reader gives voice to the playfulness of carioquês (Carioca Portuguese, especially slang), the codes of sexual (mis)conduct in bohemian Lapa and at the beach, and the mash-up of cultural references for a would-be novelist from the gritty suburb of Manguinhos.

In reading the Rio Reader, the Olympic host city may come across as a fantasia [FAN-ta-see-ah] — a wonderful Portuguese word that can mean a fanciful costume that masks something (mundane or darker) within, an impossible fiction, or a dream-like state of make-believe. Cariocas have cultivated an alluring combination of these multiple meanings for the past 450 years, and it will be no surprise to find locals fully cloaked in theirs fantasias during the Games. The Olympiad promises to bring some of the most spectacular examples of human performance to a setting of unspeakable beauty. It shall highlight the ingenuity, innovation, and industriousness of the city and its residents. The Games will leave behind some much needed improvements in mass transit, traffic management, and emergency response. Installations designed to accommodate Paralympians will extend the long-delayed rights of urban mobility and citizenship to the disabled and the elderly. The Games will advance the quest to globalize Brand Brazil.

Yet the Games are already destined to perpetuate the obscene degrees of social exclusion, insecurity, systemic corruption, and frustrated ambition that have been attached to global sporting mega-events. The Games will quite literally leave behind an architecture of gated condominiums, policed shopping malls, and privatised sidewalks that have the capacity to widen distance and distinction in everyday life. The peeling Olympic Rings soon to be found on walls will be a bittersweet reminder of a global spectacle that struggled to fulfill the Brazilian and International Olympic Committees breathless promises of inclusive uplift.

A contradictory state of delight and despair is to be the true legacy of the Games. The Rio Reader is written to equip its audience to inhabit that state. In privileging local voices, the work also equips the non-local historian, policy maker, and casual reader with tools to identify and to listen to the Cariocas, some dominant and others subordinated, who have made their city always and never marvellous.

About The Rio Reader

Spanning a period of over 450 years, The Rio de Janeiro Reader traces the history, culture, and politics of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, through the voices, images, and experiences of those who have made the city's history. It outlines Rio's transformation from a hardscrabble colonial outpost and strategic port into an economic, cultural, and entertainment capital of the modern world. The volume contains a wealth of primary sources, many of which appear here in English for the first time. A mix of government documents, lyrics, journalism, speeches, ephemera, poems, maps, engravings, photographs, and other sources capture everything from the fantastical impressions of the first European arrivals to the complaints about roving capoeira gangs, and from sobering eyewitness accounts of slavery's brutality to the glitz of Copacabana. The definitive English-language resource on the city, The Rio de Janeiro Reader presents the "Marvellous City" in all its complexity, importance, and intrigue.

The Rio Reader follows in the successful Duke University Press series of country and world readers. In crafting the volume, the three coeditors (all historians with strong backgrounds in Rio's principal archives and museums) drew upon some well-tested editorial and marketing expertise. There were, however, a number of adaptations made for the first Duke reader to focus on a city. Chiefly, the framing had to take account of an urban setting that can be experienced in the "real" world of global travel, geolocational apps, and a near-inexhaustible archive of online text and images. In comparison to the continental ambitions of the original Brazil Reader (1999), the Rio Reader speaks to the modern global traveller's expectations for broad expertise and local insight. Whether in situ or not, the reading audience is invited to read the selected documents alongside paratextual maps, images, recorded sounds, and social media postings. One selection's reference to a specific street or plaza, natural feature, or figure invites an open-ended, user-driven journey to similar references within the volume and outside. Falling somewhere between a work of academic urban studies and a travel guide, the Rio Reader invites its readers to construct itineraries of spaces, temporalities, and sociabilities. Section essays and introductory remarks that preface each document map possible itineraries that traverse variegated, confounding landscapes of people, places, things, and practices that make Rio the object of fascination for historians, policy makers, and dreamers.

About the Author

Daryle Williams is an associate professor and associate dean at the University of Maryland. He is author of Culture Wars in Brazil: The First Vargas Regime, 1930-1945 (2001), lead editor of The Rio de Janeiro Reader: History, Culture, Politics (2016), and a Principal Investigator on The Liberated Africans Project. Follow him on Twitter for running commentary on the Rio Olympic Games. @DaryleWilliams. #RioReader

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