| Arts & Culture
Food How This Woman Celebrates Black History and Food in Salvador, Brazil
Miraci is being the one thing blackness has always been forced to be even when unwilling—political.
I was in the old, historical quarter named Pelourinho, in the very heart of the bustling Brazilian metropolis of Salvador, when her smile first caught my attention. I made my way to the colorful stand under which Miraci Marinho de Paixao was sitting, ladling crispy brown patties out of a pan popping and sizzling with hot oil. She was deep frying dough made from ground black beans, named Acarajé. A variety of condiments could be sandwiched in the split patty—shrimp, vatapa (mashed shrimp, bread, coconut milk, peanuts and palm oil), chopped tomatoes, or onions. I requested everything. As I took my first bite of this West African/Afro-Brazilian culinary mainstay, she watched my face for a reaction. I closed my eyes and mmmm ’d my way into her good graces. “Gostoso! É o melhor Acarajé de todo o Brasil!” I said. Delicious! It’s the best Acarajé in all of Brazil!
The shortest route to the neighborhood of Pelourinho is via Sete de Setembro, Salvador’s busiest street, which, in the daytime, is commandeered by street vendors selling pastels (pies), lychees and acerola fruit, bright red tomatoes, green peppers, strawberries, fresh basil, shallots, scallions and cups of chilled coconut water. From the clothing stores, baritone voices advertise goods for sale: “ Promoção, Promoção! Dez reais” (Sale, sale, for US $2.70). That, along with the música popular booming from store speakers, and the calls of street sellers makes Sete de Setembro nothing short of capitalist performance theatre. The buildings that line the street are old, their peeling colors faded from rain, sun and the Atlantic winds. Once you reach what is the entrance of Pelourinho, you are greeted by the pointing finger of the statue of Castro Alves, one of Brazil’s most famous poets and Abolitionists. His marble hand makes a pointed gesture towards the water, in what looks to be a benevolent act of a white man reaching out to countless black people who, during the Transatlantic Slave Trade, were stolen from their continent, stuffed as wares on Portuguese ships, and—soon after arrival—stripped of their African identity. As you walk around the statue to get a better look, the unpleasant odor of human excrement hits your nostrils; homeless people often sleep and also relieve themselves behind the statue. Beyond, the Atlantic Ocean glimmers, nowadays trafficked by industrial ships.
At any given moment, about five tour groups make their way through Pelourinho. Guides explain the city’s history in Portuguese and Spanish, sometimes even in English. Europeans, Americans, and white Brazilians snap pictures of three very distinctive Salvador sights. The Elevador Lacerda , that connects Salvador’s Cidade Alta (Upper City) to Cidade Baixa (Lower City), the multi-colored three-dimensional SALVADOR sign, and the Baianas de Acarajé (Women of Acaraje). With their made-up faces, bright headwraps, chunky gold jewelry, and white umbrella skirts draped with fabrics, these women are an unmistakable presence in the city. For some, they are just a photo prop. But their presence calls to mind the tangible and racial politics of space, where black women sell their goods in the same environment in which their ancestors were exchanged as commercial products. So that in Salvador—or Brazil, for that matter—women like Miraci Marinho de Paixao, just mentioned above, are watched but not noticed. This, regardless of the reality that it is women like her who built the country, while being systematically denied access to healthcare, affordable education, decent housing, and government representation.
At 59, Miraci is as authentic a baiana de acarajé as they come . So too was her mother and her mother’s mother. “I have been making acaraje for over twenty-six years,” she told me. I remarked that that was longer than I had been alive. She laughed, swaying in her chair. “Well, I am very old,” she said, giving me a toothy smile that reminded me so much of the elderly black women who had raised me, loved me, scolded me and supported me into adulthood. She reminded me of family. In my accented Portuguese—which I was embarrassed by but which she patiently listened to—I proceeded to ask about her own family. There were her two mothers—as she refers to her mother and grandmother—now deceased, an engineer son, a student daughter, and another son who worked for the government. There was also a husband and two grandchildren. She showed me pictures of all of them on her cell phone, proud of this family she had raised.
It was my facial features and very dark complexion, not my accent, she told me, that had given away my foreignness. I was from Zimbabwe, I told her. I could see her try to place it on an imaginary map, in some proximity to an African country she knew. “Está acima da África do Sul,” right above South Africa, I said. She nodded, and then her face turned thoughtful as she leaned in and told me that Acarajé was also from Africa. The Yoruba people of Nigeria enjoy it as akara , and the Hausa as Kosa. In Ghana the dish is known as Koose. She looked at the ones she’d just finished frying, now in a plastic container, protected from dust and flies.
In Salvador, a city with the largest Afro-Brazilian population in Brazil, food has a history that is both painful and deserving of celebration. During the era of slavery, Africans in Brazil were not allowed to cook their own food, and doing so meant severe punishment or even death. The continued existence of Acarajé speaks to the resistance of the black women who fed their families and safeguarded their culinary cultural heritage. “I know I am African but I do not know from where. Because all the women in my family can make Acarajé, I think I’m from a country that eats lots of Acarajé,” Miraci told me. This method of guesswork and attention to anecdotal stories is how many Afro-Brazilians have managed to create a link between their Brazilian culture and their African heritage. Beyond blackness, food items are one of the most visible pieces of proof that before they were here, they had been somewhere else.
That day, when I first met Miraci, I stayed with her for about three hours, while she served customers or chatted with friends. She constantly checked in on me to make sure I was comfortable, and in these intervals I asked about her life. I wanted to know what went through her mind while she spent twelve hours a day under a canopy that blocked the ferocious equatorial sun. I wanted to know about this person, who—with one deep fried Acarajé per customer—reminded Brazil that it, too, is Africa.
Academic statistics conservatively estimate that 15 million Africans were taken from Africa and scattered throughout the Americas and the Caribbean. Nearly 5 million, or a third of those who survived the treacherous voyage are said to have ended up in Brazil. Consequently, Brazil is a nation where, officially, 55% of its people are of African descent. That is the largest number of black people anywhere in the world except Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation.
A little over a year after my meeting Miraci, Marielle Franco, a queer, black female city councillor, was shot and killed in Rio de Janeiro. She was gunned down execution style in the back of a car, twenty-four hours after publicly excoriating police violence in the favela communities where she grew up. Franco’s fight for black lives was public, loud, and defiant. Miraci’s is equally subversive but so low-key and unassuming you would hardly think it revolutionary. Her fight is part of a long line of black female Brazilian elders, protecting a legacy and coloring the spaces between home now and home lost. By making her specific kind of food, she is serving reminders of cultures stolen and traditions scattered. Through food, she is being the one thing blackness has always been forced to be even when unwilling— political .
A month after our first meeting, one humid and sticky morning, I went to see Miraci again. We were to plan how I would spend carnival week in Salvador, which at this point was just two weeks away. She had already set up her stand and had been selling for a little over two and a half hours. She was mixing Acarajé dough in a big metal pot with a wooden stick, stirring the mixture until it had achieved sufficient thickness. She wore wooden earrings and a pink and white dress with frilly lace along the border. Her fingernails were manicured short and painted a bright pink, while her toenails were painted white with gold stars. She rounded off the look with a long strand of red beads around her neck, but she intentionally left out the traditional head-wrap because of the fierce heat, she told me. In the small town of Saubara, just outside of Salvador, I had met a woman who makes the outfits favored by these Baianas de Acarajé. She had told me that one strand of that intricate lace on the dress, could take upwards of eleven hours to make.
“Are you ready?” Miraci asked me after I had finished eating one of her Acarajés. For most Baianas de Acarajé , as well as black women in the service industry, carnival is an auspicious yet gruelling time for business. Women start saving lucrative spots along the streets days beforehand. Miraci, however, takes time off during carnival. “I work every day of the week. I wake up before sunrise and I go back home after sunset. Carnival is my time to relax,” she said. “Even though there are so many people and so much noise, all I have to do is dance and sing.”
Carnival is hedonistic, and nerve-wracking. It’s a stunning celebration of culture and commerce, while being a marker of the uneven distribution of wealth along lines of gender and race. Most foreigners know of carnival from the parades in Rio de Janeiro, yet the one in Salvador is no less thrilling. The most popular musical showcases during Salvador’s carnival are the bloco afros (African bands and social organizations), whose music is made up of Afro-Brazilian genres such as Axe, and accompanied by pounding drums. Each bloco invites participants to invest in their attire and walk alongside the band during carnival. Ile Aiye is undeniably the oldest and most revered bloco afro in Brazil. Their attire is only made available to black people, and it is with this bloco that Miraci will walk and dance with during carnival week.
Two days after the beginning of Salvador’s week-long carnival, I met Miraci in a small outlier neighborhood called Curuzu, nestled in the heart of Liberdade, one of the city’s largest historically black townships. Here was home and headquarters to the bloco Ile Aiye (House of the World), a place where blackness had resisted through music, dance and representation for more than a century. Miraci and I shared a warm hug, in anticipation of the celebration of black culture and love that awaited us; eager for an unabashed collective celebration of ethnic pride, with no censure on noise levels or on the intensity of our joy.
Ile Aiye would travel from Liberdade to the city center of Campo Grande, followed by singing and dancing revelers. Normally, it’s a half an hour trip by bus, or ninety minutes if you choose to walk. But, with thousands of people following, the journey would take over five hours. When the Ile Aiye float started to move, the lead singer began to sing the familiar strains of a well-known song. Miraci joined in the melody singing phrases that were familiar to both me and her for different reasons. For me, it was the words to the pan-Africanist anthem, “Nkosi Sikelel Iafrika,”(God Bless Africa) and for her, they were the words to one of the most popular songs sung by Ile Aiye since its inception. The meaning was unknown to her, so I translated the anthem into Portuguese. She proceeded to show me how to dance, making sure I stayed in step as she moved her feet side to side, with her arms held up. The smell of perfume intermingling with hairspray and essential oils filled the air, as bodies stood shoulder to shoulder.
In her red and yellow dress, accented with white fabric and emblazoned with a photo of Mandela, Miraci looked like a revolutionary Queen Mother. Her head was wrapped with a red and black turban that flared out in a shape reminiscent of a sunflower, while her yellow and red braids peeked through. She looked ready to upend Brazil’s suffocating whiteness with sheer aesthetic superiority.
At a snail’s pace, over five hours, we followed the float leading us to Campo Grande. Up a hill I danced while fanning myself furiously with the makeshift fans that had been handed out to us, their folds printed with statistics on violence against women. Every few minutes, as we danced our way down the streets, Miraci would tap me on the arm, to let me see how she was dancing, and to make sure I knew that’s how I, too, should be moving. She walked and danced the whole way, singing almost nonstop. When I slowed down to catch my breath, she beckoned me to follow her. “Vamos,” let’s go, she urged; the party was still continuing.
Today, instead of reminding Brazil of its blackness through food, she was doing it via song and dance, surrounded by black revelers and white spectators. I watched her hurry down the street holding her fan. I smiled, then proceeded to find a corner where I could rest my legs. This was Miraci’s night.