RIO DE JANEIRO — IT took three centuries for the man one historian calls Brazil's ''only true popular hero'' to win official recognition.
Zumbi, a 17th-century Afro-Brazilian who led raids to free slaves from plantations for more than 20 years, was honored Monday, the 300th anniversary of his death, by government officials, foreign embassies, and Brazil's President Fernando Henrique Cardoso.
During the festivities, Mr. Cardoso announced that 9 million booklets describing the rebel's feats will be distributed to the nation's public elementary schools . A stamp with Zumbi's likeness will be issued. A medal with his image was awarded to a 124-year-old former slave whose back still carries the brand of her old master.
This is a far cry from the days when history books described Zumbi as a criminal, if they mentioned him at all. ''For mainstream Brazil, Zumbi was a bandit,'' says historian Andrea Prates.
''Historically, our heroes have usually fit a certain profile: European, blond, and blue-eyed,'' Mr. Prates says.
Before Brazil abolished slavery in 1888 - the last country in the Western Hemisphere to do so - about 4.5 million Africans had been transported in.
Between the 16th and 19th centuries, slaves repeatedly rose up against their masters or ran away from the sugar-cane fields and coffee plantations to hide in the vast forests and hills, where they maintained their African traditions. They set up hundreds of quilombos, or villages. Zumbi's Palmares, in northeastern Brazil, was the largest and best established.
For most observers here, the new homage for Zumbi is a victory for the nation's civil rights movement.
Since the late 1970s, when black organizations declared Nov. 20 as Black Consciousness Day, they have been working to establish Zumbi - by far their biggest hero - as a national idol.
''For we blacks, the example of Zumbi inspires our fight for justice and the right to be full-fledged citizens without fear and shame of our blackness,'' says Joel Rufino, president of the Palmares Foundation, a commission in charge of the celebration.
Catching up on history
Over the past several months, black groups across the nation have sponsored seminars and workshops on Zumbi and racism, cultural events, and the first ''continental congress'' of black peoples, which was held this week in Sao Paulo.
They have also used the anniversary to lobby for a gamut of issues ranging from reparations of $102,000 for those who can prove they are descended from slaves to land titles for existing quilombos. According to the Palmares Foundation, some 500,000 slave descendants still live in quilombos, even though they have never held deeds.
About 30,000 Afro-Brazilians marched Monday on Brasilia in ''The Zumbi March Against Racism,'' the largest civil rights protest in the nation's history, according to march organizers. The march ended with a meeting between black leaders and the president, another historic first.
Fernando Conceicao, executive coordinator of the University of Sao Paulo's Center for Black Consciousness, who attended the meeting, said his colleagues and the president discussed the revision of school texts to include more black historical figures, the rapid deeding of quilombos, and the inequalities between whites and blacks in jobs, education, and health.
President Cardoso appears to be sympathetic. He promised to form a commission to study the black community's problems and said he would consider US-style affirmative-action programs for jobs and education.
''I would be a liar if I said that discrimination doesn't exist in this country,'' Cardoso told Palmares revelers. ''It is very strong and of the worst kind, because it is disguised.''
Brazil's patterns of discrimination were detailed in a wide-ranging survey by the respected daily Folha de Sao Paulo. Released last June, the investigation of 121 cities showed that the average income for blacks was 2.5 times less than that of whites.
Statistics on education were just as dismal. The illiteracy rate for blacks was more than twice that of whites. ''The principal conclusion is that Brazil is a racist country, even though it is reluctant to admit it,'' said an accompanying editorial.
Brazilians often take pride in calling their society a racial democracy that is free of prejudice and historic segregation. If discrimination exists, many Brazilians say, it is based on class, not on race.
Indeed, race relations here are more complex than in the United States. There is a much lower level of racial tension and intermarriage is common.
With a multitude of different skin tones, only about 7 percent of the nation's population of 155 million inhabitants today describe themselves as black, even though demographers often call Brazil the nation with the second-largest black population after Nigeria. About half the population has some African ancestry.
Critics say this ''cordial racism'' has made it difficult to produce national political leaders. Blacks are almost totally absent from high government and military posts. Currently, there are only 11 black federal deputies out of 513 and only 2 out of 81 senators.
''It's scandalous that 107 years after the abolition of slavery that the black community is virtually absent from positions of power in Brazil,'' said history professor Paulo Sergio Pinheiro of the University of Sao Paulo. Last week, the nation's most famous Afro-Brazilian, Edson Arantes do Nascimento, the former soccer legend known as ''Pele,'' surprised many here when he exhorted blacks to vote to ''put our people in Congress to defend our race and resolve our problems.''
As minister of sports in President Cardoso's Cabinet, Mr. Arantes do Nascimento occupies the highest national position ever attained by a black man. While his comments angered some whites - one newspaper columnist called him a ''Brazilian [Louis] Farrakhan'' - his words were well-received in some black circles.
''The Afro-Brazilian people have never had the satisfaction of voting for a black candidate for president,'' said Walter Gualberto de Brito, president of the Institute for Citizenship and Unity, told reporters on Zumbi's day. He then announced the launch of a ''Pele for President'' campaign.
Zumbi, the man who inspired the current racial debate, was Palmares's third and last king. Palmares was formed in 1597 after some 50 slaves fled from a nearby sugar plantation and took refuge in the surrounding wooded mountains in what is today the state of Alagoas.
The quilombos lasted for 97 years, covering an area of 216 miles with 10 villages and as many as 30,000 inhabitants.
As military commander, Zumbi fought the slave trade for nearly two decades, until Palmares was destroyed in 1694 by Portuguese troops. He was killed a year later in an ambush. (See related story below.)
''Zumbi believed in all or nothing, victory or death,'' wrote historian Decio Freitas, author of ''Palmares: War of Slaves.''
For many Afro-Brazilians, Zumbi is a legend. ''He's everything: peace, love, dignity,'' says Cristiani Oliveira dos Santos, a dance student in Rio de Janeiro, who recently performed in a tribute to Zumbi.
While most Afro-Brazilians are content with Zumbi's new status - and the city of Rio de Janeiro became the first to declare Nov. 20 an official holiday - some hope the federal government will go way beyond the festivities.
''We don't need coins and stamps with Zumbi's likeness,'' says Mr. Conceicao. ''We need jobs, health [care], and education.''