Brazil's Slave Hero Finally Wins Acclaim
RIO DE JANEIRO
IT took three centuries for the man one historian calls Brazil's ''only true popular hero'' to win official recognition.Skip to next paragraph
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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.''