At slavery-era sites in Rio, app unearths an uneasy history

For years, many Brazilians have argued that the country's story of slavery is buried out of sight – literally, in Rio de Janeiro, once home to the Americas' biggest slave port. The Museum of Yesterday, an augmented reality app, tries to put that history in users' hands.

Renata Brito/AP
Gabriele Roza, who helped develop the "Museum of Yesterday" app, walks in the renovated port area of Rio de Janeiro. The app seeks to educate visitors about local history and Rio's role during colonial times, slavery, and even recent corruption investigations.

Just as rush hour begins in Rio de Janeiro’s Port Zone, bordering the city’s bustling downtown, Gabriele Roza looks kitty-corner across a busy street. Between buses and taxis rushing through the intersection, she points to a small plaza: half a dozen buildings fan out, all tagged with graffiti and some with broken windows. They’re a reminder of the city’s uncomfortable history – although there’s no way to tell at first glance. 

“This was the main area of resistance,” Ms. Roza says. “This is where Africans and their descendants would do things that were banned.” From capoeira martial arts to samba to candomblé religious traditions, some of the modern-day cultural hallmarks of Brazil were fostered clandestinely behind these walls during the days of slavery.

There’s not much sign of what this region used to be: the largest slave port in the Americas; a gruesome slave market; the center of economic activity for not just colonial Brazil, but the entire Portuguese Empire.

Renata Brito/AP
Remnants of a house that was used as a slave deposit in the late 18th century stand in the port area of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, July 9. Before abolishing slavery in 1888, becoming the last country in the Americas to do so, Brazil was the world's largest slave market.

Until now. As Roza looks at her cell phone, a flashing icon appears. Click, and a photo with text pops up: She’s standing in what was called the “Casa de Zungu,” the app explains, where cheap angu, a dish made of corn, was sold to dockhands and freed slaves. Today, one restaurant in the small plaza has continued the tradition, keeping angu on the menu.

It’s part of a new augmented reality app called the Museum of Yesterday: a deliberate contrast to the flashy Museum of Tomorrow, built ahead of the Rio 2016 Olympics. Its creators, local journalism nonprofit Agência Pública, describe the app as a combination of journalism, art, and technology, inspired by Pokémon Go.

For years, many Brazilians have said the country’s story of slavery is being buried from view – literally, in Rio, where new developments have hidden key historical sites. The consequences of that ‘invisibility,’ they argue, are felt today, in the diverse country’s urgent debates about racial inequality, with mixed-race and black citizens disproportionately impacted by poverty and violence.

The Museum of Yesterday app is trying to make that invisible history visible. As users walk through Rio’s Port Zone, icons on its map flash at points of interest, and users can “unlock” information: old photos and illustrations, informational text in English or Portuguese, recordings of old newspaper ads for slaves, and other scenes of everyday life during the 18th and 19th centuries.

“In order to understand racial divides today, we have to look at the legacy of slavery – Brazil didn’t get this way out of nowhere,” says Roza, a member of her university’s black student group who conducted research for the app.

Legacy of yesterday

Activists, educators and historians have long been troubled by the lack of recognition the area gets for its historical significance – which they say is emblematic of Brazil’s current-day struggle with racial inequality. Civil society is left with the responsibility of keeping the neighborhood’s dark history alive and in the public’s consciousness.

“It’s never been a big priority by the government to preserve this part of history and culture of Brazil,” says Mariana Simões, a manager at Agência Pública. “It’s sad that we don’t have a lot of resources devoted to this, and that there are few initiatives that are trying to bring more visibility to this history.”

It’s estimated that 4.7 million Africans were brought to Brazil from the transatlantic slave trade – more than 10 times the number brought to the United States – and some 2 million docked in Rio and the surrounding region. Today, more than half of Brazil’s 200 million people identify as mixed-race or black. But only 5 percent of companies were run by Afro-Brazilians in 2014, and in 2015, only about 20 percent of deputies in the lower house of the legislature were black or mixed-race. Seventy-two percent of residents in Brazil’s low-income favela settlements identify as black, and three-quarters of those killed by police are black men.

Anna Jean Kaiser
The Pedra do Sal, or Salt Rock, in Rio's Port Zone is a stop on the Museum of Yesterday tour. The space has been an informal center for samba since the musical genre was invented by Africans in Rio. Today, crowds flood the plaza and granite slope every week for live samba sessions.

“The port breathes black history and culture, but for the government and others throughout history to erase this – it’s as if the story isn’t legitimatized, as if it never existed, and as if there are no problems to address today because of this legacy,” Roza says.

“It’s our history, so we’re trying to grasp it, reconstruct it and remember it,” she adds. “These initiatives to rescue history end up coming from social movements, the black movement and academic groups.”

A central city

Ms. Simões says the Port Zone was an obvious choice for a history-driven augmented reality app.

“So much of Brazil’s history is in this region – colonization, slavery, the seat of the Portuguese royal family in Brazil, even modern-day corruption,” she says, referring to a $2.5 billion infrastructure project for the area ahead of the 2016 Olympics, which is now part of the nation’s largest-ever corruption investigation. The app has five different tours, including one focused on corruption and another on samba.

Lately, improvements have brought much more visibility and foot traffic to the neighborhood, she says, but there hasn’t been much attempt to do its history justice – which makes it the perfect time and place for an app to “put history in your hand.”

Brazil was the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery, in 1888. Since then, however, many accuse the country of deliberately covering up that legacy: in Rio, for example, slave wharves were filled in with landfill, the names of streets and plazas were changed, and the world’s largest known mass grave for enslaved people was built over with houses. 

But in recent years, some of this history has been unearthed. A family living on top of the cemetery rediscovered the mass grave in 1996, and made it into a small museum. Before the Olympics, a massive revitalization project unearthed the Valongo Wharf, where enslaved people disembarked after the Middle Passage. The wharf’s remnants, a focus of the Museum of Yesterday tour, gained World Heritage status last month from UNESCO, which called them “the most important physical trace of the arrival of African slaves on the American continent.”

'Open your eyes'

Just a few blocks past the Valongo Wharf lies the Valongo slave market – today, an unassuming plaza.

“Open your eyes and ears to realize what’s in front of you: a shop for slaves!” the app says as users approach the site, which functioned as a slave market for more than 100 years. “These were warehouses of people … sitting on benches or lying on the ground, chained up and waiting for buyers.”

Users also see the roots of samba music at sites like Pedra do Sal, a granite mountainside that was once a community for escaped slaves, and the hangout spot for sambistas after slavery was abolished – there are still free samba performances here every week. Near the slave market, users pass the Casa Tia Ciata: a small museum that’s homage to a candomblé priestess who’s credited for being a leader of the samba resistance movement. 

Since the app’s launch a month ago, there have been more than 2,500 downloads. Agência Pública is hoping to expand its reach by holding workshops for professors, teachers, and tour guides to encourage them to incorporate the technology into their work.

“The app is meeting a demand; people are interested,” Simões says. “Brazilians are definitely curious to know more about their own history.”

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