New law could mark end of American Confederacy – in Brazil

Andre Penner/AP/File
Descendants of U.S. Southerners wearing Confederate-era uniforms pose at a party celebrating the 150th anniversary of the end of the American Civil War in Santa Bárbara d'Oeste, Brazil, on April 26, 2015. For many here and in neighboring Americana, Confederate ancestry, a point of pride, is celebrated at the annual Festa Confederada, or Confederate Festival.
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In 1866, Confederates fled defeat in the United States and started settling in rural Brazil. They were promised cheap land and labor, and collectively purchased more than 500 enslaved people, according to researchers. For the past four decades, their ancestors have held a festival celebrating their unique ties to the U.S., playing country music and waving Confederate flags.

The focus on the flag has made the tradition increasingly contentious. But following the passage of a local ordinance banning the use of racist symbols at public festivals, the celebration as it has been carried out in the past is now at risk.

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

A new law banning Confederate symbols in a rural Brazilian town tests long-held beliefs about history and identity. It’s also creating opportunity for a more balanced narrative about the past.

The new law has frustrated the Fraternidade Descendência Americana, or FDA, founded by the descendants of Confederate families. “It’s difficult for us to feel bad about something we’re proud of,” says Joao Padoveze, president of the FDA and a self-proclaimed redneck.

But this moment has also created an opportunity. Public discussions are taking place around the need to balance the historical narrative by including largely overlooked voices, like those of Afro-Brazilians.

“For us, [the law] is an advance,” says Silvia Motta, who runs an Afro-Brazilian cultural center. But “it’s a regression for us to keep talking about American culture instead of Black culture.

“That’s the weight of this flag.”

The Cemitério do Campo is unlike any other cemetery in Brazil. Located at the end of a dirt road in rural São Paulo state, it’s the site of an estimated 500 graves, a small ecumenical chapel – and one of the world’s largest Confederate flags.

Settled by Confederates fleeing their loss in the U.S. Civil War more than 150 years ago, it’s been host to the Festa Confederada, or Confederate Festival, for the past four decades. Thousands travel from across Brazil to celebrate the legacy of the Confederate States of America, complete with flags and a country music soundtrack. Attendees use “Confederate dollars” to buy chicken and biscuits, while watching reenactments from the antebellum South.

But a new municipal law could mean the end of the annual celebration and any other public event commemorating the Confederacy. The ordinance bans the use of racist symbols at public festivals, and the Confederate flag and this festival in Santa Bárbara d’Oeste are specifically named in the justification for the law, which passed last month with near-unanimous support.

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

A new law banning Confederate symbols in a rural Brazilian town tests long-held beliefs about history and identity. It’s also creating opportunity for a more balanced narrative about the past.

The conflict here mirrors the ongoing debate over Confederate symbols and monuments in the United States, despite taking place thousands of miles south of the Mason-Dixon Line. For residents, however, it’s a hyperlocal dispute about representation and balancing the legacy of slavery in Brazil with the unusual story of American immigrants who settled in this small town a century and a half ago.

The law’s passage has raised the stakes on how this unique history should best be honored. While some are doubling down on the importance of the Confederate flag, others are using the ordinance as an opportunity to give new voice to often-overlooked narratives in Santa Bárbara d’Oeste. How the city identifies a middle ground between remembering the past and recognizing the weight of historic symbols could serve as a road map for other hot-button issues vexing an increasingly polarized Brazil in the future.

Zach Ben-Amots
A towering obelisk in the middle of the Cemitério do Campo is imprinted with a Confederate flag on all four sides, along with the names of the first Confederate families to arrive in Santa Bárbara d'Oeste in the late 1800s. Thousands of Confederates fled the U.S. after their defeat in the Civil War, and Brazil drew many with offers of cheap land and labor.

“This is an attempt … to reconsider history,” says Sidney Aguilar Filho, a historian and researcher at the University of Campinas, referring to the new law. He says it’s important to revisit and question the past. “The great value of this debate,” he says, is that it could help the community “face sadness and trauma with intellectual and historical honesty, so that we can move forward in our own story.”

Remembering history?

In 1866, Confederados, as they are called in Portuguese, fled defeat in the U.S. and started settling here, lured by offers of cheap land and labor. They collectively purchased more than 500 enslaved people, according to researchers from the Federal University of Tocantins. Some two decades later, Brazil became the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery. The region encompassing Santa Bárbara was the last to enforce the abolition.

“For us, the Confederate flag carries the symbolism of … resistance to tyranny,” not the symbolism of slavery, says João Padoveze, president of the Fraternidade Descendência Americana, or FDA, a group founded by the descendants of Confederate families. Leaders of the FDA are the chief opponents of the new law.

There’s a “lack of ability to distinguish between what is Confederate and what is United States” among residents who pass down misinformation about the Civil War, says American geographer Jordan Brasher, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on the Confederados.

In Santa Bárbara and the neighboring city of Americana, which was founded by Confederates, the FDA has controlled the historical narrative for years, romanticizing their ancestors and minimizing slavery, says Dr. Aguilar Filho.

“There has been a type of exaltation of this American immigration and an insistence on a vision that they were not Confederates in the strict sense of the word, that they were not enslavers,” says Dr. Aguilar Filho. “But documents and indexes don’t back this up.”

Growing up, Cláudia Monteiro da Rocha Ramos, a historian and activist, never paid much attention to the Confederate flags flying in her hometown. But that all changed for Ms. Monteiro, who is Black, after the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

“After Charlottesville, [the U.S.] debate about the flag resonated in Brazil,” says Ms. Monteiro, a leader of the local chapter of Unegro, a national anti-racism organization. “We organized several events and invited the FDA to participate. Our intention was to have dialogue and suggest they take down the Confederate flag and just fly the current American flag instead.”

On Sept. 30, 2017, Ms. Monteiro and Mr. Padoveze met for a public debate about Santa Bárbara’s Confederate iconography. It was the first time that the “benign” image of the Confederate flag was challenged here. Community members packed into a conference hall for the debate.

“It’s difficult for us to feel bad about something we’re proud of,” says Mr. Padoveze, a self-proclaimed redneck, using a term adopted from the U.S. He also has a Confederate flag on his belt buckle, keychain, wallet, lanyard, and Facebook cover photo, as well as on the bumper of his Ford truck.

“It’s a symbol of connection with our roots,” he says, adding that his ancestors were among the first Confederates to arrive in Brazil.  

In April 2019, some 3,000 people attended the Festa Confederada – the last one held due to COVID-19 cancellations – where they watched a dance choreographed to the song “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” and a presentation of historical Confederate flags. Outside the grounds, a few dozen protesters gathered on the dirt road to perform traditional Afro-Brazilian dances, songs, and martial arts.

Zach Ben-Amots
Atanael Motta Jr. (left) and his wife, Silvia, led a protest outside the Festa Confederada in 2019, where they gathered around a large banner that read "Abaixo a Bandeira Confederada," or "Take down the Confederate flag."

Atanael Motta Jr., a local organizer and capoeira teacher, says the protest was greeted with a mix of ambivalence and hostility.

FDA leaders “received us well,” he says. “But the people that were arriving to the festival waved flags at us to provoke us.”

According to the 2010 census, the most recent, Santa Bárbara is a majority-white city, with just shy of 30% Black and multiracial residents. Ms. Monteiro and others contest the accuracy of those numbers, estimating Black and multiracial residents make up closer to 60% of the population today.

Black community members say the enslavement of their ancestors has long been overshadowed by the story of the enslavers. Mr. Motta, along with his wife, Silvia, opened a cultural center in Americana this year to try and combat that legacy.  

“We are resistance,” says Mr. Motta.

“Not against” celebrating ancestors

The Festa Confederada is one of the largest tourist attractions in Santa Bárbara, but it hasn’t always depended on Confederate symbols to draw tourists, says Dr. Brasher. At points over the past 40 years, it’s been a rock festival and a country festival, always leaning into exported stereotypes of U.S. Southern culture.

Zach Ben-Amots
Santa Bárbara d'Oeste City Councilwoman Esther Moraes wrote the new law to ban the distribution of public funds to organizations and events that display "racist symbols." It could put an annual festival at risk, but some say it's a chance to balance out the historic narrative of the Confederate-founded community.

“We are not against people celebrating their ancestors,” says City Councilwoman Esther Moraes, who wrote and sponsored the law and insists the festival can continue celebrating American heritage. “The issue is the use of Confederate symbols … that represent the oppression that our Black population doesn’t want to carry any longer.”

The FDA is not united in its support for the flag.

“Look to the United States today, and you’ll see how poorly viewed the [Confederate] flag is,” says Jefferson Lafaiette Keese, who advocates for the use of the U.S. flag and plans to be buried with his Confederate ancestors in the Cemitério do Campo.

Mr. Keese calls flying the Confederate flag “an embarrassment.”

Confederate descendant Helena Bittencourt Pfaffenbach remembers a time when the Festa Confederada was more like a family reunion, and wishes the FDA would distance itself from the flag. She’s attended the festival just once over the past 20 years, when her son showed an interest, but says she found it “very commercial.”

“I don’t understand why we have to throw a party to celebrate the Confederate states,” says Ms. Pfaffenbach. “I think we can just celebrate our ancestors, and that’s it.”

Both Mr. Keese and Ms. Pfaffenbach pay the FDA to maintain their families’ gravesites. They still enjoy fond memories of the cemetery: For most of the year, it is a tranquil place. Sunlight pours through the North American pines, while green parrots fly and screech overhead.

“For us, [the law] is an advance,” says Ms. Motta, who opened the nearby Afro-Brazilian cultural center. But “it’s a regression for us to keep talking about American culture instead of Black culture.

“That’s the weight of this flag.”

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