The color of modernity – whiteness and the formation of São Paulo identity

Erik Bulatov, Skier, 1971–4, Oil on canvas, 180 x 180 cm


Commentary on the newly edited book by historian Barbara Weinstein

Second the color of modernity, a work published by Edusp, racism, or more specifically “whiteness”, would be the central element of São Paulo’s regional identity. The author, professor of Latin American and Caribbean History at New York University, proposed this interpretation around two iconic moments in the history of São Paulo: the constitutionalist uprising of 1932 and the 1954th centenary of the city of São Paulo in XNUMX.

The regional identity for her is not a previous data resulting from geographic borders, but from political disputes. Its methodological considerations are spread out in an engaging narrative (by the way, very well translated into Portuguese by Ana Fiorini) and with lively descriptions and analyses.

For her, there is no “historical narrative that precedes interpretation” (p. 140) and the civil war of 1932 would be a process that, in itself, shaped the São Paulo regional identity. It was not, therefore, the result of pre-existing intentions and interests. Thus, she does not ask herself “what happened?”, but “why did it happen?”; that is: “what political and cultural images and discourses led a considerable portion of the population of São Paulo to join an armed movement” (pp. 145-7)? As much as many young volunteers were unapologetic and could even be afraid, they really risked their lives surrounded by an atmosphere of exaltation and really popular mobilization.

Her insistence is on the process and she starts from the well-documented assumption that there was strong support from a significant part of the São Paulo population to the 1932 uprising, particularly from the middle class. In this way, it exposes the theoretical problems of a history seen from below when it is not about subordinate classes, but about a movement with great support in the intermediate layers of society.

It records the repression of opponents and dissidents and anti-communist discourse, but does not exaggerate the “red threat” of a communist party that was very small at the time.

The conflict mobilized sectors as diverse as Freemasonry and sports clubs, Rotarians and Theosophists, the Black Legion and foreign “colonies”, dentists and law students, philatelists and nurses, industrialists and farmers. The proletariat was reticent, as Paulo Duarte stated, even so there was engagement of several workers.

Barbara Weinstein's discussion of the Paulista Woman, spelled with capital letters to “enhance an archetypal identity” (p. 297) reveals not only the success of “a collective and idealized image of São Paulo womanhood” (p. 307), but also the opportunities offered in an exceptional situation of mobilization for war and which were taken advantage of by women. Thus, they not only behaved according to the script expected by men, but occupied spaces previously forbidden to them. The author presents the best-known cases of the black volunteer “Maria Soldado” and “Soldado Mário” (the woman who disguised herself as a man to fight).

There is also a wide discussion about the construction of the Northeast as a backward region populated by “inferior races”, but also the counterpoint: the reading of the 1932 conflict presented in the press outside the state of São Paulo. However, this does not express the view of the popular classes and evades the fact that there is no unambiguous northeast to be opposed en bloc to the prejudiced image propagated by the São Paulo elite. Aware of this, the author cites studies on the “invention of the Northeast”, in addition, her object is the representations of the São Paulo side.

It also debates the São Paulo superiority discourse that is proposed as the modern direction of Brazil; goes through the invention of the bandeirante myth and other “representations” that forged the predominant memory in the state of São Paulo.

In the analysis of the IV centenary of the city, his contribution is notable. Drawing on many document collections, the author reconstituted the entire preparation for the 1954 celebration, dealt with changes in the discourse about the past (especially the racial and “democratic”), relating them to the new moment in national politics and with the myth of racial democracy, now prevalent. Thus, the incorporation of the black and the indigenous in the official narrative of the XNUMXth centenary existed, but as an “allegory of racial intimacy and miscegenation”, something extinguished and erased by the subsequent whitening. In the book there is an analysis of the sculpture of the “black mother”, located in Largo do Paissandu, close to the Church of Our Lady of Black Men. According to the author, in the dominant São Paulo narrative, blacks and indigenous people would have helped whites in the past only to later vegetate on the margins of history.

The discourse propagated by the São Paulo elites would be so powerful that it would even mark intellectuals who regretted their participation in 1932, such as Mario de Andrade, or critical academics such as Florestan Fernandes, also involved “by the notion of São Paulo exceptionalism”. Even Caio Prado Júnior appears ambiguously (p. 497) in Barbara Weinstein's text.

She also questions Antonio Candido and other critical intellectuals of the movement for not completely separating themselves from the representation of São Paulo exceptionalism.

In the case of Antonio Candido, it alludes to the testimony present in the documentary “1932: the civil war” by Eduardo Escorel, from 1992. Candido praised the defense of democracy in the constitutionalist uprising of 1932, even though he was evidently aware of the conservatism of the movement (p. 202). Barbara Weinstein understands that that statement was made a few years after the military dictatorial cycle and that an appreciation of the democratic element was expected, but she questions the “little comprehensive view of the democratic process” referred to by Antonio Candido.

However, the author forgets to problematize the fact that any democracy is very far from its ideal type. Just think of the indirect electoral process in the United States that she normalizes when she writes: “as in Brazil elections are direct and not by electoral college…” (p.575). The subliminal comparison here is the United States, where an electoral college chooses the president of the republic. When she talks about Brazil, she gives importance to the fact that the country has gone almost 30 years without direct elections (p. 201). Would the United States then be a democracy? Furthermore, the author does not criticize the documentary as a historical source that undergoes a process of selection and editing.

One attitude that Barbara Weinstein often adopts in her narrative is judgment of other authors. She adjectives much of what she quotes. Such an analysis is (for her) “hypermaterialist”, a certain author is “insightful”; another exhibits an “excellent discussion” or “a brilliant discussion”; such “narrative… is the best…”; there is the “most influential” study on such a subject; for her, a foreign author made “by far the best discussion” about the civilist campaign. Even the sources are hierarchical: there are the “two best accounts” of the events of July 9, 1932… Although she may eventually be right in her assessments, they presuppose a full knowledge of the sources and bibliography that no one has, besides being something irrelevant to the reading of his work. Just think of the fact that the Casa de Rui Barbosa published a bibliography of the civilist campaign decades ago…

Although her book presents many examples of how the image of the white man would be central to São Paulo's identity, the author refers to the “Brazilian tendency (sic) to associate modernity and progress with whiteness and Europeanism” (p. 492) and states that the Racism was not exclusive to the São Paulo elite (pp. 27 and 40), but it also says that it was better equipped to claim whiteness due to its “strategies of representation”.

While this is not surprising, the elite fourteen was not as white as the European immigrants whose transportation it subsidized to whiten the population. The Phenotypic Ambivalence Barbara Weinstein Observed in the Elite cruceña who is ashamed of Bolivia's indigenous people could be seen in São Paulo, which goes to show how ubiquitous racism is in the country. Paulo Nogueira Filho was called “negrinho de Campinas” and Aureliano Leite was “accused” of being a “man of color”. Two “proceres” from 1932…

In fact, all ruling classes in any state, even those with the greatest participation of blacks and browns in the population, based their dominance on the racism that permeates all social relations, although not only in this. Otherwise, throughout our republican history, virtually all whites would not be governors, judges or generals. Not to mention the Presidency of the Republic. Furthermore, is there any national or regional identity that is not by definition exclusive of others? Certainly an oppressed region or nation can display an emancipatory nationalism, as Lenin would say, but not permanently.

Forging a national identity that gives an active symbolic role to blacks or indigenous people is important, but it does not change their objective situation. This is the limit of the postmodern approach: reality does not cease to exist because we give centrality to “representations”.

So what gave the São Paulo elite its uniqueness? It was its economic power that allowed it to resist longer than other elites in the trenches of its exceptionalism.

Even the “Paulistas” had to disguise their regional pride. But the author does not locate the changes in discourse in the production of material and social life. She declares herself “sympathetic to postmodern scholars who emphasize rupture over continuity, and instability (if not indeterminacy) of meaning over persistence”; even so, she finds a “causal connection” between past and present, between 1932 and the 1964 coup, for example: São Paulo chauvinism crystallized in 1932 and its continuity is not inscribed “in a Hegelian or materialist conception”, but in the narratives, in celebrations (pp. 568-9). Anyway, in memory and not in history.

Contrary to what the author believes, the constant re-elaboration of the meanings of 1932 is inscribed in memory and also in history, nourishing itself with real class interests that were thwarted after the 1930 revolution. The São Paulo elite could not simply go back to the past and re-elaborated its political strategy within a nation in which it no longer sees itself as a leader, but as a moral exponent, a simulacrum of the moderating power circumstantially exercised by institutions that undermine the popular will, whether courts, congress or the armed forces . The values ​​that evoke 1932 (a fight against corruption, dictatorship, etc.), conveniently purged of scientific racism and explicit regional prejudice, are not, however, mere inventions, but expressions that arise in the material conditions of production.

São Paulo is an exporting peripheral economy and its industry is dependent on foreign imports. However, in the First Republic it was already an exporter of manufactured goods to other states of the federation. In the 50s, exports from São Paulo to other Brazilian states had already grown exponentially. Even imports from the national market increased, even though the state continued to gravitate towards the interests of imperialism. Therefore, in 1954, the state of São Paulo that recalled the 1932 war was economically different (the author recorded this transformation).

It was, therefore, the material interest of the dominant classes that marginalized the explicit manifestations of prejudice and put the dissemination of the negative stereotype of other regions in the background. Even politically, São Paulo could no longer claim leadership, given the greater centralization of the country and the undisputed military supremacy of the central government. Her role became that of exercising the aforementioned moderating power in national politics, combating “populism”, a term that the author actually incorporates without realizing that this reinforces the “Paulista” discourse that she seeks to combat.

Despite all this, Barbara Weinstein wrote a work that is an important bibliographic reference. Her work is supported by extensive research and she highlighted the essential role of racism in the self-image that many Paulistas still have today.

*Lincoln Secco He is a professor in the Department of History at USP. Author, among other books, of History of the PT (Studio).

Originally published on Maria Antonia Newsletter.


Barbara Weinstein. The color of modernity: whiteness and the formation of São Paulo identity. Translation: Ana Fiorini. São Paulo: Edusp, 2022, 656 pages.

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