The Borba Gato case

Jackson Pollock, The Flame, c. 1934-38


What is the meaning of a monument for the ruling classes today?

The Borba Gato case was analyzed from different angles: the aesthetic value of the work, its belonging to the Santo Amaro neighborhood, the significance of the historical character, the violence (or not) involved in the burning of the statue, the political right (or wrong) in burning it, (in)voluntary mistakes in preparing the operational details, the coincidence with the day of protests against the government, the political consequence (arrest of an emerging leadership of a new category of workers) etc. There were even those, in the progressive field, who rescued forms of Northeastern popular aesthetics that would be present in the monument.

What we haven't asked yet is: what is the meaning of a monument for the dominant classes today? Is the idea that they build a memory that seeks forums of universality through the choice of preserving or forgetting a certain heritage still valid?

In São Paulo, the so-called conservative classes sought to create an intellectual infrastructure to spread a version of their role in the history of Brazil. The First Republic was prodigal in the constitution of an ideology that materialized in maps, textbooks, public schools, libraries, monuments. Its zenith was the civil war of 1932, in which the image of the paulista as leader of the nation and bearer of progress was massified.

But the moment of 1932 was the zenith and also the beginning of the decline. Today, the ruling classes have no interest in formulating a national ideology and therefore in constituting any shared memory. The fascist recovery of the past is false, as we know, devoid of the vigor of a project.

Domination in Brazil has always prescinded from the consensus of the governed. Even for those conservative classes of the First Republic, the social question was just a police matter. Those hints of intellectual preoccupation were out of place in its dominant practice, marked by the use of the State only for its own ends. Its pragmatic liberalism did not even admit the first and timid reforms of the Provisional Government of 1930 in the labor issue. It took a war to convince them. Still, they turned military combat into a show of force exercise to moderate the new regime. As I've stated before[I], São Paulo is the true moderating power of the Brazilian republic. At each attempt at popular reform, the São Paulo elites and allies will be there to limit and, if possible, defeat any government that does not interest them.

São Paulo's hegemony was selective and exercised over other privileged regional classes. For the workers, coercion was left. It is for no other reason that, despite some moments of monumentalization of its past, the ruling classes in Brazil persist in the practice of colonial dispossession and see the country as a mere territory where people toil who have nothing in common with them, especially the color of the skin. This explains the destruction of the National Museum, the cinematheque[ii], the public school, colonial churches and the abandonment of their own monuments. And in São Paulo, the constant demolition of historic buildings to create commercial houses such as Havan or neo-Pentecostal temples.

Setting fire to the statue was the first action that transformed the Borba Gato statue into something significant and sparked a debate about his historical figure. It has been abandoned and squeezed between bus lanes and tainted by pollution. Galo gave him back his past as an exterminator of the oppressed. And from that, he laid another brick in the construction of popular movements. He placed a social sculpture in that place. A class in struggle does not materialize an ideology in monuments, it does not carry another ideology and constantly criticizes its own past actions. It builds a memory of struggles, tries to preserve its documents and spaces of organization. But they are not contemplative monuments, but places of belonging and participation.

The Bourgeoisie destroys or appropriates working class spaces all the time. By transforming, for example, the Júlio Prestes station, formerly frequented by everyone, into an exclusive place for its sociability, it gives a new meaning to that heritage. When more than a century ago there was the demolition of the Church of Our Lady of Black Men of São Paulo to build a bench (monument to the god Mammon), those interested justified it with the “ugliness” of the religious temple. Galo can tell his tormentors that Borba Gato is not particularly handsome…

No city destroys workers' memories as well as São Paulo, “Brazil's locomotive”, which pulls the other cars to hell. Here, however, is one of the key points where the entire web of violence against the Brazilian population can be sabotaged.

*Lincoln Secco is a professor of contemporary history at USP. Author, among other books by History of the PT (Studio).

Originally published on Boitempo's blog.



[ii]Gomez, Rose. The Sinister Project for Brazilian Heritage.

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