Black & Queer São Paulo
Finding Inclusive Spaces in the Metropolis
I unapologetically seek the Blackest, Blackety, Black and queer experiences in Latin America. Given that I just completed my first trip to Brazil (home to the largest Afro-decedent population outside of Africa), it's no wonder that I am left in complete awe---full of Black love, and yearning to return. It was important to me to find spaces that were affirming, inclusive--places where I could show up as my full self.
São Paulo does not feel like Rio at all. It does not feel tropical at all really. It's an urban metropolis built on top of hilly topography and wrapped in concrete. If you get a window seat on the flight in you'll see the vastness of this city. Its Blackness will not jump out at you. But it is there.
I was able to tap into the Black cultural scene, full of its love, inclusion, and soul, by reaching out to Black entrepreneurs and travel influencers on social media. Here are a few of the beautiful things that they recommended I check out.
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Vai-Vai Escola de Samba
Wrapping up its eighteen year, Feira Preta (literally means Black Expo) is the city’s annual festival in celebration of Black Brazilian culture and heritage.
The month-long series of events running during Afro-Brazilian Heritage month each November culminates in a two-day festival complete with workshops on everything from entrepreneurship and social media, to savory delights cooked by someone that looks like your favorite auntie. And there are the concerts that draw young and old alike to two-step and slow wind their waistlines to the most well-known artists like the legendary Elza Suarez, and contemporary artists like Drik Barbosa and Larissa Luz.
You can spend all day there shopping, socializing, and eating; followed by dancing to a healthy heap of live Afro-Brazilian music covering a range of genre.
Practical Tips for Feira Preta
✔ Entrance is free, but be prepared to shop and buy food. Major credit and debit cards work on mobile card readers that most vendors have. However, I advise taking more than one card, as some readers have issues with specific cards.
✔ Stay hydrated, You can't bring in liquids, but bring a refillable bottle.
✔ Feira Preta is simliar to Afro-Punk. Be encouraged to wear your Afro-centric fashions, and you will fit right in.
✔ Social media is the new business card. Network and stay in contact with folks that you meet by exchanging Instagram accuonts, and texting via WhatsApp. Don't forget to use the namesake hashtag #feirapreta.
Walking Tour of Barra Funda
Reaching out to other travel influencers whose domain covers my destination is the key to uncovering more about a place. As you may know, once you start following and interacting with influencers that have demographics in common (in this case: affiliated with Black Brazil), even more relevant information and profiles start to appear on your timeline thanks to the the magic of social media algorithms.
I reached out to my friend Guilherme Dias at Black Bird Viagem about his dynamic history walks through Black communities in São Paulo. He highlights key cultural institutions and places that fueled the economy of this working class Black neighborhood that is now experiencing the impact of gentrification. His walks are hosted in English or PorNot only did I attend his walk through Barra Funda, a Black community in the city’s downtown area, but he also pointed me in the direction of other Black and queer spaces like Aparelha Luzia.
Notes on Afro-Brazilian Cuisine
You'll find a range of Afro-Brazilian dishes being offered at Feira Preta. The culinary tradition of Black Brazilians is influenced by its African heritage, the creativity required to make meals from the limited options of food available during slavery, and a reliance on the staples of subsistence agriculture. For that reason, rice, beans, and pork are consistent parts of the Afro-Brazilian diet.
Try the feijoada, which is a black bean stew with meat, or a acarajé a black bean fritter filled with seafood or veggies.
You might be able to peer into the restaurants' booths to see the savory foods being prepared by someone that resembles your aunt that makes the good potato salad back home.
Rua Apa, 78 - Campos Elíseos, São Paulo
Founded by Erica Malunguinho, São Paulo’s first Black trans woman to be elected to the State Legislature, whom describes Aparelha Luzia, the inclusive community gather space located in Barra Funda, as an "urban quilombo"; a haven for Black and queer people.
Quilombos were the forest hideouts and burgeoning communities that were refuges to enslaved Africans that rebelled and reclaimed their freedom through escape. In this grand city, with its huge chasm between the rich and the poor, and Black and white, this space is welcoming to all, and serves as a home to artistic exchange, a forum for discourse on policy and civil rights, and an inclusive social space. White supremacy or white privilege is not tolerated here; it is is clearly outlined on a poster affixed to the beer cooler: a list of tenets adapted from Afro-Punk’s list of black and white block lettered rules proclaiming that there will be no anti-Blackness, no homophobia, no transphobia, no fatphobia, and the last one, "sem palmitagem"--a colloquial Brazilian phrase that translates to not elevating whiteness over blackness. You’ll have to get a local to explain it to you. And there’s a table toward the back that says “Reserved for the Old Black Lady”, a reference to times when Black people were not allowed to sit where they wanted. Erica wants you to know that this table--this space, is reserved for those Black women (and men) that built and nourished Brazil, often from their own bodies.
I spent a total of three nights/early mornings in this space---choosing it over the city’s’ mostly white gay clubs and discos. I felt welcomed. I was fed, I partook in libations, and even I kissed a couple of beautiful people there as we all swayed to live samba and introduced ourselves in the Brazilian way (handshake and embrace with a kiss on the cheek or neck, followed by one’s first name) until its closing time that often runs past 4 A.M. when a parade of Uber and taxis will sweep everyone one away---after one last kiss with their new acquaintance.
Getting Around São Paulo
As one of Brazil's largest metropolitain areas, São Paulo boasts accessible and varied transportation options to get you to your destination. Just watch out for rush hour.
With its 5 lines and 64 stations, the system can get you within walking distance of most places in the city and periphery. Google Maps provides accurate instructions about stations and transfers.
You can rely on buses to make those last mile transfers between subway stops, or for shorter-distance journeys that get you closer to you destination. Google Maps also provides accurate instructions and route numbers. Ask locals for more details.
The transportation tech app is fully operational here. Be greeted by an Uber rep at its designated airport pickup at GRU. Ubers service the entire city, at a price most from the US would consider very reasonable.
You can catch a taxi nearly anywhere in the city. Be on the look out for taxi stands erected on major streets. Use the 99 Private Driver and Taxi app to call a ride, get fare quotes, and share your trip with loved-ones. A trusted alternative used by locals.
Located in the lush green Ibirapuera Park in the middle of the city, the Museo Afro-Brasil is the institution that houses a vast collection of artifacts that tell the story of Africans and their descendants in Brazil. The three story building is grandiose, and the exhibits are tightly packed with cultural relics that compile a living encyclopedia of Black Brazil.
This dynamic showcase of artifacts covers slavery and social conditions crafted through racial segregation, the centrality of religion and spirituality and its African lineage, the impact of Black artists and entertainers on Brazilian society, and most interesting: the shared struggles of Afro-Brazilians and indigenous in contemporary society.
The entrance fee is $15 Brazilian reales, and there are huge lockers to store your bags if needed. The exhibits are in Portuguese, so it might be helpful to hire a guide for those that do not speak Portuguese or Spanish. I visited on rather bustling and noisy Friday that seemed to be popular as a field-trip day for local schools.
Vai-Vai Samba Escola de Rehearsal
Word-of-mouth is king when it comes to discovering the most authentic cultural experiences when I travel. A friend said that I should not miss visiting the ensaio, or rehearsal performance at Vai-Vai Escola de Samba--one of two Black samba schools in the city.
Samba is a mix of musical styles synthesized by Black Brazilians--and one of Brazil's most iconic musical genre. Enslaved and freed Blacks were forbidden to play it, and it was often criminalized (much like the contemporary funk carioca music currently being created in favelas).
During Carnival the city’s samba schools compete for prizes recognizing their sound, costumes, and choreography. Like many places throughout the diaspora, Black Brazilians were barred from joining white samba schools. So they started their own. Vai-Vai is one of them. They hold rehearsals on Sundays leading up to carnaval. Each rehearsal is a show in and of itself. There are grand costumes and uniforms, color guards, an enormous band whose arsenal includes a booming drum section called the bateria, and singers that tell stories of pride for their school and themes that relay their carnaval presentation to be judged each season. I noticed that everyone had a role to play in this production, and everyone that wanted to be a part of the spectacle was able to make a contribution--even drag queens.
Streets are blocked, drinks are served, and on-lookers attempt their best samba step as they are greeted by the performers that seem to be experiencing pure joy as they sing and perform synchronized movements for hours.
BIYOU'Z Restaurante Afro
An associate, business partner, and paulista recommended that I eat at BIYOU´Z Restaurante Afro. Located in the core of downtown, the West African flavors shine. With a welcoming open-air dining room, I feasted on a vegetarian meal of veggie succotash, salad, rice fufu, and a very astringent ginger drink that I welcomed to knock out an encroaching cold.
Located in São Paulo's neighborhood known as República, my driver gave me a debriefing of the dangers of the area--and its neighboring Cracolandia, a hub for drug users and indigents. Nonetheless, Biyou'z is a respite in a bustling city. Be comforted by its lively West African music being played in the kitchen, and its wall of carved wooden figurines from all over the Motherland.
For 80 Brazilian reales (~$20 USD) I ate an appetizer, full entree, and non-alcoholic beverage. Tip included.
My six day stent in São Paulo came after spending a week in Rio, a city known for its Blackness and its parties. So when I got to São Paulo, I felt lost. Having chosen an AirBnB in one of the city's upper middle class neighborhoods, I wondered where the Black folks were. That's when I turned to social media to uncover the Black queer spaces that I'd been yearning to find.
Through a couple of well-connected Black social media acquaintances based in São Paulo, I was able to tap into spaces that resonated with the intersections of identities that belong to me. I felt the love.
In safe spaces like Aprelha Luzia, and Feira Preta, public displays of affection between two individuals of the same gender expression is not uncommon. In fact, making out with someone is seemingly a part of going out and having a great time (don't ask me how many kisses I shared with handsome strangers). And anytime where there is food that connects with your roots like that which you can find at Biyou'z, and where there is music and dance like the samba showcased at the Vai-Vai rehearsal, then joy and a sense of belonging will follow. That is what I experienced, and it has created a great affection for São Paulo; one that I did not expect.
I want to be clear on one thing: There is a narrative that Black communities are more homophobic than white ones. My experience in the unique safe spaces in São Paulo proved that to be an unfounded idea. Yes, there is homophobia and transphobia, but there are are also nurturing spaces---urban quilombos where people seek refuge, and find acceptance and love. Yet, Black and queer people face dangers each day as they continue to live as their full selves. Across the street from Aparelha Luzia is a giant image of Murielle Franco, the Black lesbian civil rights leader that was targeted and murdered by police in Rio de Janeiro in 2018. And in December of 2019, nine teens at a funk music party lost their lives after an incident with police. The funk genre of music continually faces criminalization, and the communities from where it originates are regularly harrassed.
As post-racial as I have heard some Brazilians claim the nation to be, this is clearly contrary to reality. Outside of the Black and queer spaces that I described above, I saw--and felt the racial tension directed at me by white Brazilians. There is segregation vis-a-vis neighborhoods and districts in the city, often along socioeconomic lines. White Brazilians were often cold and suspicious of me until they learned that I was a foreigner. They became warm and engaging as soon as they learned that I was from the US. These experiences made me cringe, and more clearly understand that despite the brown skin that helps me blend into the heterogeneous Brazilian population, I still benefit from my proximity to the white American ideal that is privileged globally.
I initially doubted São Paulo, but I found spaces of warmth. I found places where Black and queer people commune in peace and love. This city--and its people were incredible hosts, and I look forward to returning soon.