Every last Saturday of April, the air in a century-and-a-half-old rural São Paulo cemetery carries the understated tension of a nervous laugh. The Cemitério do Campo, which is the resting place for the remains of Confederate soldiers who fled the American South for Brazil after losing the Civil War, has been the stage of a celebration called Festa Confederada for some 40 years. Much like the many neighboring gated communities one must pass before reaching the long dirt road leading to the cemetery grounds, armed security personnel guard the entrance to the festival.
The story of how this exotic pageant came to be hearkens to the 1860s, when Dom Pedro II, the Portuguese-born Emperor of Brazil, led a nation forged by the forced labor of people kidnapped from their homelands. The ruler not only supported the Confederate cause – the defense of chattel slavery – but offered cheap land to Confederates interested in relocating to Brazil. The former Portuguese colony would be the last country in the Americas to outlaw slavery, in 1888, 20 years after the first southerners arrived on its shores. The Confederates, he hoped, would modernize Brazilian agriculture and play into his social darwinist fantasy to whiten Brazil via strategic, selective immigration policies. The Americanos came in droves –some 9,000– and settled most successfully in the state of São Paulo, specifically in Americana and Santa Bárbara D’Oeste, where the Festa Confederada continues today.
While the local chapter of a movement called UNEGRO (a national organization for the rights of Afro-Brazilians) has been protesting outside the Festa Confederada against the flag, the festival’s organizers have been adamant about maintaining it. For them it is an innocent, apolitical symbol of family values and friendship. At the festival’s exit, a banner written in Portuguese and slightly broken English defensively decries what the Confederate symbol “really means: ‘Through the blood of Christ, with the protection of God, we, the 13 states, are united in Christian fight for Liberty.’” In this photo essay, I ponder the fabric of this so-called innocence, and perhaps where it betrays itself.