It was a law that had been passed forcing all residents to take something called a “vaccine” that resulted in the violent revolt that ransacked the city of Rio de Janeiro between November 10 – 16, 1904. The modernization of the nation’s capital at the time and during the First Republic was arduous: despite the so-called democracy, entire tracts of the city appeared in ruins left by the authoritarian health and sanitation inspectors who – backed by the military – had torn up the city in an attempt to organize the minimum of infrastructure to deter mosquitos and improve sanitation, as well as modernize the city under an imposed urban development program that left many homeless after entire neighborhoods had been forcibly eradicated.
The mandatory vaccine was the last straw. Fed up and afraid of being forcibly injected by a government that had not shown much concern for its people, I most probably would have joined the daring Horácio José da Silva, the capoeirista and dock worker known as Prata Preta, in building the barricade from which to fight off the army from entering the hilltops of Saúde and Gamboa, some of the city’s oldest neighborhoods.
Although defeated and imprisoned, Prata Preta remained a symbol of resistance to whom homage was paid a hundred years later when the Cordão do Prata Preta was founded, one of the many neighborhood Carnival blocks established, bringing back the old tradition of irreverent merriment back to the streets of city.
I recently went to their musical event that coincided with the holiday weekend of November 20th, Black Awareness Day, held in the middle of the narrow colonial street at the top of Gamboa. It was the inauguration of this year’s theme, dedicated to Tropicália, the revolutionary Brazilian musical and artistic movement of the late 1960s that was repressed and censored by the military regime at the time.
The choice of Tropicália comes as no cynical surprise: Brazil – like certain other countries I know well – is currently questioning democracy when a government is elected, but not by the people. And unlike the smallpox campaign whose end might have arguably justified the means at the beginning of the 1900s, today there are authoritarian measures conducted within democracies that are not necessarily working in the best interest of the people.
The confluence of the Cordão do Prata Preta + Tropicália + Gamboa – part of the port area of Rio de Janeiro I have witnessed transform for better and for worse in a city that is yet another victim of forced urban development in a string of Olympic cities – struck me as all too poignant as I absorbed the bucolic event that took over Prata Preta’s old hilltop, overlooking a port and a city known for a great tradition: irreverence.