Friday, January 18, 2013

A Lavagem do Bonfim

Yesterday was the annual Lavagem do Bonfim, where Baianas of candomblé wash the steps of the famous Bonfim Church as a ritual for the spiritual cleansing of the New Year. Thousands of people do a 8 kilometer march (caminhada) through the lower city (cidade baixa) of Salvador, with bands, capoeira groups, samba circles and everything in between. The morning is a spiritual and family affair, but after the official "lavagem" or washing has ended, everything unravels into an aggressive, sexual carnaval-style party.

My photos are mostly from the beginning of the event, which was full of peace and positivity. It was very religious, and very crowded. The event is held in honor of Jesus, but for centuries members of candomblé have attributed it to Oxalá, the orixá deity that is syncretized with Jesus. But on this day, the Baianas rule the show. I saw no sign of Catholic priests or members of the church, but instead many Baianas performing cleansing "baths" of leaves and popcorn, of course for a small fee.

Participants fight their way to the gates of the church to tie on the ribbons of Bonfim, one of the iconic objects of cultural life in Bahia. Everybody makes wishes, or resolutions for the New Year.  It was quite a struggle to get to the front, but as Ruth Landes explained in her 1939 account of the event, it is a "bathing in the multitude" (a phrase by Baudelaire). The crowd kept growing and morphing as the day went along, as it continually became rowdier and drunker.

Much of Landes' account of the 1939 celebration has very little relation to the current one. Once you squeezed your way to the front and were pressed against the gate, the you could gaze over to see the baianas doing the washing. It was confusing, however, because maybe I got there too late, but there was little cleaning happening and the steps of the church really looked quite dirty. The church wasn't open, for obvious protective reasons, there were no speeches, but rather a huge speaker playing evangelic songs and repeating the anthem of the Bonfim Church. There were newscasters from the biggest national stations throughout Brazil, some foreigners, and many, many locals.

Up to this point I thoroughly enjoyed myself and felt connected to the event. But very quickly, everything turned. Instead of peace and love for Jesus, people were drinking, the crowd was swelling, libidos growing, and respect for others dwindling. Around 3 pm, the majority of the people there were Afro-Brazilian community members of the Lower City. In my life in Bahia, I spend most of my time in  in the downtown area or the "upper city" area of Salvador. These two designations of the city say just as much about the geographic space as the socio-economic division. It had been a while since I had seen the extent of the poverty of this city, and it was incredibly troubling. I wish I had a chance to take photos of this darker reality, but unfortunately those situations are also the most dangerous for me.

Children ages 4 and older, shoeless, with dirty ragged clothes, without parents, were picking up discarded beer cans and water bottles that the partiers throw on the ground because there are not nearly sufficient garbage cans (or bathrooms) to host the event. Disabled people in beat-up wheel chairs were begging for money. Men high on crack, were making advancements on young girls wearing barely any clothes.

I haven't been to carnaval in Salvador for 2 years, and I forgot the carnaval culture of Salvador. It is sexual beyond belief. The men value foreigners and white women, especially women with blue eyes, above all else. The ultimate prize is to win over a "gringa", and at this event, I felt like the only unaccompanied white woman, hunted by the masses. I usually go out in a group with men, which unfortunately in this culture is necessary protection. None of my male friends could go with me yesterday, my boyfriend was working, so I went with just another girlfriend. We were two single women, and we caught the attention of nearly every horny man in the crowd.

For some reason, these men at public parties assume the right to touch women's bodies without any permission. As I struggled to leave the crowd (about a mile long stretch to leave the Church site), men were constantly grabbing my arm, calling to me in horrible English, staring into my eyes and yelling things like "I want to steal your eyes" or "come here doll and kiss me". I tried to ignore them, but it was impossible. The lust for a white woman was a force so much greater than my own, and I was completely vulnerable and helpless in the situation. Beyond that, I was with a backpack, and my new camera, trying to desperately to protect them from pickpockets or thieves. There was absolutely nowhere for me to hide.

Luckily I got out of the crowd after about an hour of struggling and violation, and a lot of help from my friend. She is Bahian and black and understands these dynamics in a way I probably never will. It was one of the more difficult and traumatic experiences I've had in Salvador since arriving 2 years ago, and I learned many important lessons.

I will never go to a party without male accompaniment or my boyfriend again. No matter how much I resent that reality, it is simply not safe here. It was an intense reminder of the extent of my foreignness, and the fact that I absolutely do not belong in some situations here in Bahia. My body is an object of desire, descended from a historic social construction that no matter how hard I try, I still am subject to and must understand. Women don't have the rights in Bahia that I have the luxury of having in California, and that's the reality.

All in all I am thankful for the Lavagem, am happy I went, and that I got out without too much physical or emotional harm. Bahia is the land of parties, happiness, poverty and a culture I could try and study for my whole life and still be left with thousands of questions and contradictions.

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