An Omen Like a Dark, Omnipresent Pool of Water (i)
To make this writing possible, time needs to unfold, not only going back to 2019, the year this investigation started, but also digging deeper holes. It should be noted, therefore, that talking about Sorocaba is a huge challenge I took upon myself as a possibility to create more complex weaves and twirls in what we know — and often support — as official history. And history, as it was presented to us, remains untouchable, unnameable, and worthy of conservation, remembrance, and celebration. With this in mind, I bring in a writing process which is dislocated and goes back and forth in time, disarranging everything that I have learned to be, as someone who is settled in this city, the only starting point. These words, which we have just started to taste and of which we are yet to reach the core, don’t come about on their own.
Ancestors are the stem. By revering the stem with devotion, its branches will become luxuriant and the fruits it produces will be good. (ii)
When I first started to investigate the territory of Sorocaba, it was about a week after a dead, dry tree that lived on my sidewalk fell. It was a Monday, the fifth day of the eighth month of the year, when it fell on a car. Its crown broke the rear end of the vehicle, like one last breath — it didn’t even take a gust of wind to blow it down. It just took off, flying free. I remember I walked out in my pajamas and took the opportunity to meet my new neighbors amid the morning chaos. Some reported the tree fell on the car of a relative of the person who had actually killed it. It was kind of like settling the score. In the blink of an eye, fire fighters, the police, and city officers arrived, while curious passersby stopped and filmed the side of my home to send their videos to TV channels.
I can’t really say anything about the whole context, but, since then, I have been taking this event to myself to elongate reflections, especially the ones we are currently experiencing in a macro environment. The neighbor was bothered by the leaves that he claimed were making too much of a “mess.” Performing the exercise of sweeping my sidewalk on an almost daily basis made me achieve new possibilities of existing, connecting, and executing my chores. Not only that, but it was also the way I found to keep the other tree — an almond tree —, which lives on the sidewalk across the street, alive.
On a different Monday, the sky turned dark around lunchtime. I reminisced about the dead trees, the consummated murder, and the conversations around the neighborhood. I felt sore, as if that body of roots were mine and as if I were the one who had fallen, from the sky and the stem. It was through the episode of the tree and the sky that turned into night that I was able to conceive some form of guidance for my research. Farness — this macro environment that causes us to feel unsettled — is the channeling of all “nearness” we overlook. The keyword was near, the action of being near.
Between one elaboration and the other, between demands from the curators, I invited people from my network to provide more imaginative and critical views upon the city. You see, there are points that can be connected from the surroundings of the Sesc building up to the North Zone of Sorocaba. Those who walk around Dr. Afonso Vergueiro Avenue, near the Maloca Centro Criativo (Maloca Creative Center), or around the Vila São João neighborhood should be aware that a river runs buried beneath the ground, and it brings its own aquatic memories to the surface every time it rains heavily. Cemitério da Saudade — the Cemetery of Longing — is a large center where rituals and canonization of locals take place.
Well then, what changes when we become aware that the street is in the middle of a river? What changes when we question the regime that establishes who is allowed to speak? What changes when we name things? What changes when we look at and take action from what is near? These are questions I started to ask, not to find absolute answers and certainties, but to (mis)guide the things that were ready, on the tip of my tongue, when it came to the city.
The fact that I settled here seemed very important to continue the investigation following more relevant, territory-pertinent information and paths. I started to wish being near were an expanded key concept. A mantra to draw rooting every time not belonging becomes a presence.
Looking Deep Into the Eyes of the City
Having established near as a guide, I first engaged in conversation with Drika Martim at Clube 28 de Setembro. It was a Wednesday evening, and there was a big meeting taking place when I got there, with a huge turnout. We sat at a small table, I remember we had to talk loudly, as there were so many people and different tones of voice around. I was nervous, because Drika offered such a generous exchange, and I was afraid I would not be able to write everything down. What was inferred to me is that the North Zone — as well as the several Black movements organizing in the city — is intensively active and its actors are committed to the place where they live, including the Sorocaba Samba Collective and the Unified Slum Central (Cufa), where Drika is part of the organization. It also includes the Quilombinho Cultural Center, located in the Maria Eugênia neighborhood and currently run by Luíza Alves, the daughter of Rosângela Alves, who passed away in 2017. Or the Cultural FM Radio station and the Milton Expedito Community Library, both located in the Paineiras neighborhood. There is also the Interfaith Service, first conceived by Rosângela Alves, which now takes place every year in November at the Senhor do Bonfim Chapel, and so many other actions and collectives—whose names are still unfamed—that might be lighting up like spark right now, while my hungry fingers type these words.
Over an afternoon coffee at my place, Vanessa Soares shared her perspective as a brincante — a traditional playful performer, through her experiences in maracatu and other traditional cultural expressions. While these activities are important for the history of the city, they are often silenced in books and/or in constant complaints from neighbors who listen to the vibrant rehearsals of maracatu on public squares. Daiana Moura, who is also friends with Vanessa — because we kind of know (or at least heard of) everybody around here —, raised extremely important aspects about João de Camargo (iii) (1858–1942), born into slavery. Through a message from the dimension of the skies, he was given the mission of establishing a new religion in Sorocaba, through Igreja da Água Vermelha — The Church of Red Water (iv) (1906). Nhô João cured (and still cures) so many people from the city and elsewhere. So as a tribute to the preto velho — the old Black man —, the Cemetery of Longing holds not only the Interfaith Service, but also giras, African-Brazilian religious encounters. How the church remains standing and operating to this day, now under the name of Senhor do Bonfim Chapel, is not only worth noting but also celebrating as a symbol of resistance, especially in a city that suppresses anything that differs from the norm. Another significant issue, and one into which we should look more critically, is that a lot of what we know and read about the life of João de Camargo was (and still is) written (and published) by white people, so it is up to us to reflect upon what group continues to tell (and validate) our stories.
We took a few tours around the city center with Flávia Aguilera and Ronaldo Ramos, as a way to learn about — and recognize — this ground, where observation and other senses must be activated to avoid casting nothing but a quick glance over it. We miss so much when we fail to see. Sorocaba keeps evidence that its city center, along the route between São Bento Street and the Church of Sant’ana, may have been part of the Peabiru Path. However, so little is known about Indigenous territories before the arrival of the (much celebrated) bandeirantes — men who used to hunt enslaved Black and Indigenous people while performing interior expansion expeditions in Colonial Brazil —, that we don’t know much besides gaps and contradictions. So how can we confront these breaches? What kind of information comes to us when we look deep into the eyes of the city?
The meetings (v) continued to happen and I was more and more interested in listening to the people and asking them, not only about events that took place here, but also about how they felt about this place: did they feel like they belong? If so, how do they mediate this sense of belonging? Did they also wonder how they needed to swim across the streets that are named after bandeirantes? And what if the rivers were to cover all those names and all other street signs? My inquiries used to take long, as they would take me to an overflowing place-in-between. This is how, from the deep, deep near, I drew endless connections, leaving (absolute) certainties behind to cross over between the lines, over what is spoken and unspoken, and over what is kept in secret.
The inputs, which at first remained in the conceptual realm of the project, eventually poured over the education program as a very powerful collaboration with coordinator Renata Sampaio. And despite the physical distance, we realized there was a thread connecting the territories of our experiences. It stemmed from the ground, for historical reasons, but also permeated invisible dimensions, which made the whole work process all the more intimate. This way, we started a mapping process with all the information collected since August 2019, which has enabled us to come up with flowcharts, maps, and, later on, the Apé, (vi) a boardgame created collectively.
A Journey Across the Grooves of the City
There’s another world that parallels our own, and to a certain degree you’re able to step into that other world and come back safely. As long as you’re careful. But go past a certain point and you’ll lose the path out. It’s a labyrinth.
The world was announcing the outbreak of COVID-19. Practicing social distancing, wearing masks, and washing hands were the recommendations to prevent contamination. It was supposed to be “only” fifteen days, but that turned into a month, then a year, and, at least in Brazil, we eventually realized we were going to face a blatant politics of death. (vii) Recalculating routes, quitting some paths, canceling conversations and scheduled visits, and postponing anything that was expected to happen in the following months became prudent.
Amid this mist, I stumbled upon a post by photographer Isadora Romero on the Foto Féminas profile, (viii) with a caption that started with a question: ¿Qué significa el territorio en tiempos de cuarentena? [What does territory mean in times of quarantine?] Her quest mentioned the high COVID-19 mortality rates recorded in Ecuador and aimed to reflect on isolation. Through her own photographs, as well as photos from the nasa archives and Google Street View, Romero created a pixelated territorial space, a reachable imaginary jaunt, in case leaving the house is no longer possible. I felt Isadora’s observation deeply, and I started to execute some exercises myself, moving across different rooms in my home, my backyard, my dreams, even doing simulations on Google Maps, to prevent me from forgetting how long the bus would take to drive around the block.
The near, being near remained vital for the investigation, but now a state of porosity, capable of listening to and inhabiting the grooves, became fundamental. How to prompt crossings in a city that does not allow for permeability? Is being available a responsibility borne only by places or by people? What happens if a strong wind blows on the walls of the city? Will its waters finally be able to flow or is Sorocaba a desert? A new elaboration on this territory was necessary, beyond the idea of a large area of land that can be spotted on a map.
I turned to tarot, to reflect through an oracle, not only about a new starting point, but also to bring back the image of the desert. The cards presented these major arcana to me: The Empress (III) followed by The Tower (XVI). On these cards, (ix) The Empress is a stout woman, whose legs are in the water, while the rest of her body is on land as she nonchalantly holds a pomegranate in her right hand in a flower garden. Behind her, a full moon appears next to a shield with the symbol of Venus. The Tower, usually a deeply feared arcanum, shows us the omen of demolishment, two women fall from a tower that is hit by a feather of fiery colors. So what would fire mean in the fertile realm of the stout woman? Where would her seeds be after the destruction? Reading these cards together, I thought about a very powerful explosion that would allow something else to emerge, as some kind of dramatic purge.
I was steered to the unique universe of vacant lots, which abound in the city and resemble “small savannas.” It’s funny how landscapes present themselves when we are prodded by other procedures. A few days after receiving guidance from the cards and green areas, a friend came along and told me about canela-de-ema, a plant native to Brazil’s vast savanna — the Cerrado —, usually found in the states of Bahia, Goiás, Tocantins, Mato Grosso, São Paulo, the Federal District, and others. It’s a slow-growing plant that blooms even after it gets burned, because its major feature is combustion. Not only that, but it is good for medicinal and artisanal purposes, and even for firewood. I welcomed this information with the strong intuition that the combination of the Empress and the Tower could enshrine a phoenix from the Cerrado, the plant that grows after fires.
I realized I was (re)elaborating in movement, blurring the outlines, roaming through maze-like places and that nothing would be ready (especially not this text). There was no one perspective for this territory and the numerous options were not meant to become a new truth. Once again, employing an imaginative energy was necessary. So, I started to outline this: territory means crossing, moving, crossroads, a catalyst that promotes a meeting between different epistemologies. Territory means the vibration of energy flows, the tremor before the fall of the Tower, whether hit by a fire feather or a lightning bolt. I once read volcanic eruptions are generated in the depths of the planet. A volcano is also a territory: its lava, its blast, its eruption, its destruction. A territory means affection, affectation, porosity. Crossing. Territory means the body. Territory is the thing that guides or misguides us to the same extent. And perhaps our watery eyes may be a territory too…