February 6, 2022, Copacabana Beach, Rio de Janeiro. “Onde é Brasil?”, “Where is Brazil?”, asks the poet. In Portuguese, something is missing: “Onde é o Brasil?”, one might normally ask, with an article. But here, in Carlos Drummond de Andrade’s poem, the absence of this little word – “o” – signifies something else that is really missing. This Brazil is not a place, not a nation-state; it is an idea – an idea, more precisely, that simply keeps escaping one’s grasp.
In the following verses, Drummond briefly takes us to the realm of affection (“Which vegetable is love?”) only to lead us back to a lack of coordinates (“When do you condense yourself, reaching / the point outside of time and life?”) If space and time are disposable in the quest of and for Brazil, what remains is “a system of sounds that go on guiding / the taste of saying and feeling / the verbal existence / the electronic / and musical figuration of things.”
Today, under the extreme heat of this Sunday morning, Drummond sits on a bench by Copacabana Beach. The poet’s bronze visage faces the road and buildings opposite, his back to the sea. The sand behind him is packed with people. Noisy children play by the waves, vendors advertise their products, and occasional music blasts from speakers around which people sit under parasols, drinking and chatting.
The beaches of Rio have always been considered “democratic spaces”: people from all over the city, of all colors and social classes, claim a place of leisure there, side by side. Only a few days before, however, an event took place that revealed the obverse of this inclusive image. Three men beat a Congolese immigrant by the name of Moïse Mugenyi Kabagambe to death in a beach kiosk in Barra da Tijuca. Moïse worked at the kiosk, serving customers on the sand on hot weekends like this one. On the evening of his death, he had gone there to collect daily wages that were owed to him, worth R$ 200 (US$ 38). The case received a lot of attention in the Brazilian media, and, on February 5th, protests against racism and xenophobia erupted across the country.
The search for Brazil – or the recognition of the impossibility of finding any such place – cannot ignore the violent encounters witnessed by these beaches or the hinterlands. Brazil is an invasion, and it is the result of many invasions, ongoing invasions, fuelled by a colonial imaginary of progress that, stamped upon the national flag, has permeated the deepest corners of people’s thought. Brazil is still the Land of the Future, as expressed in the title of Stefan Zweig’s book; but this future, it seems, is becoming bleaker by the day.
Conversely, this Land of the Future is also the land of countless simultaneous pasts and presents (if these notions have any meaning at all). If there is to be any future, one that does not inevitably colonize these pasts and presents, it is to be found in a continual proliferation of alternative presents that keep confronting a rising ocean of homogenization – an ocean whose level has been rising since 1500. The reclamation and revival of Indigenous worldings and the collective memories of several communities, as well as the Black movement, women’s and queer movements, the community-based ecological experiments in the Caatinga, the Landless Workers’ Movement, all represent examples of the fierce resistance and adaptation strategies of this polynesia of difference.