Gender & National Identity in Brasilia

A review of Gender in the modernist city: shaping power relations and national identity with the construction of Brasilia, by Larissa Oliveira Pires.

This study reconstructs the kinds of spatial and social hierarchies that emerged during the frenetic period from 1956 to 1960, when the everyday labor of men and women colonized, razed, and transformed part of Brazil’s interior frontier into Brasilia, its capital city. The author correctly chose to organize this study not chronologically, but geographically and thematically. Chapters 1 and 2 offer the theoretical and historiographical underpinnings for the dissertation. Chapter 2 in particular demonstrates the primary intellectual genealogy for the study, and, appropriately, that genealogy crosses disciplinary lines. Her work is in direct conversation not just with studies on Brasilia, the most influential of which is James Holston’s anthropological study (James Hoslton, The Modernist City: An Anthropological Critique of Brasilia. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1989), but urban history more generally. The author is right to identify Lewis Mumford’s The City in History as foundational to studies on urban history (Lewis Mumford, The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, Harcourt, 1961), and effectively argues how Joan Scott’s 1986 challenge to examine the utility of gender as a category for historical analysis has subsequently helped urban historians like Elizabeth Wilson reframe key questions about power relations and gendered hierarchies in urban spaces (Elizabeth Wilson, The Sphinx in the City: Urban Life, the Control of Disorder, and Women. Berkley: University of California Press, 1992). And yet, Dr. Oliveira Pires contends, surprisingly few studies have examined the gendered dimensions of the immense migrant labor pool that made its way to Brazil’s interior during the mid-twentieth century. The dissertation fruitfully connects this line of inquiry with the idealistic, utopian aims and subsequent dismal failures of Modernism so eloquently identified by James Scott (James Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition have Failed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999) and effectively situates her work within the historiography on modern Brazil more broadly.

Chapter 3 offers the reader an engaging examination of the foundational myths of Brasilia, and contextualizes these within Brazil’s broader geographical, political, and intellectual milieu.  Following James Holston, the author argues that the religious vision of the Salesian Italian Catholic priest, Giovanni Melchoire Bosco, which prophesized that the interior of Brazil was the fabled Promised Land, ultimately was one of a tripod of justifications for the new capital’s construction, to wit: a civilizing mission, geopolitical interests, and economic ambitions (p. 56).  The author’s treatment of the influence of Positivism during the Republican era, which largely follows Todd Diacon’s study on Candido Mariano da Silva Rondon (Todd Diacon, Stringing Together a Nation: Candido Mariano da Silva Rondon and the Construction of a Modern Brazil, 1906-1930. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004), usefully lays out the long-term desires of the Brazilian state to incorporate and exploit the environmental resources imagined to exist in an underpopulated interior. The third chapter is strongest in its characterization of the Vargas era, and how the political context of his rise to power, the economic policies of Import Substitution Industrialization, and Vargas’s subsequent suicide set the scene for Juscelino Kubitschek’s presidency and its pro-nationalist need to turn the unprecedented economic growth of Brazil, and the largesse of foreign investments it fostered, into tremendous infrastructural projects. Enter Brasilia, inflation, and debt.

Chapter 4 takes a turn towards modernist architecture, particularly the impact that Le Corbusier and the European Congres International d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM) had on the development of this architectural trend, which sought greater “efficiency in urban functionalism and structure, and social organization” (p. 109).  The author, drawing on Valerie Frasier, gives lie to the common, and often frustrating, North-Atlantic-centric argument that Latin American elites mindlessly aped European and North American cultural, intellectual, and even architectural trends to legitimate their claims to power. (Valerie Frasier, Building the New World: Modern Architecture in Latin America. London: Verso, 2001). Rather, as the movement of Anthropofagia, launched during the Semana de Arte Moderna in São Paulo from February 11-18, 1922, suggests, the relationship between Brazilians and Europeans became one of “ritualized violence, of deliberate, selective ingestion, by which the foreign product was transformed into something entirely Brazilian” (p. 117, citing Frasier, p. 9). Dr. Oliveira Pires nevertheless does suggest an overarching tension: this nationalistic Anthropofagia maintained an existing cultural divide between elite visions of a modern city and popular uses of city space. A telling example involved the design and building of shops in Brasilia’s residential apartment complexes, which forced storefronts to face internally, towards residents. This spatial arrangement, envisioned by Le Corbusier’s protégées, Lucio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer, was ignored by shopkeepers who instead re-worked their shops to face outward, toward the street. The problem, of course, was that the street was not intended for foot traffic. Only cars and public transportation would transit that city space, a strategy intended to take “dangerous” elements, such as prostitution and petty crime, out of pedestrian life. The contribution of this chapter ultimately lies in its ability to demonstrate how Lucio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer seem to have been blind-sided by the inherent inequalities built into their utopian vision for Brasilia.

Chapter 5, 6, and 7 take on the ways in which racial, regional, and gendered inequalities played out on the modernist stage designed by Costa and Niemeyer, precisely as the stage itself was being built. Chapter 5 contextualizes Brazil’s struggles with racial categories, their significance for the nation, and for the subjective experiences of individuals. It follows through on Nancy Leys Stepan’s trailblazing work on eugenics in Latin America, identifying how scholars, particularly Stanley Blake and Barbara Weinstein, have pinpointed the regional dimensions of racial categories, discrimination, and their malleability for Brazil, especially in the Northeast, historically the area of the country with the largest Afro-Brazilian population, and the greatest source of construction labor for Brasilia [Stanley Blake, The Vigorous Core of Our Nationality: Race and Regional Identity in Northeastern Brazil. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011; and Barbara Weinstein, “Developing Inequality,” The American Historical Review 113, no. 1 (Feb. 2008): 1-18]. The chapter’s analysis of song lyrics and oral histories allows the author to demonstrate the disconnect between the patriotic nationalistic discourse of the Brazilian state, which sought to inspire labor migration, and the actual motivations expressed by laborers, who placed adventure and the need for employment before nationalism (pp. 157-159).

Although the author did not herself conduct oral interviews, she had access to the timely production in 2010 of 50 oral histories of women who lived and worked in Brasilia during these early years of construction (Tania Fontenele Mourao and Monica Ferreira Gaspar de Oliveira, Poeira e Batom no Planalto Central. 50 Mulheres na Construção de Brasilia. Athala Grafica e Editoria, 2010), recently published oral histories (Lourenço Fernando Tamanini, Brasilia: memoria da construção. 2nd ed., 2 vols., Brasilia, DF; Projecto Editorial, 2003, and Lins Gustavo Ribeiro, O Capital da Esperança: A Experiencia dos Trabalhadores na Construção de Brasilia. Editora UnB, 2008), and the numerous oral histories registered in Brasilia’s Public Archive.  These oral testimonies were complemented by the records of the Companhia Urbanizadora da Nova Capital (Novacap), the federal agency responsible for the construction of Brasilia, together with assorted news reports, also available in Brasilia’s Public Archive. Drawing on this source base, Dr. Oliveira Pires convincingly delves into the subjective experiences of women and men in Brasilia in the late 1950s, effectively conveying the day-to-day life of migrant labor.

Chapter 6 does a commendable job of putting existing studies on Brazilian state practices in conversation with oral histories of migrant labor experiences, and in doing so strikingly underscores the inherent ironies of the Brazilian state’s efforts to discipline labor on the frontier.  As the author notes, “Brasilia, originally designed by Costa and Nieyemer as a city free of social prejudices and entanglements, actually morphed into a model of social and spatial stratification, reflecting the way in which government decisions ended up promoting inequality” (p. 179). The supposed carrot of recognition for migrant laborers as citizens through national labor identification cards quickly became the stick of greater state surveillance. The need for fast-paced construction succeeded in hiding the relative skill of construction workers, a potential benefit for those desperately seeking jobs despite their lack of training, as well as a potential risk to their lives given the hazardous conditions of construction sites. The dissertation’s discussion of Free City, the space intended to serve as a transitional area that would house all who would come to Brasilia while the planned city and planned economy took shape, offers the most tragic irony of all. The Brazilian state intended Free City to function only for the short term, and it implemented policies that would de-populate the area, to no avail. Tensions rose as increasing numbers of Brasilia’s police officers met with growing worker discontent and disorder, culminating in the violent repression and massacre of migrant laborers who protested poor food service.

Chapter 7 turns to the complex realm of changing gender roles in a place that was both the frontier and the future center of political power. To track these changes, the author traces the trajectory of opportunities Brazilian women had in terms of education, literacy, and labor from the late nineteenth century into the twentieth. Elite women, not surprisingly, had gained a greater presence in the public sphere, particularly in the twentieth century, as female purchasing power inspired fashion magazines and reading materials, and spurred on the entertainment industry. This dynamic nevertheless raised the eyebrows of the Catholic Church and others who policed the boundaries of traditional gender roles, especially in terms of female modesty and sexual mores. The chapter explains how Brazil’s expanding economy offered an increasing market for female labor.  Vargas emerges not only as ‘father of the poor’ but also as the paternalistic care-taker of women laborers, passing laws restricting the kinds of work women could do for fear of their delicate health as women and as mothers (pp. 230-231). Lower-class women laborers nevertheless continued to work long hours in domestic service and the unregulated service sector, where they were often exposed to sexual harassment and exploitation. Interestingly, Dr. Oliveira Pires emphasizes the transnational dimensions of feminism in Brazil during the early twentieth century, particularly the Pan American women’s suffrage movement, which, for Brazil, culminated in women winning the right to vote in 1932, only to join their fellow countrymen in losing suffrage rights under the dictatorial Estado Novo in 1937 (p. 235).  The chapter then turns to female sexuality, sexual honor, and the regulation of female sexuality and prostitution by the Brazilian state, especially during the early twentieth century to further contextualize sexual norms prior to the building of Brasilia. Finally, it is the second half of the chapter that examines women, sex, gender, and violence in Brasilia. The frontier nature of the emerging urban space allowed for a measure of re-negotiation and re-invention of moral values and gendered relationships (p. 256). An individual’s social class, regional origins, and racial identity nevertheless colored the ways in which these new, emerging relationships played out on Brasilia’s stage. The analyses of oral histories underscore these dynamics. Upper class women who arrived with an entourage of family members tended to live up to more traditional expectations of not working after marriage. Before marriage, many did decide to work. Middle class women had gained a relatively greater freedom of choice concerning their living arrangements with sexual partners and type of work life. Lower class, unskilled women, or those with limited skills faced harsh challenges in finding adequate housing for their families and themselves, as they tried to find ways to earn wages in the informal service sector as seamstresses, cooks, laundresses, vendors, midwives, unofficial nurse assistants, letter writers, and domestic servants (pp. 268-269). Police reports, despite the lack of a standardized recording process, offer the author the opportunity to delve deeper into issues regarding violence in gender relations, from sexual harassment, to rape, and domestic violence. On balance, only if a woman complained about harassment or rape with the backing of a man would the police take the accusation seriously. An interesting dynamic of punishment in Brasilia for violent crimes and prostitution became deportation, a kind of expulsion from the “Promised Land.”   Sexual promiscuity that was not perceived as prostitution would instead receive a reprimand and a light jail sentence. It was precisely this space of ambiguity where honor, sexuality, and livelihood were negotiated.

Ultimately, the Brazilian state only wanted the production of cheap labor, not its reproduction and settlement in Brasilia. Chapter 8 offers a conclusion that highlights the significance of women for the building of Brasilia, despite efforts by the Brazilian state to encourage only male labor on the site. The study overall demonstrates that despite the official elite discourse on Brasilia that touted it as a modern city that would break from all the negative elements of existing urban spaces, the cultural norms shaping relations along gendered, racial, class, and regional origins had a powerful role to play in determining the field of action of individuals, their work opportunities, and their relationships. In short, upon publication of the manuscript, this study has the potential to offer a valuable contribution to studies on gender and urban history and Latin American history in general, and studies on Brasilia in particular.

Lina del Castillo
Assistant Professor
Department of History and Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies
University of Texas at Austin

Primary Sources

Brasilia’s Public Archive:
Records of the Companhia Urbanizadora da Nova Capital (Novacap)
Newspaper collections
Oral Testimonies

Edited collections of oral testimonies:
Tania Fontenele Mourao, Monica Ferreira Gaspar de Oliveira, Poeira e Batom no Planalto Central. 50 Mulheres na Construção de Brasilia. Athala Grafica e Editoria, 2010.
Lourenço Fernando Tamanini, Brasilia: memoria da construção. 2nd ed., 2 vols. Brasilia, DF: Projecto Editorial, 2003.
Lins Gustavo Ribeiro, O Capital da Esperança: A Experiencia dos Trabalhadores na Construção de Brasilia. Editora UnB, 2008.

Dissertation Information

Iowa State University. 2013. 338 pp. Primary Advisor: Amy Bix.


Image: Construction workers, by photographer Mario Fontenelle, September 3, 1959, courtesy of Public Archives of the Federal District (Arquivo Publico do Distrito Federal).

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