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Photo courtesy: Nayani Teixeira

By Nadia Mosquera and Archie Davies (ILAS)

Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, on May 28th 2020 the Institute of Latin American Studies (ILAS) held an online symposium exploring the connections between space, activism and race in Latin America. The symposium brought together both activists and scholars interested in rethinking processes of racialisation and spatial organisation. We wanted to draw attention to Latin America’s longstanding racialised inequalities without losing sight of how collective action holds marginalised groups together in struggles against inequality and injustice. The symposium eppxamined how academia and activism can stage a productive dialogue, dissolving boundaries and making abstract concepts concrete. The symposium included papers that offered diverse ways to learn from and think about space, activism and racialisation across the continent, and Latin American diasporas. In this brief blogpost we will introduce the papers and discussions that made up four intersecting panels on: racial violence; spaces of activism; land, race and development; and the geographies of the urban and the rural. We are delighted that the presenters at the symposium have agreed to share their work online here. In this short blog we briefly introduce the symposium, and share links to the participants’ presentations.

Contesting Racial Violence

Discussions in the first panel focused on anti-black police brutality in the favelas in Rio de Janeiro, and anti-indigenous racism in Rondônia and Mato Grosso, Brazil. These contributions showed how racialised populations in Latin America are not only affected by, but actively contest, the racialisation of space. The global Black Lives Matter movement is exposing how anti-black racism is not only systemic, but transnational. The Mother’s Plea by Jeferson Scabio, used an ethnographic approach to explore anti-blackness in Brazil by recounting the murder of Santiago, a 16-year-old black youth killed by police forces in a favela in Rio de Janeiro. Scabio followed Santiago’s mother, Dora, as she, alongside other mothers, organizes against the racism of the Rio de Janeiro government and its characterization of a planned 2007 legalisation of abortion as a ‘solution to violence’ in poor areas. Whilst seeking justice for her son, Dora’s activism leads her to intervene in Brazil’s legal system. The presentation illustrated how black women engage in a praxis of intersectional mobilisation against racist state violence. Just as anti-black violence is endemic in Brazil, so anti-indigenous racism is also deep-seated. Henrique Gomes’s paper, De-Indianisation as a threat in Indigenous Lands in Bolsonaro’s Brazil shows how the state uses de-indianisation to homogenise Indigenous peoples, turning them into a landless proletariat. Gomes explored how the state disavows attempts by Indigenous populations to draw on ethno-racial identity as a basis for political mobilisation, whilst murdering Indigenous leaders and violating Indigenous rights over their lands. Yet in the face of state-sponsored violence, Brazilian Indigenous leaders continue to regroup as ‘Indians’ in opposition to violence, illegal logging and invasion of their lands.

Carving Out Spaces of Activism

The second panel examined activist spaces through papers on intersectional Caribbean Afro-feminism and the feminist solidarity amongst Latina domestic workers in Spain. Online spaces have become a tool to promote Caribbean Afro-feminist thought. In Occupying Virtual Spaces: Caribbean Afro-Feminism Online Ana Nenadovic explored how digital spaces enable the positive representations of blackness and address the invisibility of black Latin American women who share intellectual aspects of intersectional struggles with millions of users online. The presentation drew on a variety of Afro-feminist activists such as Costa Rican poet Queen Nzinga Maxwell, Cuban psychologist Sandra Abd’allah, Alvarez Ramírez and her blog Negra Cubana tenía que ser, writer and scholar Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro and her blog Narrativa de Yolanda, and Puerto Rican digital magazine Revista Étnica. These outlets demonstrate how online spaces can forge racialized, gendered, class-based and queer solidarities. The racialisation of labour and creation of spaces of feminist solidarities among low income domestic workers was the subject of Martina Madaula’s paper, Collectivity and Activism in Latina Domestic Worker’s Lives in Barcelona. She explored how the solidarities among racialized Latina women transcend the boundaries of nationality and create spaces in which women learn to navigate forms of oppression experienced in domestic labour markets in the global north. Put together, these contributions rethink how spaces, marginalisation and race are mobilised by a range of Latin American activists.

Land, Race and Development

The next section, on land, race and development, explored the geographical dynamics of racialization and resistance in Mexico and Paraguay. Dr Manuel May Castillo’s paper investigated Mexican development strategies which promote and exploit Mayan cultural heritage. Focussing in particular on the emerging project of the ‘Maya Train’, the paper explored how such trans-regional development projects bypass the consent of indigenous communities, and override not only their resistance to such projects, but the legal and political strategies by which Mayan cultural heritage is brought into contestation by indigenous groups. Dr Cari Tusing took the seminar to Paraguay, presenting a paper on the spatial and ecological relationships to land among cattle ranchers, campesinos and indigenous Guarani in Paraguay. Through deep ethnographic work and theoretically rich insights into the racialization of land and ecologies in Paraguay, the paper elaborated the articulations of race, space and ecology in a contested landscape.

Rural and Urban Geographies

The final panel on rural and urban geographies extended the discussion on race and space. Dr Catalina Ortíz, presenting on Mestizo Urbanism: Decolonial Insights for Urban Studies, laid out a theoretical intervention for how urban studies – particularly urban design and architecture – can respond and extend the upsurge in interest in decolonial approaches to urban space. Blanca Yáñez Serrano’s paper, De-stabilising Urban Social Relations: Exploring the Geographies of Ipanema Beach explored the geographies of Ipanema beach, seeking to challenge understandings of beach labour, and to extend an interpretation of the beach as a space in which the social relations that dominate the city of Rio de Janeiro can be re-worked and re-articulated. Finally, Olivia Arigho-Stiles offered an intellectual history approach to questions of environmental determinism and the emergence of discourses of race in early twentieth-century Bolivia. Her paper, Elite Constructions of Race and Space in Pre-Revolutionary Bolivia, explored the intersections between landscape, race and environmental determinist thought in an under-studied area in Latin American intellectual history.

Although emerging from a wide sphere of disciplines from geography to anthropology and urban design, the discussions at the symposium brought out a number of common themes. The role of researchers in producing and disseminating knowledge about processes of racial violence and dispossession across Latin America was a key point of interest. How should scholars engage in activist projects, and through what forms of mediation? Discussants explored the mechanisms of transnational solidarity, and the importance of sharing insights and strategies across diverse but interconnected sites in Latin America. The symposium could not, of course, either provide solutions to the complex challenges of engaging in activist scholarship, or identify singular theoretical frameworks for the intersections of race, space and activism in Latin America. However, the conversations and connections established at the symposium opened up fruitful paths for future collaborations, and for deeper understandings of this crucial nexus in contemporary Latin American Studies. We hope that, by making the videos of these extremely rich presentations available online, these insights will be available to the wider Latin American Studies community.