Brazilian town bans Confederate flag despite its US Civil War roots

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In 1866, Confederates fled defeat in the United States and started settling in rural Brazil. They were promised cheap land and labor, and collectively purchased more than 500 enslaved people, according to researchers. For the past four decades, their ancestors have held a festival celebrating their unique ties to the U.S., playing country music and waving Confederate flags.

The focus on the flag has made the tradition increasingly contentious. But following the passage of a local ordinance banning the use of racist symbols at public festivals, the celebration as it has been carried out in the past is now at risk.

Why We Wrote This

A new law banning Confederate symbols in a rural Brazilian town tests long-held beliefs about history and identity. It’s also creating opportunity for a more balanced narrative about the past.

The new law has frustrated the Fraternidade Descendência Americana, or FDA, founded by the descendants of Confederate families. “It’s difficult for us to feel bad about something we’re proud of,” says Joao Padoveze, president of the FDA and a self-proclaimed redneck.

But this moment has also created an opportunity. Public discussions are taking place around the need to balance the historical narrative by including largely overlooked voices, like those of Afro-Brazilians.

“For us, [the law] is an advance,” says Silvia Motta, who runs an Afro-Brazilian cultural center. But “it’s a regression for us to keep talking about American culture instead of Black culture.

“That’s the weight of this flag.”

SANTA BÁRBARA D’OESTE, Brazil

The Cemitério do Campo is unlike any other cemetery in Brazil. Located at the end of a dirt road in rural São Paulo state, it’s the site of an estimated 500 graves, a small ecumenical chapel – and one of the world’s largest Confederate flags.

Settled by Confederates fleeing their loss in the U.S. Civil War more than 150 years ago, it’s been host to the Festa Confederada, or Confederate Festival, for the past four decades. Thousands travel from across Brazil to celebrate the legacy of the Confederate States of America, complete with flags and a country music soundtrack. Attendees use “Confederate dollars” to buy chicken and biscuits, while watching reenactments from the antebellum South.

But a new municipal law could mean the end of the annual celebration and any other public event commemorating the Confederacy. The ordinance bans the use of racist symbols at public festivals, and the Confederate flag and this festival in Santa Bárbara d’Oeste are specifically named in the justification for the law, which passed last month with near-unanimous support.

Why We Wrote This

A new law banning Confederate symbols in a rural Brazilian town tests long-held beliefs about history and identity. It’s also creating opportunity for a more balanced narrative about the past.

The conflict here mirrors the ongoing debate over Confederate symbols and monuments in the United States, despite taking place thousands of miles south of the Mason-Dixon Line. For residents, however, it’s a hyperlocal dispute about representation and balancing the legacy of slavery in Brazil with the unusual story of American immigrants who settled in this small town a century and a half ago.

The law’s passage has raised the stakes on how this unique history should best be honored. While some are doubling down on the importance of the Confederate flag, others are using the ordinance as an opportunity to give new voice to often-overlooked narratives in Santa Bárbara d’Oeste. How the city identifies a middle ground between remembering the past and recognizing the weight of historic symbols could serve as a road map for other hot-button issues vexing an increasingly polarized Brazil in the future.

A towering obelisk in the middle of the Cemitério do Campo is imprinted with a Confederate flag on all four sides, along with the names of the first Confederate families to arrive in Santa Bárbara d’Oeste in the late 1800s. Thousands of Confederates fled the U.S. after their defeat in the Civil War, and Brazil drew many with offers of cheap land and labor.

“This is an attempt … to reconsider history,” says Sidney Aguilar Filho, a historian and researcher at the University of Campinas, referring to the new law. He says it’s important to revisit and question the past. “The great value of this debate,” he says, is that it could help the community “face sadness and trauma with intellectual and historical honesty, so that we can move forward in our own story.”

Remembering history?

In 1866, Confederados, as they are called in Portuguese, fled defeat in the U.S. and started settling here, lured by offers of cheap land and labor. They collectively purchased more than 500 enslaved people, according to researchers from the Federal University of Tocantins. Some two decades later, Brazil became the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery. The region encompassing Santa Bárbara was the last to enforce the abolition.

“For us, the Confederate flag carries the symbolism of … resistance to tyranny,” not the symbolism of slavery, says João Padoveze, president of the Fraternidade Descendência Americana, or FDA, a group founded by the descendants of Confederate families. Leaders of the FDA are the chief opponents of the new law.



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