Rebranding Rio: Memory, Place, and Race in “Little Africa”

Authors: Brian Godfrey*, Vassar College
Topics: Urban Geography, Cultural Geography, Ethnicity and Race
Keywords: Brazil, Rio de Janeiro, place branding, memory, historic preservation, placemaking, race and ethnicity, urbanism
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/3/2019
Start / End Time: 12:40 PM / 2:20 PM
Room: Washington 3, Marriott, Exhibition Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


As branding campaigns promote public history and cultural tourism, competing narratives of place, ethnicity, and nationhood inevitably arise. This paper analyses the remarkable case of Rio's newfound African heritage, since rediscovery of the Valongo slave wharf in early 2011. In a city that long marginalized Afro-Brazilians, authorities initially counted on covering over the site and proceeding rapidly with the "Marvelous Port" redevelopment plan. Facing unexpectedly widespread opposition, however, the Mayor proclaimed that the Valongo archeological project would be preserved as “Rio’s Roman ruins.” In November 2011, the city even authorized an African Heritage Circuit, comprised of the slave wharf, cemetery, public square, and other historical sites nearby. Rebranding the Gamboa port district as “Little Africa” (Pequena África) begs several questions of local, national, and even global significance. First, why did the city so suddenly change course from redevelopment to preservation of former slave sites? Second, how did an initial counter-memory of opposition become institutionalized as an official African heritage itinerary? And third, what does this case suggest politically regarding the rise of an Afro-descendant identity to replace the traditional assimilationist ideology of "racial democracy" in Brazil? From the perspective of place branding, this paper argues that Little Africa’s reinvention constitutes less of a sociocultural rupture than an accommodation to prevailing neoliberal policies of urban revitalization, historic preservation, and multiculturalism. One general conclusion is that in such contemporary entrepreneurial cities, the politics of memory can turn on marketable branding campaigns with broad shareholder support.

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