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Ghosts of Colonialism: An Interview With Eduardo Ascensão


As part of the background for the Hip Deep program “Afro-Lisbon and the Lusophone Atlantic: Dancing Toward the Future,” producer Sam Backer interviewed Eduardo Ascensão, an urban geographer at Kings College, London.

Sam Backer: Could start by telling me a little bit more about yourself and your work?

Eduardo Ascensão: I’m an urban geographer. For my Ph.D., I researched [the history of] one shantytown in particular. I’m also familiar with others, some of which no longer exist. In fact, very few of them now exist, but in the late 1980s, early 1990s Lisbon, there were a lot of small pockets of informal settlements all around the metropolitan area, where the poor African immigrants moved to. In my research of just one place, I was researching it as being representative of an era of urban settlement in Lisbon, which is now not very visible anymore in terms of the buildings, in terms of the streets and the materiality. But some of it, like the ghetto stigma and so on, is still very present in cultural forms like music, like hip-hop derivatives and even the other traditional genres.

Can you tell me a bit more about the historical context around that?

African immigration played a huge part in the urbanization in Lisbon. If you want, Lisbon is sort of a postimperial, postcolonial city. And that’s what I research in some aspects, that for three decades the label postcolonial and postimperial could be argued to be a bit over-optimistic in the sense that access to housing, or to numerous forms of citizenship rights, were in a way denied to the poor or to the African immigrants. It’s quite important to contextualize that not all the African immigrants were poor, but among them a significant population that you could maybe quantify as 200,000 people in the late 1980s lived in shacks and informal settlements of different kinds. This was a migration trend that originated in the 1960s with more middle-class Cape Verdean, and other people who settled in Lisbon in regular conditions, in normal apartments. But after independence of the former colonies in the late ‘70s, due to economic reasons, due to war, or to a number of other aspects, many unskilled migrants came to Lisbon. They were hired to build the infrastructure that the country needed, in its course to become a normal European country, after all those 50 years of dictatorship. And so these poor immigrants could not access normal housing because they were priced out of the housing market. They relay stories about landlords being racist, not wanting to rent houses and apartments to them. So the solution was to settle in shantytowns.

That solution actually originated from the white rural Portuguese migrants, who were also coming into Lisbon to work in industry, and then the [African immigrants] were the second layer to these informal settlements in the metropolitan area. You could say that these poor populations mingled, which is very interesting, and in a way they created a sort of almost alternative culture; obviously with the usual constraints of poverty and a great lack of resources, but they still created a sort of alternative culture. I think music was one of the most important aspects of the culture that developed out of necessity, of definitely being unequal citizens, in comparison to mainstream society.

The neighborhood of Cova Da Moura

Can you talk a little more about that?

You had this colonial to postcolonial transition…or if your viewpoint is from Lisbon we should perhaps say postimperial. That’s the context, but one can argue that it took many decades for this postcolonial context to actually mean a postcolonial existence in the sense that all the social forms of domination from colonialism were gone. They were still, in a way, active, even after the Portuguese revolution and after independence. One of the most expressive ways that you can say this in a scientific vocabulary, in order to prove it, is the housing condition of these poor populations. They were living in a postimperial city and they were postcolonial migrants, but you could argue that there was a lot that they could not access in terms of housing: they had to settle in shanties, usually without water connection, without sewage, often illegally tapping electricity. All of this was not part of a truly postcolonial existence, if you want to take the postcolonial word in its most theoretically accurate description.

In Lisbon, you could see for three decades that the postcolonial is not achievable quickly after independence, after decolonization. One could argue these are the ghosts of colonialism, which don’t go away easily, they stick around. This is the backdrop against which you have so many politicized youth musicians in the periphery of Lisbon. Some of them were born in shantytowns so they may or may not have a very vivid recollection of these conditions; I suspect that the ones in their 30s will have very vivid recollections of that situation. And others live in segregated housing estates, which also perpetuate this sort of colonial/postcolonial domination, because the way the state “solved” the shanty problem was to rehouse many people in segregated housing estates, sometimes far away from the original places where they lived, far away from jobs, with no transport and so on. So even today, with very few informal settlements, lots of young people with African origins live in those segregated places that have very few job opportunities. They have the full portfolio of social problems. And they can see quite vividly again, they can see that some of it is rooted in the forms of domination coming from colonialism.

housing project shot                                                Housing Projects on the outskirts of Lisbon

Can we go broader for a second? What is the presence of Africans in Lisbon like during the early 20th century?

From the early 20th century until the ’60s, the African presence was actually quite small in terms of the number of people inhabiting the metropolis. The capital of the empire was actually a very white city. From the ’50s on there was a small contingent of black students. There was this thing called the House of Empire, which was a sort of university dormitory for the brightest students of the different colonies. And so they were the first ones to bring a more sophisticated understanding of African culture into the metropolis; until then everything one could say was mediated by the apparatus of the colonial state, and the ideas of colonialism. Even if the ideology of the Portuguese colonialism professed this thing called Lusotropicalism, which argued that interracial marriages were a particularly Portuguese thing, a particular aspect of Portuguese colonialism in comparison with English or French or Belgian colonialisms. But to get back, until the ’60s I would argue, without being too controversial, that Lisbon was mostly a white city.

But it was a fairly worldly white city right? How tight were the ties to the developing or developed African empire?

They were tight, but not in terms of colonial populations coming to live in the metropolis. Cultural interaction and encounters were, I suppose, developed at a high, abstract level of officials in the colonial administration who were knowledgeable about the different cultural aspects of the African populations, or, you know, a number of intellectuals who cared to interact and study and develop relationships with other African intellectuals and artists and so on. And often they were censored for doing so. The whole ideology of the Portuguese dictatorship involved a very narrow imagination of what it meant to be African. You can see that, for instance, in the international exposition the Portuguese made in 1940, which is not dissimilar to other international exhibitions in Belgium or in France. They still portrayed a very unmodern, very traditional, folk-like African population, with examples of vernacular architecture, with huts and so on. So there was a great historical relationship, but it was always done under the scope and ultimately the objectives of colonialism.

You said that things started to change in the ’60s, can you tell me about that? And can you talk a little bit about what Lisbon was like? How big it was at the time?

The city of Lisbon now is actually smaller today than it was in the ’70s, at the time I think Lisbon within its municipal boundaries–that’s only Lisbon–had around seven- or 800,000 people, now it’s closer to half a million. What was happening was the process of industrialization was coming, it was coming very late because the dictatorship had always been very unwilling to modernize the country, but from the ’60s onwards the government started to push a little bit more for development. So it needed labor, not only for the industries, but it also needed labor for public works. In the ’60s, Cape Verde was a very agricultural country, but it suffered recurrent droughts. In order to mitigate these recurring droughts, the colonial state at the time created a kind of minimal Keynesian infrastructure projects like small dams and building roads, and a number of farmers were integrated as workers for those projects. The companies that were doing this building were Portuguese…so when they needed to do work in Portugal, they already had a labor pool of very cheap labor in Cape Verde. And that was how the migration of Cape Verdeans to Portugal began. I emphasize again—these were working-class Cape Verdeans, poor farmers, who would work in the construction sites in Portugal–and it started from there. That explains why in the ’80s and especially the ’90s, when the development of infrastructure in Portugal was in full motion, a great number of workers in the construction sector were Cape Verdean.

Let’s talk about the “Carnation Revolution” in 1974. What changes after the Salazar regime falls?

What changes is that we pass from a very conservative and authoritarian right-wing regime, very suspicious of development, to a very revolutionary and left-wing state. And obviously that state has elements of all the other European states, so it is a welfare state, a state that pushes at the same time for development and for social justice and redistributive policies. In this context, one of the most important aspects is housing access and access to the city, which was to an extent nonexistent. And from the revolution onwards, the constitution has a specific article saying that everyone has right to housing, and not only that, but that the state has an obligation to provide housing for everyone. So this is an absolute seismic shift in the urban process. But obviously the state doesn’t straight away have all the capabilities, the financial resources to put that into action. So the city is expanding, there is more industry, the service sector also grows, and with this comes a lot of internal migration from the countryside to Lisbon. And so there’s this pressure for housing, for different forms of access to the city. And so the city grows with this financial inability to provide houses for everyone, and you had imbalances because policies left a number of people out, with very poor access to the housing market. And so a significant part of this population had to sort their housing conditions by themselves.

Because they were living in this self-created housing in Lisbon, did African immigrants bring more of their own home culture than they would’ve otherwise?

The answer is yes and not so much. Yes, people did have an aspiration, especially when they were the builders of the settlements. There’s a lot of expertise put into it. There’s a lot of collective learning as well, people teaching others how to build, how to create the foundations of the settlement. But this standard expertise comes against some constraints. One, they don’t have the money to buy a house, to build a house that they could put their expertise into, and even if they would, the house would probably be demolished, especially if it looked like a permanent structure in the middle of the settlement. The settlements were sort of tacitly accepted by the government because it had no means to provide housing for the people living there, and the immigrants were working in vital industries. But at same time, it governed them in a way that reflected the fact that they didn’t want the settlements to become permanent. They were illegal, and often they were on private lands, so they were in illegal occupation of lands. And anyway, they were built without any planning permits. So the state had to manage the situation, of not having housing for these people and letting them live in the shacks or upgraded shacks. But in some of the settlements people would, after five or 10 years, attempt to build a better house, and if the town surveyors saw it they would demolish the place.

I interviewed a man this happened to. It happened just the way I am telling you. He had savings of three million escudos, which at the time would be €15,000, so a lot of money. And he built a two-story high house, in the middle of a one-story house settlement. And the town surveyors came and demolished it. So he lost all his savings of a lifetime working in Lisbon. So yes, there are a lot of traditions coming in, but always facing these constraints. Economic constraints, and also the constraints related to the state governing the urban space. So they had traditions that could thrive–music, theater, sociability, less tangible things. And that’s why I mentioned previously that music played a huge part in the culture of these places.

What is the white inner-city Lisbon’s understanding of the African immigrants during this period? I’ve heard that after ’74, there is this intense turn towards Europe, towards the idea of Europe, to the idea of being European, and that was also a turn away from Africa.

First of all we are dealing here with a very traumatic period of history. It’s the end of colonialism, with all that that regards introspection. Not just as a nation, but social groups also had to go through a long introspection of what it meant to be, to have been a colonial power and be associated with that. In addition, you also have between 600,000 and one million white Portuguese settlers returning to Portugal. Most of them they were no longer welcome in the new independent states. So this return was also a very traumatic experience. And it’s both because they were uprooted, and because they were not necessarily well received in Portugal, because they were associated with colonialism. So there is this intense desire, I’d say, to forget this history, and that’s where the entire reconfiguration of the state towards being a normal European state comes from. And what does a normal European state mean? To not be an empire anymore, to provide social welfare for the entire population. This was what drove the country, this was the glue for the entire country. “We will now attempt to become a European country like the rest.” And for a long period, the colonial war, the return of the settlers, all of the problems of dominating other cultures in Africa…all of this was suppressed. Not in intellectual circles obviously, but one could say that in mainstream society it was, in a way, suppressed.

How do you think or do you think that this mainstream suppression played into the housing policies? And the way the state dealt with these African immigrants?

In this case, I would separate the two. I’m not sure they are directly linked. It would be a very simplistic reading to say that they are, that the suppression of the recent past would translate to not providing housing for black people. I think these are separate problems. They’re parallel, but in a way they are separate.

I don’t want to argue, but you know how you talked about the ghost of empire? Suppressing the past and not being able to see the ways in which there is a continuity of the past in terms of forms of continued domination… those seem connected.

These are separate issues. The issue of the suppression of colonialism, and also the traumatic return of the colonial settlers to Portugal, that’s one issue, and the other is the persistent issue of housing inequalities, very defined housing inequalities with black populations in Lisbon. And those are separate problems. One does not directly explain the other, but the suppression is part of a context where not wanting to come to terms with the brutal history of the recent past is indirectly related to not addressing the problems of so many black immigrants in the city living in appalling conditions. So indirectly yes, there is a sort of an institutional culture, especially in government, to not pay the necessary attention to these problems. But the reason why they are separate problems is because even in the cases where the institutional culture wanted to solve these problems, they weren’t be able because they didn’t have the financial means to do it.

I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about the process of clearance of these areas that you were talking about. Like the program in ’93.

This is an interesting research topic because it hasn’t been fully studied. This housing program called P.E.R. surveyed around 30,000 dwellings, some of them shack dwellings, some other types of dwellings, but always originating in shack dwellings. It was a slum clearance and rehousing program. It involved, one could say, a wholehearted effort from the state to solve this. There are a number of reasons why this was so, including the fact that Portugal was the head of the E.E.C., the European Economic Community in that year, so there’d be a number of heads of state passing through Lisbon. And at the time, the settlements were very visible, so that was the more immediate reason, but it was also related to the International Exhibition in ’98 and the provision of infrastructure and roads, etc. In any case, there was an initial and wholehearted effort to address the situation. But because some of these places were illegal squatting of land, and because the state didn’t have much public land nearby, in many cases it involved the displacement of populations to faraway sites. Many of the shanty towns were very well located, near transport links, near jobs, because people had been living there for 15 or 20 years, and were working in different places. So there was a certain social structure in place in each of them. One could argue that in the cases where people were relocated on the site or nearby, and nearby doesn’t have to be incredibly close, but within a one kilometer radius or something, one could say that it was an improvement; it was as much as the state could do. But in many other cases people were uprooted from one place to another place five kilometers away with no transport, no jobs, no commerce nearby, and to what in essence were segregated housing estates, that became then known by the young people living in them as ghettos. So it took 20 years to address the informal settlements, but the way it was addressed in many cases just perpetuated an urban social injustice for the populations concerned. And this then directly explains the ghetto culture, and the rise of the very few forms of expression against the status quo by young people in these housing estates.

In terms of culture, does that mean that because of the relocation of these communities, the African community in Lisbon is more isolated than it was in 1990?

No, because this was never the entire African population, it was, as I said at the beginning, the poor. But in those cases, when people were uprooted and displaced from their sites, I would say yes. They are even more isolated now than they were before in pure urban terms. But because of the Internet, because of YouTube, previously because of audio mixtapes, because of a number of cultural forms, they were able to connect to mainstream society, and actually be accepted in mainstream society. There was a very interesting moment in the 2000s where hip-hop became quite mainstream, and was the only form that young poor African, or young poor people with parents who are immigrants, had to engage society, and make themselves visible. Otherwise they were not visible on television, they were not visible in the arts, they might be visible in the one or two sectors where the presence of black people is relevant, but for the most part this was the one form of engaging with the mainstream society, and having feedback from that. It was the first time that their culture, which rose from these conditions of deep inequality, was appreciated. Obviously, in pure musical terms it was very quick before it was co-opted by the mainstream music industry.

Related to this, this cross-cultural connection between white mainstream society and black hip-hop musicians and culture, this was already when lots of people had been moved to housing estates, and there was more like the stigma of the ghetto portrayed in lyrics. But there is one very interesting record, which I very specifically like, which is TWA’s Miraflôr. TWA [Third World Answer] was the first Cape Verdean hip-hop collective, and came from one of these areas, Pedreira dos Húngaros. Theirs was the first-ever hip-hop album to be sung in Cape Verdean Creole and this was a really interesting cultural politics at work, because they named the album after an area, Miraflores, but they named it with the Creole word, Miraflôr. They wanted to say out loud that they belonged to the area [and not just to Pedreira dos Húngaros, the shanty settlement], but the area was no longer [just] a white area. The fact that there was a Creole word for the area and they were naming the record after it says a lot about this cross-connection, between society and culture of places.

When these areas’ informal settlements are cleared, what is built on them?

[It] depended on the case. The most common situation, I would say, is that they were demolished due to the need of large roads to pass through the area. The other is one that links to what I was saying previously, about informal housing sites, is that when you have a well-located area that is not necessarily needed for big infrastructure, it is still earmarked for residential development for the middle and the upper classes. That was what was unfair about many of the clearances. I wouldn’t say all, I’m being quite reticent here because this thing is not studied quantitatively, but in those cases where the land where the settlements was very well located, and these settlements are scattered around the cities so some of them were in quite privileged areas, on hills or between quite nice neighborhoods, in those cases there is obviously an intense push to see people rehoused somewhere else, so that these places could be redeveloped for the middle classes and the upper classes. There is an academic label called slum gentrification, and this might not quite be slum gentrification, because that is done on-site, but it has all the other aspects of gentrification, namely displacement, and you can definitely say it is very similar to urban processes going on around the world in so many places– from Latin America to Asia to North America.

I’m wondering if you can talk more about the present of the city. Has there been a changing understanding of Lisbon’s relationship to its former colonies? I’m talking especially about the rise of Angola as an economic force.

I would say that such a shift in perspective, or changing relationship or however you want to call it, is visible in some forms. It is very interesting that, after 2008, and especially after 2011, with the economic crisis that really hurt Portugal, there was a lot of emigration to Angola. And obviously now some people are coming back. But also very interesting are things that happened before the economic crisis, especially cultural things. For one there was a kind of kuduro phenomenon. Also hand-in-hand with that, there were slightly more sophisticated musicians like Buraka Som Sistema, and the way they internationalized themselves from Lisbon: they were able to play the global music game in a way that very few people had done before.

They were able to locate themselves in at least three major centers: Luanda, Lisbon and London. And London here is a proxy actually for the world. And they were able to do that, and what’s more interesting, is that they were able to push to a global audience a minor genre. If it did not have such global recognition, and contact with hyper-mainstream culture, like Kanye West or Beyoncé or those likes, if it didn’t have such recognition it would probably remain a sort of genre that people could refer to with derogatory terms. But Buraka played that [global music game] well and were able to be located in three places at the same time.

                                                     Buraka Som Sistema

To go back to the very beginning, do you think that kind of move–whether it’s Buraka Som Sistema or Principe Discos, reflects a new kind of set of more genuinely postcolonial relations?

Yes, I think it does, in the sense that after many years of the things that we previously mentioned, either related to housing citizenship or cultural forms, history has now passed, four decades have now passed, and the way these musicians are beginning to overpass a number of weights of history, and to present globally something that has a little bit of Lisbon in it, has a lot of Luanda in it, and has some of the international standards in it…it is in my opinion a postcolonial maneuver. So finally we are not just in a postcolonial context, a postindependence context, a postdictatorship context, now we are truly in a postimperial and postcolonial moment where these cultural maneuvers shatter with some success the previous structures of domination.

When I was in Lisbon I was speaking with artists who felt very much that the African community and that the history of domination had been a part of the history of Lisbon. And they argued that acknowledging this history was vital for Lisbon to create an identity—maybe not a more honest identity, but an identity that allows it to be itself in a more full and organic way.

A fuller identity I would say, because it’s as if the blank black space was finally filled and not just with token initiatives or token projects, it was naturally filled. So in that sense, yes. However, the future danger is that somehow this identity is already taking a lot of risks of being basically co-opted for the branding of the city, for tourism, so in a way it is marketed already as a form of internationalization. And obviously from then it will lose its most important elements.

To answer your question, I think that within a circumscribed arena of people, very knowledgeable of music, very much into different arts and so on, that postcolonial maneuver has been fully achieved. As regards the mainstream society, one must always be somewhat suspicious that this full postcolonial maneuver isn’t just seen as a benign way to market the city to brand it for tourists, and so on. So that’s, I think, where the future risks lie.

Thank you very much for your time.

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