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Story Publication logo April 29, 2021

Indigenous In São Paulo: Erased by a Colonial Education Curriculum


The silhouette of a woman wearing a headdress standing against the sun, as it sets in a city.

Indigenous people are not just in the Amazon Rainforest and remote rural areas. More than a third of...


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  • São Paulo, the biggest city in the western hemisphere, is home to two Indigenous reserves with vastly differing fates.
  • The Jaraguá reserve is the smallest in Brazil, hemmed in by a controversial property development and highways that commemorate colonizers who enslaved and massacred the Indigenous population.
  • On the much larger Tenondé Porã reserve, residents grow their own food and speak their own language.
  • Despite these differences, Indigenous people in São Paulo, whether in the reserves or in the city, face the common problems of discrimination, an education system that refuses to acknowledge their presence, and the continued glorification of genocidal colonizers.

Emerson de Oliveira Souza is among the more than 4 million inhabitants of Tiradentes, a city that makes up part of the conurbation of São Paulo, Brazil’s biggest metropolis. Souza is a school teacher, but he stands out from the vast majority of the 151,000 public school teachers in São Paulo because he’s one of the only Indigenous people to teach in the suburbs.

A Guarani Nhandeva native, Souza says the classroom itself (which in the pandemic has gone online) helps perpetuate a pervasive ignorance within Brazil about its own native peoples. He says the country’s educational model is one of the causes of the invisibility and exclusion of Indigenous peoples in cities.

At 47 and about to complete his master’s degree from the University of São Paulo (USP), Souza says the school curriculum is a continuation of European colonization. To reverse this process, he says, the facts should also be taught from an Indigenous perspective.

“We don’t know the history. It is as if we entered the school to continue the work of the Portuguese caravels, but today the caravels are different,” he says.

Souza’s path to an academic chair was not an easy one.

“I am privileged to have finished my studies. At the university, we are not Indigenous, we are the poor from the periphery. We get in like everybody else, we become scholarship holders and from that point on we will have other opportunities,” he says.

The concrete jungle of São Paulo, with neighborhoods where the horizon is filled with rows of brick buildings, is home to 12 million inhabitants who ride the subway, train, and bus lines, and drive thousands of cars on long and wide avenues, such as Paulista Avenue, a national landmark. The greater metropolitan area, with 21 million people, is the largest conurbation in the western hemisphere.

If today São Paulo is a poster child for urbanization, the picture was very different on Jan. 25, 1554, the day of the Jesuit mass that marked the foundation of the city. On that day nearly half a millennium ago, the region was defined primarily by forest and itinerant villages. In the book Blacks of the land: Indigenous Slavery, Settler Society, and the Portuguese Colonial Enterprise in South America, the late U.S. historian John Manuel Monteiro tells of how Portuguese explorers found three Tupiniquin groups in this region. The main Indigenous settlement was where the Pátio do Colégio, the founding Jesuit mission, was established and where it still stands today in what is now the downtown area.

“These groups did not constitute fixed and permanent settlements,” Monteiro writes, “since, after a few years, the groups tended to move to a new location.”

According to data from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), there were 11,918 Indigenous people living in the urban area of ​​the city of São Paulo and 1,059 in its rural area as of 2010. (Those are the latest figures; the next update is expected in 2022.) In the greater metro area, which encompasses 38 neighboring municipalities, the Indigenous in the City program by the NGO Opção Brasil has mapped the presence of 72 ethnic groups. The Guarani, Pankararé and Pankararu peoples are most represented in the city proper, but the reality isn’t as clear-cut; individuals descended from the original groups may not always identify as Indigenous.

Urban resistance

As a child, Israel Raimundo dos Santos experienced the mistakes of the school curriculum. In elementary school, he was taught that his ethnic group, the Tupinambá, was considered extinct. That confused him, he says, because he already knew that he carried that Indigenous heritage. He asked his mother about what he had read in the school handout. “She pointed to other people in the streets, our relatives, and showed me that they were also Tupinambá. We are Tupinambá,” he says.

The Tupinambás extinction episode is a notorious case, going back to the early years of colonization. In 1680, Jesuit missionaries encountered an Indigenous group in the region of what is today Olivença in the state of Bahia. Following the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1756, the Indigenous settlement was renamed a village, and, from the 20th century onward, the Indigenous people were forced to migrate to the rural area. From then on, institutions across Bahia, from newspapers to notaries, referred to them caboclos or pardos, the nomenclature of people of mixed race. The Tupinambás grew more reclusive out of fear, but kept working at preserving their traditions, such as making handicrafts and securing their native lands. In 1982, the community began to organize itself to claim back its rights, and in 2001 the Tupinambás of Olivença were officially recognized by Funai, Brazil’s Indigenous affairs agency.

The pride for his ancestors only grew in Israel, 43, who changed his name to Sassá Tupinambá: “I prefer that they call me that, by my Indigenous name.” The process of building and solidifying his identity over four decades has proven beneficial to the next generation: his children are called Iandara, Ywyra and Taigwara, and also bear Tupinambá in their surname.

In the case of Sassá, the story of his family in São Paulo started 50 years ago, when his parents left Bahia. “My father came first to work and provide for our family. That’s how all the Indigenous people came here and ended up staying.”

In addition to the diversity of different ethnicities in the midst of the cultural melting pot that represents the essence of São Paulo, the lifestyles in the city are also myriad. For those who live in the city, each neighborhood is marked by its own characteristics: the Pankararus occupy modest state homes in Real Parque in the satellite city of Morumbi, and more upscale neighborhoods in São Paulo proper, such as Itaim Bibi, Moema and Pinheiros.

Others struggle to maintain their lifestyles within their Indigenous villages. The Guarani Mby’a and Guarani Nhandeva (the ethnic group from which Souza hails) live, respectively, in the Jaraguá Indigenous Territory, in the northern part of São Paulo, and Tenondé Porã, in the far south of the city, in a region bordering the municipalities of São Bernardo do Campo, São Vicente and Mongaguá.

Jaraguá, where 700 people live in six villages, or tekohas as they’re called in Guarani, was known for being the smallest Indigenous reserve in Brazil when it was approved in 1987, spanning just 1.73 hectares (4.3 acres) — smaller than two football fields. In 2015, another 532 hectares (1,315 acres) was added to it. Though this was recognized by the federal government, the inhabitants faced constant outside pressure for the territorial limits to be revised. In 2017, the Ministry of Justice (MJ) annulled the ordinance that just two years earlier had expanded the reserve. That measure was in turn reversed by the Federal Public Ministry (MPF), and today the area is awaiting reapproval. The reduction of space in Jaraguá in that time has resulted in overcrowding and a higher incidence of disease among the population, aggravated by the lack of basic sanitation and the construction of houses close to each other, a far cry from Guarani traditions.

In January 2020, property developer Tenda cut down more than 500 trees within a 0.9-hectare (2.2-acre) patch of Atlantic Forest next to the Jaraguá reserve. The company bought the land from the city with a plan to build 11 apartment blocks to house 2,000 low-income families. Tenda says it plans to preserve 50% of the area. But the Indigenous inhabitants say neither prior consultation nor socio environmental impact studies were carried out. In April 2020, a court in São Paulo ordered a suspension of construction. In a note sent to Mongabay in January 2021, Tenda says it’s awaiting a court decision to resume construction and that it has “obtained all the necessary licenses to comply with all legal requirements.”

At the southern edge of São Paulo lies the Tenondé Porã Indigenous Territory. It’s much larger, at 16,000 hectares (39,540 acres), and is home to 1,175 Indigenous people. Many of them, from the children to the elderly, speak only Guarani, and they subsist on the food they grow, such as sweet potatoes and beans.

Portrait of person standing in a city street.
For school teacher Emerson de Oliveira Souza, of the Guarani Nhandeva people, the public education system reproduces prejudices rooted in society: “It is as if we entered the school to continue the work of the Portuguese caravels, but today the caravels are different.” Image by Jonne Roriz for Mongabay. Brazil.

The contrasting conditions of the two Guarani groups in Jaraguá and Tenondé Porã undermine the blanket notion that the fate of all Guarani is precarious, says Lucas Keese dos Santos, an anthropologist and researcher at the Center for Amerindian Studies at USP.

“It is diverse. Part of them occupy areas of remnants of the Atlantic Forest with ecological conditions to resume traditional planting activities in their cultures,” he says.

Ara Mirim is the name given to Sônia Barbosa at her Indigenous baptism. A member of the Tekoha Ytu village in Jaraguá, she’s an activist who promotes her people’s culture through lectures. She had to suspend this activity last year because of the pandemic, and instead ran in the 2020 municipal elections on the Jaraguá é Guarani collective ballot, which won 10,580 votes.

“They say that our community is urban,” she says. “We see it as ancestral land. The village existed long before the neighborhood and urbanization reached us.”

In addition to the struggle for official recognition of the territory, says Sônia Ara Mirim, the priority is to preserve the Guarani culture. “We have our prayer house; we do our songs and our dances.”

Because they live in villages, there are specific public policies aimed at the Indigenous population, such as health care and access to schools. In the urban area, they mix with the rest of the population.

“We fight to get vaccinated, and I always argue at my children’s school,” says Sassá, the Tupinambá native. “I suffered with racism and prejudice and I heard a teacher call my son a lazy Indigenous.”

Adults and children walk through a village.
Guarani Indigenous people gather for the Indigenous Beauty event in the villages of the Pico do Jaraguá region, in the city of São Paulo. Image by Jonne Roriz for Mongabay. Brazil.

For Souza, the Guarani educator, there still looms the systemic issue of invisibility. “I often say that there are outcasts from the Amazon and outcasts from the city. Nobody knows them, they don’t know where they are and they don’t discuss their presence,” he says.

The little-known chapter about the construction of the current historic center of São Paulo is problematic due to its glorification of the colonizers. In front of Ibirapuera Park (a Tupi-Guarani name that means “rotting tree,” as the area was a swamp before its urbanization) stands the Monument to the Flags. It’s a tribute to the Bandeirantes, the men who discovered the mineral wealth of Brazil, enslaved and decimated the Indigenous and quilombola (Afro descendant) populations, and expanded the national territory.

“At the beginning of the 17th century, the Guarani were brought by the Bandeirantes as slaves to build São Paulo and the surrounding farms used native labor,” says Santos, the anthropologist. “Populations were taken from their villages. The story is very sad, but it needs to be addressed so that it does not happen again.”

But even now, as then, the story of the Indigenous peoples is sidelined by the glorification of the colonizers. At Jaraguá, the six tekohas are bordered by the Bandeirantes Highway. Parallel to it, the Anhanguera Highway commemorates Bartolomeu Bueno da Silva and his son, named after him. They were both called Anhanguera by the Indigenous people, a term that means “old devil.” They were notorious for their brutality against the native peoples. Sônia Ara Mirim, who lives in one of the villages in Jaraguá, says many people don’t accept the presence of Indigenous people in the area.

“Being Indigenous in São Paulo,” she says, “means we are always trying to prove that we exist.”

Portrait of a woman sitting on a tree stump.
Sônia Barbosa, or Ara Mirim, as she was baptized in the Indigenous culture, is an activist and disseminator of the culture of her people: “They say that our community is urban,” says Mirim, a resident of the Tekoha Ytu village, in the Jaraguá Indigenous Reserve, in the city of São Paulo. “We see it as ancestral land. The village existed long before the neighborhood and urbanization reached us.” Image by Jonne Roriz for Mongabay. Brazil.

This story is part of the series Indigenous people in Brazilian cities, which received funding support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting’s data journalism and property rights grant.

Maps: Ambiental Media / Juliana Mori.

Infographics: Ambiental Media/Laura Kurtzberg.

Data research and analysis: Yuli Santana, Rafael Dupim and Ambiental Media.


teal halftone illustration of a young indigenous person


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