Preservation of Hansen’s disease-related memory spaces: the right to heritage

by Sônia Rampim.

Sociologist, Specialist in Rural Sociology and in Public Policies for Social Protection and Development. Master in Education. Institute for National Historical and Artistic Heritage (IPHAN). ICOMOS Brazil.
Hic manebimus optime ("We'll be fine here")Photo: Artur Custódio - MORHAN.

The Federal Constitution of 1988, article 216, affirms the understanding of the wider concept of cultural heritage when it highlights the right to memory of the different groups that make up Brazilian society. This construction, the result of resistance from social movements in the field of culture, legally supports the need to modify preservation practices based in coloniality of knowledge, inherent for so long in heritage policies.

Art. 216. Brazilian cultural heritage is constituted by goods of a tangible and intangible nature, taken individually or together, bearing reference to the identity, action and memory of the different groups that form Brazilian society, including:

I - the forms of expression;

I - forms of expression; II - ways of creating, doing and living;

III - scientific, artistic and technological creations;

IV - the works, objects, documents, buildings and other spaces destined to artistic and cultural manifestations;

V - urban groups and sites of historical, landscape, artistic, archaeological, palaeontological, ecological and scientific value.

§ 1º The public authority, with the collaboration of the community, shall promote and protect the Brazilian cultural heritage by means of inventories, registers, surveillance, toppling and expropriation, and other forms of safeguarding and preservation.

§ 2º The public administration shall be responsible, in the form of the law, for the management of government documentation and for making arrangements to make it available for consultation by all those who need it.

§ 3º The law shall establish incentives for the production and knowledge of cultural assets and values.

§ 4º Damages and threats to cultural heritage shall be punished, in the form of law.

§ 5º All documents and sites containing historical reminiscences of the former quilombos shall be declared protected as historic monuments.

Despite efforts by official preservation agencies to update these practices towards a widening of narratives and representation by different social groups in Brazilian society, there remains a conceptual and practical framework that reinforces the hegemonic narratives of the State towards the idea of a common past, shared by all, that affirms the heritage of certain social groups representing the ruling classes. Thus, it is necessary for social groups that defend the right to memory and cultural heritage to create strategies to organize themselves and act politically as civil society towards the construction of comprehensive public policies to guarantee these rights.

The spaces related to the histories and memories of perons affected by Hansen’s disease are part, therefore, of a set of other spaces that, for a long time, were not considered in processes for the preservation cultural heritage, which were always related to the commemoration of national memory and official narratives of the past.

There was no place in history for anything related to tragedy, oppression, and pain. With the expansion of the concept of cultural heritage in Brazil expressed, as mentioned above, in article 216 of the Constitution, and with the struggles of social movements, the protection of sites related to these aspects of history has been expanded in Brazil and in the world. There is a growing interest in the so-called "heritage of pain”, “difficult heritage" or "sensitive heritage" of populations and social groups that had their narratives suffocated and made invisible.

UNESCO - the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization - recognizes as world heritage sites Hiroshima in Japan, the Auschwitz Concentration Camp in Poland, Robben Island in South Africa, and Valongo Wharf in Rio de Janeiro (the point of arrival of the African diaspora and the largest port for enslaved people in Latin America). These sensitive historical sites awaken the memory of traumatic and painful events that reveal the history of human rights violations.

In the case of the spaces related to Hansen’s disease, the value is not only in their historical aspects, but also in their symbolic values that synthesize the tragedy of mistaken public health policies, which adopted a hygienic ‘cleaning’ perspective of problems that, in fact, were social problems arising from an overwhelming modernization process in Brazil which had, as a consequence, the social exclusion of more socially vulnerable groups.

Guaranteeing the use of these spaces aligned to the stories of these people gives a sense of reparation, on the part of the Brazilian state - in the sense that the public health policies that have brought so much harm to these people have already been recognized as mistaken.

Thus, the exercise of educational practices that promote the mobilization of social groups that live in and relate to these spaces on a daily basis is fundamental. It is important here to state that educational experiences in valuing heritage are more effective when integrated with the various dimensions of people's lives. In other words, they must make sense and be perceived in everyday practices. In the case of educational actions for the preservation and appreciation of cultural heritage, instead of preserving places, buildings and objects for their value in themselves, in a reification process, it is necessary to associate cultural assets with everyday life continuously, as a creation of symbols and circulation of meanings.

For the practice of this principle, it is essential to recognize the affective dimension of heritage. According to Meneses (2012), the affective values of heritage are in the field of the constitution of self-image and identity of social groups and are constituted by subjective relationships that are established with the assets. Thus, a challenge arises: the recognition of these values that, for the author, is not to be confused with conducting opinion surveys, but it is about seeking to understand the universe of representations and the social imagination.

Therefore, only through processes of truly listening to different narratives about cultural heritage is it possible to begin to access the valuations that are revealed by different arguments emanating from different social agents.

A tool that contributes to this perspective are the participatory inventories. These are instruments of social mobilization that advocate the protagonism of the subjects in the identification of their cultural heritage.

What are the cultural references of spaces related to Hansen’s disease? Which places are important for these people who relate to them daily? Which forms of expression are particular to this universe and understood by all who experience these territories? Which objects refer to the memory and identity of these groups? These are questions that can only be answered by the owners of this heritage, because they are the ones who have an affective relationship with these spaces. Affect here is understood as an action that certain situations and even places exert on people, affecting them towards new actions. It is interesting to remember here Espinosa (2008) when he presents the notion of affection and relates it to the power of something to modify the actions of people who are affected:

"[...] by affection I understand the affections of the body by which its potency to act is increased or diminished, stimulated or restrained, and at the same time the ideas of these affections. Explanation. Thus, when we can be the adequate cause of some of these affections, by affection I then understand an action [...]" (ESPINOSA, 2008, p.163).

In this sense, heritage becomes an element of aggregation and resistance to supposedly hegemonic models of society. It is necessary to understand this educational practice as a participative action and a political action, for it is inserted in the social and historical contexts of action of the subjects and, many times, in realities of conflicts that involve collective decision making, related to the desire for the future of these subjects in their territories, and, in a broader sense, of the model of society.

Heritageizing the spaces related to Hansen’s disease, therefore, is an opportunity to mobilize people not only to exercise the right to memory and heritage but, mainly, so that the mistaken public health policies engendered by the State, which undermined human rights, are never repeated.

At the entrance gate of the Santa Izabel’s colony, in Betim (MG), one can find the Latin words: “Hic manebimus optime” or “we will be fine here”. This phrase, which became famous as an expression of determination, is reported by Titus Livius in his Roman History (Ab Urbe condita libri, V, 55), and attributed to a centurion who, at the historical juncture of the sack of Rome, (around 390/386 BC), which occurred during the Celtic invasions of the Italian peninsula, would have uttered this as an exhortation to his comrades, indirectly influencing the subsequent decision of the Roman Senate not to abandon the city. By re-signifying this expression today, "let's stay right here" may point to a continuity of these buildings, material supports of memory, to always remember the very painful stories these people went through.

Preserving and officially protecting these spaces is, therefore, urgent and necessary so that we can always remember that these invisibilized stories need to be told and retold for humanity to know them and not forget the effects of misguided public health policies that have often taken away the identity and lives of these people. These memories belong to all of us. Their stories are our stories and their history is our history.

“The need to remember often conflicts with the strong pressure to forget. Even with the best intentions - such as promoting reconciliation after events of extreme discord by 'turning the page' - erasing the past can prevent new generations from learning important lessons, and forever compromise opportunities to build a peaceful future.

Without safe spaces to remember and preserve these memories, the stories of elders, survivors of atrocities, may disappear after they pass away, societies that have overcome conflicts may fail to seek justice for fear of reopening old wounds, and the families of the disappeared will never be able to find the answers.

But those memories belong to all of us. Their stories are our stories and their History is our History.”

Reviewers of the iH Editorial Board

Patrícia D. Deps and Maria de Jesus Freitas de Alencar.


Larissa Fernandes Lannes Marinho and Simon M. Collin.


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