A Colonial Amefrican Wound: DNA Tests Provide Clues of Black and Indigenous Ancestry in Brazil

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This article is the final contribution to our award-winning, year-long reporting project, Rooting Anti-Racism in the Favelas: Deconstructing Social Narratives About Racism in Rio de Janeiro.

Having undergone DNA ancestry tests, our Afro-Brazilian team members explored their roots, all the while affirming historical erasure.

For the majority of the black Brazilian population, knowledge of your roots is attained solely through oral histories by family members going back two to three generations. In the Black Atlantic diaspora, names and records of ancestors are lost when the oldest member of the family dies. Our oldest family members are the guardians of our history. When they die, so does the memory of these roots, of past generations.

Political cartoon by Carlos Latuff

The lack of knowledge about black and indigenous roots in Brazil is not a mere accident. It is the result of centuries of Portuguese colonialism’s historical erasure, which ripped people away from their histories, with lasting effects to this day. This erasure was perpetuated over the centuries by structural racism with the smoking gun being the destruction of slavery archives—the records of the kidnapped and enslaved African population that landed in Brazil—by order of Ruy Barbosa, then Minister of Finance of the Republic of Brazil, in 1890.

In Brazil, unlike in countries colonized by the English, Germans, and Dutch, the colonial strategy was to promote a type of racism through assimilation and denial of the existence of racial conflicts by way of miscegenation. From this, the myth of Brazilian racial democracy was built, widely disseminated by the social, and not biological, interpretation that Brazilian race relations were adjusted by correcting the social distance between masters and slaves.

A cross-section of the mockup of Brazilian slave ship Vigilante at the Barra Fort Naval Museum, in Salvador, Bahia. Involved in the illegal slave trade, the ship was captured by the British Navy off the African coast in 1822.

This complex set of historical contradictions is one of the reasons that explains the phenomenon of DNA testing in Brazil. In a country that has destroyed its official memory of black and indigenous slavery, the possibility of collecting a small amount of saliva, sending it to a laboratory through the mail, and shortly afterward, receiving an e-mail with a detailed map with the countries of origin of your ancestors, stirs curiosity and pokes the colonial wound of our amefricanidade (in English, Amefricanity). After all, who do I see when I look in the mirror?

Amefricanity is a term coined by Lélia Gonzalez, one of the most important black female intellectuals in Brazil, to counter terms imposed by racist colonial language. In her view, Amefricanity makes an entire previously invisible descendancy, visible: not only of Africans brought by the slave trade, but also of native peoples who lived in the Americas long before Columbus.

Furthermore, for Lélia Gonzalez recognizing ourselves as Amefricans deconstructs the myth of cordiality and racial democracy. It highlights the exposure of the slave system of miscegenation and whitening, built from racial and sexual violence against black women.

Therefore, seeking this path of return among the Afro-diasporic population, DNA testing has become increasingly popular. One of the factors for this increase in popularity is the recent drop in prices. Now, companies like Genera and MeuDNA offer the test kit at a relatively accessible price in Brazil. The cost varies from R$199 to R$399 (US$40 to US$79) and payment can even be done in 12 interest-free installments on one’s credit card.

An Unprecedented Database

According to the MIT Tech Review, by early 2019, over 26 million people had undergone commercial DNA testing. To date, it is estimated that over 100 million people worldwide have had their DNA collected and analyzed. It is a database without precedence in human history in the hands of private companies that profit from this information.

Ancestry tests MeuDNA and Genera with the Black Atlantic in the background.

Genera does not publicly disclose sales data, but in response to a request for information from RioOnWatch, it said that the laboratory passed the 200,000 test mark in 2021. MeuDNA laboratory also confirmed the increase in searches “for tests of ancestry and self-knowledge about origins” in recent years in Brazil, but did not provide any information about the average growth in test kit sales.

Both companies assured RioOnWatch that they meet legal requirements of Brazil’s Personal Data Protection Law (LGPD) and that they save genetic data on “secure clouds.” They also stated that a client can request the elimination of their genetic material from the database at any time, respecting the right to data privacy.

According to the laboratories, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro are the states that most seek tests. Among Genera clientes, the majority are male, although the percentage of women is higher between the ages of 36 and 40. Among MeuDNA clients, women represent 54% of those acquiring the test while men represent 46%.

Between March and June 2021, three members of the RioOnWatch team underwent ancestry tests. Below, they share the impact and experience of discovering their origins in first-person accounts.

“Knowing Our Origin Should Be Everyone’s Right”

Art imagined by Gisele Moura and produced by Kaindie Arvoredo in 2021.

This is the opinion of Gisele Moura, 28, who articulated the RioOnWatch series on Energy Justice. She was born in Cajamar, a city in the peripheral region of Greater São Paulo that has existed for only 62 years. The history of the city’s emergence begins with “development” linked to mining and the Portland cement industry, with no scientific reports of the presence of traditional black, indigenous, or quilombola populations in the territory. According to her, the local cultural practice is to flaunt the bandeirantes “pioneering” in the region. Bandeirantes were Portuguese expansionists who, starting in the 16th century, traveled through the interior of Brazil to traffic products, capture indigenous people and enslave them.

“My search for my ancestry began when I started to feel a lack of history about my own origin being a black and peripheral woman; a need for answers that came through my spirituality, but also because as a student of environmental science at the Fluminense Federal University (UFF), I chose to produce an escrevivência (a particular method of writing that emerges from daily life as an Afro-Brazilian woman) for my final undergraduate project. The idea was to understand the belonging and relationship of environmental issues from a black ancestral cosmology: where we are nature itself and its force of action.

It is interesting to be black in Brazil, because this birth condition already puts us in the place of not being, of not belonging and of not existing. In 2017, I went to Búzios in Rio de Janeiro. It was my first time in the town, and I got to see a very special place called Ponta da Lagoinha, with rock formations and natural pools with crystal clear water. In that same place, a sign indicated that Brazil’s most recent tectonometamorphic event [the last collision between Africa and the Brazilian coast] happened there. That meant that, that spot, where my bare feet were touching, was where the separation between Africa and the Brazilian coast took place.

Brazil was the largest slave-holding territory in world history. It received, alone, 40% of the 12.5 million Africans forcefully shipped to the American continent. 10,700,000 of them arrived in the Americas. 1, 800,000 died during the passage which caused disturbances in shark routes due to the sheer number of black bodies thrown into the ocean. Sharks started following the slave ships, waiting for our flesh.

If we divide these deaths by the number of days, on average, 14 corpses were thrown overboard per day, over 350 years. ‘The sea was seasoned with the tears of black people,’ as in the song Boa Esperança, by Brazilian rapper Emicida. Almost 5 million Africans landed in Brazil since the 16th century. The slave trade represented the height of human uprooting by colonialism. And that’s without mentioning the extermination of the indigenous population, which continues to this day.

In March 2021, I had the opportunity to learn about my origins by taking a DNA test through the MeuDNA laboratory. During team meetings, we spoke about the importance of our black team members talking about our ancestry. I remember saying that, to me, it seemed outrageous to have to pay to know about my background, to recover my history that was lost in a violent process of colonization.

As a result, I discovered that 64.8% of my genetic composition is African, with 27.3% from North Africa, 26% from West Africa (16.3% from Angola and 9.9% from Benin), and 11.3% from East-Central Africa (9.8% from Uganda and 1.5% from the Kushites).

I also found out that another part of me comes from Europe (27.9%), with 20.7% from Scandinavia, 5.6% from Great Britain, and 1.6% from the Iberian Peninsula. My genetic code even carries 7.3% from Central American (Mexican) natives.

The result of this test validated the feelings I had when my feet pulsed in Búzios. Thiago El Niño sang: ‘in order for me to get here, many people had to become current.’ Among the great certainties the test brought me, the main one was of Axé/Asè—a Yoruba word that reflects our life force, meaning ‘we do’ [‘awá’ (we) and ‘sé’ (this is)].

I understood that my ancestors survived the forced separation of their families, kidnapping, the transatlantic trade, dehumanized work, hunger, torture… And, yet there was still strength and Axé left for me to exist today

The test assured me that knowing our origin should be everyone’s right in Brazil. In my ideal world, every black and brown Brazilian should receive a DNA test along with their birth certificate.

I keep thinking about whether to leave my DNA in the database. Despite the risk from the structures of power and market, I feel that my genetic data can help foster more encounters, awakenings, and ‘certainties,’ as happened to me.

Therefore, if my genetic code can help more young black people return home, I’m willing to let them keep my data. One of the pieces among many others on the map of who we are.”

The ancestry test taken by Gisele Moura was provided by the MeuDNA laboratory for the production of this article.

“I Am Like A Leafy Tree that Blossoms from a Severed Trunk”

Me, Julio Santos Filho, my grandfather Sebastião Fonseca dos Santos and my brother Paulo Henrique Santana de Mendonça Santos, in 2015.

“To recover part of my history” was what made Julio Cesar de Mendonça Santos Filho, a 32-year-old black peripheral man, decide to take an ancestry test. A resident of Zumbi, a neighborhood on Ilha do Governador, in the North Zone of Rio de Janeiro, he has been working as Portuguese and English editor at RioOnWatch since June 2020. In 2021, he was the editor of the Rooting Anti-Racism in the Favelas project. Excited at the prospect of recovering something of his ancestry, the sociologist bought the ancestry kit from the Genera laboratory.

“To be an Afro-Amerindian black man and editor of the anti-racist project is to look at yourself through others. It is to see yourself in other territories and to understand that we are not alone. It’s like listening to my maternal grandfather, Sebastião Fonseca dos Santos (1930-2017), on Sunday afternoons, telling us about our histories through our ancestral technology.

My maternal family is black, migrants from the Northeastern state of Sergipe. Within my family, oral history and photos are the only means of accessing our past. The information that has survived until now is restricted to the generation of my grandparents’ grandparents, who were born after the Law of Free Birth (1871), between 1870 and 1880, children of enslaved wombs. We know nothing prior to that generation: no names, no documents, no background, not even what languages they spoke. It’s as if we came out of nowhere. Even when photos survive, all other information is lost with the death of the elders.

On the other hand, in my paternal family, which is seen socially as white, there is no interest in family history. ‘Where did we come from?’ is not an issue. However, we do know that my great-grandfather was the son of Portuguese people from Terceira Island, in the archipelago of the Azores, while my great-grandmother was the daughter of an indigenous woman from Manaus, [capital of the state of Amazonas] with a Frenchman. Although many of the photographs of my paternal ancestors have not survived, there is a sense of origin and ancestral belonging because there are documents, albeit few, that tell that story.

My grandfather Sebastião and I always wanted to discover our roots; we always talked about them. I am like a leafy tree that blossoms from a severed trunk. To seek out our history is difficult, it is like searching for paths that were erased when we came from Africa. The knowledge of our enslaved ancestors was denied to us. Only the names and faces of my free great-grandparents survived: Margarida de Cortonia, Maria Celina da Conceição, and Manoel Agostinho dos Santos. We know nothing about their enslaved mothers, fathers, and grandparents.

Julio Santos Filho and his maternal grandmother.

No experience as editor for RioOnWatch was more meaningful and moved me as much as the opportunity to take this ancestry test while my grandmother was still alive, and to research it as a family for the anti-racist project. I was able to discuss the results with my grandmother, Maria Lúcia Santana Santos (1929-2021), and listen to her words of wisdom. The eldest in the family, 92 years old at the time, she looked deep into my eyes and very kindly told me: ‘I am happy to see you happy with this result, but it doesn’t say who we really are.’ And she added: ‘We came from many places, [the DNA test] is not a sentence.’ It felt like I was listening to a contemporary black activist from the organized Brazilian Black Movement, but it was my grandmother speaking, at our table at home.

For the first time, it felt as if I were accessing, albeit in a very limited way, a portal whose passage had always been completely blocked. In talking with my family about the results of the DNA test, the reactions were varied. They went from the classic ‘Why do you want to know about that? It’s the past, let it go!’, to ‘How amazing, I want to do it too! How do I do it? How much does it cost?’ But in the end, everyone was curious to hear the result of my ancestry test, which is also about them.

My Genera ancestry test concluded that: 50% of my genetic code is European, with 19% from the Balkans, 17% from Western Europe and 11% from Iberia; 38% is Afro-Amerindian, being 35% from Africa, with 11% prevalence of ancestry from the Gold Coast (which includes the present-day countries of Ghana, Benin, Togo, and Nigeria), and 8% from West and Southern Africa (Cameroon, Gabon, Republic of Congo, Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Namibia, South Africa, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the archipelago of São Tomé and Príncipe) and 8% from Senegambia (Senegal, Gambia and Guinea-Bissau, plus fractions of Mali, Mauritania and Guinea) and 3% of the native peoples of the Amazon region. Added to this are 9% from the Middle East and Maghreb and 3% from the Jewish diaspora.

When I spoke about the results with a cousin, Viviane Agostinho, she was surprised. She said she’d also done an ancestry test with the AncestryDNA laboratory for herself and her mom, my great-aunt Ignez, 89, the sister of my maternal grandfather Sebastião. Even with completely different databases, since the laboratories are from different countries, the trends detected in my test were confirmed by her results: our African background is predominantly from the Gold Coast and West Africa, markedly from Nigeria, which was about 50% of her and my great-aunt’s DNA results.

These tests prove that the Brazilian family is a crossroads. Especially for us, black people, the ancestry test is almost a genetic game of cowrie-shell divination, which seeks to reveal the guardians not of our orí, but of our Afro-Diasporic and Amefrican history.”

Julio’s family tree.

Brown on My Birth Certificate, Black in Life and by Political Choice

“My name is Tatiana Lima, I am 42, and a special reporter for RioOnWatch. In 2021, I acted as the organizer of the anti-racist project, bringing together grassroots communicators, illustrators, and the editing team. I was born and raised in a favela, but I currently live in Rio’s periphery, in Engenho da Rainha, in the North Zone. “Parda”, or brown, by birth certificate, I am a light-skinned black woman—the child of another woman declared brown on her birth certificate, and the grandchild of another equally brown woman—but that in addition that “color defect‘ duly typified in the papers that register my birth, I don’t share my father’s name.

Me, my mom and my grandmother—and probably my great-grandmother as well—like my aunts and cousins, are all light-skinned black women. We are part of the 54% of the Brazilian population made up of black people, according to the Brazilian Institute for Geography and Statistics (IBGE). However, I am the only one still alive with the chance to understand my Amefrican racial identity.

Birth certificate with highlight

I am part of the third generation of descendants of a womb that I presume was not free, an almost historical certainty from the intersection of dates that tell the official history of the country. I do not have any living maternal or paternal ancestor that guards and transmits, at least through oral memory, any clues about our past. There are no photos or documents. Nothing. Only my mother’s birth certificate.

It was through it that I saw, on the line where the names of her maternal grandparents should have been, that there is only one name: Marcelina Antonia dos Santos. From this document I gleaned the matriarchal trajectory of my family: perpetual solo motherhoods with little or no presence of a father figure. It was also through it that I understood my color defect as being in this place of double belonging, which was confirmed by my ancestry test.

According to the results, I’m a product of the Gold Coast, from West and East Africa and even from the Bakaya: a semi-nomadic pygmy people that live in the Central African Republic region and to the north of the Republic of Congo. I am also Amazon, Andean, Tupi and even indigenous North American.

Besides the surprise of belonging to the ancestry of an African pygmy and indigenous North American people, what left me perplexed—and moved—was my map revealing that I carry, in my body, a genetic load of about 40% African and native peoples in extremely close proportions, with a difference of only 3%. I also found out that I am about 10% originally from the Middle East and the Maghreb, as well as from various regions in Europe.

Despite my surprise, it makes complete sense with regard to my life experiences. I come from a family of women domestic workers and from a Northeastern Brazilian father. When I was a child, up until I was 10 years old, my hair was extremely dark and straight. It was common for people to say that I looked like an ‘Indian’—the derogatory and colonial term used at the time.

I mustered the courage and called my father to ask about my paternal grandparents. My straight, black hair certainly came from him, who left the city of São Benedito, in the interior of the state of Ceará when he was 14. In Rio de Janeiro, he worked with everything imaginable. Today, he lives in the favelas of Complexo da Maré and never speaks of any family memory, particularly of his parents.

In response to the questions I sent him through WhatsApp, he recorded an audio message and answered, in three quick lines, that my grandfather was blind and that it had been him, the youngest son, my father, who walked with a rope tied around his waist to serve as my grandfather’s guide. One day, my paternal grandfather woke up with a stomachache and died after a few days. He doesn’t have a birth certificate, because when he was born the births were recorded at the church and he lost the copy he had in Rio. He did not tell me if my paternal grandfather was blind from birth or if it was the result of diabetes, or what caused the stomachache.

City of São Benedito, in Ceará

The city of São Benedito was an indigenous town invaded in 1604 by Portuguese explorer Pero Coelho de Souza, who after subjugating the Tabajara people, set up his headquarters there. The district was elevated to the status of a ‘Vila’ in 1872. My dad was born there in 1955.

As the daughter of a brown woman with very curly hair, when I was 11, my hair started to get curls, like a hair transition. The curlier it got, the more I was labeled as brown and no longer as indigenous. I started to see myself as brown, I was labeled as brown. It made sense, because it was what was written on my birth certificate and on my mother’s, until one day, I was labeled black in an activity promoted by women journalists at the Rio de Janeiro journalist union.

It was December 10, 2005. I remember because it’s International Human Rights Day. During a roundtable, the women referred to me as also being a black woman. A little confused, I asked what was going on. They asked how I self-declared. I said ‘brown… like, mestiça [mixed].’

They explained that the term ‘mestiça’ was a wound left over from colonial violence, the result of rape. I then asked how I should describe myself. And that’s when they got up and hugged me. I left there with three books about the history of the Brazilian Black Movement, racial equity, and the composition of the population of Brazilian black women.

From that day until I publicly declared myself black, in 2015, ten years went by. During the Parliamentary Investigation of Murdered Youths, when the Black Movement yelled ‘brown is black, brown is black’, because the security authorities in Rio tried to separate brown and black statistics in order to argue that the Rio police was not racist, I finally understood that a brown body on the ground has black and indigenous blood running through it and is a victim of State colonial violence.

With my DNA test results, I found out that I did not have a color defect, but a racial identity. I am a black woman in life and by political choice. I am a labeled body that carries the historic cartography of our Amefricanity.

For this reason alone, inspired by Gisele’s story, for now, I have not yet requested the deletion of my data from the laboratory’s database. Since I did both MeuDNA and Genera tests, I chose to leave my data available in only one of the laboratories.”

The ancestry tests taken by Tatiana Lima were provided by the MeuDNA and Genera laboratories for the production of this article.

About the authors:

Tatiana Lima is a journalist and grassroots communicator at heart. A black feminist, member of Complexo do Alemão’s Researchers in Movement Study Group, she works as a special reporter at RioOnWatch. A fair-skinned black woman, born and raised in a favela, Lima currently lives in Rio’s periphery and is a doctoral student at the Fluminense Federal University (UFF).

Gisele Moura is a black woman, a child of the São Paulo suburbs that beat the odds and became an Environmental Scientist at UFF. She is also a co-founder of the Black Center at the same program. Today, she is a coordinator of Rio’s Sustainable Favela Network (SFN)* and still finds time to create amazing crochet weaves.

Julio Santos Filho has a Bachelor’s in International Relations (UFF) and Master’s in Sociology (IESP-UERJ). A black man from Ilha do Governador, he has worked as Portuguese and English editor for RioOnWatch since 2020. In 2021, he was the editor of the “Rooting Anti-Racism in the Favelas” project, a silver medalist in The Anthem Awards.

About the artist: Raquel Batista is a visual artist who works as a photographer and illustrator. A black woman, resident of Rio’s West Zone, she is an undergraduate at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro’s (UFRJ) School of Fine Arts.

This article is the final contribution to our award-winning, year-long reporting project, Rooting Anti-Racism in the Favelas: Deconstructing Social Narratives About Racism in Rio de Janeiro.

*The Sustainable Favela Network (SFN) and RioOnWatch are both projects of Catalytic Communities (CatComm).

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