Laura Belik, a fourth-year Architecture PhD candidate at UC Berkeley, looks at the spatial relations of memory and power within the migration patterns of Northeast Brazilian populations, specifically within the state of Ceará.

Currently relocated to shelter in place in her home country of Brazil, Belik is writing her dissertation and trying to continue field workonline archival research, phone interviews with local Northeast Brazilians, townspeople, and scholars.

Belik’s research is about a little known episode of Brazilian history— the concentration camps of the 1930s. These camps were not like the extermination camps of Hitler’s Germany, but places in which displaced people from northeastern states of Brazil fleeing from massive, land-destroying droughts were contained.

“It was the time of the gilded age,” says Belik. “The capital cities were trying to restructure themselves into more modern spaces. The elites and the government didn’t like these masses of miserable people coming in, so they came up with strategies to get people away from the capital city. They constructed these camps along the train tracks and away from the city center.”

Construction from the former Campo do Patú concentration camp, in Senador Pompeu, Ceará. Photo by Laura Belik, 2018.

The president at the time, Getúlio Vargas (1930-45), gave 10 percent of the national budget to the construction and maintenance of these campson the condition they functioned as work facilities.

“On one hand, people had nowhere else to go, and they were given food, and a place to sleep,” Belik says. “On the other hand, the government was using these spaces to gather cheap labor for public works projects.”

Some of these camps accommodated from 2,000 to over 70,000 people at one time. People died in the camps mostly due to overpopulation issues. But most camps were, as Belik describes them, “ephemeral,” or temporary spaces. By 1933, when the drought ended in Northeast Brazil, most camps, except one, were completely dismantled.

Construction from the former Campo do Patú concentration camp, in Senador Pompeu, Ceará. Photo by Laura Belik, 2018.

This last remaining camp is located 300 kilometers (190 miles) away from the capital city of Fortaleza. Belik is involved in getting the camp considered for state-level landmarking a process which would grant the camp heightened historical legitimacy and recognition.

However, the process of constructing these ephemeral spaces to use the cheap labor of internally displaced northeastern Brazilain populations did not stop with the concentration camps of the 1930s.

In 1942, in the midst of World War II, the United States needed more rubber for their machines, planes, and vehicles, and turned to Brazil’s Amazon rainforest for resources. At this same time, another drought overtook Northeast Brazil. Again, tens of thousands of people sought the promise for a better life and opportunity elsewhere.

President Vargas, the same President who had financed the 1932 concentration camps, sets up a series of recruitment centers new ephemeral spaces, this time meant to bring people from Ceará to the Amazon, to work in the latex extraction farms called seringais.

“It was a really hard, arduous trip to the Amazon. It would take months” says Belik. “And you had the choice between going to the front lines as regular soldiers fighting in Europe, or working in the seringais, becoming ‘rubber soldiers.’A lot more people died in the Amazon.”

It has become clear to Belik, these migrations of internally-displaced, poor, and landless Northeastern Brazilian people to major cities are cyclical.

The construction of concentration camps in Ceará in 1932 is in a way repeated and ‘re-cycled’ in the building of recruitment centers for the seringal workers in the Amazon region in 1942. 

Belik recognizes the cycle’s recurrence in the 1950s, with candangos from the northeast migrating to build Brasilia while living in satellite cities in the outskirts of the capital; and again, in the 1970s and 1980s with blue-collar laborers migrating to São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro to work in the growing industrial plants.

Today, what we have left of the concentration camps and recruitment centers of the 1930s and 1940s are a few references in official documents and rare, stray memories and stories…

The questions Belik investigates are: What can these lost, erased, or hidden histories tell us about the socio-political constructions of Brazilian territory? What can we learn from people’s few and sparing memories of these concentration camps and recruitment centers? And, what can we understand Brazil’s present-day national narrative and spatial organization through examining what past events are (and continue to be) excluded from it? 

What can we understand about Brazil’s present-day national narrative and spatial organization through examining what past events are excluded from it?  

“The histories of these built environments are complex and nuanced” concludes Belik. 

“We should be attentive to how there are always multiple perspectives and memories regarding spaces’ past and present. In order to fully portray a more inclusive understanding of our cities and territories, we have to look beyond their physical traces, official documentation or the lack thereof.” 


Categories: April 2021, Student & Alumni Profiles

About Daryanna Lancet