There were two. In 2008, we met for months every Friday for a lunch and a chat. We had a guest who had chosen, like us, Lisbon as home. Our lunchtime conversations we called “Encontros Pau de Arara”. We were inspired by the trucks that from time to time carried many families, dreams, aspirations, disappointments, from the northeast to the southeast of Brazil with just a suitcase or bag tied to his back, forced by hunger, abandonment, lack of perspective. They got the road towards their dream, searching the right to live well.
Perhaps today, when we are astonished with the rise of the extreme right to power in Brazil and some parts of the world, we would not call our “Conversation Cycle”, “Pau de Arara”. Pau de Arara is also a cruel method of torture known to many Brazilians during the Military Dictatorship. But we were there, 2008.
Our meetings were permeated with tenderness and pain as guests made us their affective recipes, their favourite dishes. They told us about their lives, their choices so far and about things not chosen, but lived anyway. We listened to music, curious questions, we told jokes, we laughed a lot. And we cried too. We aimed to listen attentively to a not so unique path, but made by a unique person and experience. We followed the move from one land to another, in an intimate sharing narrated in the first person, amid the smell of the food that was being made and then shared between everyone.
After a while, our living room got tight and we had the wish to go outside and to occupy spaces in that city that was also ours. Two Brazilian women who chose to make Lisbon their home. For a few months, we went out in the same choreography walking around the city: from Rua dos Fanqueiros, where c.e.m – centro em movimento, home that hosted our project, down towards Praça do Comércio, than Rua do Arsenal to Corpo Santo, ending at Cais do Sodré, in its Jardim São Luís. So we moved up to Rua do Alecrim, passing through Rua de São Paulo, arriving at Camões Square, walking down for some stairs until we reach Rossio Square. We were crossed by the movements of the city. Crossing that giant square was a challenge. We then flowed into Largo de São Domingos. The others were still somewhere. We stayed there. São Domingos became a living space. It became a place. Staying was also a movement. We were stared there, observing the dynamics, the bodies, the demarcations, the limits of space.
The Largo was a passage, but also a meeting point. Many tourists passed by, many Lisboners and locals, many other immigrants who came and went, between Baixa, Rossio and Martim Moniz. It was a spot for tourists looking at the Church of São Domingos, for remnants of Portuguese history or going to the Ginjinha to try the sweetened alcohol in the late afternoon. Where the lottery vendor passed every day and a point for two shoeshine men, Paulo and Jorge.
It was a meeting place and living room for countless black men and women, especially from Guinea-Bissau and who, since the late 1970s or early 1980s, went there to meet relatives, friends, hear news from home, buy fabrics, food, clothing, medicine, shoes and make business. The Largo had been theirs for decades. They inhabited it and made it their place. They occupied all the concrete benches and took root there.
The two of us, tired of spending the day standing, brought our own stools. And we started to inhabit Largo de São Domingos as well. We broke through a barrier. They found us funny. Gradually, their voices became a mass that made up the mass of voices and sounds that emanated from that transit between mobility and stability, making sense, also telling their stories, their names. It took us months to be invited to sit on one of the square’s benches.
On a cloudy and mysterious day, we witnessed the arrival of city hall men and a truck. They came to install a ball with the Star of David right in the centre of the Largo. It said in “the memory of the thousands of Jewish victims”, murdered in the same Largo, in the year 1506. “It took 500 years to ask Jews for forgiveness. How many more years will they take to ask us for forgiveness?” asked a Guinean man who had gone there to observe the monument’s inscription.
That sentence remained with us. It resounded with every racist comment made by the clients of the coffee shop in the corner of the Largo. With the police that stayed there to just “prevent theft”. There is a scene that insists on returning to exhaustion. The police often arrested before asking. Back in the police station, they finally used to find out that they had taken Portuguese citizens. Or even citizens of other countries, with a residence permit. Or even citizens of some other place, with no documents, but disrespected dignity and rights.
A few months later, insisting on our weekly presence in that space, we put on our party clothes, two white dresses so that we could be as beautiful as the Guineans who also put on their evening clothes. The women who wore lush clothes and majestic turban-sculptures on their heads. The Queens of the Largo.
One day we took the red sofa from our living room and placed it under an olive tree, in one corner of the Largo. We brought our camera of instant photographs and our stools to the middle of the square, from where we could hear the records of memories and revelations, our recordings of Pau de Arara and other sounds that we were collected from that environment. The usual ones came and also those who had never been there before. Some moved from the concrete benches to our sofa. Those who used only to pass by, that day sat there with us. We finally made Largo de São Domingos, our home too. We celebrated.
After 12 years, we, Carolina and Flávia, are each one in a city, Brasília-Lisbon. We became mothers. Gabriel, Aurora, Alice, Luzia. We went through other jobs. But São Domingos remained somehow behind our heads, present in our bodies. We experienced the power of that space, which does not let us forget and continues to pulse and which we transport. The imposing church. The white marble. The sweet of the ginginha. The sound of Mandingo and Fula. The colour of the clothes. Presences that do not disappear. Leather belts and lucky objects. The friends we made.
From a distance, we revisit our Largo de São Domingos through this built memory. The resistance of those who live there and insist with their presence today. In the middle of a gentrified Lisbon, sold at the expense of “ALs” and “wine & tapas” bars.
Today, in the midst of a pandemic that highlights our inequalities, we see a European Union moving towards a pact that authorizes the shielding of its borders and the expulsion of those who live without documents in their countries. We see bodies that, still in fear, do not stop being there, in the Largo. Yes, the Largo is in fact their living room, their home. It is necessary more than ever to affirm this belonging, we cannot wait another 5 years, nor 50, much less 500.