Guest post and all photos by Adam C. Smith, JD/MS Candidate at Tulane University’s School of Law.
The memorial to Edson Luiz Lima Souto is located in the small, triangular Plaza Ana Amélia just east of the busy Avenida Presidente Antônio Carlos at the intersection of Rua Santa Suzia and Avenida Churchill in Rio de Janeiro. The central component of the monument is a roughly triangular red wooden platform that supports a statue in metal of of a billowing flag. Set into the platform are the impressions of eight sets of bare footprints arranged around the flagpole. On the east corner of the plaza there is a written dedication of the monument entitled: “Right to Memory and Truth: Monument to Essential Persons” which names Edson Luiz Lima Souto and tells the story of the events leading up to his death at the hands of the military police on March 28th, 1968.
Arriving at the monument around noon on a Monday, the plaza is filled with people traveling between the nearby office buildings, heading to lunch, or taking a rest in the shade. It feels like a transitory place—perhaps a meeting point but not a destination in itself. Having glanced quickly at a map before heading out to look for it, I found myself asking people on the street if they knew the plaza or the monument. Many knew the plaza by name; few recalled having heard something about the monument. One man who seemed to know just what we were looking for but recommended that we go to the MAM instead.
The story of Edson Luiz Lima Souto is anything but forgettable. He was born in Belem do Para, in the north of Brazil, and came to the city Rio de Janeiro to complete his high school studies. He became involved in politics opposing the dictatorial regime and frequented the restaurant Calabouço, which had originally opened under Gertulio Vargas as a provider of low cost meals for needy students and which had since become a meeting and debating place for student groups opposing the dictatorship. On the night of his death, Edson Luiz was organizing a protest of the high prices at the restaurant when the police arrived to dispel the protest. The explanation of the monument at Plaza Ana Amelia states that when the police entered the restaurant, the student armed themselves with sticks and stones, at which point the police began to open fire. Another account suggests that the police had first disrupted the meeting without gunfire but that the students then armed themselves and returned forcing the police to retreat before themselves returning to take the restaurant using gunfire. According to all reports, however, 18 year-old Edson Luiz was shot through the heart at point-blank range by military police inside the Calabouço restaurant.
Almost as dramatic as his death, is the story of its aftermath. Fearing that his body would be seized by the military police, Edson Luiz’ fellow protestors carried his body directly to the Legislative Assembly where they demanded an autopsy be conducted in the presence of the Secretary of State. News of his death spread throughout the country with significant protests in Rio de Janeiro and São Paolo. Protesters held signs with the slogans “Does a bullet kill hunger?”, “The old men in power and the young men in coffins,” and “They killed a student. What if it were your son?” Two masses commemorating his death were held in the Candelária Church, the second in direct contradiction of orders by military government. During this second mass, government troops—including mounted marines and armed members of DOPS—gathered outside Candelária and attacked mourners as they left the service.
Some historians and commentators have located the killing of Edson Luiz as a pivotal event in military dictatorship in Brazil, both in motivating the opposition and in prompting crackdown by the government. In Os Carbonários Alfredo Sirkis refers directly to the events saying, “Since the death of Édson Luís, the air of fun and games had ended, folksy contempt for cops was transformed into true hatred.” The writing on the monument suggests that the death marks an important step in the student protests of 1968 that would ultimately lead to the passage of the AI-5 and the beginning of the most repressive phase of the dictatorship, the Anos de Chumbo or Leaden Years.
What is striking about the memorial is the apparent disconnect between the scale of the event commemorated and the impact of the monument meant to commemorate it. The statue is striking in its way: the billowing flag is both inspirational and at a scale that is within reach; the footprints on the accessible platform both suggest the disappeared victims of the dictatorship and invite the spectator to assume their position and join their cause. The shadows cast by the trees of the plaza, however, confuse the lines of the flagpole and the hide both the dramatic curve of the flag and the placement of the footprints around it. The monuments’ neutral browns and red tend to blend into the background of the busy plaza. Perhaps the clearest example of the faintness of the memorial is the dedication itself. It is written on clear plastic and framed in nondescript black metal making both the words and the plaque containing them appear like a note scrawled in ballpoint pen on the cover of a magazine—visible with concentration but immediately ignorable.
When the memorial was opened in 2008 on the fortieth anniversary of Edson Luiz’ death, his mother was in attendance as were human rights representatives from the government and student organizations. The dedication of the site was followed by a march to the current site of the National Students’ Union for the viewing of a photographic exposition on the dictatorship. There appears to have been little coverage of the event in the popular press. If there were a way to physically represent a vague and fading memory, this appears to be it.
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