Brazilian Esculachos Demand Justice

Guest Post by Riley Russell

Riley Russell received her B,A. in Sociology and Spanish and Portuguese from Tulane University. She is the 2014 winner of the Stone Center for Latin American Studies Prize for Best Undergraduate Paper on a Latin American topic for her essay “Frame Consistency in the Esculachos Movement in Brazil: A Call for Categorization,” from which this post is drawn.

Since the signing into law of the creation of Brazil’s National Truth Commission in 2011, major cities in Brazil have become familiar with the repeated chant, “Se não há justiça, há esculacho,” (If there is no justice, there is esculacho). Organizations such as Frente de Esculacho Popular and Levante Popular da Juventude gather to esculachar (shame, uncover, or “out”) known torturers and officials of the 1964-1985 military regime. They aim to alert the public of the presence of these repressors in neighborhoods and workplaces, calling for justice through punitive action and collective memory of victims.

The concept of public shaming protests originated in post-dictatorial Argentina in the 1990s, when social actors mobilized to denounce impunity for torturers and officials of the dictatorship, calling for the resumption of criminal trials. The escrache spread rapidly to other post-dictatorial societies struggling with similar issues, such as Spain and Chile. Scholars recognize the crucial role of the Argentine escrache in moving the country toward trial of torturers and public acknowledgement of the dictatorship.

Despite similarities with these predecessors, the movement in Brazil has emerged in a unique historical and social setting, in that they appeared decades after the dictatorship ended and rallied initially around the defense of the formation of the Truth Commission. Therefore, our understanding of esculachos must be shaped by consideration of this distinct context. While we can use existing Argentine ideas to inform initial study of esculachos in Brazil, it would be inaccurate to presume that all theories about escraches are also applicable to the Brazilian case. By considering existing theories through the unique lens of Brazil’s history and culture, we can study esculachos:

  • As a social movement: Defining esculachos as a “social movement” points toward numerous possible theoretical approaches, including framing theory (asking how esculachos depict their goals and ideas to the public in order to gain attention and followers), resource mobilization theory (focusing on the resources that allow esculachos to emerge and make an impact), and political opportunities theory (attending to the aspects of the political environment that facilitate the formation and success of esculachos). Social movement theory also defines and describes methods by which collective action such as esculachos can spread and popularize.
  • As a performance: Conceptualizing the esculachos as a performance has vast implications for the way in which we approach them. Performances of all kinds are inherently public, intended to attract attention and draw a large audience, a characteristic that reveals the very purpose of the esculacho. Their essential goal is to make public what has been hidden, and they use elements of performance such as music, chanting, and even acting to do so. By exposing torturers and repressors in public performances, esculachos serve as an antidote to torturer anonymity, if not impunity.
  • As driven by trauma: Like their counterparts in Argentina, Brazil’s esculachos can be understood as products of trauma, even though Brazilian participants’ relationship to the crime is less direct. The Argentine organization HIJOS (Hijos por la Identidad y Justicia contra el Olvido y Silencio), which originally organized escraches, was comprised of sons and daughters of disappeared victims. In Brazil, where performers of esculachos are young and often a full generation removed from personal encounters with the dictatorship, trauma may look different. For example, one unique feature of esculachos is that, unlike their Argentine counterparts, the Brazilian version often includes reenactments of torture. The result is a collision of performance, which is inherently public, with the private and individual experience of trauma. By approaching esculachos as trauma-driven performances, we can begin to examine their possible effects on national memory and identity.
  • As a new discourse: Esculachos are also a communication tactic aimed at challenging the national discourse of denial. Their loud, public nature breaks patterns of silence and suppression, raising the question to what extent might they contribute to the nation’s collective memory and how.

It remains to be seen whether esculachos will gain enough national traction to truly affect the national discourse of justice, or even to contribute to the revocation of amnesty. Moreover, only time will tell whether they will remain focused on justice for torturers or turn their attention to ongoing police violence. Regardless of the outcome, esculachos have the potential to play an important role in Brazil’s dynamic process of reckoning with the dictatorship.

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