Passing me a business card, Voxx said he'd googled a bit before he booked the Confederado gig. "I started studying just to know if the people here were racist or not," he said. "But like they say, 'Heritage, not hate.' I wouldn't be here if it was a party to celebrate racism." He stumbled through the English—what little he knows he learned from music and watching Bonanza—and I wondered what his interpretation of country music could possibly sound like. But when he belted out "Cotton Fields," the crowd doubled. His intonation was perfect—the man sounded like Hank Williams.
"This is nearly perfect… This is what we want. I don't attach anything political. I like black people." – Philip Logan
Edwin struggled to learn to sew. He fumbled with the machines, ruining fabric. It took him a month to make what his cousins could make in four days. A businessman who contracted with Severo would show up at the house and demand faster production. "If my cousin said he couldn't do it, he would say, 'That's your problem, you have to deliver tomorrow,'" Edwin told me. On those nights, he and the others often did not sleep.His family in Bolivia begged him to send money. Eventually they moved to a cheap rental house, and his wife took their children out of private school. Edwin lied when his son and daughter asked how he was doing; he felt too ashamed to admit the situation. "Imagine that I came from Bolivia with a good plan in order to overcome the low lifestyle of my family," Edwin explained. "Imagine how my children would have reacted, or my wife, or my parents. That's why I contained myself. I felt incapable of doing anything."It grew increasingly obvious that Severo had no intention of compensating anyone fairly, and they all slowly stopped working. A cousin or a nephew would say he wanted to leave, and Severo would tell them to pack their bags. He'd load them into his car and drop them off penniless at the bus station in Guarulhos. Edwin didn't know where each had gone. He waited, still in debt and without connections in Brazil, as work in the factory slowed and then came to a halt. Eventually, only he and Severo's children remained. Then one evening he found his bags packed and out on the curb. Edwin slept in the locker room at a soccer field for three days, collecting himself before he headed into São Paulo to look for work. He ultimately made his way to the Peruvian restaurant near Cracolândia.
The workers followed a strict schedule, rising at five and working till midnight, sometimes stopping only for a 15-minute lunch.
A concrete walkway led past small cinder-block dwellings to an enormous tin-roofed pavilion propped up by plywood poles at the back of the lot. Fabric, plastic wrapping, and cardboard boxes covered the floor. Two faded laminate posters—one with an old lineup for Palmeiras, a São Paulo soccer club, another with an aerial mountain shot of La Paz—were tacked onto the water-stained walls. Light fixtures dangled from the ceiling. Part of the roof had collapsed and showed the sky. A dozen yellowed sewing machines rested on card tables.Tarqui turned toward me in the room's corner, picked up a pair of red nylon school athletic shorts, and folded her arms. She said the school paid 90 centavos—about 35 cents—per pair and she and her husband churned out about 2,000 per week. In exchange, her children attended the school. She insisted that her children never worked. (Amancio, the labor inspector, said he suspected otherwise.)To hear Tarqui tell it, she fell into managing a sweatshop by accident. In 2001, she moved to Brazil at the invitation of a Bolivian she knew who'd married a Brazilian man and needed a nanny. She boarded a bus and braved the two-day ride to São Paulo. She eventually left the nanny job to work in a factory; after a while, she and her husband opened their own. They'd pick up contracts, have a week to make 1,000 pairs of shorts. Unable to do the job themselves, they'd go meet Bolivians in the town square. They hired one, then another, and by 2011 the Ministry of Labor was knocking on their door."Here I feel a little lost," Alanes told me. "Tired too."The ministry ordered HippyChick Moda Infantil, the company that sold Alanes and Tarqui's clothes to Lojas Americanas, to pay both the workers and the factory owners severance and "moral damages." It took five days or so for HippyChick to pay the workers. After that, they boarded buses and left for good. Alanes had no idea where they'd gone. It's this absence, more than anything, that marks Brazil's record of the case in Americana, and of its slavery operations writ large. The workers gave no testimony and left no trace.As for the lock and key: At first, Alanes said the ministry was lying. Later, on the phone, Tarqui admitted that they'd kept the door locked, but insisted that workers had access to a key. She said that they'd been robbed before. In November of last year, Brazil's federal judiciary opened a criminal case against Alanes for keeping workers in conditions analogous to slavery, a crime punishable by up to eight years in prison.
A year after the ministry raided Alanes's sweatshop, freed his workers, and successfully linked the case to a national chain, the sweatshop still stood, and Alanes was still inside it.
When I asked de Muzio if he'd heard of contemporary slavery in Brazil, he told me that he had—Haitians on construction sites, Bolivians in factories. His brow furrowed as he threw eucalyptus charcoal on the stove. "Now, that hasn't got a thing to do with us," he said.Today, the Confederados are, for the most part, light-skinned upper-middle-class Brazilians, the legacy of the few Southerners who succeeded in preserving a simulacrum of their crumbling plantations. They celebrate a mythology that hardly contends with the past and keeps itself blind even to the present.At the festa, I had met Cindy Gião, who was a visitor, not a descendant. She said she knew next to nothing about the Confederacy. She'd come on the invitation of her father's friend, Robert Lee Ferguson. Gião guessed she was Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and maybe Dutch in heritage. But she couldn't say for sure, and neither could most of her friends. No one knew, she said, "because it's so mixed." That's what so many Brazilians envy in the Confederados—a connection to one's past.For the Confederados, the legacy of the South is all innocence, no reckoning. Their Confederacy is a collection of sounds and words and images: a Johnny Cash song, a western, a flag. White Southern bitterness has melted into kitsch—or else denial, oblivion. These are the blindnesses that render slavery invisible today."Brazilians are not very into our history," Gião said. "We learn it in school, but we don't have parties to celebrate what our ancestors did for us." Then she turned toward the stage to listen to a rendition of "Summertime" from Porgy and Bess and watch as a man hoisted the Brazilian flag up alongside the Stars and Bars.
For the Confederados, the legacy of the South is all innocence, no reckoning.