‘Pajubá as Queer Articulation of the Black Atlantic’ by Caio Simões de Araújo—an excerpt from Changing Theory: Concepts from the Global South

The JRB presents an excerpt from Caio Simões de Araújo’s chapter ‘Pajubá’, from the new essay collection Changing Theory: Concepts from the Global South.

Changing Theory: Concepts from the Global South
Dilip Menon (ed)
Wits University Press, 2022

Read the excerpt:

‘Memory Is Not a Secret’: Pajubá as Queer Articulation of the Black Atlantic

Memory is not a secret,
To be locked or hidden.

(3 Uiaras de SP City, 2018)

In 2018, the nation-wide high school exam ENEM, which students throughout Brazil take hoping to get ahead in the competition for a university spot, included what was, to many observers, a puzzling question concerning the linguistic particularities of pajubá, here defined as a ‘language of Yoruba origin’ and ‘the ‘secret dialect’ used by gays and travestis’. Noticing that many of its words already circulate online and that even a dictionary had been published in 2006, including more than 1300 entries, the question required exam-takers to identify what gives pajubá its ‘status as a dialect’, as ‘linguistic heritage’. The correct answer here, to be marked from a multiple-choice list, was that pajubá is ‘consolidated through formal objects of register’ (Eler, 2018). This was a general question; whose goal was to determine students’ competence in reading and interpretation. As such, it did not demand any familiarity with, or specific knowledge of, pajubá itself. Yet, in the midst of the conservative political wave that had led Bolsonaro to electoral victory, that a question involving LGBTIQ issues was included in a national exam made headlines, especially after the members of the Bolsonaro family spoke out against it. Eduardo Bolsonaro, a congressman for Rio de Janeiro and one of the president elect’s four sons, tweeted that ‘it is not a requirement that the Minister of Education knows about the dictionary of travestis or feminism’ (Globo, 2018), in a snide comment to the fact that ENEM is prepared by the Ministry of Education. Bolsonaro himself, who was preparing to take office roughly two months later, on 1 January 2019, noted that the question on pajubá had no use, it ‘did not measure any knowledge’ and only served to ‘force our youth into being interested for such issues in the future’. He promised that under his administration, the ENEM exam would be reformulated to include ‘useful knowledge’ (Folha de São Paulo, 2018).

I am telling this story to point out the obvious frictions between pajubá’s constitution as a ‘secret [queer] dialect’, on the one hand, and its public exposure and translation in popular culture and political debate, on the other. This is not surprising if one considers that the tension between ‘the closet’—as a space of intimacy and secrecy—and the ‘public’ sphere of politics and citizenship has been a distinctive trait of homosexual subjectivities in the West (Segdwick, 1990). Secrecy too, is entrenched into the histories and meanings of pajubá, although in a very different manner. As some studies have suggested, pajubá is a word rooted in the Yoruba-Nago languages of West Africa, originally meaning ‘secret’ or ‘mystery’ (Barroso, 2017, p. 17), but re-signified, in its mobilization by queer speakers, to mean ‘news’ or ‘gossip’ (Barroso, 2017, p. 20; Camarano, 2020, p. 76). Yet, it is difficult to determine the soundness of these assertions. Indeed, pajubá is absent from a recent dictionary of Yoruba–Portuguese, which nevertheless lists various words to mean ‘secret’ and related terms, such as ‘mystery’ (awo) (Beniste, 2009, p. 139); ‘privacy’ (ikoko) (Beniste, 2009, p. 369); ‘private matter’ (asiri) (Beniste, 2009, p. 129); or something told in confidence (eke) (Beniste, 2009, p. 233). Moreover, most studies of pajubá have been silent of the etymology of the term, which may suggest that there is no legible trajectory here: in this sense, pajubá has no specific meaning preceding and outside of the queer language practices that it names. Yet, I want to suggest that the connotation of pajubá with ‘secret’ and ‘mystery’ may be productive if interpreted in relation to its social history, rather than as a result of its linguistic genealogy. Indeed, it is interesting that the ENEM question to which I alluded above, while noting that we ‘don’t know for sure when this language surfaced, it is known that there is a clear relationship between pajubá and African culture, in a seam that started during the colonial period’ (Globo, 2018). I find this statement to be both provocative and intriguing, because it claims an African ancestry for pajubá while, at the same time, questioning any clear or transparent point of origin, which remains a ‘mystery’, or a historiographic ‘secret’.

Surely, one must remember that the selective celebration of the country’s African roots is a relatively new position in Brazilian social thinking and public culture, having gained space only in the nineteen-thirties when new narratives of a racially miscegenated nation gradually displaced a long-standing intellectual tradition still predicated on racial thinking, eugenic science, and the ‘whitening ideal’ (Skidmore, 1993; Nascimento; 2003). The work of the anthropologist Gilberto Freyre was influential in recasting the national narrative in this direction by painting a celebratory image of the racial and cultural mixing of Portuguese, Indigenous, and African elements in the making of a harmonic ‘Brazilian civilization’ (Freyre, 1986). Once boasted as progressive by Brazilian elites invested in the new variant of nationalist thinking, the ‘fable of the three races’ has been the object of intense criticism in the last decades, especially because it ‘camouflaged’ the reality of white supremacy under the disguise of racial miscegenation (mestiçagem) as a national virtue (Nascimento, 2003, pp. 55–56). Underlying this exclusionary narrative, moreover, lied the romantic notion of the sugar plantation as the cradle of the nation; which only served a politics of forgetting the foundation of Brazil in slavery and rape (Isfahani-Hammond, 2008). Besides cementing a white, elitist, and patriarchal standpoint, this national imaginary was, too, shaped by a blatant heteronormative orientation. For instance, an article published in the newspaper Jornal do Brasil in 1970, in discussing aspects of Freyre’s work, mentioned that colonial-era plantation owners encouraged in their sons the ‘precocity of stallions’, pushing them to ‘deflower’ and ‘impregnate’ slave women. From this, it followed that no family would want to be known for having ‘maricas’ and ‘effeminate’ sons (Jornal do Brasil, 1970). In this view, the (post)colonial national project in Brazil has been fundamentally white, male, and heterosexual, based on the nuclear family, and invested in the marginalization of the ‘other’, whose ‘difference’ was marked in terms of race, gender, and sexuality (Miskolci, 2012). Pajubá has no place in this history, as its speaker, the sexual dissident, is an ‘impossible subject’ (Manalansan, 2014), out of sight.

To understand pajubá’s formation—and its claims to African origin—one must depart from these exclusionary narratives of the nation and resort to a different intellectual project and historical imagination altogether; one attentive to the expressions of subaltern transnationalism and diasporic thinking that Paul Gilroy (1993) has influentially called the Black Atlantic. In this perspective, scholars of Brazil have challenged the territoriality of national and colonial histories to explore instead the making of Brazilian society in the space of passage, circulations, and cross-cultural exchange between the multiple shores of the Atlantic world (Ferreira, 2012; Alencastro, 2018). Building on the foundational and traumatic moment of the slave trade, this scholarship has been interested in its cultural afterlives, thus following how transnational flows of people, goods, and ideas shaped Brazilian society, from the influence of African languages in Brazilian Portuguese (Castro, 2005) to the emergence of Afro-Brazilian religions such as Umbanda and Candomblé. Referring to the latter, J Lorand Matory (2005, pp. 7–8) uses the term ‘Black Atlantic religion’ to capture a complicated history of African survivals and (dis)continuities amid ‘multifarious’ transnational confluences.

Indeed, Candomblé has been a major channel through which African linguistic and cultural forms survived in Brazil’s post-colonial landscape, even if immersed in discontinuous movements of re-invention and re-imagination (Capone, 2007). This includes an engagement with African languages of Yoruba or Bantu origin, fragments of which are used in the practice of the religion routinely, thus shaping both rituals and the social life in the terreiro more broadly (López, 2004, pp. 122–129). Candomblé has been recognized, too, as the medium through which Brazilian queers gained knowledge of the lexical universe of the Black Atlantic (Lima, 2017, p. 56). Since the nineteen-thirties, Candomblé has had a reputation for attracting gay people, a view that has since been popularized by practice but also by the circulation of anthropological writing on the matter (Matory, 2005). More recent anthropological research has demonstrated that this aura of tolerance indeed invites sexual dissidents who do not find space in other faiths, or in society at large, to reach out to the terreiros as spaces of sanctuary and support (Fry, 1982, p. 74). In addition, Matory (2005) has pointed to the relationship between spiritual possession in Candomblé and notions of sexual/ gender roles in Brazil, whereby the position of initiates in the religion, ritualistically considered to be wives of the orixás, can be taken by ‘passive’ gay men, to be ‘mounted’ by the deity in spiritual possession rituals. Peter Fry also suggested that the connection between homosexuality and magic in Candomblé relates to their similar position at the ‘margins’ of society, as both are construed as dangerous to the dominant social structure (Fry, 1982, p. 79). Other scholars have argued that Candomblé has offered travestis a space to explore their spirituality and the ‘sacred’, while also exercising a femininity moulded after the deities they worship (Pelúcio, 2009, p. 201; Pereira, 2019, pp. 38–39). Originating in this dense, multi-layered terrain, pajubá can be thought of as a practice of queer articulation proper of the Black Atlantic.

If the terreiros were spaces of contact and learning, where, arguably, queer practitioners could absorb the Yoruba lexicon, pajubá’s origins as a living language is positioned elsewhere, on the streets. Indeed, as a linguistic style and as a practice of resistance, it has been, reportedly, first mobilized by travestis in the context of the military dictatorship established in 1964 (Lima, 2017, p. 58; Araújo, 2018, p. 134). As Quinalha (2017) has observed, until recently the military period had been narrated, in the historiography, as a moment of severe political repression, but of relative leniency on questions of sexuality and public morality; a view that has been disputed by the Truth Commission created by Lula da Silva in 2009. In its report published in 2014, the Commission submitted that even though there had been no coherent ‘policy of extermination’, the regime’s ideology was homophobic, as it represented homosexuals as ‘harmful, dangerous, contrary to the family, to prevailing morals, and to ‘good manners’’. In doing so, it legitimized direct homophobic violence and the violation of rights, while prohibiting any form of LGBTIQ political organizing (Comissão Nacional da Verdade, 2014, p. 301). Moreover, the report refers to police operations carried out to ‘cleanse’ the city of São Paulo by arresting, under the pretext of vagrancy, various marginal figures, such as travestis, prostitutes, homosexuals, pimps, and the like (Comissão Nacional da Verdade, 2014, p. 309). It is in this context that pajubá emerges as a ‘secret language’, or yet an ‘anti-language’, that is, ‘a coded way [of speaking] which is designed to exclude outsiders [and is used] by those who have reason to be secretive’ (Cameron and Kulick, 2006, p. 15). As the travesti activist Keila Simpson recalls, pajubá was a language forged on the streets, from the nightly practice of sex work and the lived experience of struggle: as such, it allowed in-group communication while ensuring that outsiders, and particularly the police, would not ‘understand what we are saying’ (apud Araújo, 2018, p. 134). The ‘secrecy effect’ of pajubá, as Florentino (1998, p. 76) identified for another context, could be achieved through various linguistic strategies of illegibility, of devising a clandestine and creative system of meaning, including the use of the African lexicon, the invention of hybrid words, the resort to slang, and the reassembling of these elements through figures of speech, therefore resulting in the multiplication of possible meanings. In this perspective, the mobilization of pajubá under the military regime was also a political act of resistance, of escaping the repressive tentacles of the state (Lima, 2017, p. 59).

The political opening of the mid-nineteen-eighties, which resulted in the transition to constitutional democracy in 1990, created the opportunity for the formalization of LGBT political organizing, a process that had already started in the late nineteen-seventies, albeit timidly, with the publication of a gay newspaper, Lampião, and the creation of small gay and lesbian organizations (Green, 1999, pp. 430–432). In this wave of institutionalization of sexual-queer politics, in the nineteen-nineties, the first travesti organization in Brazil was founded, named Astral-Associação de Travestis e Liberados (Astral-Association of Travestis and the Liberated). In 1995, Astral published a glossary of 232 words used by travestis in the everyday, titled Diálogo de Bonecas (Dialogue of Dolls).7 As Gabriella Araújo (2018, pp. 52–53) has argued, in the context of increasing NGO-ization of politics driven by international funding priorities (the publication was financed by Swedish cooperation), the glossary was produced primarily to promote the legibility of the ‘target group’ and to facilitate the access to it in the framework of HIV/Aids health interventions. The main contradiction here is that, for its speakers, the social currency of pajubá is predicated on its secretive, and elusive, character, which resists easy attempts at standardization and crystallization. In her conversation with travesti interlocutors, Araújo (2018, p. 134) observed that their insistence in affirming the secret status of the language has to do less with a concern with linguistic exclusivity and more with pajubá’s role as an important marker of group identity. Carlos Lima (2017, p. 32) reaches a similar conclusion, when he stresses that pajubá is not only a lexical repertoire, but also lived ‘performativity’: its uses involve tones, rhythms, gestures, mannerisms, bodily motions, facial expressions, etc., and not words alone. Likewise, the transformative, subversive, powers of this language, he suggests, reside on the radical solidarities and sociabilities it creates around itself, amongst its speakers (Lima, 2017, p. 31). Even if fragments of its vocabulary and forms of speaking have been popularized, gone mainstream, through the internet, popular culture, or telenovelas (soap operas), new words, combinations and forms of codification emerge, and the language is in constant re-invention (Lima, 2017, p. 32). In the context of globalization, marked by increasing travesti migration (Vartabedian, 2018), words in European languages, especially English, are being incorporated into pajubá’s Atlantic repertoire (Lima, 2017, 57–58; Araújo, 2018, p. 127).

It is important to note that even if projects of collection and systematization of pajubá, such as Diálogo de Bonecas, risks disclosing the secret status of the language, the interlocutors with whom Araújo spoke are agreed that these initiatives are important to preserve the ‘history and memory of Brazilian travestis’ (Araújo, 2018, p. 130). This is interesting to me because it speaks of a desire for legibility and self-inscription not in the linear language of the nation and constitutional citizenship, but as a minoritized subject position that resists assimilation into the norm, be that of gender, class, race, or sexuality. What is at stake here is the possibility and the desirability of approaching pajubá not as an object of social history, but as a living archive. As already mentioned, pajubá’s queer originality lies in its orality and performativity, and not in its incremental repertoire of words. As such, it is singularly unsuitable for incorporation in the conventional archive form, dependent as it is on the evidentiary authority of the written record. Pajubá’s absence from the narrative archive and its textual forms is not a ‘lack’ in any negative sense; but it perhaps pushes us to think in terms of ‘ephemeral evidence’, of queer acts akin to memory and performance (Muñoz, 1996, p. 10). Looking at memory, or at ‘practices of intense memorialisation’, by rejecting any claims to authoritative history, affords one the opportunity of exploring dissidence in the histories ‘that people are already telling themselves’ (Rao, 2020, p. 23). Pajubá’s southern itineraries, which I outlined above—its crossing of the Black Atlantic, its entrance in the terreiros of Candomblé, its dissemination through urban street corners—are all forms of (performative) memorialization, insofar as they are histories that queer people are already telling themselves: the claim of African origins; the spiritual experience of the terreiro; and the political life of the non-gender-conforming body a site of resistance. Powerful moments of memory and performance are reflected in the work of the transvestigênere playwright Ave Terrena Alves, in her play 3 Uiaras de SP City, of 2018. Set during the last years of the military regime, the play follows the misadventures of Miella and Cinthia, two travestis trying to ‘make it big’ as performers, while also struggling to evade the repressive machinery of the state, as embodied in the character of Police Deputy Rochetti, a ‘cis macho’ obsessed with cleaning the street of ‘SP City’ from ‘sodomites, travesties, prostitutes’, etc. The play brings Yoruba terms from Pajubá and prayers to orixás in conversation with references to feminist slogans and class struggle, demonstrating the multiple temporalities and geographies in which queer lives unfold.

Based on the documents recovered by the Truth Commission on episodes of state violence against travestis, the play is a memorialist performance. Towards the end, after they manage to escape from prison, Miella utters: ‘the battle is not over, for centuries we will still need to fight’. To which Cinthia replies: ‘memory is not a secret, to be locked or hidden’ (3 Uiaras de SP City, 2018). This is such a rich moment, in my view, because it speaks to the often-difficult interplay of memory and futurity. If a difficult future lied ahead, the memory of the past was exposed to all. To think of pajubá as a queer archive entails precisely finding these openings to ‘unlock’ a secret, even if one cannot read it. 


  • Caio Simões de Araújo is Postdoctoral Fellow at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WiSER), at Wits University.


Publisher information

This book is a systematic and radical attempt at decolonising critical theory. Drawing on linguistic concepts from sixteen languages from Asia, Africa, the Arab world and South America, the essays in the volume explore the entailments of words while discussing their conceptual implications for the humanities and the social sciences everywhere.

The essays engage in the work of thinking through words to generate a conceptual vocabulary that will allow for a global conversation on social theory which will be necessarily multilingual.

With essays by scholars, across generations, and from a variety of disciplines—history, anthropology, and philosophy to literature and political theory—this book will be essential reading for scholars, researchers, and students of critical theory and the social sciences.

Contributors: Dilip Menon, Amy Niang, Arjun Appadurai, Caio Simões de Araújo, David Szanton, Edgar C Taylor, Edwin Etieyibo, Francesca Orsini, Hlonipha Mokoena, Iracema Dulley, Jay Ke-Schutte, John Wright, Kaveh Yazdani, Magid Shihade, Mahmood Kooria, Mahvish Ahmad, Noha Fikry, Saarah Jappie, Saul Thomas, Shalinee Kumari, Shonaleeka Kaul, William R Pinch.

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