The city of Manaus, Brazil, was in the news this past summer as the site of a USA-Portugal World Cup match. Depicted on television and in print as a “jungle city” and “heart of the Amazon,” its intense heat and remote location have captured popular imagination. Charlotte Rogers, a Kluge Fellow at The John W. Kluge Center, traveled to Manaus to conduct research for her book project on the myth of El Dorado in contemporary South American fiction. Through her research, she uncovered the complex history and dramatic contradictions of the Amazonian capital.
Rogers is an Assistant Professor at George Mason University and author of “Jungle Fever: Exploring Madness and Medicine in Twentieth-Century Tropical Narratives.” She was interviewed by Kluge Center Program Specialist Dan Turello.
Charlotte, many people in the United States were not familiar with Manaus before this year’s World Cup. What took you there, what were you looking for, and what did you find?
I traveled to Brazil to interview Milton Hatoum, one of the country’s most famous authors. He is from Manaus, the capital of Amazonas state, and writes about the dramatic changes that have taken place there since the 1970s. Most people think of the Amazon as a pristine rainforest inhabited only by a few indigenous peoples. My trip completely shattered that stereotype. Manaus is a city of two million, with the extremes of wealth and poverty of any large Latin American city. But Manaus is special because of its strong native cultural heritage, and unique foods like açai and the enormous pirarucu fish. I did also see grilled pirañas for sale in the markets.
What can you tell us about the city that we might not have seen on television?
When I was in Manaus, there was a sense of disillusionment among most people. They had hoped that building a stadium and hosting thousands of international visitors would bring long-lasting economic development and improvements to healthcare and education in the region. Now there have been protests, in Manaus and São Paulo, regarding corruption and the fact that the hosting the World Cup has not benefitted the average Brazilian.
Your lecture here at the Kluge Center mentioned the Manaus Opera House, as well as fascinating details about turn-of-the-century Amazonian fashion. Can you recapture these for us?
Manaus experienced its first huge economic boom from 1880 to 1910. That period of growth was spurred by the demand for latex from the Brazilian rubber tree. As a result, many people in Manaus became wealthy overnight. The fledgling city built a magnificent Opera House 4,000 miles from the nearest world capital. It was called the Paris of the Amazon because the city’s elite wore the latest French fashion in the middle of the jungle. The rich could wear their finery to the opera and then ship it all the way down the Amazon river and across the Atlantic to Lisbon just to be laundered.
How does Manaus fit in with the rest of Brazilian culture? What role did this city have in the formation of Brazilian identity?
The World Cup put Manaus on the map, even for Brazilians, since most of the population lives near the coast. They have generally seen Manaus as a backwater because it is a 5-hour flight from anywhere. The city only came to national attention in the 1970s, when the Brazilian dictatorship developed the region by cutting down huge swaths of the rainforest for pasture and the creation of a Free Trade Zone. When I interviewed Milton Hatoum, he said that many Brazilians did not want to look in the mirror and see their own indigenous racial heritage. As a result, the native peoples of the Amazon have been marginalized for centuries, and only now are they advocating for rights to maintain traditional cultures and territories.
Tell us about your current work: what did you find at the Library of Congress, and how did the Library’s collections help you to write about Brazilian history, literature, and culture?
At the Library I worked on a book called “Mourning El Dorado.” The Amazon was once thought to contain a mythical city of gold known as El Dorado, and it has been seen as utopia ever since. My book explores how contemporary South American writers from Brazil, Peru, Guyana, and Colombia react to that myth in the wake of deforestation and development of the Amazon. Like the people of Manaus, they are disillusioned with the failed promises of an Amazonian utopia. I used the Library’s Hispanic, Geography and Map, and Rare Book divisions for both colonial and modern texts about El Dorado. My favorite resources are the Hispanic Division’s sound recordings of authors reading from their work in Spanish and Portuguese. Before I went to Manaus, I was able to listen to Milton Hatoum talk about his writing. I felt like I knew him even before I got there.
To learn more about Rogers’s work, listen to her full lecture “Mourning El Dorado” delivered at the Kluge Center on June 19, 2014. Rogers also participated in a conversation on the myths and realities of wilderness with inaugural Astrobiology Chair David Grinspoon on June 5, 2014. Rogers was in residence at the Kluge Center through early August 2014.
§ Watch: “Mourning El Dorado: The Closing of the Amazonian Frontier in Contemporary South American Fiction.”
§ Watch: “The Myth of Wilderness: What’s Left to Save & What Never Existed.”