Friday, March 2, 2012

Rio's Cultural Heritage - Beach Vendors Join the List

There's nothing really new about placing buildings, natural settings or entire cities on a cultural heritage list. Most North American cities have a list of protected structures that have been enshrined as part of the city's architectural heritage and which cannot be demolished or modified without express approval of municipal authorities. The UNESCO World Heritage Site program has designated variously national parks, urban neighborhoods and entire cities are part of the world's cultural patrimony and as such worthy of legislative and regulatory protection.

Recently there has been a trend, particularly in Brazil, to denote certain cultural practices as well as part of society's heritage - a type of immaterial patrimony, since there is no structure or geographical feature to be protected. But in today's world of converging cultures, unique cultural practices are seen to be in danger, just as are monuments, palaces, historic villages and natural wonders.

Flavors of Brazil has previously posted articles about Brazil's recognition of the practice of selling acarajé on the streets of Salvador as an integral part of Bahian culture (click here to read more). This practice was recognized by Brazil's federal department of culture through the department's cultural patrimony agency, Iphan.

It's not only Brazil's federal government, however, that recognizes the importance of immaterial practices in defining a place's culture. The city of Rio de Janeiro also maintains a list of protected practices - things that play an important role in what makes Rio what it is. For the munical government, Rio de Janeiro is not just beaches and hills, the statue of Christ the Redeemer atop Corcovado mountain, and the graphic sidewalks of Copacabana and Ipanema. It's also the rhythm of the samba, the dance called funk, and the annual orgy of pleasure called Carnaval.

Mayor Paes (in white shirt) with mate vendors
This week, Rio's mayor, Eduardo Paes, proclaimed the latest addition to the city's heritage list - the ambulant vendors who sell icy cold yerba mate tea on the city's beaches. These vendors, invariably clad in bright orange, walk miles and miles barefoot along Rio's beaches with two large aluminum tanks, one under each arm, calling out their wares. One tank has iced yerba mate tea and the other has lemonade. It's up to each purchaser to decide what proportions of each they want in their cup - some want mostly mate, others like a lot of lemonade. Using the spigots on each tank, the vendor fills the customer's cup to order. There's absolutely nothing more refreshing on a scorchingly hot day at the beach, and there's nothing more iconically "Rio" than these vendors noisily walking up and down the sand shouting "Mate! Mate gelado!". (Incidentally, in Brazilian Portuguese, mate is pronounced something like MA-chee).

In his proclamation this week, Mayor Paes summed up the cultural importance of these vendors: "Rio is made up of its beautiful landscapes and of its people. The people of this city are the best thing about it. The mate vendor on the beach is the face of Rio, one of the most recognizable of the city's personages. These vendors are in Rio's memory. Of our city, we all have wonderful memories:an image, an aroma, a sound. And on our beaches, one of the most important sense memories is the cry of the mate vendor selling his wares."

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