Abolish S€nzala Cafés & Co.

Filipa César

Filipa César is an artist and filmmaker interested in the fictional aspects of the documentary genre, the porous borders between cinema and its reception, and the politics and poetics inherent to the moving image. Her practice takes media as a means to expand or expose counter-narratives of resistance to historicism. Filipa César curated the 2021 Porto Summer School on Art & Cinema, parts of which manifested as the Survivance edition of HKW’s New Alphabet School. 

Still from Mourir un peu – Part 2 by Saguenail & Regina Guimarães, 1983

Porto, July 4th 2021 — I gathered with my friends and colleagues in Porto to prepare the presentation kal ki bu luta? (What is your struggle?) and the Mangrove School presentations[1]. Sónia Vaz Borges, Marinho de Pina, Vá da Costa, Sérgio Pereira and I went to the officially designated event restaurant. Right after crossing Av. da Boavista, as we were about to go into the dining room, we stared at the ox-blood sign on the right side of the restaurant’s entrance. Marinho commented: We just arrived from Guinea and are sent right to the sanzala. In Portugal, sanzala is a well known word for the dwellings of enslaved people in the colonial plantation systems. After we sat down to order, our curiosity piqued, and we wondered — why is this old and obsolete sign still hanging? Does the brand still even exists? Then we saw that the entire coffee service, the plates and cups, were printed with Sanzala Cafés. Stunned, we turned to our smartphones— Born in the heart of Oporto, Sanzala is a brand with history. Traditional and sober, […] The brand was born in 1963 at a shop in the historic Oporto area and became a reference […][2]. 1963— a loaded reference for a good coffee with a loaded date in Portugal’s recent past. It marks not only the outbreak of the liberation war in Guinea Bissau, following Angola in 1961 and Mozambique in 1962, but also the period when the so-called retornados, usually white Portuguese settlers, were returning to Portugal, fleeing from the anti-colonial wars in Africa. Due to their business connections in the occupied territories, they often opened cafés that had the style of colonial heterotopias evoking the imaginaries of lost empires. This particular subject is insightfully articulated in the experimental film series Mourier un peu[3] from the early eighties by Regina Guimarães & Saguenail. The second part is set in cafés named Ceuta, Padrão, Bissau, Angola, Congo, Café Cabo Verde, Lobito, Luanda, Vasco da Gama, Diu, Goa, Macau, Java, América, Brasil, S. Paulo, Caravela, Sagres, and so on. All references to sites of imperial domination and extension of Portugal’s pouca terra (few land).

We continued our online research — In 2003, celebrating 40 years of existence, Sanzala renews its image with the aim of positioning itself as a brand of tradition, but renovated in a contemporary style, targeting new market segments. There is not a single hint disclosing one of the most repugnant crimes of Portuguese (and European) histories that is encapsulated in the brand’s name (and tradition): the dehumanization of peoples, the violent extraction of their labor and the installation of geno/ecocidal plantation systems and the inherent accumulation of capital that are still circulating. Instead, a positively signposted acclamation of “tradition” in the roots of the world “Sanzala”. This tradition of enslaving, monetizing and capitalizing on dispossessed beings and exploited soil continues here where the rebranding of a word and a tradition are refreshed in this newly cast spell: The first blend of Sanzala reflects the influence of the past African colonies, essentially suppliers of Robusta substances.[4] Coffee is constantly poured and then spilled when served on the tables in Saguenail’s perceptive film.

There is something perversely noteworthy in the legality and enthusiastic celebration of caffeine consumption, a drug that does not necessarily provokes a deeply conscious or insightful transformative trip, but is rather an upper, a stimulant, or an accelerator of ones already existing systemic drive. It does not stimulate inquiry but rather fuels the same old cycles. Maybe it is rather a substance for maintaining the traditions of blindness and business as usual. But this coffee tradition is a tradition of inflicting trauma on racialized people and is getting rebranded and upgraded with the gesture of the NewCoffee company under the slogan – taste and wisdom. A wisdom that is the continuation of willful ignorance about the significance it has today and that is imposed or reenacted on people through symbolic representation. It is the colonial algorithm, always operating in the background, visible on the coffee stained tables.

This damned routine also recently spewed out of the mouth of the murderer of Bruno Candé, who screamed in a hateful act of racial violence on July 25th, 2020—volta para a sanzala (go back to the sanzala). Convinced of the tradition of his crimes, he finished that day, entering a prison cell, performing the banalty of violence—Em Angola, matei vários como este (in Angola I killed many like this one). A reference to the colonial tradition and its murderous wisdoms.

Here the brand’s word is performed as the weapon that is always there, encapsulated in its signifier. The historical narrative that can always burst out of the past/historical and activate its death drive. Delirium — Sanzala, senzalla, s@€nzala — @t €xtraction, the sound of the word declension, Senza, Sense, Sanza. It reverberates in my head with the various languages at stake, random and eloquent meanings in their sounds. Senza in italian, without, the absence of so much but mainly an absence of love in the patriarchal extractivist drive for accumulation. In German, Sense means scythe, the tool for harvesting death in the plantation tradition. Re-reading the definition —The senzalas were medium or large warehouses where the slaves spent the night. Oftentimes, slaves were tied inside the senzalas to prevent escapes.

Back in the restaurant with my friends, Sónia reacted forcefully—I don’t drink coffee because I still remember the accounts of my grandfather being forced to migrate to São Tomé e Príncipe to be a worker in the roças (coffee field plantations) and the sanzala was the place my father slept until he was 9 years old. So I don’t drink coffee. For Sónia, coffee drinking presents a privileged celebration of the colonial tradition of slavery and exploitation. By convoking the ancestors inscribed in her own body of racialised signifiers, Sónia was re-establishing the thread connecting the sediments of the situation, subverting Chronos, no past, but rather layers of transcendent violence and agencies trespassing concepts of time and place.

At the end of the dinner, I proposed that we make an anthropophagic ritual, to simply order a cup of coffee. Sónia said she would also have a coffee to participate in the conscientization process of devouring the loaded substance, deluted mineralized sediments, invoking its hurtful wisom. Sónia convened the fourth person, she channeled her ancestors to the table, invited them not to have a coffee with us, but perhaps to participate in a decaffeination ritual. This dilated moment was the devouring gesture. Sónia had performed a possible way in which we could read and comment and add to transform and deform, and make present and visible for those blind or those not willing to see.

Photo: Unidentified restaurant staff, 2021

In Sónia’s statement and action, in her mind and body, she acted out the gesture that Gerald Vizenor calledsurvivance — the practices create an active presence, more than the instincts of survival, function or subsistence. Native stories are the sources of survivance, the comprehension and empathies of natural reason, tragic wisdom, and the provenance of new literary studies. A way of holding on to the thread that bridges the ancestors and their traversing pain, passed from body to body, across goods, time and space. Survivance rejects victimry and doesn’t call for revenge or continuation of violence but rather for the transfer of knowledge and transformation. Does the sap of the ground coffee beans bear the agony of the whips and chains on the bodies that picked them?

Maybe Sónia was performing the rejection of victimization, refusing all the forms of paralysis: defensive reactions, contractions and blocking of a certain fluid of relation. I was learning and shaming, grateful for the shared knowledge. The rhetoric of the victim is often a form of disenfranchisement that pursues the need for mediation, often a weaponized one with the advocates that carry the weight of the violent abstraction of law as disembodied political fantasy. Instead, she used inheritance as a tool of action: by remembrance and storytelling of always renewed and transformed stories, that when shared and passed along, continue the task of a vivid form of survivance beyond death. The event might have ruined my morning coffee and I long to know of other insightful caffeine traditions. Decolonisation is a daily practice, a spontaneous performance, a ritual of shaking off the dust, of counting the dioptres of one’s own blindspots, of detecting invisibilities. Or it can mean convoking those before us and paying attention, listening to the situated amongst us who know, channel and make visible. With humour, dance, reverberations and care, violence is identified and mapped out, and a collective ritual of healing and reparation can take place, though never to be accomplished.

Not even knowing, but citing the recurring spilled coffee of Saguenail’s decolonial film, Marinho spilled coffee on his own face, a tear of coffee rolled down his cheek. What we were doing was adding a necessary footnote, raining the trouble up to the surface in the oblivious blindness of portugality.

Photo: Filipa César, 2021

[1] In the context of Survivance, New Alphabet School, HKW hosted by Summer School at Escola das Artes- Universidade Católica, Porto

[2] https://newcoffee.pt/en/marca/sanzala/.

[3] Mourir un peu (1981-1985) (spoken in many languages) part 1 – part 2 – part 3, Regina Guimarães & Saguenail. ” Mourir un peu is composed of three short films united by the theme of the discovery of America (the city of Porto is filmed as a sea voyage, its cafes created as a huge colonization museum, the trip around the world carried out within the space of the house) and linked by the filmmaker’s interrogation of his own path.” in https://helastre.wordpress.com/filmes/

[4] https://newcoffee.pt/en/produto/chavena-hotel-2/