Museums, legacy and what Fortaleza is not doing to boost its tourism

The statue at the entrance of Museu do Ceara in Fortaleza

It was the first thing I wanted to visit and it ended up being the very last one. Hours before leaving, I finally managed to get to Museu do Ceara, Ceara’s Museum, in 51 Rua São Paulo in Fortaleza city center, near Praça de Alencar.

I usually visit many museums and palaces, but maybe because I’d been to Fortaleza already and am planning to go more often, this time around my shadow has darkened very few museum entrances. But the Museum of Ceara is not just a museum, it’s the museum, expression of the state’s history, art, spirit.

So, at the very end of my two-month trip to Brazil, I made my way to the gallery and wandered about its rooms very slowly, devoting thoughts and notes to what I was staring at.

Museum entrance

A proper stroll back in history marked the beginning of the tour, a subject that I haven’t studied properly, maybe because it belongs to a faraway country, or does it? I read “Portuguese” and “European” quite a few times on the captions of photos and documents hanged on its walls, and those terms look pretty familiar to me.

I read about the colonization, indios’ struggles, the Carnival and its African/tribal origins, thankfully preserved, I gaped at how the old Fortaleza was when, around 1500, it was founded by the Dutch around the Schoonenborch fort, better known as Nossa Senhora da Assunção, the enlightening journey throughout the laws, codes, charters and controversies that have animated the city’s life up to today, considerations on how the city itself was brought to existence by the very rivalry of two European powers and how its population has lived in fear for a long time, first under the rule of foreign powers in constant fight with each other and with natives, then with the rising of so-called “private fortresses”, probably in an era when Fortaleza was in the hands of rich landlords and violence was widespread. Tellingly, one of the questions stemming from the documents at the museum sounds very topical: “Should we be prisoner of the need for security?”

Tales of tragedies, uprisings, riots, communities that have done something worth mentioning in history books, renowned figures, priests and presidents that populate the state’s past, instruments to torture prisoners and those used to tied slaves, up until the declaration of slaves’ liberation in 1884 (Ceara has been one of the first states to grant it), in this museum you find it all. I could even define it a celebration of the whole Ceara, of which Fortaleza is the capital, a proud glorification of their culture and legacy. The facts, the traditions, the people that have made this city, feted in detail and with pride. Up to the end of the journey, where I read that it’s a duty of the municipality to bring forward all traditions that come out from the indigenous populations still living their own lifestyle further inland in the state.

Statue of a native

Here my heart skipped a beat. I beg your pardon? Where is all this happening? Where is this effort to bring attention to “ethnic affirmation”?  How do they mean to boost indigenous pride, culture and traditions exactly, if all I’ve done in the two months I was in Fortaleza was desperately (and unsuccessfully) trying to get under the skin of the place and reach its most intimate soul?

In this ongoing struggle, natives demand their sacrosanct right to access lands, health system, education. Personally, I am dying to unearth their ancestral secrets.

Probably these projects involve mainly upcountry desert regions, where I believe natives are more concentrated, but what about the capital?

Miniature of Fortaleza incuding everything, church, council and gallows

Every time I went to a market where they sell handicraft, I’ve asked where I could see artisans at work and answers would range from “I don’t know” to “the other market.” Last time I was in Fortaleza, about seven years ago, I saw craftsmen making the famed colored sands bottles at the Emcetur, or Centro do Turismo, ancient public prison now turned into handicraft market. This time I went back to the Emcetur to film them while working and they weren’t there anymore. I asked a lady selling clothes and she told me they are at the Beira Mar fair every evening, which is not true because I went to Beira Mar almost every evening as I live just opposite to it and I can even see when they start setting up their stalls.

At the feirinha in Beira Mar they do sell all that stuff, and also beautiful wooden artwork, but there is nobody actually showing how they work. And I think this is such a pity, such a treasure that should be promoted with pride. Fortunately enough, I was in Fortaleza during the 3-day fair at the Ceart, center of handicraft, where otherwise there is only a shop selling traditional products, and I could see a few artists at work.

Next time, I will visit the place where they make hammocks, another pride of the state of Ceara, in the hope it will still be there. This time I’ve only visited the Centro das Tapioqueiras, and while I loved it, I did expect to see also how they take the “goma” from the root to make tapioca, instead of only how they cook it. Also, it’s not exactly “in town”, it’s actually close to another municipality called Eusebio, and tourists need a taxi to go there, possibly asking the driver to wait till they finish, because it’s not even easy to find another taxi to go back to the city center.

I think these are all great resources for the city and the state, and I don’t understand how can the municipality neglect these aspects that could bring local and foreign tourism in. I truly hope they realize soon how precious this indigenous struggle to emerge is, and that they give them all the visibility they are entitled to, they deserve and they earned in all these years, along with promoting artists and their handicraft from all over Ceara.

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9 Comments
  1. Thank you very much for all the wonderful job that you did showing to the world so many aspects of Fortaleza!

    I agree with you that our handicraft deserves more attention and more promotion.

    You’re welcome to come back and see many more things that you couldn’t see this time!

    Obrigado!

  2. I was last in Brazil about 10 years ago, but then too I thought the country was set up poorly for tourism. Even in the major museums I visited (in Curitiba) much was in Portuguese only, for example. Often, even in ‘business’ cities like Joinville, the car rental staff didn’t speak English. Etc, etc. And if that’s in the more educated southern Brazil, it’s probably a lot less well done up north.

  3. I’d rather buy directly from the artist, too, so understand your frustration.One of the things I look for in foreign cities, particularly the main or capitol city, is an official handcraft store. The lack of one indicates there probably is no government problem to promote handicrafts.
    In the U.S., the Smithsonian puts a handicrafts show on the National Mall every spring, but if you’re looking for indigenous crafts, that’s a bit different. When the U.S. National Museum of the American Indian was built, the individual tribes got to say what they wanted, and most did not want to feature tourist-attracting crafts. They wanted to showcase their culture as a living culture. Unless you’re on native lands, you have to be aware that the crafts your buying were shaped more by the demands of tourism than growing out of the indigenous culture.

    • Usually in Fortaleza the craft you can buy is very much authentic, just it’s not possible see as much artists working as it used to be, and it’s such a shame. I remember seeing many different craftsmen at work in the markets, I don’t understand why they are not there anymore, because they are obviously still working… I saw some outside Fortaleza, which is pretty weird, since Fortaleza is the capital. I hope things will change and get back the way they were.

  4. Great article. How frustrating that you wanted to find the artists and nobody seemed able to help. There are too many travellers who are happy just to pay some (possibly fake) souvenir and move on, without thinking about where it came from. But when someone actually wants to make the effort to understand the culture, all they get are closed doors.
    Brazil is going to have the world’s eyes on it with the Olympics, the World Cup, and World Youth Day coming up in the coming years. Now is the time to get these things sorted out!

    • Products were authentic, also because those with colored sands are not really easy to “fake”, but it was disappointing to see artists were not working in the markets anymore. Now there are just sellers, and artists usually work in their houses or maybe labs. It gave a much better idea of the spirit when everybody could watch them. Indeed they are aware the world would be watching Brazil during these sport events, they are building skyscrapers at light speed, also in Fortaleza. I just hope this will not be the only thing they do to welcome the crowd of tourists!

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