On Gentrification, Lisbon and Afro-Portuguese social exclusion

The 2020 pandemic forced millions of European tourists to change their plans. With no surprise, Lisbon, Porto or Lagos were ones of the most important destinations this summer. Yet, behind the affordable way of life and standard of living, Portugal’s capital has been heavily gentrified and its black population, excluded and sent live in the poorest suburbs surrounding Lisboa.

A writer, an author always needs a place to stay, a place to rest. Over the years, the Parisian life had almost weakened my existence. Although born to Belgian-Congolese parents, I spent my life in the two countries and always felt more connected to the Belgian side than the French one. After bad things happened in my life throughout 2019, I decided to quit it all and move out. I first planned to spend my life in the Caribbean -pre rona- and finally decided to visit Lisbon for the very first time in December of that same year. I had unconsciously chosen my new home. Since then, I wrote two books to pay homage to the amazing African-Portuguese souls who I am proud to call brothers and sisters. Writing forces us authors to go beyond the surface and dig deeper. I went to Lisbon, ate the most marvellous food, drank and had a blast. Yet, deep down I knew I was still living on the surface. For the sixth time that I have travelled there, I was lucky enough to be surrounded by local friends who were kind and brave enough to expose me to the truth. Though deeply concerned by social issues, I, as a tourist, was responsible for the misery imposed upon the people the White Portuguese society deems untouchable.

Though Belgian, I had always believed that social and racial apartheid was the common trait which characterized Northern White populations. The Belgians, the Dutch, the Germans and the British have always promoted a separation in colonial times. They were the members of the white elite, the guardians of whiteness and were somehow different from the Spaniards and the Portuguese who did not hesitate to intermix with their slaves and colonize subjects so as to submit them even more and confuse them to the max. Yet, Lisbon is not the place one tourist could think of. The city itself, though marvellous and colorful, was built upon many colonial crimes the Portuguese government still refuses to speak about. To be honest, Lisbon is socially built upon a quiet apartheid. International companies have now found a new heaven in Portuguese construction. The real estate boom has affected, destroyed and crushed the lives of many White Portuguese workers, yes, but of many Black African immigrants as well. Many of them had been present in the city for almost forty years and built many infrastructures. However, over the years, they were pushed away and sent to many suburbs, considered apart of Lisbon, located outside the capital: in Amadora, Riboleira and many others.

There, Portugal sent the thousand African immigrants whose past remained ignored. Indeed, contrary to France or Belgium where Black African immigrants have the right to express themselves and speak about colonial crime and trauma, Portugal still refuses to face the truth. Lusotropicalism, or the study of Portuguese colonialism, points out a lie. Under colonial rule, the dominant entity proclaimed that Portugal saw their colonies as equal. Therefore, there could be no racism. Cape Verdeans were, unfortunately, chosen as the so-called perfect example of such blatant improbable ideology. Their race-mixing was supposed to be the evidence of a perfect coexistence, when most of these mixed individuals were the result of colonial rape and abuse.

Therefore, by excluding them outside of the capital, black people are facing the worst kind of insult and isolation. Their existence is denied as well as their importance, when immigrants built a part of the country and when Portugal found its power within the conquest of their own countries.

Life outside of the capital among the African-Portuguese feels like Africa itself. In reality, I was extremely shocked to realise how Portugal was so far behind many other Western Nations. After almost fifty years of existence on the Portuguese soil, the Black immigrants are not recognized as normal citizens. For many, a Portuguese can not be Black.

If one can think that the exclusion from Lisboa was enough it is more than important to mention that such social brutality does not stop there. Actually, though living in other neighborhoods, Black African Portuguese are still the very first targets of forced displacements in the country. They are the ghosts roaming a tormented land, wandering in a past one wants to erase. Almost ten years ago, the Black citizens living Bairro Santo Filomena, like a few others in the area, lived their worst nightmares. Living in concrete houses, the local governing entity decided to demolish the homes. Filmed by inhabitants, African families were forced, dragged away from their homes, sometimes beaten up in front of their young children and were once again relocated. Many, discouraged, decided to go back to Cape Verde or worst, went to build new shanty towns around the international airports.

It is said that disgraced corrupted Angolan businesswoman Isabel Dos Santos was responsible for buying the land to build new hotel complexes.

In Bairro Santo Filomena, few families have managed to remain. Yet, they live in the worst kind of poverty. No one could imagine that Portugal would treat their immigrants like that. Behind the void of the lands live few Cape Verdean families in hidden shanty towns or favelas, while facing the cranes in the sky building new complexes. They too will be forced to leave in the near future. The sadness and violence of this issue destroys the communities. Many fall into the traps of alcoholism or gang violence. Yet, a movement of solidarity does exist as African social workers organize to support one another and encourage young kids to engage in creative activities. Even there, when Black social workers want to rent a space for a specific activity, they are met with disdain and a refusal, the White space owners refusing to open up their space to Blacks deemed too “dangerous”.

Since December, I have to say, the more I come down here and the more disgusted I remain. I thank the brothers and sisters who have welcolmed me and allowed me to see the other side of Lisbon from the very first time I came here. Never had I imagined that so many individuals would be living in such poverty. What is the price paid by those sacrificed for our well being, yours, strangers or tourists? Think twice. Think about La Porte de La Chapelle in Paris, or even L.A. Think about it.

Before you travel to the beach and enjoy your hotel stay, try to understand and explore the hidden, the unseen so as to fathom why we’re so comfortable in our presented luxury. Understand that our well being is being built upon other people’s demise. Black people’s struggles.

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