Patricia de Santana Pinho, associate professor of Latin American and Latino studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, has produced an informative look at African American tourism to Bahia, Brazil. Such travel, she explains, is best described as roots tourism, a subset of the broader category of diaspora tourism, because the travelers undertake it in search of Africanness. Among the broader issues that she examines in her study of organized tours to Bahia are the shaping of identities through tourism, the development of black solidarity across national boundaries, and the geopolitics of a black diaspora, disputing most scholars’ assumptions that tourism acts as a force for inequity. To support her contentions she gathers a wealth of information from a wide variety of sources, including but not limited to questionnaires, travel brochures, tour guides, and government officials.
Following an account of the rise of African American tourism in Brazil and situating it within the broader context of roots tourism to Africa and elsewhere, the author examines why Bahia has become an important destination. The tourists she describes are generally aged in their upper fifties to their seventies and travel to Bahia for a combination of three reasons. First, they seek participation in African traditions they believe have disappeared from the United States. Second, they want to be among a black majority population without the physical discomfort and reminders of African participation in the slave trade that they would find in destinations like Ghana, Benin, and Senegal. Finally, they desire to blend into the black majority they find, which they see as easier in the diaspora than in Africa itself.
Tourists’ motives, however, are problematic in that travelers typically understand Bahia as both a parallel to the United States’ African America and as a representation of the black past. These ideas are expressed in a group of three tropes that inform their views. First, tourists tend to see Bahia as a closer and therefore more accessible “Africa.” This view unfortunately relies on a misleading amplification of Africanness and downplays the region’s history of hybridity. Moreover, it intentionally mutes the role slavery played in formation of this culture. Along similar lines, a second theme embraced by tourists and tourism promoters is that Bahia is a land of happy natives, despite their poverty and lack of advancement. A third idea stresses the concept of black evolution, emphasizing an idea that while black Americans and Bahians share a valuable African past, this Africanness is less advanced than blackness in the United States. Male travelers tend to assert African American leadership in this milieu, while female travelers are more likely to emphasize preservation of heritage and healing within the United States. These tropes, alongside roots tourists’ privileged position as American citizens, have nevertheless helped vacationers establish links of solidarity and thereby fight against inequity, argues Pinho. Ultimately, success at achieving solidarity depends not on seeking a sameness, which many tourists crave, but on together fighting for the goal of equality that both groups share.
Like many academic works, Mapping Diaspora is both a work of scholarship and of advocacy. At the heart of Pinho’s goal is the argument that tourism can be a force for equity. Much of her last chapter, in fact, underscores the failures of the Brazilian and Bahian government to adequately fund, study, and promote roots tourism. The clearest expression of the author’s viewpoint is the epilogue, which focuses on the impeachment and removal from office of Brazil’s leftist President Dilma Rousseff on the grounds of corruption. Acknowledging her own feelings that the country has regressed because of Rousseff’s conviction, she steadfastly maintains that evolutionist language is harmful. Pinho concludes her work on a pessimistic note that questions whether Brazil will help or even allow its roots tourism to reach its potential as an effective force for equity.
As a work assessing the practical end of promoting tourism as well as ideological concerns regarding the nature of equality and the governmental strategies that potentially hinder it, Mapping Diaspora raises questions of how or if the two can be brought into harmony. After all, if the tropes embraced by roots tourists are indeed motivating forces behind their travel and consequent activism, how should those promoting tourism to Bahia respond? Much of the final chapter of the book upbraids various governmental agencies for doing too little, too late, while also criticizing their embrace of inaccurate constructs that downplay inequity. If, however, much of Bahia’s attraction rests upon images of happy natives living in an “Africa” nearby devoid of the problematic history of slavery, how does one address this problem without removing the region’s appeal?