Published 22 Nov 2015
They say living abroad changes your perspective on things: upon returning home, having dropped a little innate cultural baggage, things you’d normally take for granted as a native suddenly stand out and acquire a quasi-foreign quality. Now, I don’t believe I’ve been away nearly long enough for that effect to really kick in, but it may nevertheless have had something to do with this post.
You see, there’s a little controversy going on in my hometown. It goes all the way back to 2006, during my high school years, and has persisted ever since. The progression of this little dispute, its battlefield sitting there at the very entrance to the city for everyone to see, caused me to chuckle every single time I visited my parents on weekends after moving out for university.
The sight of yet another development, nine years after it all started, now that I’ve left not only the city but the country itself, has finally struck me as quasi-foreign today (after the usual affectionate chuckle, that is). I wonder if the sheer duration of this seemingly endless back-and-forth would have caused the same impression if I’d stayed all along.
Regardless, I’d like to tell you the story of a sign, the first thing you’ll see upon entering Sorocaba, São Paulo, Brazil. It reads “Sorocaba belongs to the Lord Jesus Christ”, and it is the subject of a dispute not unlike the “RED” experiment, or even the whole “Banksy vs. King Robbo” rivalry.
Right after being erected, under the auspices of segments of the local Christian community, the sign was viewed by many as a glaring violation of the principle of secularity of the state (though it’s surprisingly hard to find information on whether the sign was publicly funded or not, its privileged location could hardly be held without the local government’s approval). A couple of weeks later, it was briefly covered by a banner that read “Sorocaba respects and harbors all religions”, and three days after that, smeared with paint.
And thus began a parade of, erhm, unflattering modifications to the sign, each duly followed by a restoration. Some explicitly called for secularity:
while others alluded to the financial interests that may have influenced the installation of the sign, and called for extending the city’s ownership to “Exú”:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eshu, a spirit worshipped by religions rooted in present-day Nigeria.
There have also been attempts at having the sign removed through legal means, as, “according to the prosecutor”:http://g1.globo.com/sao-paulo/sorocaba-jundiai/noticia/2014/03/polemica-sobre-totem-religioso-em-sorocaba-vira-piada-na-internet.html on the case, the local government never formally approved the project, and in fact, whoever informally granted that permission is now nowhere to be found. Two such attempts have nevertheless been opposed by the City, and the latest was defeated with the justification that the Christian faith is inextricably linked to the popular culture of Sorocaba.
Thankfully I’m not in the business of providing answers myself, but I can’t help but ask questions: is this whole affair a matter of selective tolerance towards religious manifestations? A symptom of lax secularity of state? A squabble that’s wasted everybody’s time and public money over nearly a decade? Or just another landmark that very few people even take seriously anymore?
Oh, and as of today, the sign has been, uh, adjusted to read that Sorocaba belongs to everyone.
(Which is a much more welcoming message if you ask me).