Concentration Camps in Northeast Brazil: 1915/1932

By Laura Belik

The author inside of former train station at Campo do Patú, in Senador Pompeu, CE. (Photo courtesy of Laura Belik.)

The concentration camps in Northeast Brazil hold what one might call hidden histories. Built between 1915 and 1932, the camps were perceived as a form of aid towards groups who were migrating from inland Brazil to Fortaleza (Ceará’s capital) as refugees from droughts. While meant for quarantine and isolation as opposed to forced labor or extermination, the living conditions within these guarded spaces were still questionable. Highly influenced by the desires of the elites, who were afraid of the impoverished masses invading their capital city, these constructions worked as barriers masked in humanitarian speech. Out of seven concentration camps that were built, today only one remains partially standing, and has since become a symbol of resistance.

Supported by a Tinker Foundation and CLAS-funded research grant, I traveled to Ceará to find out more about these camps. Buried within the ruins of what was once such a significant part of Ceará’s (and Brazil’s) history are not only the physical camps themselves, but their stories, which are little known across the country. Although the subject has previously been touched upon by scholars, the emphasis on its importance was made clear through the works of Professors Kênia Sousa Rios[1] and Frederico de Castro Neves[2]. While Neves relies on previously existing bibliographies – finding the sparse moments when the Camps are mentioned through seminal works of local historians, Rios’ archival research and detective work builds on Neves’ research, bringing to light a series of contradictions these spaces represent as physical and moral barriers to access to the city and as an example of the power and dominance of class division in Brazil.

A visit to the Archives at Secretaria de Cultura do Estado. (Photo by Laura Belik.)

Beyond these works by Neves and Rios, one key question remained for me: What were the spaces of the concentration camps like? As an architect, the importance of understanding their physical aspects and organization is essential, and has been the main challenge of this research. Very little visual documentation exists of Cearás’ camps, and the construction of these refugee areas have not prevailed through time. On top of that, there is also the issue that each of the seven locations functioned differently. Nevertheless, what they all have in common is precisely their ephemerality. The architecture of the camps per se was described as fragile, with constructions made with sticks, mud, and provisional covers.

While the ruins at the Açúde do Patú in Senador Pompeu are considered to be the only remaining physical evidence of the camps, the standing construction was actually originally built by a British company as the foundation for a local dam in the early 1900’s. The barracos (shacks) that were used by the flagelados (refugees from the droughts) in 1932 are long gone.  The uses of the original spaces changed and adapted as they were transformed into facilities of the camp that housed more than 16,000 people over the course of a year[1], but the areas where the refugees stayed were precarious and temporary, thus, they did not survive through time.

The ruins we see today represent the palimpsest of those times. Current efforts by the Secretaria da Cultura do Estado (Department of Culture of Ceará State) to recognize the remaining spaces as landmarks and cultural heritage sites raises questions around material and immaterial (intangible) importance and preservation.  Since 1982 there has been an independent annual pilgrimage to the area praising the “souls of the dam” (almas da barragem) called the “Drought Walk” (Caminhada da Secas), which gathers over 10,000 people in an event that mixes political and religious motifs. The popular acceptance of the ruins as a space for memory brings to light discussions of values and representation, as well as emphasizes the historical importance and consequences these spaces still hold in nordestinos’ lives today.

Remaining walls from the hospital facilities at Campo do Patú, Senador Pompeu. (Photo by Laura Belik.)

Considering the scarcity of visual documentation and physical evidence of the camps, different research methods must be considered in order to restore the camp’s past. Although there are not many people focusing on the specific topic, interdisciplinary collaboration and exchange define the study of these spaces. In this sense, field research has proven to be an essential part of this quest, especially for building community.  For example, as I would ask permission to look into public archives, the archivists in return asked that I donate my photos and part of my findings to update their files. Historians, geographers, architects, filmmakers, local activists, amongst others are on the same path trying to reconstruct and raise awareness of a hidden past and its effects on Brazilian society.

It is hard not to think about how certain political, social, and economic strategies from over one hundred years ago prevail in the country’s current governance as well. The ephemerality of its construction contrast directly to the stability of social casts. As we continue to produce similar spaces of exclusion, are the concentration camps over, or simply masked and transformed?

[1] Kênia Sousa Rios. Isolamento e Poder: Fortaleza e os campos de concentração na Seca de 1932. (Fortaleza: Imprensa Universitária da Universidade Federal do Ceará /UFC, 2014)
[2] Frederico de Castro Neves. “Curral dos Bárbaros: Os Campos de Concentração no Ceará (1915-1932),” Revista Brasileira de Historia. V. 15, Número 29. (1995): 93-122.


LAURA BELIK is a PhD Student in Architecture- History, Theory, and Society at UC Berkeley. Laura holds an MA in Design Studies from Parsons- The New School (New York) and a BA in Architecture and Urban Planning from Escola da Cidade (São Paulo- Brazil). Her main research interests are urbanism, politics of space, urban democracy and Latin America. Laura’s current work is related to the urban and constructed environment and its influence in social and political life.





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