A capoeirista is what a person who practices the Afro-Brazilian martial art capoeira is called. He is expected to combine the three elements of dance, acrobatics, and music in displays and sporting bouts. But the capoeira that most of the world knows today is vastly different from what the originators of the fighting art had. Because before the inclusion of the bateria of berimbaus, pandeiros, atabaques, agogo, and ganza, there was only the hybrid of rhythmic and fighting movements that relied highly on the fighter‘s suppleness and ability to attack and counter his opponents.
The story goes back to the era of the crazed race between the Spaniards and the Portuguese to cut the world in half between them: in the 16th century. Whilst Brazil already had a colorful story and multiple cultures, it was only in April 1500 that it became known to the western hemisphere when Pedro Álvares Cabral landed in what is now knows as Porto Seguro.
In a bid to make good use of the land for economic reasons, the colonizers initially enlisted the aid of Brazilian Indians. However, according to history, the Portuguese tried to enslave these peoples but failed as the native laborers succumbed to diseases and exhaustion. This caused the remaining populations to push further inland where the Portuguese could not follow. Hence, the colonizers turned their eye to the African slave trade to fill the gaps.
Though they initially managed to make the imported plantation workers subservient, the colonizers and plantation owners were met with the reality that a good number of their slaves followed the steps of the Brazilian Indians. They went deep into the mountains and the forests. And as many papers and books attest, it is in these runaway slaves’ communes, quilombos, that capoeira was born. Almir das Areias, a mestre and an eminent capoeira scholar attests to this. He claims in his influential booklet about the martial art that it was born out of necessity; the slaves had no weapons to speak of and all they had was their limbs. Thus, they devised a way to fight off and elude runaway catchers with a new set of fighting techniques. No blades and other weapons to speak of yet effective. Areias also says that while African games, competitions, and the like greatly influenced capoeira, it is the nature that made the martial art. In other words, the runaway slaves imitated the movements of animals they coexisted with.
But Matthias Rohrig Assuncao points out that there are continuities between the movements in contemporary capoeira and practices found among Central African ethnolinguistic groups. This raises questions against the assumption that capoeira was born in remote quilombos rather than having some precursor from their original practitioners’ homelands.
Regardless of its true origins, capoeira attracted a wide following of African and non-African (i.e. mulatto) slaves. The practice of the martial art became so interspersed with the fight against bondage and the associated violence that it was categorically banned in 1808. Ironically, the first real discourse about capoeira occurred in the document formulated by authorities and their enforcers, the elites of Portugal, and the middling slave owners to officially outlaw capoeira in an attempt to eradicate it.
The passing of that law meant that displays of capoeira became a felony and anyone [read: slaves] caught practicing it, without regard to whether they damaged human or property, would immediately be subjected to a vicious whipping. These pushed the martial art to the shadows and became exercised covertly.
Nevertheless, capoeira continued to flourish and articles have been written that say slaves learned capoeira in public squares, secluded streets, and unfrequented alleys. In fact, a written source dated 17 January 1872 found in the book of Maya Talmon-Chvaicer about the capoeira notes that a slave named Antonio, whose “owner” was Antonio Soares de Araujo, was educated in the martial art in a public square. Capoeiristas were also born in beaches and in favelas.
And it may have been during those gatherings that being a capoeirista became an identity. Because more than being avenues of capoeira instruction, these assemblies were where slaves (and later on freed men, immigrants, and laborers) could belong and be at ease with one another. Perhaps, the cohesiveness of this learning groups brought forth the hierarchy in capoeira and the formation of pockets that ultimately consolidated into the Nagoas and the Guaiamus gangs.
After the abolition of slavery, former African slaves and their descendants were left without shelter and means to provide for themselves and their family. Due to that, those among them who were adept at capoeira became party to the terrorizing of civilians or presented themselves as hired bodyguards for politicians, criminals, and warlords. Occurrences of violence attributed to capoeiristas rose and once again, the martial art was on the chopping block.
Once the Age of Revolution was done and former colonial territories gained their independence, those who fought for a new Brazil and banded together to create a new country were eager to distance themselves from Portugal, the things it represented, and the history of African slavery in the juvenile republic. The focus was instead directed towards the indigenous peoples of Brazil. Also, because of the violent incidences due to capoeira, and the image of capoeiristas as nothing more than vagrants, the government did not consider the martial art as a cultural practice and as a part of the national identity of Brazil.
Still, capoeira persisted. In the 1920s Mestre Manoel “Bimba” dos Reis Machado developed a systematic training method for interested students and also made it easier to spread the martial art. Thanks to his efforts, the Republic finally acknowledged capoeira by affording Mestre Bimba and his school, Centro de Cultura Física e Luta Regional, official recognition.
Since then, capoeira became more commonplace as other mestres established their own schools. Thereon, the martial art went global, starting with New York and California, whose capoeiristas were first trained by Mestres Jelon Viera, Loremil Machado, Bira Almeida, and Cobra Mansa. Thanks to them and many others who followed, capoeira became popular all over the world; it has been featured in Hollywood films like Mortal Kombat II, in video games such as Tekken, and incorporated in MMA by the likes of Anderson Silva, Jose Aldo, and Conor McGregor.
Assunção, M. R. (2004). Capoeira: The history of an Afro-Brazilian martial art. New York, NY: Routledge.
Green, T. A. (2010). Martial arts of the world: An encyclopedia of history and innovation (Vol. 1). Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.
Talmon-Chvaicer, M. (2008). The hidden history of capoeira: A collision of cultures in the Brazilian battle dance. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.