RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) —Wearing full-skirted white dresses and turbans, the religious leaders chanted blessings and sprinkled water on the concrete floor of a modest house near this city's port.
Beneath their feet were the remains of tens of thousands of African slaves who had died shortly after arriving from their horrific sea voyage.
The bodies had been dumped into a fetid, open-air cemetery, often chopped up and mixed with trash. With the 15-minute ceremony last week, the Afro-Brazilian priests were finally giving the slaves at least the semblance of a proper burial centuries later.
“I thank God for this opportunity,” said Edelzuita Lourdes de Santos Oliveira, or Mother Edelzuita, a well-known leader of a house practicing the candomble religion based on the Yoruba people of West Africa. “We honored our ancestors today with songs left by them.”
It's been a long journey not just for the slaves but also for the owners of the house and others seeking to recognize the tragic history in a multiracial country that has often avoided its legacy of slavery and racism.
In this case, the remains were discovered by accident when a couple bought the property in 1996 and started refurbishing it. In the following years, the bones had stayed in pits opened first by construction workers, then researchers. Now, visitors inside the house can look through glass pyramids onto exposed ground and the remains of some of the approximately 20,000 men, women and children interred there.
Most of the newcomers were Bantu, part of a broad grouping of ethnicities in south-central Africa. They had one common characteristic: They all believed that without a burial they would not be able to reunite with their ancestors, according to researcher Julio Cesar Medeiros Pereira, author of a book about the cemetery.
“What I'm feeling now is that these ancestors who, for long years, were buried here are finally living again,” said Mother Edelzuita.
The cemetery was part of what was once the busiest slave-trading complex in the Americas. Up to a million men and women first stepped onto the New World here and were then held in some 50 warehouses nearby until their sale.
Many of the slaves died before being sold, weakened by the cross-Atlantic trip, and their bodies were buried in what was known as the “cemetery of new blacks” which operated in Rio between 1769 and 1830, though it was closer to a dump than a cemetery. Bodies of such “new blacks,” called that because they had just arrived, were thrown into mass graves, burned and their bones chopped up to make room for more. From some of the warehouses, the open-air cemetery could be seen and smelled, researchers said.
The owners of the house, Ana de la Merced Guimaraes and her husband Petrucio, have been instrumental in promoting research about the find and bringing attention to the remains.
Over the years, they've relied largely on their own funds and the help of others to continue the project. Merced Guimaraes has also opened her home to visitors and held yearly gatherings on occasions such as May 13 commemorating the day slavery was abolished in Brazil.
Red tape and paltry resources slowed the process but, by 2005, Merced Guimaraes had established a research and educational organization, the Institute of New Blacks.
A state grant allowed her to offer classes by a variety of experts on Brazil's African heritage. Last year, she said, 930 people attended seminars.
Only now, with city resources, were they able to cover the gaping holes with glass — a recommendation of the religious leaders — and prepare the place for exhibit.
In spite of the hardship, Merced Guimaraes pressed on, feeling a responsibility to those whose bodies lay under her house.
“Nobody cared for them,” she said. “They died alone in a place where they didn't know anyone. I thought, who is going to fight for them?”
Researchers analyzing the bones at the cemetery confirmed some details already on the historical record.
“Behind every Afro-Brazilian is a ‘new black,’” said Reinaldo Tavares, an archaeologist connected to the institute. “These are the ones who died. The ones who lived gave rise to descendants who are now all over Brazil. We are making every effort to preserve this history and bring it to light.”