Monday, November 4, 2013

Driving down history lane - São Paulo

Some of the Bandeirantes. Photo credit: :

One of the things that can make you craziest as a driver in São Paulo are the streets. I am not talking about the fact that your GPS is frequently wrong and you wind up either in a favela or the wrong way on a one way street. No, I'm talking about the road names. 

As far as I can tell, road names here fall into three broad categories: 
1. Famous or not-so-famous dude (or infrequently, woman), 2. Famous date (hence the zillions of 9 de julho (9th of July) streets, the date of the constitutional revolution which was lost but kind of won. For another blog), or 
3. some word in Tupi-Guarani (native languages) that is unpronounceable to gringos. My entire neighborhood is filled with the third, and I purposefully bought a house on the one street that is in Portuguese and not Guarani. My taxi drivers thank me.

Let me give an example of each of the three:

1. Rua Oscar Freire. No, that's too easy. Ready? Avenida Professor Luiz Inacio Anhaia Mello. Seriously? Seriously. If you are actually going there, you say "Anhaia Mello" and not the rest.

2. Rua 25 de março. 25th of March. Name of a big-time shopping street here, but has its roots in another constitution, this time from 1824. In order to remember your directions, it helps to have a history lesson.

3. Rua Cayowáa. This is actually named for a subgroup of the Indian tribe Guarani (source here). BH*'s uncle used to live on that road and I had to write it out for the taxi driver to know what I was saying.

Now it is going to take too long for me to rant that streets change names every kilometer or so. My favorite example of this is  Avenida Queiroz Filho (president of SP province in late 1800s) which changes to Avenida Cerro Corá (name of a famous battle with Paraguay), which changes to Avenida Heitor Penteado (president of SP before the military overthrow). And then goes into Avenida Paulista. Ooops, mini-rant.

Street sign. Hard to see but it says Rua Pascoal Vita, which started this whole rant off

The quantity and variety of people names for roads are really quite impressive. I started thinking about this as I traveled down Rua Pascoal Vita in Vila Madalena. I asked BH who Vita was and he said "maybe a Bandeirante." This made me suspicious--if I ask my husband about any person-road name in São Paulo, the answer tends to be "he must have been a Bandeirante." In this case, I cannot find any news about poor Mr. Pascoal Vita whose life has been largely ignored by wikipedia.

So, what about these Bandeirantes? The Bandeirantes were the explorers, slave creators and Jesuit-smunching explorers of old**. Later they were mostly interested in gold and other minerals. In spite of the romance around their names (and frankly they did open much of the interior to "civilization"), they were not very nice men.  From the 16th to the 18th century, they were slave hunting the amerindians and they were pretty crafty about it--one of their tricks was to sing Jesuit mass and then capture the folks who showed up for the pretty songs (source here).  Then of course they liked to wipe out the Jesuit settlements. Soon greed made them mostly interested in gold. There's lots more to learn about these bad boys but again, this is not my point.

Okay, so checking on BH's story. Yesterday returning from the country house we rent, we took the Rodovia (highway) Fernão Dias. Me (idly): "Who was Fernão Dias?" BH: "Not sure, but probably one of the Bandeirantes." And of course, today I checked. Yes, Fernão Dias was a Bandeirante and known in fact at the Emerald Hunter. Frankly I think Wikipedia could fill this in a bit more. His pal was Antonio Raposo Tavares, the name of another highway, who was a verrrrrrrrry bad man.  He enslaved, in one particularly "successful" trip, more than 60,000 indigenous people. My only consolation is that the highway named for him is absolutely terrible.

Fernão Dias Paes Leme then. Photo credit:
(Rodovia) Fernão Dias now. Photo credit:

And that is the funny thing and stunningly appropriate. These big highways leading to the interior are named for the Bandeirantes: one named for the overall group (Rodovia Bandeirantes (SP to not sure where)) but others, besides Fernão Dias (SP to Belo Horizonte) and Raposo Tavares (SP to Mato Grosso do Sul) are stealthily also named for these guys. Specifically I am talking about Rodovia Anhanguera (SP to Uberaba) -- Anhanguera was the nickname for a Bandeirante who was a very tricky man, impressing the natives with lighting cachaça (rum) on fire and the like. "Anhanguera" in Tupi means "old devil." (source here)

Raposo Tavares in red but long greens are Anhanguera, Bandeirantes and Fernão Dias. Credit: Wikipedia
The other big highway, Regis Bittencourt was named in a fit of irony. Regis was a civil engineer and head of roads in the late 1940s. The highway itself is nicknamed the Highway of Death because of how many accidents there are on the roadway. Next time I'll bring up Ayrton Senna and Dutra highways, but I think most of you know why Senna is named as it is. I know never to mess with Mr. Senna who was (and still is) a national hero but I'm not really sure why you name a highway for someone who dies in a high-speed crash***. Waiting for hate mail. Probably from the BH.

Now in terms of these other roads with people names, it is somewhat fun just to google them up when you're stopped at a stoplight. Rua Oscar Freire, the "8th most luxurious street in the world" was named for Dr. Oscar Freire de Carvalho who created the city's first morgue. Think about that the next time you stop in for some leather goods from Prada Oscar Freire. Avenida Washington Luis, a major thoroughfare through town: the last president of the first republic (pre-military dictatorship). And my friend Anhaia Mello, mentioned at the start? Well, now he gets an explanation right on his street sign:

Photo credit:

Riding on the history ship, one street sign at a time. 

*BH=Brazilian husband 

**Bandeirantes. A good friend who is Brazilian commented on the facebook page regarding the Bandeirantes. I include his comments here in entirety:

"Brazil owes to the Bandeirantes its continental size . When a treaty was made between Spain and Portugal in the city of Tordesillas in 1494 , it was decided that all lands discovered from that date and until 370 leagues ( 1110 miles ) to the west of the Cape Verde islands would be Portugal’s . After that distance, it would be Spain. This imaginary line would be going through what is now Brasilia . Over nearly 100 years these Bandeirantes were going into the forest , and as there were no boundaries demarcated to know what was in Spain or Portugal , where they were creating villages forced the Indians to learn Portuguese and work on behalf of the Portuguese crown . Furthermore they established small religious missions with Portuguese priests to help these Indians . Thus they established a practical way to identify what was Portugal ( language and church activities ) . There has never been a war between Spain and Portugal for the determination of boundaries. This meant that Brazil could increase in size by almost 2/3 of the original treaty and have a single language ! So are we so different from the other part of South America ! And why the Bandeirantes are so respected here."

*** And here are the comments from the same friend on Mr. Senna: "in fact the reason that Senna is the name of an important road in São Paulo State is because that road did not have an official name paying honor for an important person and because Senna was a citizen from São Paulo, the congress of SP state voted in few days the name for this road. Just a coincidence! Is a great honor to the paulistas have Senna naming an avenue, a road in São Paulo City and in a several cities around the state. He is our hero!! Another kind of Bandeirante. By the way, the name Bandeirante comes from Bandeira and Senna used to raise our flag in any race won by him. He made us proud."


  1. Counter-rant: 'cause the American system of having two different streets called 2nd Str (one North and one South), intersecting two other streets called 2nd Ave (West and East) is super easy for non-Americans to figure out on their first trip to the US. :)

    By the way, not all streets change names in Sao Paulo. Av das Nacoes Unidas (AKA Marginal Pinheiros) doesn't, which is why addresses on it have street numbers above 12,000.
    By the way #2, here in London streets change names like in Brazil but they also use the same name for different streets like the US does (Randolph Avenue, Randolph Crescent, Randolph Road, Randolph Mews, all in walking distance from one another).

    1. Oooh, I love counter-rants. Yeah, NYC (and I'm from NYC) can make anyone crazy. However you can always tell which side of Fifth Avenue is an address...east, west, you know... If someone gives me a Nacoes Unidas address it could be anywhere from Vila Olimpia to Osasco for all I know.

      I refuse to defend the Brits. They are on their own. I have known for a long time that they are nuts, and only regret that there was not such thing as the internet when I lived there in 1989. I could have ranted up a storm. Now I am focused only on the kids' Brit school...

  2. Ha, I constantly ask my partner, So what happened on March 25th? July 9th? etc. when we pass by streets with dates. What drives me crazy though is for the streets named after people, they will be like four names long, but only one randomly selected name will be displayed in large letters.

    1. Yes! It is the randomness of the big name selection that makes me nuts. In one place "Rua Dona Elisa Vasconceles de Mello Silva" (I made that up) is Dona Elisa. On the other side of the city is the "Rua Dona Elisa Pereira Andrade" and that road will be known as Pereira Andrade. Help!