I can’t sleep.
It’s high summer, and although it’s barely past 5 a.m., waking up in Berlin means that the world outside is already awash in the beautiful, golden light of the early morning. The windows of the building on the other side of the street glisten, almost blinding me. My appointment is at 10 a.m.; I could sleep for a couple more hours, but my mind is already racing, anxiously listing the documents that will decide my fate in this country.
I walk around my flat, surveying the small world I’ve built for myself during the past 12 years in Germany. Over 40 tropical plants remind me of the indigenous land currently known as Brazil, where I was born. My walls are lined with friends’ framed artworks, dark wood furniture, piles of books, a work desk stained with paint, a velvet, peacock-blue armchair, and my favorite tarot deck. When decorating this space, I chose gold as the accent color; it’s everywhere—from the details of the ceramic leopard trinket dish on the coffee table, to the brackets supporting the shelf above the couch, where the long vines of my devil’s ivy tangle and curl. My passport is blue, almost the same color I painted the walls in my living room; the two-year artist visa glued to pages 10 and 11 will expire in three days.
Shortly before 10 a.m., I meet my lawyer in front of a large, gray, imposing building. Originally called the Ausländerbehörde—the Aliens Authority—the place has now been redesignated as the supposedly more neutral-sounding Landesamt für Einwanderung—the State Office for Immigration. This is where the German government has determined that foreigners must go to regularly justify our existence in this country; in practical terms, this building is where we go to humiliate ourselves in front of a bureaucrat who holds our destiny at the tip of their pen.
As we enter the building, I spot a young person sobbing desperately, slumped on the pavement—a scene I’ve seen repeating itself every single time I’ve been here. I hold my folder close to my chest. Inside it, the gold I’ve been able to gather: multiple recommendation letters from universities and artistic institutions in Germany and abroad; invoices and contracts, for past and incoming work, from Germany and abroad; diplomas obtained in German universities; proofs of registration in the city; health insurance and pension contributions; handouts of past exhibitions; bank statements for the past six months; academic articles and book chapters published in the past two years. As I gathered these documents in the weeks, months, years prior to the appointment, a thought rang through my head: maybe if I’m good enough, if I’ve done enough, I’ll be allowed to stay without much trouble this time. I hate myself for thinking that way.
“They want me meek and compliant: their idea of the ideal immigrant that does not exist, an imaginary figure none of us will ever be. That’s the constant negotiation of migration: in order to be granted permission to exist here, I’m expected to forget myself.”
What does it take to be allowed to exist within these borders? Perhaps the golden hair of one of my lawyer’s other clients, a white Canadian woman offered permanent residency in spite of not fulfilling any of the criteria and standards to which others—those of us who are not white, those of us with less powerful passports—are held to. Perhaps what it takes to exist here is gold itself—wealth and resources extracted from the parts of the world this border is meant to contain and dominate. As the bureaucrat states that he will not be considering my permanent residency application today, my lawyer protests with a deluge of references to statutes and laws that, ultimately, don’t matter. This is not about legality; the bureaucrat’s decision was already made the moment I walked into this room. I struggle to keep my face and voice composed. The incandescent, blazing rage I feel right now cannot be shown inside these walls; they want me meek and compliant: their idea of the ideal immigrant that does not exist, an imaginary figure none of us will ever be. That’s the constant negotiation of migration: in order to be granted permission to exist here, I’m expected to forget myself.
Trying to focus on something else, anything else, I stare at the bureaucrat’s wedding band: where does that gold come from? Memory transports me to an evening two years earlier, a conversation between indigenous rights activists Alessandra Korap Munduruku and Vandria Borari, in collaboration with journalist Camila Nóbrega and artist Bárbara Marcel, at the art space Savvy Contemporary, in Berlin. That evening, Alessandra and Vandria vividly described how the byproducts of mining—heavy metals such as mercury, cadmium, and arsenic, among others—seep into the waterways of the Amazon biome, contaminating the few indigenous territories recognized by the Brazilian state. Like so many arteries, these waterways form the living, circulatory system of the region. In them and along them, communities hunt and forage for nourishment, travel, play, tell stories, dream—plural worlds disrupted by the insatiable hunger for bling.
In 2019, the state of Roraima, located in the northernmost tip of Brazil, exported 194 kg of gold to India—in spite of the fact that there are no mines operating legally in the region. In 1969, during the height of the military dictatorship that ruled the country for 21 years, governor Hélio Campos had a monument celebrating gold miners erected at the very center of the capital city of the state, Boa Vista. As of August 2021, the Bolsonaro regime is pressuring the Supreme Court for a legal ruling that would disqualify the right to land of indigenous communities settled after 1988, when the current Constitution was drafted. If maintained, the ruling—known as Marco Temporal, or “Temporal Mark” in English—would paralyze and, in many cases, reverse the demarcation and recognition of indigenous lands. The case was brought to the Supreme Court as the result of a long legal battle that saw the Xokleng people challenging German settlers and logging companies over the ownership of indigenous Ibirama La Klãnõ lands in the Southern state of Santa Catarina.
The original ruling to the case, first brought to the courts in the early 2000s, asserted that by the time the 1988 Constitution was drafted, the Xokleng people had been inhabiting only a small portion of the territory. This ruling intentionally disregarded the fact that the Xokleng, Guarani, and Kaingang peoples in the region had been brutally persecuted by the very settlers that now claimed this land. Indeed, the local newspaper Der Urwaldsbote, widely circulated from 1917 to 1941 among German settlers, asserted that “the [slur for indigenous peoples] hinder colonization: this disorder must be eliminated as soon as possible”—a chilling reminder that the “racial hygiene” policies of the Nazi regime cannot be separated from the white supremacist project of colonization. If upheld by the Supreme Court, the Temporal Mark ruling will establish a legal precedent that will allow settlers and corporations to legally access demarcated indigenous lands, and therefore further aggravate the environmental disasters caused by gold mining. Mercury, often used in small-scale mining, does not naturally occur in Brazil, and in 2017 the country ratified the Convention of Minamata, an international treaty meant to protect humans, non-human beings, and the environment from anthropogenic mercury emissions. Still, the toxic metal is smuggled across the borders with neighboring countries to supply mining in indigenous lands, and allowed to settle in its arteries with much more ease than this land’s original peoples.
“The extraction and exploitation of gold is deeply entangled with the colonizing processes from which nations like Brazil emerged.”
Not that this is a new disaster; the extraction and exploitation of gold is deeply entangled with the colonizing processes from which nations like Brazil emerged. Reaching back to another memory of another place, I remember walking into a church—a Catholic church, to be more precise; a critical detail that situates this place in the history of colonization. The Basilica of Our Lady of Pilar, located in the town of Ouro Preto, Minas Gerais State, Brazil, is considered one of the foremost examples of Brazilian baroque architecture and art. As I cross the portico into the building, the intense, bright, humid heat and the noise of the outside world are suddenly replaced by a cool, reverent, deeply still darkness that prickles my skin. As my eyes acclimate, the image of what stands before me starts to come together. Sunlight streams in from small windows, to the upper aisles of the church on each side, and into the central nave, its golden rays supplemented by gentle, warm electric lights installed on the lateral pillars. Ahead of me Jesus seems so small, dressed in a white and red tunic. His hands are raised, delicately touching his chest and shoulder while he looks benevolently down on those who walk into the church. I hold my breath: ahead of me, above me, all around me, the intricately decorated church glistens in 400 kilograms of pure gold.
During the 18th century, gold mining became a key economic activity for Portuguese settlers in Brazil. The metal was particularly abundant in the landlocked region that would come to be known as Minas Gerais—General Mines in English; extracting it was one of the exhausting and deadly forms of labor inflicted upon enslaved Africans by the European settlers. Mines were dark, claustrophobic, and often prone to collapse; graves in the bowels of the earth where untold numbers of human beings were killed in the name of profit by the Portuguese crown. Yet, just like the church, many mines have been renovated and are now uncritically promoted as exciting tourist attractions; traces of a brutal, bloody history that are, unsurprisingly, still celebrated in a country that has yet to reckon with its colonial pasts and presents. That church is not a place of worship; it is a monument to the death machine of coloniality, disguised as a national heritage site.
“In the context of fortress Europe, gold is perhaps the only force strong enough to bend these walls; while the destinies of all of us who enter this unforgiving building are sealed with the flick of a bureaucrat’s pen, the wealthy can walk another, gilded path.”
The ideologies that dig the foundations of that church, excavate the bowels of the earth, contaminate the arteries that carry water and give life to an entire region are the same ideologies that erect the building of the Landesamt für Einwanderung in the middle of Berlin. Whilst the project of white supremacy may manifest itself differently in different forms across time and space, its purpose remains the same: controlling, monitoring, and ultimately removing subjects considered “other” to the design of a (white) nation. In the context of fortress Europe, gold is perhaps the only force strong enough to bend these walls; while the destinies of all of us who enter this unforgiving building are sealed with the flick of a bureaucrat’s pen, the wealthy can walk another, gilded path.
Since the 1980s, some countries have started offering citizenship to those who invest large sums in real estate, industries of interest, companies, or government bonds. These schemes are known as “golden visas”; within the European Union, it is possible to obtain residency through investment in Spain, Portugal, Greece, Italy, Malta, Switzerland, Austria, and Belgium. Golden visas can also be obtained in the United Kingdom, the United States, Monaco, Australia, Canada, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates, Ukraine, and Hong Kong—among others. In some cases, actual presence in the country of investment is not even necessary; gold speaks for itself, easily parting borders that remain unsurmountable otherwise. These are the very same borders that continue to create unspeakable human suffering for others—from a Mediterranean littered with sinking ships, to a desert where coyotes become guides, from the river to the sea.
Two hours later, I emerge from the building of the Landesamt für Einwanderung. I want to cry like the person I saw earlier, but I will not give my tears to a soil that doesn’t want me. There are still more people queuing outside: families with babies and toddlers, elderly couples, young people on their own. Security staff yells, ordering them around, cordoning them off in groups like cattle. There is nowhere to sit, no access to water under the punishing summer sun, no indication of a bathroom.
As I walk away, I pray: this empire, too, will fall.
Luiza Prado de O. Martins (she/her) is an artist and researcher whose work examines themes around fertility, reproduction, coloniality, gender, and race. In her doctoral dissertation she approaches the control over fertility and reproduction as a foundational biopolitical gesture for the establishment of the colonial/modern gender system, theorizing the emergence of ‘technoecologies of birth control’ as a framework for observing—and resisting, disrupting, troubling—colonial domination. Her ongoing artistic research project, “A Topography of Excesses,” looks into encounters between human and plant beings within the context of indigenous and folk reproductive medicine, approaching these practices as expressions of radical care. Throughout 2020, she will develop the long-term garden project “In Weaving Shared Soil” in collaboration with The Institute for Endotic Research. She is currently based in Berlin. She is a founding member of Decolonising Design.
Title image by visual artist Manuela Eichner