São Paulo’s theaters according to year in which inaugurated, 1854-1924.  Choropleth quantile map generated by Carto: https://aialalevy.carto.com/viz/119553d2-501e-11e6-b641-0ef7f98ade21/public_map.

Book Projects

1. My book in progress, Cosmopolis: Theaters and the Making of an Urban Public in São Paulo, Brazil, explains the formation of a mass society in a rapidly growing city.  I argue that, as hundreds of thousands of immigrants and migrants poured into São Paulo at the turn of the twentieth century, residents used theaters to claim a place in and mobilize their diversifying society.  Inside the dozens of theaters inaugurated between 1890 and 1914, Paulistanos of all stripes—male, female, Black, European, laborer, industrialist—forged what I call an urban public: an embodied community that modeled and debated the behaviors, appearances, and ideas necessary for occupying the city. The urban public was neither the unruly mob nor the anonymized mass typically associated with urbanization. Instead, it was a collective, albeit contested, attempt to render the multitude respectable, familial, and even desirablethe unexplained stepping stone between the nineteenth-century public sphere and the later protest crowds spotlighted in the Latin American historiography. I trace the rise and fall of theaters as sites of the urban public through the stories of six auditoriums, piecing together playbills, periodicals, government records, and architectural plans. By integrating the methods and questions of cultural studies and global urban history, the book contributes to the newly urgent historiography of citizenship in Latin America: in the era of COVID-19, it reminds us of the significance of congregation—of inhabiting a common space—for defining social belonging. 

2. In 2018, while a fellow at the Princeton Mellon Initiative in Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities and with the aid of a Latin America Seed Grant from Princeton University's Center for Digital Humanities, I launched a second book and digital project, Afro-Paulistano Cartographies: Race and Space in a Post-Emancipation City.  The project asks how Afro-Brazilians’ right to the city changed between abolition (1888) and the end of the First Republic (1930), a moment in which Black Paulistanos faced sudden demographic marginalization.  While historians have focused on workplace discrimination and regionalist rhetoric to explain racial difference in Brazil's "immigrant city," I discovered while researching my dissertation that the city’s shifting environment also complicated Afro-Paulistanos’ membership in urban society.  At Princeton, I led a team of nine undergraduate students in mining digitized issues of São Paulo’s Black press to compile a database of sites accessed or discussed by the press’s columnists.

3. Stemming from my dissertation and Istor article, The South American Tour: Producing the Global Celebrity examines the emergence of the global celebrity through the lens of the Brazil-Uruguay-Argentina performance circuit. Spanning Sarah Bernhardt to Josephine Baker, the project joins the historiography of global capitalism in arguing for the centrality of seemingly peripheral sites to the business practices, aesthetics, and inequalities of transnational fame. 


“Forging an Urban Public: Theaters, Audiences, and the City in São Paulo, Brazil, 1854-1924”

The recipient of the 2017 Dissertation Award from the Latin American Studies Association’s Brazil Section, my dissertation is driven by the question of how a city becomes a city.  As foreigners and newly emancipated Afro-Brazilians poured into São Paulo at the turn of the twentieth century, how did residents conceive of who belonged within the city’s public spaces and public life?  My work offers an answer by examining São Paulo’s theaters, mass spaces that accommodated the entire spectrum of Paulistano society and that functioned as key nodes in the circulation of people and ideas.  Specifically, I analyze three sets of theater producers—government officials, associational leaders, and businessmen—and the ways in which they shaped theatergoing and competed to attract spectators.  I argue that, in doing so, these men and women helped define the urban public as one that was ordered and molded by visible, cultural practices.  While theater producers disagreed over who constituted this public, all challenged or reinforced on a mass scale the social categories upon which urban and national policies were built.  Cultural production, my dissertation thus suggests, is a crucial lens for understanding the diverse assumptions and actions that, more than planners’ drawing boards, shaped the transition to urbanity.

The research for my dissertation in 2011-2012 was supported by an Institute of International Education Graduate Fellowship for International Study (the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation's generous rescue effort after the Fulbright-Hays DDRA was sent to the chopping block by Congress). My work has also been funded by the University of Chicago's William Rainey Harper/Provost Dissertation Fellowship (2015-2016), a Coordinating Council for Women in History/Berkshire Conference of Women Historians Graduate Student Fellowship (2014), a Tinker Field Research Grant from the University of Chicago's Center for Latin American Studies (2010), and a Jacob K. Javits Fellowship (2008-2013).

As part of my dissertation, I mapped and compiled a database of São Paulo's theaters. You can interact with many of my maps on my Carto page.


1. "Stages of a State: From São Paulo's Teatro São José to the Teatro Municipal, 1854–1911," Planning Perspectives 28, no. 3 (Jul 2013). This article uses the cases of the Teatro São José and the Teatro Municipal to explain how and why performance space in the city of São Paulo became an increasingly public issue between 1854 and 1911. The piece is based on a paper that I presented at the International Planning History Society's 2012 conference and which was awarded the Society's Postgraduate Prize.

2. "Sarah Bernhardt in São Paulo: A Muse for the 'Artistic Capital,'" Istor 14, no. 53 (Summer 2013). Using legislative records and newspapers, this article examines the Paulistano reception of French actress and global celebrity Sarah Bernhardt to illuminate the politics of the urban imaginary in São Paulo’s transition from sleepy village to bustling city.

3. “São Paulo,” with Cristina Mehrtens and Fernando Atique, Oxford Bibliographies in “Latin American Studies,” ed. Ben Vinson (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), http://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780199766581/obo-9780199766581-0181.xml.

4. “Theaters and the Popular-Elite Divide in São Paulo, Brazil, 1895-1922,” Latin American Theatre Review 52, no. 2 (Spring 2019): 37-54. This article compares two government-sponsored auditoriums, the Municipal and Colombo Theaters, to explain how theaters helped urban residents rethink the structure of their changing society.  I argue that Paulistanos’ juxtaposition of the Colombo’s “popular” with the Municipal’s “elite” relied on the conflation of genre and spectator, that is, the collapsing of aesthetic and social hierarchies and the simplification of both hierarchies to binaries.

I am currently working on four additional articles:

1. An analysis of the ways in which associational theaters divided sociability among São Paulo's "popular" sectors along neighborhood, national, racial, and ideological lines.  The piece stems from my dissertation work and, in its initial form, won the inaugural Judith Ewell Prize from The Americas.

2. An essay about the effect of São Paulo’s quickly changing landscape on the construction of Afro-Paulistano respectability circa 1920. I presented my initial findings on November 28, 2018, as part of the Princeton Mellon Initiative in Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities: https://arc-hum.princeton.edu/events/mellon-forum-gender-justice-urbanism-aiala-levy-and-marilia-librandi-rocha.

3-4. In 2013, I helped organize and presented at the São Paulo Symposium, a two-day conference at the University of Chicago that brought together scholars of the city of São Paulo from across the disciplines (here's my presentation at the Symposium).  The Symposium laid the foundation for a forthcoming special issue in the Journal of Global South Studies that offers São Paulo as a site for exploring the link between aesthetics and middle-class subjectivities. With my co-editors, I am writing the introduction to the special issue. I am also contributing an article about how early cinema producers promulgated what I call an aesthetic of aspiration, helping to define the visual and behavioral forms of the aspiring upper and middle classes of an aspiring metropolis.

Google Map of São Paulo's archives that I created while conducting research for my dissertation (last updated August 2012). Edits welcome!

Additional Projects

If you would like a copy of any of my recent conference papers, please feel free to contact me.

I spent the summer of 2015 creating 3D renderings of historical buildings in St. George's, Bermuda, as part of the digital history project Virtual St. George's.  The project is led by historian Michael Jarvis at the University of Rochester.  You can read more about my experience, which was funded by a University of Chicago/Mellon Foundation/AHA Broadening Career Horizons Summer Internship Grant, on the AHA's blog.

If you're in the mood to wander the web, check out Buenos Aires: A Song in Three Spaces, a website that I created for my final project in the course "Noises of Imperial Cities." The site leads readers through a series of songs to analyze the relation between sound and space in Buenos Aires.