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 social inclusion and exclusion in the formation of a mass society. I show how, as hundreds of thousands of immigrants and migrants poured into São Paulo at the turn of the twentieth century, a widening range of residents used theaters to claim social belonging. The inauguration of over 150 auditoriums between 1890 and 1914 meant that, for many Paulistans, theaters became the equivalent of today’s social media: an entertaining setting in which to engage with, orient themselves within, and influence a diversifying society on a new, mass scale. Yet, theatergoing was hardly anonymous nor unregulated, nor were theaters novel institutions free of social connotations. Through the stories of six representative audiences, I trace how theatergoers of all stripes—male, female, Black, European, laborer, industrialist—took advantage of theaters’ institutional prestige to broaden the boundaries of who could participate in respectable public life. The urban public they forged, I argue, was a crucial steppingstone in the expansion of public opinion from the mid-nineteenth-century public sphere to the mid-twentieth-century protest crowds traditionally spotlighted by historians of Latin American citizenship. At the same time, expansion entailed compromise. By illuminating how São Paulo’s audiences cultivated a conservative cosmopolitanism, the book stresses the consumerist foundations of a racialized discourse that, as historians have demonstrated, would in ensuing decades justify the marginalization of non-white Paulistans despite Brazil’s official embrace of “racial democracy.”

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, Great Migrations: Urban Space and Race in the Post-Emancipation Americas. The project asks how Black communities claimed a right to the city in the decades following the abolition of slavery. I focus on cities where two great migrations—Black and European—often collided, illuminating how parallel, uniquely urban challenges nurtured transnational calls for racial solidarity but also spatial and environmental justice. I have thus far found that even in settings where racial segregation and discrimination were not legally authorized—where the law was “silent” on race—Black residents articulated and demanded the right to occupy and influence public spaces significant to their cultural or material vitality. At Princeton and later Scranton, I led a team of 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.


“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.


Several of the works below can be freely downloaded from my Academia.edu 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. “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.

Experimental Urbanity in São Paulo

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 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.

1. “Introduction: Experimental Urbanity in São Paulo,” with Daniel Gough and Joseph Jay Sosa, Journal of Global South Studies 38, no.1 (Spring 2021): 1-24.

2. “‘Art, Luxury, Elegance’: Crafting an Aesthetic of Aspiration in São Paulo’s Early Cinemas,” Journal of Global South Studies 38, no.1 (Spring 2021): 25-53. The article argues that, in seeking to legitimize their films and theaters, early cinema producers disseminated through São Paulo's press an aesthetic of aspiration. Reconciling traditional notions of aesthetic pleasure with novel practices of consumption, producers linked beauty to classed and racialized exclusivity and implied that both were constant universals. The aesthetic of aspiration thus promised simultaneous social mobility and stability through cultural refinement, a promise that spoke to the desires of an urbanizing upper class but also an incipient middle class.

Oxford Bibliographies

1. “São Paulo,” with Cristina Mehrtens and Fernando Atique, Oxford Bibliographies in “Latin American Studies,” ed. Ben Vinson (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).

2. “São Paulo,” Oxford Bibliographies in “Atlantic History,” ed. Trevor Burnard (New York: Oxford University Press, 2022).

Works in Progress

1. “Theatergoing as Urban Citizenship in Early Twentieth-Century São Paulo, Brazil,” Urban Citizenship: Building Urban Communities in the 20th Century, eds. Geert Castryck, Hilde Greefs, and Johan Lagae. The chapter examines the ways in which, during a time of heightened national disenfranchisement, immigrant, anarchist, labor, and Black associations claimed urban citizenship through the organization of theater soirees.

2. “An ‘Art Genuinely Ours’: Theater Publics and the Configuration of São Paulo’s Working Class, 1900-1924.” An analysis of how theatergoing contributed to the fragmented nature of São Paulo's labor movement in the early twentieth century. The piece stems from my dissertation work and, in its initial form, won the inaugural Judith Ewell Prize from The Americas.

3. “Maxixe in the Metropolis: Urban Space and the Construction of a Racialized Respectability in ca.1920 São Paulo.” An essay about the effect of São Paulo’s quickly changing landscape on the construction of Afro-Paulistan 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.

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.