It wouldn’t be an overstatement to dub the city of São Carlos (State of São Paulo, Brazil) the “City of Waters” for its territory is virtually crossed by dozens of rivers, creeks and streams. However, the landscape that presents itself to the inhabitant or visitor does nothing to evoke his privileged hydrographic condition. Rather, the waters of São Carlos, which once flowed generously from their springs and ran down the hills to the valley are now completely out of sight. Forced into underground routes, these waters are only remembered after the raging floods that befall the city, when, swelled by the rains, they burst out of culverts and cemented beds carrying with them the garbage collected in their furious race.
Capping springs, channeling the water, force them under the asphalt into concrete beds, represent only some forms of obliteration and violence. Another way, more subtle, but not less effective, is to deprive the places of an identity that links them to their natural features by retitling them with place names often of imported origin and unfathomable pronunciation. Thus, all that remains of one of the most popular creeks of the city is the name of a gas station that runs near its source. The symbol, a little boy urinating into the river, says a lot about the consideration allocated to a spring that was once so precious to the city of São Carlos and whose water runs today beneath the traffic, disemboguing unnoticed into the São Gregorio river. Poet Joel Barlow knew that to see a river was to be swept up in a great current of myths and memories that was strong enough to carry us back to the first watery element of our existence in the womb.
In Greek mythology, the river Lethe is a symbol of oblivion and forgetfulness. Its waters have the power to strip, from those who crossed it, the memories that connected them to their earthly life. Greeks believed that souls were asked to drink from the river before being reincarnated, so they would not remember their past life. Some believed in the existence of another river, the Mnemosyne. Just as the Lethe induced forgetfulness, drinking from the river Mnemosyne ensured that everything was remembered.
Because water is an element so inextricably linked to memory, it seemed natural to us to reconstruct the history of the city waters from the memories of its residents, poets and chroniclers. After all we are what we think, love, accomplish, but we are also what we remember: our treasures are also the memories we hold on to and to which we are their sole guardians. In turn, the places of memory condense the image of a past; they are places that evoke a sense of belonging to a particular community and the places of collective memory.