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Brazzil - Poverty - August 2003

Brazil's Northeast: The Largesse of the Destitute

Severina Ferreira do Nascimento, 71, is next in line. When her
name is called, she cries, "Viva," and grabs her check. Her
face consists of semi-arid features. Here, each year is worth ten
and it shows. According to local standards, she had few children:
only seven. "Two escaped," she says, meaning two survived.

Xico Sá


Yes, the name of the town is indeed Barcelona. It is indeed located in the midst of the Brazilian semi-arid backlands (sertão or caatinga) in the state of Rio Grande do Norte (area: 55,166 square kilometers), which is located on the northern edge of that tip of Brazil which extends furthest into the Atlantic (the state lies precisely between 5 and 6 degrees south of the equator).

To be more precise, Barcelona, Rio Grande do Norte (RN) is located in the sertão do Seridó. So, instead of tourists from all over the world (many in their youth, all well-off) wandering down the avenues of the capital of Catalonia, the only exciting thing going on is the chatter of a group of retirees (all of them old, all of them poor).

But it is these senior citizens who keep things going in the town. Their homes are bursting with grandchildren, waiting for some food and a grandparent caress. They will not let needy neighbors down, either. There will be food and caresses for them, as well. These elders, a living museum of the geography and history of hunger, know what they are doing.

Soon after the 15th of the month, when the post office has completed the payment of the last of retirement benefits to local inhabitants, all in the same amount: the minimum retirement benefit paid in Brazil of exactly R$ 240 (US$ 80), the Barcelona of the backlands, population: 4,727, grinds to a halt. Sales in bars and general stores nosedive. The owners of the bars and stores can calmly take long afternoon siestas. There are no customers. There is no more money in circulation. Only a little music from a radio may break the silence, here and there.

In the semi-arid backlands, everything is stomach and hopeful waiting [translator's note: in Portuguese, the word "espera" can mean both "wait" and "hope."] . A local legendary songwriter, Luiz Gonzaga, understood where the local center of gravity was: "When you shake your hips / It ties a knot in my belly." ("Quando tu balança/ dá um nó na minha pança").

One of Brazil's greatest ethnologist and folklore expert, Luis da Câmara Cascudo, who was from Rio Grande do Norte, put it this way in a 1947 book on the subject: "Tell me what you eat and I will tell you if you really are a native of this place."

Back in the group of retirees, José Targino, 77, who lives just a notch above the rest, explains that his life has been punctuated with beans and sugarcane sweets (just exactly whether he was a farmer who had bean and sugarcane crops, or just ate them, he doesn't say). But the result is clear: "Mine has been a life of luxury—in a place like this. If it is necessary I will spend all of my retirement benefits (all R$ 240) to help others. I will not allow anyone around me to go without the basic necessities," he declares.

The fact is that town elders always manage to come up with gestures of solidarity that cause tears to flow from the most arid, tightly closed eyes. Targino is a grandfather of "some 30." He had 14 children of his own. "Only four of them died, still little buttons, brand new," he explains. "It is a pleasure to make sure that everyone has something to eat," he says, as his name is called and he rises to go to the window and get his well-earned retirement benefit check.

Severina Ferreira do Nascimento, 71, is next in line. When her name is called, she cries, "Viva," and grabs her check. Her face consists of semi-arid features; each year of hardscrabble survival in the sertão is worth ten in other places and it shows. According to local standards, she had few children: only seven. "Two escaped," she says, meaning two survived.

In this Barcelona of the backlands it is difficult to find someone who didn't lose children. "God knows what He is doing. I have nothing to complain about," says Severina, closing the subject.

After Severina, another one, Severina da Silva, 75, gets her check. She had eight children, five survived. Then there is Rita Sotero, 85, nine children, only two survived. And the line moves on.

As the retirees leave the post office, almost all of them wear the "stain of illiteracy," an index finger darkened with ink, that was used to "sign" their payment receipt. Throughout the semi-arid nation a fingerprint substitutes signatures. The stain is a telltale mark that brings the police to the post office. They are there to protect the old folk from outsiders who might want to rob them.

In the backlands Barcelona, doors are never locked. No one can even remember the last time there was a murder in town. A robbery? Somebody stole a chicken? Most certainly it was one of those outsiders, the ones who show up on payday at the post office, or for dances and the chance to chase local girls. They are known to enjoy seasoning their drinking with local chicken. They also speed around town in cars.

There are conflicting reports on how Barcelona became Barcelona. Rita Sotero says it was the region's most famous inhabitant, known affectionately by the local population as Padim Ciço, Padre Cícero (1844-1934), a controversial Catholic priest who was ordained in 1870 and began work in Juazeiro do Norte in 1872 (the city is a caatinga urban center).

In 1889 he reputedly began performing miracles there. The Catholic Church not only never recognized the miracles but stripped him of his right to perform church duties. So, in order to continue helping his people—the poor and the needy of the Brazilian semi-arid backlands—he went into politics. He became the mayor of Juazeiro do Norte and, in 1914, the Ceará state vice governor. In 1916 the Catholic church relented and allowed him to return to the priesthood.

According to Rita Sotero, padre Cícero not only named the town Barcelona, but set the day of the week for the local fair: Monday. But, explains Rita Sotero, someone moved the fair to Saturday and wanted to change the name of the town. However, none of that was certain right (nada deu certo direito), so they changed everything back again to what Padim Ciço wanted in the first place and, of course, it worked.

Another version is that a former mayor named the town after a rubber tapper camp he worked in out in the Amazon. This version, cloaked in modernity, can be found on the internet at www.barcelonarn.hpg.ig.com.br at a site run by local writer Adriano Medeiros Costa.

Things get busy in the modern Barcelona of the backlands when retirement benefits are paid. And the local elite consists of the recipients of those benefit payments. It is said that a few of the aged men have arranged marriages with young girls, sertão versions of gold diggers (mulher nova cheirando a leite). "Well, didn't Luiz Gonzaga write a song that said the remedy for an old horse is new grass?" asks José Ferreira de Vasconcelos, 79. As for the old ladies, they probably could get some new grass, as well. But, says one, "I am not dumb enough to put a good-for-nothing macho in my house so he can deceive me."

With the arrival of the Zero Hunger program, at least 300 local families will get a financial injection that will allow them to purchase food from local suppliers. That will be good news to the general store where they sell pots and pans. The owner expects sales to rise. With pots full of boiling beans, sugarcane and little bits of meat, the smell will drift off with the wind into the vastness of the sertão.

But for now, it is siesta time. Barcelona sleeps and the semi-arid is all stomach and hopeful waiting.


Xico Sá, 40, has been a reporter for 20 years. He has worked on the Jornal do Commercio in Recife (Pernambuco state), O Estado de S. Paulo, the newsmagazine Veja, and the Folha de S. Paulo. In 1994, he won the Esso Journalism Award for an exposé of a contractor's scheme for dealing out public works in São Paulo. He is the author of Modos de Macho & Modinhas de Fêmea (Editora Record), and has a website at www.carapuceiro.com.br  Messages can be sent to xico@uol.com.br

This article was distributed by Agência Brasil (AB), the official press agency of the Brazilian government.




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