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Brazzil - People - August 2003

Brazil: In the Backlands, Plump is Beautiful

The cactus dessert is a natural for making people forget things
like diets. It is similar, but better than, green papaya dessert. In
spite of the onslaught of "foreign" beauty standards, piped in via
TV, what the real backlander appreciates, is a "strong" girl,
one that is full-blooded, plump and generously curvaceous.

Xico Sá


The São Francisco River flows right past the front yard of the house. It is not much of a flow, thanks to the Xingó hydroelectric power plant just down the river. And in the backyard, there is the Angicos cave where Brazil's most famous backlands bandit, Lampião, his girlfriend, Maria Bonita, and nine other bandits (cangaceiros) were massacred by the authorities. That happened in 1938—also known as the year of the .38 caliber gun. Inside the house, Gilda Correia Nunes, 58, mother of 12, whips up a fine meal topped off with local seasoning: memories of hard times and drought.

From nettles, a coarse herb, she makes a salad to go with the fish, a surubim, almost a threatened species nowadays in "Old Chico" (as the São Francisco River is known). From senna bushes, a leguminous herb, she makes a jelly. "Here in this desert we have to use everything that can be used. I learned this from my mother. She learned from her mother. And my daughters are already better than me," explains Gilda.

One of the daughters is Luíza. With a sharp knife she removes thorns from a cactus with the agility of sushi-man slicing fish. Once the thorns are gone the cactus can be crushed into a watery mush and turned into a delicious sweet paste. The cactus is a local cactus, known as Monk's head (it is round, full of dangerous spines, with a red bulb on top). "Many people have slacked their thirst with these plants when the going got really rough," she says. "Goats will crush the red bulb on the Monk's Head cactus with their hoofs, opening it up so they can drink. God knows what He does."

The cactus dessert is a natural for making people forget things like diets. It is similar, but better than, green papaya dessert. Besides, the truth is that in spite of the onslaught of "foreign" beauty standards, piped in via TV, what the real backlander appreciates, whether she be brunette or blonde, is a "strong" girl, one that is full-blooded, plump and generously curvaceous.

As for the men, it is believed they should also be chubby, the better to hide their skeletons and smooth over sharp bones. Besides, pudgy, roly-poly men, with at least a slight potbelly and full cheeks, are well known to be the best dance partners.

"Nowadays, down in the capital, the rage is for everyone to look like a necktie, dried-up thin, all bone. Why, the girls look like drought-stricken backland cows, bony knees, no meat, why, what are we coming to?" asks Gilda. "You know, some of those girls are little more than a trace of a person. And some of them are rich. Why, they have money. They could eat as much as they want. It is hard to understand."

In a way, the backland fascination with a little extra body fat, seeing it as a sign of bonanza, is esthetic revenge for the memory of hardscrabble caatinga hunger.

But in Gilda's restaurant, called the Angicos, although there is no sign saying so, the dried up girls from the big city will have to make do with backland fish and salad. Lots of it. "You better tell them right off that it is bad manners around here to eat like a bird," warns Gilda. "Around here we like people to eat as if the end of the world was about to happen."

And after dessert, after the Monk's head cactus delicacy, there are hammocks under mango trees. Fit for the siesta of a king.

The popular image of the ancient memory of the sertão, as recalled by ethnologist Luiz da Câmara Cascudo, is of an old woman wearing a big hat, haunted by all humanity's needs and dying of death before the age of thirty. Gilda knows the sight not secondhand, but because she lived it. It cast its shadow upon her. "Let me tell you, these are hard times, but a lot of these people complain without any reason. I have seen a lot worse with these eyes of mine," she says.

Gilda's home, housing the Angicos restaurant, is in the municipal of Canindé do São Francisco, which borders on the municipal of Poço Redondo. Both municipalities, in the state of Sergipe, are on the route of the Zero Hunger program. "Man, let me tell you, there was a beautiful meeting about this help they are going to give us, this 'assistment' that Lula is sending. I already registered. Ain't gonna miss out on this for nothing," declares Orestes Pereira da Silva, 45, who describes himself as having "a centennial face, with features like dried mud."

Orestes farms on a settlement area and complains that the winter this year was too weak. "Winter" is what the sertanejo calls the rainy season. To make ends meet he has been working with his cart, carrying loads. "I also want to improve my signature. I signed up for Zero Hunger with a scrawly scribble. I know that this assistment is more than just something for us to eat, it is teachin' and learnin' and cisterns. A real heap of better that everybody is talkin' 'bout," he boasts. "And if it is like that here, along the river, imagine what they are gonna' do out in the real sertão."

Sitting next to Orestes, on the seat of the cart, a friend, Zildo Jesus Duarte, 38, who owns the TV set and parabolic antenna they are carting, says, "This is our entertainment out here, it actually keeps us from having too many children." The donkey slowly pulls the cart, hauling its incongruent load: two sertanejos and modern accoutrements.

Back at the Angicos cave and restaurant, Francisco Rodrigues Correia, 18, one of Gilda's boys, is talking about the solar energy they use to run the refrigerator and light the house. Although the Xingó hydroelectric power plant is nearby, its transmission lines hurry overhead, and the sun is called upon to do the job for Gilda and her family.

Francisco then talks of the bandit, Lampião, and the cross that marks the spot where he was shot down. And then he launches into a recital of a dialogue from a Glauber Rocha film. Teacher to students:

What year was Brazil discovered?




When did Brazil get its independence?




And when did the slaves get their freedom?




And when did Lampião die?





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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