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Brazzil - Behavior - January 2004

Brazil: Bahia's Miracle Ribbon

Nowadays, the fita of Senhor do Bonfim comes in many colors and
is tied around the wrist rather than around the neck. Its primary
function is to petition for future miracles rather than to remind
anyone of previous such interventions. The modern-day fita is
also worn to promote Brazilian pride and/or as a souvenir.

Tiago Cordeiro


Senhor do Bonfim wrist ribbons, known as fitas, are an institution in the northeastern Brazilian state of Bahia. Senhor do Bonfim, for the uninitiated, means Our Lord of a Good End, which is one way that Baianas refer to Jesus. Hardly a tourist can resist purchasing at least one of the colorful ribbons, and the city of Salvador hosted more than two million tourists in the preceding year alone.

An enormous number of fitas are distributed in the historic Pelourinho district of Brazil's first capital, Salvador, where African slaves were once sold at auction. Countless more are sold at fairs and bazaars throughout the country. But the celebrated souvenir bears little resemblance to the original. Created in 1809, fitas had all but disappeared by the middle of the century. Now they've reemerged, albeit in a different guise.

The Measure of Bonfim

The original fita was known as "the measure of Bonfim", a name it acquired because, at 47 centimeters, its size corresponded to the length of the right arm on a statue of Christ on the high-alter of Bahia's most famous church, Senhor do Bonfim.

Although the likeness was sculpted in Setúbal, Portugal, in the 18th century, the first fita—as previously noted—was only produced in the following century. The true 19th century fitas were fashioned from a piece of silk and finished with permanent ink or silver. Their design included the name of a saint in lettering that was embroidered by hand.

These first fitas were worn on the neck as a collar, upon which were hung medallions and holy images. In contrast to the modern day fita the "measure" was used as much to reflect change as to (hopefully) facilitate it. The faithful adorned them with small images and/or little wax sculptures of body parts believed to have been cured with the help of a saint. These opportunities to be remembered were purchases that supported, as well as symbolized, the Catholic Church.

The New Fita

The common fita of today is not made of silk, comes in many colors and is tied around the (left usually) wrist rather than around the neck. Its primary function is to petition for future miracles—large or small—rather than to remind anyone of previous such interventions. The modern-day fita is also purchased and worn to promote Brazilian pride and/or simply as a souvenir.

Multiple chances for a miracle, or chances for multiple miracles, are obtained as the purchaser makes a wish each time one of three knots are tied to secure the fita around the wrist. But the wearer is advised that no wish can be granted unless the cloth is permitted to wear until it disintegrates naturally and falls from the wrist of its accord.

It isn't known exactly when the transition from original to present-day traditions began, but the fact is that the wrist fita has been sold in the streets for decades. The transition may have begun when fitas were adopted by hippies as a part of a cultural uniform that included sandals and leather tote bags.

A Peaceful Co-existence

There no longer exists even a single example of the original "measure", remembered only in the song "Trocando em Miúdos" (Changing in small ways) by Brazilian composer Chico Buarque. Buarque wrote: "I am given the measure of Bonfim / it doesn't value me". Research into the original fita is making good advances.

"The objective is to rescue the (original) tradition, not to banish the market for the popularized version," explained Luiz Geraldo Urpia de Carvalho, a member of the Brotherhood of Devotion at the Church of Senhor Bom Jesus do Bonfim. "We're not competing between ourselves. The `measure' is made (intended) to go into the homes of people". The fita that we know today can be made of nylon, as is the case with fitas produced in São Paulo, or of cotton, as with fitas made in Salvador by a cooperative of artisans.

For historian Cid Teixeira, the fita is a measure that symbolizes religious sincerity in Bahia. "Christianity doesn't admit that divinity can be in an object. Common people attribute supernatural power to religious items, like the fitas, that they incorporate into (their perception of) the divine" he explained.

Faith in the fita is an adaptation which undoubtedly derives from African religious practices (Bahia is the African-Brazilian cultural epicenter of Brazil) which do acknowledge that supernatural power (divinity) can exist within objects. "In Bahia it is the same"; he said "God here assumes various identities".

This text is a liberal translation of an article that appeared in the N. 217 edition of the Brazilian magazine Época, as communicated within an e-mail distribution to Brazilians in the United States. A small volume of additional material was added to supplement the original text in order to more effectively represent the story to non-Brazilians. Care was taken to maintain the integrity of the original message, but an exact translation was not pursued since cultural differences periodically prevent English speaking audiences from understanding text as intended within the context of the Portuguese language.

Translated with minor supplementary text by Phillip Wagner. Wagner is a freelance photo-journalist with numerous credits related to Brazil in several publications. Phillip maintains an extensive web-site at http://www.iei.net/~pwagner/brazilhome.htm promoting a better understanding of Brazil and interest in constructive social engagement to alleviate the suffering there among Brazilians living in poverty. You can reach him at pwagner@iei.net

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