I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the Brazilian state of Ceará located in Northeastern Brazil. During my service there I experienced living in the interior of the state for one year and then was transferred to the capital city, Fortaleza. "From this experience I was able to understand the difficulty the thousands and thousands of peasants were made to endure in their move to the capital seeking an easier life away from the drought plagued interior (sertão).
While the interior of the entire Northeast is a stronghold of large landholdings and extreme social divisions reminiscent of medieval Europe, the inhabitants are nothing if not tough and resilient with an almost inexplicable attachment to the land that is harsh and severeexcept when the rains come. When there is abundant rainfall, cattle are fat and crops are thick in the fields, like lovers on the mend, all is forgiven; workers toil from sun up to sundown for a wage barely able to sustain the numerous children that overflow the mud caked houses.
The Catholic Church is the dominant social institution and literacy is at best privileged upon fifty percent of the population. Poets sing the news from town to town and are an esteemed class, carefully observed by the masses of oppressed people and their lords and masters (latifundiários), as well as the Church hierarchy.
The trip from the busy, colorful capital, Fortaleza, into the interior is an experience not only in distance, but also in timeperhaps a hundred years at least into the past when electricity, plumbing, paved roads and other amenities of modern living are considered marvels, which indeed they are. In the last three and a half decades very little has changed.
It hadn't rained for two years and the earth was parched, cracked and whirled about in bursts of wind that swept through the valleys amongst the rolling hills. Although there was no close-knit procession of vehicles, we knew we were part of something much larger. The hundred miles from Fortaleza to Canindé were dotted with groups heading for the very same destinationa church dominated community, all but forgotten save for the religious festival that drew thousands of visitors, would be saints and hopeful repentant sinners, young and old, of good health and poorespecially the physically suffering.
Amongst those wounded through the harsh, unforgiving environment were the crippledthose with twisted and missing limbs, with impaired sight, speech and/or hearing. Our Peace Corps jeep passed them on the dusty road. At first there were sparse groups on horseback, on mules, in carts drawn by oxen and babies in carts drawn by goats. As we left the capital the main road turned to dirt and received the traffic from smaller roadstrails, really, that led to the settlements of several houses sometimes frighteningly far from any trace of modern civilization.
For all events and purposes these tiny communities were devoid of all the benefits and headaches that accompany electricity, piped-in water, schools and health facilities. They were actually caught in a life rooted in the nineteenth century at the very latest. And much of what appeared on the road to Canindé was rooted back hundreds of years across the Atlantic Ocean and the tired, worn pages of church history, in the old world of Portugal.
Lives are founded upon the rock of the Willthe Will of man or the Will of God. Modern civilizations have nudged God asidefor better or for worse, and assumed responsibility for what transpires to a greater degree than ever before in human history. But not these pilgrims on the road to Canindé this hot Friday morning. The first one I saw caught me by surprise. I was expecting to see peasants in tattered clothes, carrying malnourished infants, and caboclos (hillbilly types), shoeless leading a mule loaded down with the few essentials these subsistence survivors could gather together for the trip to Canindé.
But the sight of a man ambulating on his knees in the lead of a group of a dozen or so followers, stunned me. And I turned to my friend Maurício for an explanation. "There will be many of these," he said, noticing my puzzled look. He started to smile almost cynically, but was cut short by Antônio, his bosom buddy (and chicken-fighting partner), who nudged him from his seat in the rear of the jeep.
"He made a promessa a plea to God for help, for mercy, a trade in kind. He promised to walk the hundred miles to Canindé on his knees if God would grant such and such favorcould be the spared life of a child, or the avoidance of a dreamt up catastrophe. Some do the walkand suffer quite a bit then they anticipate the reciprocal benevolence from on High: others receive God's end of the bargain first and then make the journey on their knees."
Will They Make It?
I observed the group of pilgrims as we passed. It would take them forever to cover the hundred miles at the snail's pace set by the penitent in front. On his knees he moved forward over the dusty, parched earth; there were no pads for the knees. Arms were raised in longing exaltations, moans and lamentations were uttered from his lips, and the chorus was picked up and repeated by those following. The thumping of fists on chest kept time to a jingle of bells on a goat's neck. The whole affair crawled along. "They'll never get there before the end of the Festival", I thought out loud.
"God will intercede for most of them., "Antônio allowed. "Only the most possessed will walk all the way on their knees. A truck will stop and offer a ridemost will take it. A priest will see their plight and acting in God's name allow them to ride if opportunity arises. Se Deus Quiser if God Wills it." The sertão runs on God's will in the lives of these peasants. God had denied the peasants their rainy season and they knew it was because of their failure as followers of Jesus, the Church and the priest.
A trip to Canindé, and taking confession in one of the dozens of curtained confessionals on the central square and around the church, could atone for the non-specific offense in the eyes of God. It was a kind of give and take balance of power in the affairs of Heaven and Earth. Most of the inhabitants of the sertão paid some respect to the formula; others usually those with the weapons and tools literacy provides, sought at least in part, a rational explanation for the suffering in the secular realm.
The road wound and wove up and down the rolling hills of the draught stricken earth. From the high points one could see in all directions and what one saw was the samelines of pilgrims moving in steady streams into the main road to Canindé. There were more vehicles as we grew closer to our goal. Trucks were overflowing with passengers hanging on to improvised handgrips.
Baggage and animalschickens, pigs, and goats were interwoven in a network of sprawling life with squawks, bleats, grunts and laughter, songs and exaltations emanating from these flat bed trucks that carried the freight and passengers of the lower classes all over Northeastern Brazil. Parrots' perchpau de ararathey call these transport vehicles for their packed condition. Literally no space was unoccupiednone.
So important is the Festival at Canindé to the sertanejos that paus de arara were arriving from all directions. From as far south as northern Bahia they came, from Pernambuco to the east and Paraíba, and Alagoas. But mostly they came from Ceará. It seemed the whole of the sertão was emptying into Canindé for several days of religious and earthly revelry. Believers and non-believers alikethey all came. Penitents, priests, and poets, hustlers, merchants, priests, and prostitutes.
Some for heavenly, some for earthly gain; they all packed into the town center filling it with a vibrant, throbbing joie de vivrecelebrating the promise, the reward, the poetry, and the music. Again the secular and the celestial divided the town. Priests set up confessionals at every possible space within two blocks of the church. And every confessional had a waiting line that extended around a corner where it merged with another waiting line of sinners.
The mood in these gatherings would shift from solemn to exalted as the burden was lifted from an agonized soul. Amongst these lines about the confessionals walked scores of children, adults and mendicants pleading, cajoling, exhorting persons to indulge them a moment (pelo amor de Deus) for the Love of Godto purchase this icon of São João (St. John) or that trinket of Padre Cícerothe local priest hero of the 1920's. The flurry of activity that surrounded the church was somehow carnival-esquebut not rowdy or rude, for the grounds of the church were held sacred.
Faith and Reason
In the very front of the Church at town center there gathered a seemingly endless procession of incapacitated persons. These penitents had made from various inexpensive materials, usually wood, string and paint, replicas of their sought after cures. A man without movement in an arm, made of a carved tree limb a doll with the afflicted limb rigidly fixed, while the other appendages, fashioned with dowel or nail, would swing freely.
Here was a growing pile of spiritually inspired craft. There were paintings, carvings in the round, relief sculptures, roughly hewn logs resembling legs, arms, heads with various afflictions indicated. The items grew in number before my eyes. From a few the first day to numerous and then countless by the third day.
On the last day the stack was a full twenty five feet high and thirty feet across. Snatches of this have remained vivid in my mind over these past thirty-five years. Here was an isolated incidence of ritual that survived from the age of faith into the age of reason and science. The icon, the Faith, the purification of the afflicted and the miraclethe cure. Did it work? Does it work?
I recall one evening standing in the multitude around the great heap of manikins and items in the front of the church. There were many priests around and numerous collection baskets overflowing with very worn and often undecipherable crumpled cruzeiro notes. Amidst the splashing of holy water and pleas for mercy, a man in tattered clothes on crutches ushered forth, shouting for all those about to hear his fervent appeal to God for mercy and relief from his suffering.
This man, all eyes focused on him, hurled his crutches onto the heapthere were countless other crutches protruding from the pile and walked off. Now, he danced off to the shouting and breast-beating hallelujahs that ensued. "Milagre! milagre!" miracle! was heard throughout the stirred hundreds. Within the minute, another man, better dressed in store bought clothes and relatively neatly groomed shouting hosannas, sprung forth and cast his crutches too, into the pile. Seconds later he took one shaky step forward, staggered and crumbled over.
Down he went, down to the dusty blood red earth of the church grounds amidst groans and lamentations from the multitude. Agonized and bewildered, he rose with the help of his friends, one of whom retrieved his crutches from the pile. Together amidst shouts of disappointment and consternation they dissolved into the confusion of the throng.
To believe or not to believe. I made my way through the animated throng of pilgrims, away from the church, wandering as the mind wanders when presented with options. I found myself in a place where voices were punctuated with laughter and the sound of the hollow-twang of Nordestino guitars permeating the encroaching darkness. Drifting toward the sounds of merriment that my soul yearned for, I spied an old man in tattered rags, a tired straw hat half covering his scraggy, bearded, unwashed face, seated against a faded scarred wall.
A handful of persons were gathered about as the wrinkled figure fiddled on a home-made two stringed violin. The sound that emanated was eerily seductive, seeming to convey the isolation and suffering of the Nordestino. I joined with the few around the performer and quickly became aware that he was blind and had traveled to Ceará, God knows how, perhaps with hopes, dreams, prayers of the miracle.
Over and over he coaxed the same refrain from the instrument tucked somewhere beneath his rough beard. What suffering, I thought, how much can these desperate innocent children of God endure. I peeled off a 500 cruzeiro note and dropped it into his basket and re-entered the stream toward what appeared to be general merriment.
The tavern was open to the dusty cobbled street on two sides. Electric lights, powered by a generator somewhere, yielded only enough illumination to produce dense, large shadows on the rough-hewn tables and straw-littered concrete floor. Patches of straw seemed to appear, not for effect, but for the necessity of feeding goats, horses and oxen that were everywhere in Canindé for the events.
Joy, Humor and Satire
While the church tends to the soul of the faithful, the repentistas tell of God's mysterious ways that often are recognized through the follies of mankind. In areas where illiteracy runs sometimes as high as eighty percent of the people, the poet is an important indicator of the ways of the world. Quick to glorify God in heaven, the repentista does not shrink from emphasizing the human (sometimes too human) aspect of His representatives down here on earth.
Into the exotic and harsh life of the sertanejo, the repentistas bring the mirror reflecting and projecting the familiar struggles and ironic joys of life, where the death of an infant brings bitter joy to parents and siblings who will not have to further divide the little food available. Often they tell tales in harsh humor, satire, and total absurdities; they sing of a woman who through pagan ritual turns her husband into a goat, or the story behind Lampião ( a Billy the Kid type) and the good Padre Ciceroa spiritual/activist priest in the vein of Martin Luther King Jr., who marched across the state of Ceará with a rag tag retinue of true believers.
The folk tradition is alive and well this night in Canindé. The cachaça (cane whiskey) is flowing, the beer is abundant and the poets in voice. I found a chair at a table with folks who immediately welcomed me and someone placed a bottle of chopea fine beer in any countryin front of me. A sanctuary, I thought, sanity and calm in the middle of the fervor. Maurício and Antônio had seen me on the street and somehow drawn me as with a magnet to find a seat across the room from them.
They were responsible for the beer. By the time I had taken my first swallow a woman was at my side eyeing me as only a woman in "the life" can. Before I could muster an excuse for not joining her for a "quickie," Maurício and Antônio were at my side between the woman and me. They realized the potential danger to a foreigner who refuses an offer; danger from an inebriated prostitute on one hand, should he refuse, and should he accept the offer, danger from a drunk or sober nationalist who sees his physical intervention as an advance for Brazilian sovereignty or even moral heroism in the face of his perception of the wave of foreigners in his country deflowering chaste maidens.
Ludicrous as the situation seemed, I was more than glad to be rescued and seated with persons familiar with all eventualities in this raw backland. Maurício and Antônio had an impressive roll of fresh cruzeiros newly won from the afternoon chicken fights held in a quaint ring directly across town from the church. Both these honest, hard-working men, seldom, if ever, had money enough to buy beer in town, much less to buy one for an Americano, all of whom were considered to have an endless supply of cruzeiros waiting to be tapped.
Antônio talked to the woman, capturing her attention, and Maurício pointed to the stage where two violeiros were adjusting their seats and guitar strings. But before the musical exchange began, a disturbance directly outside spilled over the doorway and into the tavern directly amongst us patrons. Several persons were physically trying to dissuade a man on crutches from joining the patrons of the tavern. The pulling, shoving and resisting were loud and physical.
An opening in the bedlam allowed me to recognize the man on crutches as the almost well dressed individual whose attempt to receive the cure of faith had failed. From the verbal outbursts it was apparent that this man, perhaps forty years of age, was turning over a new leafa re-turn to the old ways of wine women and song. He was determined and convinced of his decision; his attendants, but one, were trying to dissuade him. This one showed himself to be of the wounded one's persuasion. He cleared a way into the tavern through crowded streets, led the group in through the open side of the tavern and had a chair ready for his friend and boss, the center of attraction, to relax in.
He did this all without uttering a word. And he was succeeding, for apparently, those who wanted to pass the frolicking tavern had conceded to his demands to make a short rest stop inside this conveniently located house of entertainment. The pulling and grappling wound down as Seu Augusto, that's what they called him, was released from the feverish concerns of the four who had been pulling and cajoling for the entire two blocks from the church. with a groan of relief he settled into the readied chair.
The poets, arranged ground level in positions half facing each other, slammed into their instruments releasing the unique and indescribably haunting refrain. This is the medium of melody that carries the verses revealing the history and culture of the people of the sertão. The verses are absurd, humorous, fantastic and ingeniousnot to say spontaneous. Before they got through the first verses of introduction Seu Augusto interrupted to thank God for his liberation:
Dá licença aqui gente boa
Só quero dizer este testemunho
Graças ao Deus poderoso
Que vive no céu,
Sou livre destes diabos das igrejas
Agora nao vou falar nisso, não
Vou gostar da música, poesia, e sabedoria
Destes artistas que nos honram
Com sua presença em nossa capital
O Canindé do Ceará em nosso Brasil
Obrigado por sua amável atenção.
may I have your attention!!
I want to thank Almighty God
that I am free from those devils in the church
No more of this, now
I am going to enjoy the music, poetry and wisdom
Of the artists who this evening honor us
with their presence in our
Canindé of Ceará in our Brazil.
Thank you for listening to me.
Seu Augusto's speech calmed the last of the entourage that had tried to dissuade him from entering the tavern. Everyone's attention focused again on the man and woman repentistas who nodded their approval of Augusto's blessing. The tavern had filled with patrons and the curious; they were crowded in several deep in the sides open to the street. The line between the sidewalk and the tavern interior was totally obscured. Word had spread that among the numerous poets, two of the most acclaimed repentistas were matching up, both having been drawn to Canindé for the wildly popular festivities.
It was a family, community event with good times for all parties. The overlay of religious destiny held much sway over the region that this night's poetic match-up was believed to be arranged by the Almighty himself. And the poets would act accordinglyas they always did. Now the twanging rhythms receded and two repentistas a man and a woman (a rare spectacle in itself) nodded to each other and the lady poet threw back her head, sent her raven black hair flying under her leather chapéu and let loose a strong, deep-voiced, clear refrain. Suddenly the tavern fell under her spell and silence punctuated her verses:
Good evening everybody
Tell me, how do you do?
My name is Ana Roxina
and I've come to play for you
I'm a poet and a woman
Some say this cannot be
but I'm a child of these backlands
and spon tan e i ty.
She made the tavern resound with her ferocious strumming of the strings, looked over to Severino who picked up the rhythm and with a voice as raw as the parched earth began:
Hola and welcome sertanejos
and visitors from afar
I'm Severino Simeão
known as the shooting star
for my style quick as lightning
and my verses give a jolt
versifiers who stumble
will be measured with my rope.
Again they dueled on the guitar several rounds and Ana Roxinha belted forth:
Severino is a devil
he's a serpent and a scam
Hides behind his mama's skirt
and calls himself a man.
I will grab his smelly mustache
twirl his tongue beneath this thumb
Confuse his mind
confound his verses
Chase him back from whence he comes.
Severino looked a bit uneasy at the force of his female opponent's approach, but he nodded his head in approval as he drove the devil of the backlands out of his guitar and led into his retort:
Such a pretty face to look at
and such harsh, cruel words I hear
Shall I return the compliment and drag her by the hair?
Ahhh, No! Severino is a gentleman
By my mother's prayer I am
But this tigress needs a lesson
And God knows that I'm the man
Who can tie her tongue with verses
Soap her mouth to end the curses
Turn her over on this knee
Till she begs a kiss from me.
The men in the audience roared their approval of Severino's audacious response.
Between verses exchanged the tavern erupted into applause, shouts, laughter and congratulations to the most recent singer's slam. When the acclaim receded into an animated murmur, the guitarist's refrain, too, diminished allowing for the opponent's response. Severino and Ana Roxinha were entering into a brutal exchange of insults and personal heroics, and the audience loved it; this was repentista Nordestino at it best. I too was swept into the festivities: The cachaça was flowingI had one, then another amidst shouts and a bit of hearty back slamming.
I unrolled some of my bright red-orange cruzeiro notes, placed them on the table to the approval of the entertainers and saw them transported, unceremoniously, into the leather hat upside down on the littered table in front of the dueling poets. The atmosphere was electric and the generator of the magic was the hollowed out mysterious deep throated twang of the guitars and the voices that carried the challenge between the poet combatants.
I was becoming drunk on the cachaça and the atmosphere, but to leave the scene was unthinkable. Everyone within listening distance of the duet was drawn into the fray, anticipating the next round of bragging and insults flung upon their adversary. I remembered for a moment the scene in front of the church only an hour beforesevere, somber, dark and tragedy-laden. Here, a hundred yards away, was ribald merriment.
I stole a glimpse at Seu Augusto now surrounded with women and well-wishers. He seemed in his element, and his retinue that so recently had tried to drag him away from the tavern was now adjusted to the noisy atmosphere. Perhaps they too were indulging, but my senses were blurred to the particulars on this point; clearly though, none of them had left the scene, although most had settled to the rear of the little man who so recently had been denied the miracle and was now thoroughly enjoying the secular joys of the tavern. My head was beginning to spin when Ana Roxinha's voice broke through the haze:
Beg a kiss from this sad poet?
already dead but doesn't know it
Best he bow his face in shame
leave this place while still he can
Mind of monkey, face of goat
broken verses, rasp in throat
Homeless, loveless, soft of bone
Gone! Be gone to Satan's throne.
Here the women of the tavern let loose a shrill cacophony of applause, whistles and cat calls, overwhelming the laughter and merry growls of most of the men who seemed content to let Roxinha and her supporters rule the moment. But when several well lubricated ruffians rose in vulgar verbal tirades in support of Severino, encouraging him to give the coup de grace to the smiling poeta, the tavern proprietor took center floor and insisted the singers shift their direction away from personal attacks and into a rhyming format that demanded spontaneity and poetic prowess called oito em quadrão or eight rhyming verses. The patrons were divided in their response to this demand, and for a moment it seemed that the crowd would get unruly.
Maurício leaned over to me and semi shouted in my ear that things could become nasty. He told of a time in Fortaleza when a couple of repentistas went beyond a certain line of respect and began insulting families of their opponents. The result was a riot in which two people were shot dead and several others knifed. Antônio, the quieter of the friends, who even wore a necktie in town from time to time, was quick to second the motion that we leave. My mild and somewhat inebriated protests were disregarded and in a few moments we were on the outside leaving the fomenting crowd clamoring for more.
Outside the stars had filled the sky and the dry chill of sertão nights was setting in. The streets were spotted with peasants in their flour sack, home stitched clothing. There were shouts and cries of children, of agony and of love to be heard amidst the crowing of roosters and the grunts of a myriad of livestock. The clear night silhouetted houses that lined the dusty street leading to our pensãorooming house.
The sturdy little lady that ran the operation was at the door with a fixed, stern, quizzical expression on her wrinkled face. She looked like she wanted to scold us for reasons known only to herself and the sertanejos. Maurício gave her a wink as we stumbled past into the corner where three redeshammockswe had mounted earlier awaited our immediate collapse.
You can email the author, Tomas Belsky, at email@example.com