Brazil: Bahia’s Miracle Ribbon

 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.
by: 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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