In Iracema, Brazil, You Don’t Live, You Get By

Poverty in CearáReligion and politics to many are inseparable. I heard this often in Iracema, which is the county seat of a small municipality in the northeast of Ceará, Brazil.

The districts are situated in the mountains, but Iracema is in the valley. Iracema is small enough that there is but one priest for the city and all surrounding districts.

Father Leonardus Jetten was born and trained in Holland. When he was told there were openings in South America, he left immediately.

He wanted to forget what he saw as a boy, and he thought Brazil would be the perfect place to put his haunting memories to rest.

Father Leonardus was kind enough to offer me hospitality in Iracema for several nights in his simple home. He patiently answered all of my questions. He was tall and lean, seventy-four years old.

He was so skinny that when he turned to the side, he almost disappeared, like a two-dimensional cartoon character. His tinted glasses gave him the look of a groovy old man, especially when his thin hair was pulled back and gelled so that the ends stuck out from his neck.

He wore a white robe, which went past his feet and swept on the floor as he walked, yet never got dirty. When he unbuttoned the collar for meals, you could see that although his face was dark red from the sun, the rest of his body was pale white and hairless. His teeth were crooked; dental appointments were a luxury his upbringing rarely allowed.

He rolled his own cigarettes from tobacco specially procured from Amsterdam and smoked between thirty and forty a day. He was in perfect health when I met him; he seldom coughed, and a recent visit to the doctor did not come with a lecture about smoking because his lungs were found to be functional and healthy.

He smiled to himself always as he put the tobacco into his little machine and turned the metal lever, producing a thin fag, which soon vanished. He drank seven cups of coffee a day and ate a few bites of bread in between.

He also drank cachaça each night as he watched the soap operas until he fell asleep with the television blaring and a cigarette hanging from his mouth, ashes littering his white robes.

Usually Ana brushed off his robe, shaking tobacco leaves onto the ground and the ashes into the garbage. She woke him, and he made his way to bed, a very thin and very long bed befitting a man of his stature.

He pulled off the robe, revealing a white tank top and white shorts, immaculately clean, and after pulling the mosquito net over the wooden frame he began to snore. A close look revealed that he was smiling.

More than twenty-five years ago he adopted Ana, who was abandoned at the church. Five years ago another child was left at the church, a day after birth. Hagar, as she was named, was born at the side of the road.

No one in town was pregnant at the time: an itinerant woman must have delivered the girl and then left her. So the priest adopted her, too, expanding the religious family to three.

Then two years ago a girl, Lucia, showed up at his door. She was being beaten and sexually abused by her father. She moved into the study. They ate, drank, and talked like a family would.

The priest was a talkative man and had a constant refrain: “Religion and politics are the same thing! Do not let anyone tell you otherwise.

Justice in religion is achieved through political means. Otherwise people die!” For comments like these, he received death threats, even from the town judge.

After months of arguing, the judge permitted the priest to visit the local jail at Easter. The priest wanted religion to be less spiritual and more political, so he visited the prisoners to bring them chocolate and to see how they were faring.

He told me that the jail was full of poor people who stole food for hungry children, but the sons of rich men got away with murder. “And when the church hears about this,” he said, “we are told to pray more. Can you believe that?”

He thought the Catholic Church focused too little on politics, so his sermons were about liberation theology, the teachings of Hélder Câmara, and why homosexuals are our brothers and sisters who deserve respect because they, too, are God’s children.

He took me on a historical tour of Brazil, recounting how the original colonizers were “really just criminals and thieves” and how “the church would try to convert Indians and then kill them.”

“Genocide!” he explained. “Why can’t I say that? It’s the truth, so I am going to tell my people that the church killed Indians! My country was colonized with people carrying a cross in their hands, all in the name of the faith.”

After another espresso and a long drag from a cigarette, he continued, “Brazil must be the richest country in the world. I am sure of that. I am sure because there are so many politicians who rob the people, and somehow there is still something left over for handouts, so therefore this must be the richest place on earth,” and he laughed.

“People here are afraid of change,” he said. “They are afraid of confronting the political system. They are afraid of losing the little that they have or of being looked down upon. Great sadness.” And then he took a long drag from his cigarette, put it down, and said,

During the last drought, a man bought a car in order to rent it to the municipality for three hundred reais [approximately US$ 150 at the time] per day.

That, you see, is an industry of the drought. Here is a man who is already rich. Drought comes, people start to suffer and starve, and the municipality, needing the car and having no others from which to choose, pays the man.

The money goes to the man; the car is used to feed some people. The children at the end of the road, beyond the reach of the car, die.

During this same drought, the municipality hired people for basically nothing. How can a family of five survive on sixty-eight reais [US$ 34] per month? And sometimes they do not get salaries at all. They have to fight just to get paid.

The mayor sends around the water car to the people who are friendly to him. When a hungry man is given food, he is very grateful. That’s the industry of the drought. Letting people get to the point of starvation and then giving them enough so they are full for one day, and there is your vote….

When the people themselves start to demand what they deserve, then God helps. But if you do nothing and assume God will help you, you are just as deceived as the rest.

The government likes the misery in the Northeast, and the people are so accustomed to this misery that they do nothing. They are used to getting no real assistance from the government. They are conditioned! It’s all programmed! You see?

I used to think the people here were lazy and idle. I could never understand it. I mean, here they are getting tricked, and I saw laziness. And then I realized that when one is fighting hunger, one cannot do very much. How can you resist, when you are hungry and have to work? . . .

Living in these towns, like Iracema, it’s not so much living as it is surviving. You get by. It is just living from crisis to crisis. So what happens is that the people just start leaving.

In the past ten years, more than half the population of Iracema has left. They go to São Paulo. They cannot even come back because they cannot afford to, so they stay away for three to four years, working hard so they can eat….

I ask them, “How can you vote for someone who you know has done absolutely nothing for the community?” I asked a man this recently, reminding him that the politician promises everything and brings nothing. So I asked the man about this.

“How come, Raimundo, you still vote for this person who has done nothing for the community?” And he looked at me and said this, “Father, if he tells me to vote for a piece of wood, I would vote for a piece of wood.” That is the mentality. The problem is that their memory is too short.

As I went to sleep on my final night in Iracema, I thanked Father Leonardus for his hospitality. “Before I forget, I want to tell you something else,” he said as he sat up quickly, turning his eye from the soap opera and put down his cigarette. “Religion and politics are the same thing. If not, we will not survive.”

Father Leonardus died on September 6, 2003. The following day, Guilherme Barbosa, the priest’s assistant, wrote a long letter to the priest’s hometown in Holland. He ended the letter with these lines:

“I am sorry I have had to write you this news. I do not know if the priest kept in touch with you all these years. All I can tell you is that God blessed us when He sent us the priest. He saw our poor and small town, and he made it shine. I am preparing the funeral now, which means I am too busy to cry. I will never forget him and the things he has taught me.”

Nicholas Arons has worked as a writer for international policy think tanks, at the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, at public defender legal offices, for civil liberties organizations, and as a non-violence educator.

He observed the impact of economic sanctions and U.S. bombings in Iraq, publishing his findings in Fellowship, UTNE Reader, Punk Planet, Counterpunch, Foreign Policy in Focus, and Iraq Under Siege.

He is the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship to research the culture of drought in Brazil, a graduate of Yale College and NYU School of Law, and is currently an Institute for International Law and Justice Fellow at NYU School of Law.

His book Waiting for Rain – The Politics and Poetry of Drought in Northeast Brazil can be found at fttp:// or

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