In the mid-1950s, I was an economist at the American Embassy in Rio de Janeiro, and worked in the Escritório Técnico de Agricultura (ETA) Our office was across the street from Santos Dumont Airport in the city.. One incident of my fifty-year (off and on) Brazilian experiences leaps out like a character from an Amigo da Onça (a double-face character from the 1940s and 50s) cartoon.
It was April 1956. Juscelino Kubitschek de Oliveira had won the presidency of Brazil and had scheduled a peace-making meeting with Jânio Quadros, Governor of the State of São Paulo, at the town of Assis in the interior.
No one was thinking about Adhemar de Barros any more. (“Rouba mas faz!” – “He steals but gets things done”). An all-day festa was planned for that rich cattle town on the road to the wilds of Mato Grosso. Assis? I wondered if it had been named for the great writer, Machado de Assis?
Dr. Charles Elkinton, U.S. Agricultural attaché, new on the job, wanted to see the interior of the State of São Paulo. Warning him that there were some rough roads, I suggested that we tie a trip to the political event at Assis. We drove the embassy camionette, called a perua (turkey) by Brazilians, to the city of São Paulo and stayed at the Excelsior Hotel.
Next morning we picked up Dr. Octávio Nóbrega, my technical counterpart, and headed west. Our three-day schedule included stops at Campinas, Piracicaba, Rio Claro, Presidente Prudente, and, of course, Assis. Being a Southerner with roots in Mississippi, I insisted on a brief stop at the Cemetery of the Confederados, at Campo near Santa Barbara d’Oeste.
At Nóbrega’s suggestion we paused occasionally to get a feel of the countryside. Automobiles were scarce in interior Brazil at that time, and roads were mostly red clay. At a petrol filling station an attendant asked me what the “CD” on our license plate stood for. Vaunting my Portuguese with a bit of humor I told him it represented the Carioca Democrats of Rio de Janeiro and that we were headed to Assis to see President Kubitschek.
Everyone said that my Portuguese was excellent. A polite hint from Nóbrega, however, pointed out a slight flaw. It seems that Dona Carmelita, who the U.S. Embassy employed as our language teacher, had disguised an almost imperceptible lisp. I quickly corrected the defect with the help of my Brazil-born wife, Helen; and by refusing to speak English to anyone, not even to the Brazilians at work and the missionaries at Itacuruça church where we worshipped.
On the day of the festa, we arose from our modest sleeping facilities in Marília (they were better than hammocks!). Clouds hung heavily over the grasslands and sugar and coffee plantations. Torrents of rain soon followed. We got stuck in the mud on the road outside Bastos, and after being pulled out by oxen, we finally arrived at our destination. Assis had never experienced such crowds. Most people were ignoring the rain in order to see the dignitaries who had already arrived.
Speeches were made in the drizzle, followed by entertainment. I was fortunate to get close-up photos of the President and Quadros. Imagine the scene: an obviously inexperienced photographer, a foreigner at that, snapping pictures of the country’s highest politicians – amongst all their security!
The dignitaries departed, festivities ceased, and we spent the rest of the afternoon with small clusters of the local “high and mighty,” and caipiras (hicks). Nóbrega, a city man, seemed delighted, and enjoyed interpreting our mission to the enthralled Brazilian listeners. With the new automobile, we became the center of attention.
Tired after a long exciting day, we needed time to digest the churrasco (barbecue), and to deal with the inevitable headaches and indigestion. We began the long ride back to Rio by stopping for the evening at the quaint town of Ourinhos on the Paraná border.
I had a dream that night: A young caboclo (mestizo) descendent of the Confederados who had wandered west from the Colônia Americana in the 1860s, ran up to me in the middle of a rattlesnake watermelon patch yelling in Old-South English: “Hillman, what y’all doing down here in the wilds of Brazil?”
Stunned, I stammered, searching for the right words, then finally smiled and said in lisp-free Portuguese, “Estou procurando os meus parentes desgarrados. Não se preocupe, meu filho. Tudo bem! Tudo azul, senhor Crisp!” (I am looking for my relatives who have gone astray. Don’t worry, son. It’s alright! All cool, Mr. Crisp!)
Jimmye Hillman was born in 1923 and grew up on a subsistence farm in southern Mississippi. He received his Ph.D. at the University of California Berkeley, and has been associated with the University of Arizona in Tucson, where he served as Head of Department of Agricultural Economics for thirty years while doing ground-breaking work in agricultural and trade policy. He is now Professor Emeritus.
He has also served as the Executive Director for the National Advisory Commission on Food and Fiber under President Lyndon Johnson and as Consultant on U.S.-Japanese agricultural trade policies during the Reagan Administration. Hillman’s other honors include: Research Fellow at Jesus College, Oxford University; Fulbright Fellow, Lincoln College, New Zealand; and an honorary doctorate from the University of Ceará, Brazil.