Tales on a String

 Tales on a String

The cordel is not dead.
Cordelistas are suffering the fate
of all poets worldwide. A truly driven writer does not cease
to write, but their work gets crowded out by
noisier forms
of entertainment.

Kathleen de Azevedo


At the Nordeste Fair in Rio de Janeiro, I almost missed the object of my search. At the Pavilhão de São Cristóvão, blue tarps were suspended like tents over booths selling
everything from clothes and CDs, to slabs of waxy
carne-de-sol, baskets of hot peppers and bottles of
cachaça. A repentista began to tease us with his song, and we told him we’d stop by later (and
we did, for a more thorough ribbing). Pulsating
forró music emanated from the boom boxes at the CD booths, and couples shuffling in the
arrasta-pé aw6kxtled together in the makeshift
dance areas. Finally, at a small booth, I found what I had been looking for:
literatura de cordel.

Literatura de cordel is a form of ballad poetry from northeast Brazil with enticing titles like
“História Da Moça Que Se Casou Com O
Diabo” (The Story Of The Young Woman Who Married The Devil),
“O Homem Que Virou Mulher” (The Man Who Turned Into A Woman), and “O
Lobisomem Encantado” (The Enchanted Werewolf). These ballads are printed
on pamphlets called folhetos. The
folheto is about the size of an 8 ½ x 5 ½ paper folded over, and may have anywhere from three to 30 pages. The cover page is illustrated either with a
wood block stencil print called a
xilogravura, or in the newer
folhetos, color illustrations resembling comic books.
Folhetos are self-published by the author who produce a few hundred copies at
a time. In the past, cordel poets, or
cordelistas, used mimeograph machines or other rudimentary printing presses. Today, some even use computer printers.
Folhetos are sold at marketplaces arranged on a table, or in the more traditional manner, hanging on a string suspended by two stakes of a small booth;
“cordel” means “string,” hence the name “string literature.”

Literatura de cordel is one of the two types of oral poetry found in northeast Brazil. In the improvised poetry, or
“obra feita”, a singer or
repentista creates stories on the spot,
using action and people around him as inspiration. In
literatura de cordel, though, the poetry is in written form and the
cordelista may read all or part of his story in front of an audience to
entice buyers. Although today’s poet can’t compete against the high volume sound systems in the marketplaces, the
cordel is still written to be read aloud. Usually, the verses are written in
stanzas of six or seven lines with an ABCBDB rhyme scheme. For example, a stanza from
“O Monstro Do Rio Negro” by José Camelo de Melo Resende reads:

Eu quisera ouvir um homem
dizer-me que resistiu,
ao monstro do Rio Negro
e triunfando saiu
para eu lhe dizer na cara:
você desta vez mentiu.

I’d like to hear a man
say to me that he fought
the monster of the Rio Negro
and left in triumph.
To him, I’d say to his face,
“This time you are really pulling my leg.”

The stanza and rhyme schemes, along with the colloquialisms, the tongue-and cheek-humor, and the singsong sway of
Nordestino speech, all stamp the poet’s unique voice onto
the page.

The seeds of the cordel originated in Europe around the 17th century when historical epochs, sweeping romances, conquests of the new worlds and local news were dispensed
by troubadours. In Portugal, when the printing press was too unsophisticated to produce newspapers, current events and adventure stories were transcribed on pamphlets and sold
in marketplaces cheaply as “folhas
volantes” or “flying pages.”
Folhas volantes existed concurrently with the Spanish
corridos, or ballads. The Iberian ballad tradition continued in
colonial South America, but changed once it took hold in its new home.

While still a colony of Portugal, Brazil was sectioned off into
sesmarias, large tracts of land headed by
coronéis who imposed their “law” on surrounding territories. Once
Brazil became an independent nation in 1822, these land grants came to a halt and the
sesmarias were split into smaller farms. These independent farms, run by poor subsistence farmers,
needed marketplaces to sell their goods. As most people were illiterate, the storyteller became a fixture of these marketplaces, both as entertainment and as a dispenser of news. With the arrival
of the printing press in the Northeast, poets were able to duplicate and sell their work. The popularity of the
cordel hit its peak in the first half of the
20th century, then as the population of
Brazil grew, especially along the coast, many poor Northeasterners left for the city in search of better jobs, and the
cordel’s popularity diminished. Today the
cordel is more likely to appear in a museum bookshop than a marketplace. Still, the
cordel is a fascinating piece of Brazilian folklore and the flame has not died out completely.

Oral tradition is the foundation, not just of the
cordel, but of all Northeastern culture. The most obvious reason for this, is widespread illiteracy among the general population. We
see the strong oral culture in the narrative songs of
Nordestino singers such as Luiz Gongaza and Zé Ramalho. Legends and colorful superstitions abound. The poetry of Recifense João Cabral
de Mello Neto, are reminiscent of ballads, as in his poem “The Death of Severino,” a dialog between a migrant worker and two men carrying a hammock with the dead body of “just
another Severino” for burial. Jorge Amado re-creates the speech of Baianos in his novels of Salvador. Though oral culture is extremely interesting for those who are able to partake in its riches,
it does make it harder for the culture to reach a wider audience. In general, the outside world know very little of
Nordestino culture, especially their literature.

The definition of “literature”is often limited to works by members of the privileged class, which in Brazil, often meant being educated in Europe or the United States. The
powerful control the information. Many years ago, I interviewed Dr. Maurice Bazin, co-creator of the science museum
Espaço Ciência Viva in São Paulo. Dr. Bazin told me that it was difficult
to teach science to children in Brazil because many science books were written in Europe and U.S. and didn’t reflect the natural environment of his students. Because books are targeted to
the elite, the price of books are out of reach for many poor Brazilians. A book can cost upward of
25 reais ($10). On the other hand, the
folheto is targeted to the working class and costs
around one real. These folhetos are as well-loved as any book. Many people buy
folhetos and keep them in the family, rereading them until memorized.

Literature which comes from oral culture
places an importance on skillful wordplay. This cleverness is found in the
peleja, or a word duel. The peleja is considered to be one of
the oldest forms of the cordel and is one of the most popular. Unlike the
repentista who makes up duels on the spot, the
peleja is a written-down author’s reconstruction of a famous “verse
battle” between two troubadours. The duel takes place in a particular location—a house, a
fazenda (farm). In the peleja, the poets open their sparring match by praising the host and the guests,
in order to curry their support. Then each poet follows by regaling their own family heritage and personal virtues. The
pelejas focus on a particular subject, such as whether drinking
cachaça is better than abstention, but the aim of the battle is to overcome the other with a flurry of insults, boasting and artful turns of phrases.

Because cordelistas are public writers rather than reclusive literary types, they consider themselves spokespersons for their people.
Cordelistas are of the same social class as
their audience, and a lot of their writing is done after a long day of hard labor. The poets live in the same mud or brick housing whether in the
sertão or in the coastal sugar cane country. The
poet claims proudly to be a “matuto,” which translated means “hillybilly” or “country hick.” The word
“matuto” is derogatory when used by the general public, but when other people of
the same social class use it amongst each other, they reclaim the word and give it power. By making himself the story teller, the country-raised
cordelista gives authority to the
“matuto”. The “matuto” is no longer the stereotype of the simple-minded “hillybilly” but is the one “in the know.” The
cordel ballad usually opens with the narrator claiming he has heard the story
from somewhere, through the grapevine, from an old man, or he has seen in it a newspaper and needs to check out the truth himself. Rarely, has the speaker actually seen the event first hand.
By making the narrator a “reporter,” the poet gives himself, a “matuto,” special status, as if only he was so privileged to get the “scoop.” In the beginning of the narrative, he takes the role
of the “expert,” but as the story continues, the narrator becomes caught in the tumultuous action of his plot and invests his emotion as if he was a participant. Then everyone once in awhile,
the narrator pulls out of the action with a side comment, so that the reader always know who is in charge. Even if the speaker at some point in the
cordel admits, “I’m only creating this verse
in order to sell it,” he may be referring to the fact that someone commissioned him to write a
cordel. This is a common way for
cordelistas to make extra money. But whatever the case,
the poet is a savvy salesman, very clear about his own motives, but who can make fun of himself at the same time.

Like fables, the cordel presents lessons on how to behave morally. A poor society can’t afford to be as freewheeling and individualistic as a rich society, because the poor have
no infrastructure other than what they create themselves. Therefore, behavior must be more regulated. This regulated moral behavior is reflected in the plot of the
cordel. Candace Slater, professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of California Berkeley, has written extensively on
literatura de cordel, including one of the most
comprehensive books written in English, Stories On a String: The Brazilian Literatura de
Cordel. She has broken the folheto plot into a six-step pattern. In the beginning of the story, which she calls “the
pact,” the main character is fulfilling what is expected of him/her in society. The second step, the “test,” introduces the antagonist who challenges the power of the main character and the nature
of the “pact” itself. The character “responds,” right or wrong, and this produces a “counter response.” The choice triggers a sequence of absurd or dramatic events which climax to where
a “judgment” is made, whereby good triumphs over evil. In closing, life goes back to normal, reaffirming the social expectations and thus, the “pact is reasserted.”

This structure is revealed in the classic
cordel “O Boi Misterioso” (The Enchanted Ox), attributed to José Martins de Ataíde or to Leandro Gomes de Barros. Colonel Sisenando is one
of the most powerful fazendeiros in the region with his many heads of cattle. His need to be powerful is put to the “test,” when a very large calf is born from a cow considered by the
vaqueiros in the region to be “mysterious” as no one can catch it. The calf disappears and reappears years later as a full-grown ox, with the brand of an adjoining ranch. A
vaqueiro who works for Sisenando recognizes the ox as belonging to his employer, attempts to rope it, only to have the ox disappear before his eyes. The characters must decide whether to let this ox run free or
to capture it. The challenge proves irresistible for Sisenando and his
vaqueiros. For years, they pursue the ox, following leads of others who have spotted it. Well-known
vaqueiros from other parts of the country also try their hand at capturing the ox, only to walk away humiliated. Finally, a strange
vaqueiro comes to the fazenda and accepts the challenge. The other men
suspect the stranger is the devil, but by then, capturing the mysterious ox has become an obsession. The judgment is made to let the devil join them. In the chase, the devil on horseback pursues
the ox to where two cattle trails intersect. As the two possessed ones approach the intersection, the earth trembles, splits open and swallows the ox and the demonic horseman. Sisenando and
the vaqueiros realize that for years they had been pursuing an evil spirit. Sisenando sells his ranch and is never the same again. The pact is reasserted because the legitimacy of the
fazendeiro’s power has been challenged.

The human condition of the Northeast reflect the
cordel’s politics and purpose. Since the time of the
coronéis, the Northeast has been afflicted by social inequality. In modern
Brazil, Nordestinos feel ignored by the central government, yet still suffer the government’s harsh policies. In the
cordel, the people are always struggling to resist the ruling class. Ronald
Chilcote, professor of economics at the University of California Riverside, in his essay “Politics of Conflict in Popular Poetry of the Northeast Brazil” defines resistance as people “react[ing]
to unfavorable conditions [which] is accompanied by organization and mobilization of human resources” in order to improve their lives. The
cordelista, through his work, creates a portrait
of the Nordestino and his struggles. He mobilizes people through using the
cordel’s literary conventions and well-known plots. The conventions are created around the struggle for justice
and though these stories took place “long ago,” they still articulate present confrontations.

One can see this resistance in the
cordel of the cangaço. The
cangaço, a self-appointed populist “army,” was a reaction to the iron clad power of the
coronel. Cangaceiros raided
fazendas under the pretense of distributing the wealth among the poor. The leader of this
cangaço army, Lampião, and his female companion Maria Bonita, are staple
cordel heroes. Lampião in real life was thought of as both a criminal and a god. My mother’s maid in Juazeiro had an “L” branded on her cheek, yet worshiped the man because “at least he didn’t kill
her.” Cordelistas also worship the man. In Rodolfo Coelho Cavalcante’s
“A Chegada de Lampião no
Céu” (The Arrival of Lampião into Heaven) Lampião escapes from hell and tries to make
his way to heaven. Satan comes to heaven to reclaim Lampião’s soul. A trial in heaven ensues and Lampião gets the best of lawyers—the Virgin Mary. A final compromise is made when
Jesus presiding over the case, turns to his mother and says:

….Minha Mãe

Vou lhe dar a permissão
Pode expulsar Ferrabrás
Porém tem que Lampião
Arrepender-se notório
Ir até o “purgatório”
Alcançar a salvação.

…My Mother
I’ll give you permission
to kick out Satan
However, Lampião
has to repent for notoriety
by going to purgatory
to reach salvation.

Cangaceiros also relish in divulging heinous crimes, every detail of
it. Antonio Silvino, another famous bandit though not as well-known as Lampião, brags about his life of crime in
the many tales celebrating his lawlessness. In Francisco das Chagas Batista’s
cordel “História De Antônio
Silvino,” Silvino brags that:

“A polícia perseguiu-me…
Eu abracei a má sorte!
Hoje em dia me conhecem
Pelo bravo herói do norte!

“The police chased me…
I embraced bad luck!
Nowadays they know me as
the bravo hero of the north!

In spite of his mayhem, Antônio Silvino is one with his people. Both Silvino and his audience have an animosity, or at least, mixed feelings about the police, who are perceived to be
in cahoots with the ruling class. Bandits, like the people they rob, always seem to be running into misfortune, an everyday staple of life in the Northeast.

This rebellion against authority is seen in the
cordel, which extols the messianic movements of the Northeast. Though Brazil is a Catholic country, many
Nordestinos felt that the Vatican was just too far away to have an impact on their lives in the isolated backlands. The splendor of St. Peter’s seemed too antithetical to poverty and day-to-day struggles.
This combination of poverty, isolation, and spiritual despair attracted people to various holy men, or “messiahs” who embraced the plight of the poor and wandered the land like migrant
workers. Many of these messiahs preached a better life to come, giving followers hope that their suffering would not be in vain. Padre Cícero, a priest from Juazeiro became one of these
backland messiahs. His stamina as he wandered the
sertão inspired those who saw him. Though he was eventually defrocked by the Catholic Church, and prohibited from ministering the
sacraments, his followers pressed on, creating amulets and bronze and gold effigies, and endowing them with healing powers.

Whether considered a cult figure or a saint, Cícero’s legendary status
still inspires huge pilgrimages to Juazeiro. In the worship of Cícero, the people take away the power of the Pope and make their own decision to canonize whom they see fit. The Catholic
Church, one could say, only wants to canonize those who followed the Vatican’s “agenda.” Defying the Catholic Church
en masse can be called a triumph. At the same time, though, just as the
poor want to be accepted into the mainstream, Cícero’s followers too, want the blessings of the church, and they have been fighting to canonize him ever since. In Expedito Sebastião da
Silva’s cordel “A Opinião dos Romeiros Sobre A Canonização Do Pe. Cícero Pela Igreja
Brasileira,” his followers argue that Cícero should join the official ranks of the blessed:

Como é que certos padres
não conheceram direito
o Padre Cícero de perto
procuram com desrespeito
canonizá-lo por conta?
é à Igreja uma afronta
ou um rebelde despeito?

How is it that certain priests
not know Padre Cicero very well?
Do they seek to be disrespectful
by canonizing him with anger?
Is he an insult to the Church
or a spiteful rebel?

The world of the cordel teems with magic
and fantastical twists of fate which seem to visit the most mundane lives. Therefore, magic realism is a staple of the
cordel for three important reasons. First, the fantastic elevates the lives of the
Nordestino, thus giving it importance.
“O Boi Misterioso” turns
vaqueiros from common ranch hands, to knights chasing
the Holy Grail. Writer Marcia Abreu in her book,
História de Cordéis e
Folhetos suggests that the ox represents the free spirit of the Brazilian settler, bolting from its European masters. In
magic realism, the humble soul and his peculiar struggles represent the more complex world at large.

Second, magic realism in the cordel’s fantastical world is in response to Brazil’s landscape, so large, and so uncontrolled, it is like a large slate for the poet imagination to
embellish. Furthermore, his imagination has roots in African, Indigenous and Mediterranean cultures where spirits abound. The
caipora, mentioned in some cordel, is a spirit formed from the mix
of Indian, African and Greek legends. The
caipora roams the forest and confuses hunters by making them lost, or by bringing back to life a beast they thought to have killed. In many
legends, the caipora is large and hairy with a distinctive whistle, much like the North American Big Foot, while in other legends, the
caipora appears more as a small mischievous
pipe-smoking Indian. The more traditional and older
cordel resemble fairy tales of Europe populated with good and evil kings, beneficent princesses and lovestruck commoners. In one such classic
cordel, “Romance Do Pavão
Misterioso” (The Story of The Enchanted Peacock) a young man makes a mechanical peacock in order to kidnap the princess who has been locked up in a tower by
her over-vigilant father.

Third, in the Northeast culture, magic realism is really realism. Life is so unpredictable, it seems as if Fate is always improvising. Misfortune almost seems to be divinely
mandated and seems especially ruthless in its high rate of infant mortality and large scale deaths from hunger and drought. How much of a leap is it then, to believe that a
fazendeiro’s daughter is turned into a snake in Severino Gonçalves’
“A Moça Que Virou Cobra?” As God is capricious in his decision making, woe on those who make God angry! The only thing poor mortals can
do is strengthen their own faith. The characters in Minelvino Francisco Silva’s
“A Mãe Que Xingou O Filho No Ventre E Ele Nasceu Com Chifre E Com Rabo, Em São
Paulo” (The Mother Who Cursed The Child In Her Womb And Gave Birth To A Baby With Horns And A Tail, In São Paulo), must deal with a “birth defect” brought upon by the woman’s excessive cursing
during her uncomfortable pregnancy. (How many pregnant women have had that experience!)

The curse does not only affect the more simple-minded husband and wife, but the
sophisticated medical staff in a São Paulo hospital delivery room who can do nothing more than to lock the “baby” in a cage. The
cordel has a practical purpose, which is to distribute
information. Because of its rhyme, the
cordel is easily memorized by those who cannot read. Alda Maria Siqueira Campos, in her
dissertation-turned-book Literatura de Cordel, e Difusão de
Inovações reveals how in the 1960’s and 1970’s,
folhetos dispensed advice to farmers on issues such as new planting techniques, herd maintenance and how to safely operate agricultural
heavy machinery.

The cordel also functions like newspapers, reporting on disasters such as floods, drought, and plagues of grasshoppers. News events in traditional media are reported objectively,
and are emotionally disconnected from the problem. The
cordel retells the story in the point of view of the people most afflicted. We see how the horrors of a large scale drought, the
cracked earth and dying cattle, affect the lives of citizens who live and breathe in the
cordel itself. Citizens, overwhelmed by fate, appeal to God for mercy, or they press on, fighting
incredible adversity.

In 1979, 100 thousand workers from various sugar cane mills in Pernambuco mobilized and went on strike for better working conditions. Severino Domingos de Lima-Beija
Flor, the union leader and a poet, wrote a
cordel about the strike while sitting at a table in a
bar. “A História Da Greve Dos Camponeses Em São Lourenço Da Mata E
Paudalho” (The Story of The Rural Workers Strike in São Lourenço Da Mata E Paudalho) served as a record of events and a rallying cry for the strikers. At the negotiating table, a 52-year-old woman with a “sour
gut from eating too many sardines” (a common food of the poor), rises up and speaks. She is the collective voice for social change:

Todos escutaram a velhinha
apoiaram o resultado
batendo palma e gritando,
cada um mais animado
e quando foi no outro dia
amanheceu o campo parado.

Everyone listened and supported
the little old woman
by clapping our hands and shouting
each time more enthusiastically,
and when dawn arrived the next day,
the countryside had come to a halt.

The strike was a success. Workers were able to negotiate a 52 percent increase in salary and other fringe benefits including land for subsistence farming. If it wasn’t for such
a wonderful cordel, this triumph would have been buried in an old history book and would have been just one of the many strikes in Brazil’s history.

Is the cordel dying? This frequent question has been asked for many years in the face of the growing popularity of television, and in the diminishing importance of the marketplace
due to better roads and availability of goods. On the one hand, the
cordel has certainly diminished. When I went to Brazil with a small fellowship from the Center of Latin American Studies
at Stanford University, the cordel was hard to come by. I even went to the feira at Caruaru, famous for its
cordel booths, yet I didn’t see any cordel
the day I was there. That doesn’t mean the
cordel has disappeared, it just means perhaps that it is not as regular a fixture as it once was. When I found the
cordel on my journey, it was a wonderful but rare surprise. The
xilogravura prints which decorate the cover of folhetos, are marketed as folk art, on t-shirts and on wall hangings,
sans the poetry. Many cordelistas from the Northeast have moved to São Paulo and
Rio de Janeiro for better economic opportunities. American pop culture threatens to homogenize world culture. Television can be found anywhere, even in small shacks tucked under
the freeway exit ramp in Recife.

However, in spite of grim news, the
cordel is not dead. Cordelistas are suffering the fate of all poets worldwide. A truly driven writer does not cease to write, but their work
gets crowded out by noisier forms of entertainment.
Nordestinos are proud people and
cordelistas regard their work as part of their regional identity. They will not give up such an
important piece of themselves. But the
cordel, like other poetry, is harder to find.

There is hope. Newer cordelistas are emerging, bringing innovative approaches and a modern consciousness. Some young
Nordestinos today see the cordel as a way of
reclaiming their roots, and they see reviving the
cordel as a “mission,” but on their own terms. One talented young
cordelista, José Honório da Silva from Timbaúba, Pernambuco, explores
the materialistic obsession of today’s youth in his
cordel “O Menino Que Deu Na Mãe Por Causa Do
Tomagoshi ” (The Boy Who Hit His Mother Because of A Tamagotchi). Tamagotchis as
we might remember, are those small computerized virtual pets so popular with kids awhile back. In the modern world,
cangaceiros don’t raid fazendas, virtual pets invade the mind. What is
also significant about the new voices is that the
cordel is praising the contribution of blacks in Brazilian culture. There always has been
cordéis written on the slave revolt by leader Zumbi and
his settlement at Palmares, again, showing how the
cordel is the literature of resistance. But in general, blacks in the
cordel were usually at the losing end of the
peleja, or were portrayed having lesser moral character. Da Silva speaks out against racism in many of his
cordéis and praises the contributions of Africa in his
word-frevo, “Dança

No batuque na Mãe África
em noite de devoção
fez-se samba e lundu
no banzo da solidão
do cansaço, dos chicotes
nas costas em punição.

The drumming of Mother Africa
during the night of devotion
became the samba and lundu
from the solitude, the longing for home,
the fatigue, the punishing whips
on their backs.

The dearth of women cordelistas has been a disappointment. Traditionally, this is because the public marketplace was originally a “man’s forum,” and was not suitable for women. This
is not the case today and women poets are just starting to emerge. Maria Escolástica da Conceição Nazareth writes of her Bahia, and like da Silva, infuses her
cordel with the pride of African culture. Da Conceição goes further and extends her subject matter to include women. This is a breath of fresh air, as so many women characters in the
cordel appear silly, or are punished for being aggressive. In her
cordel “Adeus Mãe Menininha a Nossa
Ialorixá” (Farewell Mãe Menininha, Our Ialorixa”), she elegizes a powerful
mãe de santo, and mourns along with
other great Baianos:

O escritor Jorge Amado
E o pintor Caribé
Caymmi o grande cantor
Sabem dizer o que é
A força de Menininha
Rainha do Candomblé.

The writer Jorge Amado
And the painter Caribé
Caymmi the great singer
All give credit to the
force of Menininha
Queen of the Candomblé.

Though paper folhetos still exist today,
cordelistas have found a new marketplace: the Internet. A search yields many web sites. The quality varies, just like the
cordel bought in a traditional marketplace, but some pieces are quite good. The advantage of the Internet is that poets can put all their work onto one web site. They usually include their biography, and
many also include links to other cordel sites. Reading virtual
cordel may not be as exciting as finding a booth of
folhetos, but then how many people have the opportunity to end up in a
marketplace just as a repentista begins his song? The Internet illustrates the can-do-ness of the Brazilian.
Sempre tem um jeito. If there is a will to preserve the
cordel, there is a way. And the world wide
feira may be the “way.”

Even with the Internet, the cordel still has the problem of reaching a larger audience because the
cordel is difficult to translate. All literature loses some meaning in the translation,
but with the cordel, this problem is exacerbated as the verse depends so much on oral form, cultural references and a challenging rhyme scheme. Those who read Portuguese are at
an advantage in enjoying these vibrant stories. In fact, even those who understand Portuguese a little would appreciate how the stories seem to unfold so effortlessly.

Literature must struggle to survive. An increasingly impatient world has little time for literature, because it takes longer to read and takes more effort than film and TV. In the
cordel, ideas are not spelled out, but are hidden in the words, the metaphor, the nuance. However, to understand a culture, is to understand its individuals and to read
literatura de cordel, is to understand the soul of the


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Cordel. Salvador. 1997

Sigaud, Lgyia. Greve nos Engenhos. Rio de Janeiro: Paz e Terra. 1980.

Slater, Candace. Stories On A String: The Brazilian Literatura de
Cordel. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1982.

“Joe Bumpkin in the Wilds of Rio de Janeiro.”
Journal of Latin American Lore 6:1 (1980), 5-53

RECOMMENDED WEBSITES (The status changes constantly)

Jornal de Poesia: Banco do cordel

Literatura de Cordel

Cordéis High-Tech

José Honório da Silva

Nordeste Web

Kathleen de Azevedo’s fiction and poetry has appeared in many publications. Recently, she received a Community College Fellowship from the Center for Latin American Studies
at Stanford University to develop literatura de
cordel for use in her classes. You can contact her at


A Vitória do Bode Cheiroso

by Delarme Monteiro da Silva

Com esse aperto de vida
o povo que nada pode
pra se esquecer da fome
leva tudo no pagode
agora, na eleição
nas urnas de Jaboatão
o povo votou num bode.

Não é coisa de poeta
nem é boato inventado
o caso foi verdadeiro
o rádio tem divulgado
se há gente que não crê
no jornal tem o clichê
do bode fotografado.

Não é um bode qualquer
que sirva de mangação
do contrário, é bem querido
por toda a população
de Tijipió, primeiro
Sucupira, Cavaleiro
finalmente Jaboatão.

Por quase 500 votos
ele saiu vencedor
seus correligionários
pra provarem seu valor
votaram de coração
pra Câmara de Jaboatão
no bode vereador.

Ele se chama Cheiroso
é um bicho respeitável
apenas tem um cheirinho
que não é muito agradável
apesar de seu mau cheiro
tem ares de cavalheiro
distinto e muito tratável.

Quando a notícia correu
aqui dentro da cidade
que um bode fora eleito
eu tive a necessidade
de ver tal vereador
para contar ao leitor
se era mesmo verdade.

Tomo agora a liberadade
de contar com minudência
a palestra que mantive
com o bode sua excelência
que recebendo louvores
abraçava os eleitores
lá em sua residência.

O leitor lendo esse verso
diz logo por sua vez
que isto tudo é mentira
sem conforme nem talvez
mas o poeta bem pode
ouvindo a língua do bode
traduzi-la em português.

Porque os bichos não falam
mas a gente logo entende
quando um gato quer comer
quem é que não compreende?
Tudo isto tem noção
quando a gente chama um cão
ele corre e nos atende.

Por isso não foi dificíl
digo eu para o leitor
entrevistar o eleito
sem precisar tradutor
muito calmo e maneiroso
conversei com o Cheiroso
o bode vereador.

Assim que lá fui chegando
notei grande romaria
de velhos, moças, rapazes
que pela rua “seguia”
acompanhando o Cheiroso
que com ar vitorioso
os votos “agradecia”.

Aproximei-me do grupo
e usando inteligência
fui dizendo para o bode
meus parabéns excelência
sua luta foi notória
alcançou grande vitória
pela sua competência.

Sem deixá-lo agradecer
eu disse logo no duro
seu Cheiroso, eu sou poeta
e ando atrás de um furo
se quer fazer-me um favor
me diga vereador
qual é seu plano futuro?

Cheiroso deu 3 espirros
fez um bodejo sem fim
cavou o chão com as patas
depois olhou pra mim
com ternura e fixidez
traduzindo em português
ele quiz dizer assim:

Poeta, a minha vitória
agora nesta eleição
prova que o eleitor
perdeu toda animação
nas promessas mentirosas
feitas por sujeitos prosas
pra ganharem posição.

O povo já não tem fé
em alguns politiqueiros
que vivem de cambalachos
são simples interesseiros
ou santinhos de paus ocos
que vivem chupando aos poucos
o sangue dos brasileiros.

Eu também trabalhei pouco
a bem da minha cidade
porque não tinha recursos
nem tão pouco autoridade
mas como vereador
vou mostrar o meu valor
para a coletividade.

Uma vez que fui eleito
já elaborei meu plano
e meus projetos na Câmara
vão entrar a todo pano
não quero ouvir lero-lero
ou farão tudo que quero
ou desta vez eu me dano.

O meu primeiro projeto
será parada bem dura:
acabar com a carrocinha
que por sua desventura
provoca muitos atritos
levando cabras, cabritos
pro forno da Prefeitura.

Bode, cabra e cabritinhos
comigo podem contar
terão plena liberdade
sem ninguém lhes abusar
que manda é Bode Cheiroso
vereador caprichoso
por sua classe a lutar.

Capim baixará de preço
o meu projeto é baixá-lo
desse capim bem verdinho
eu como que me regalo
aprecio muito isso
e assumo o compromisso
de fazer barateá-lo.

Aqueles que sufragaram
meu nome nas eleições
podem ficar sossegados
descansar seus corações
comigo não dá impasse
eu luto em favor da classe
com todas minhas ações.

Também é do meu projeto
já dentro de poucos dias
de Jaboatão a Cavaleiro
instalar perfumarias
para aquele que não pode
com fino extrato de bode
sem gastar grandes quantias.

Os correligionários
que me deram a preferência
terão 10 vidros de graça
dessa fina e pura essência
do meu uso pessoal
pois não há perfume igual
para fazer concorrência.

E você poeta, amigo
por mim é muito estimado
vou lhe entregar 2 litros
do meu perfume afamado
pegue na cortiça e abra
garanto que não há cabra
que não corra pra seu lado.

Quando Cheiroso findou
de fazer seu bodejado
me despedi fui saindo
já um pouco encabulado
e comigo disse eu
o Diabo que usa o teu
perfume tão desgraçado!

E foi assim meus leitores
de formas especiais
que comprovei a notícia
publicada nos jornais
sobre o tal Bode Cheiroso
vereador catingoso
porém de grande cartaz.

Agora digo ao leitor
com quem tenho compromisso
que na palestra do bode
eu mesmo não creio nisso
pois o pobre só berrava
e eu então calculava
que ele dizia isso.

Porém sobra a votação
pode acreditar leitor
quatrocentos e sessenta
e oito votos a favor
teve o tal Bode Cheiroso
que hoje muito orgulhoso
já é um vereador.

Um vereador dos fortes
pois é lider da bancada
obteve a maioria
dos votos da “macacada”
o prefeito se afastando
Cheiroso vai ocupando
a cadeira abandonada.

Determinado por lei
Ele não pode ocupar
Lugar nenhum lá na Câmara
A fim de se empossar
Registrou-se e recusaram
Mas todos nele votaram
E ele vai trabalhar. *

*It is customary for a poet to
create the last verse using
the letters of his first name.

The Victory of the Stinky Goat

When life is stressful
people who can’t forget their hunger
make everything a joke
and now, on elections
in the voting booths
in the town of Jaboatão
the people voted for a goat.

This story is not the goings-on of poets
nor an invented rumor.
The case was true
the radio reported it,
and for those who don’t believe it
the newspaper has the scoop
and a photo of the goat.

It is not just some goat
serving as an object of derision
on the contrary,
he is well loved
by everyone in the towns of
Tijipió, Sucupira, Cavaleiro
and finally Jaboatão.

With just under 500 votes
he emerged the victor.
His fellow party members
to prove their worth,
voted with their heart,
the goat as councilman
of Jaboatão

Stinky, as he is called,
is a respectable critter
with a smell
that isn’t very pleasant.
But, in spite of his bad smell
he has the airs of a gentleman
distinct and very agreeable.

When the news traveled
here within the city
that a goat had been elected,
I found it necessary
to see this such town councilman
to tell my readers
if it indeed was true.

I now take the liberty
of telling you in detail
the chat I had
with the goat, his excellency
who receiving well-wishers
embraced the voting public
in his official residence.

The reader reading this verse
will soon say in turn
that all this is a lie
and won’t agree with me, perhaps,
but the good poet can hear
the language of the goat
and translate it into Portuguese.

We think critters don’t speak,
but we understand each other.
When a cat wants to eat
don’t we understand what he is saying?
We have a notion that
when we call a dog,
he will run to our side.

I say to the reader,
It was not difficult
to interview the elected one
without a translator.
I had a very polite and calm
conversation with Stinky,
the town councilman goat.

As I was arriving there
I noted a grande procession
of old people, young men and women,
thankful voters
following the road
accompanying Stinky
with a victorious air.

I approached the group
and using an intelligent manner,
I said to the goat,
“My congratulations, your Excellency
your fight notorious
yet you reached your grand victory
because of your competence.”

Without giving him time to thank me,
I said right afterwards
and more earnestly,
“Stinky, I am a writer
going after a news scoop
If you please, tell me, Councilman
what are your future plans?”

Stinky gave 3 sneezes
a long bleat,
and dug his hooves into the ground.
then looked at me
firmly but with tenderness;
(and with me translating in Portuguese)
he said thus:

“Poet, my victory
in this election
proves that the electorate
has lost all hope
in the false promises
made by boasting candidates
who do anything to win.

The people don’t have faith
in their elected officials
who live by trickery and scheming
and are only after their own interests
or who are hypocrites
who live, sucking little by little
the blood of the Brazilians

In the past I have done some good
in my city
but then, I didn’t have resources
and so little authority.
But now as a town councilman
I am going to show my worth
to the community.

Once was elected to the town council
I elaborated my plans and projects
and have begun at full speed.
I don’t want to hear any griping,
everyone will do what I want
or bearing that,
I will do some real damage.

My first project
will be very difficult
and I’m sure will provoke
much displeasure:
I will put an end to the cart that
transports goats, kids
to the ovens of City Hall.

Goats, nannies and kids
along with me can count on
having full freedom
and will no longer be abused.
Who gives orders here is Stinky Goat
honest town councilman
of the fighting class.

My project is to
lower the price of the green grass
that I appreciate much
and is such a treat
for me to eat.
I have made the commitment
to lower the price.

Those who backed
my name during the elections
have to rest at ease
their hearts
and not prevent me from
fighting for my people
with all my deeds.

Another of my projects is
within a few days
in Jaboatão and Cavaleiro,
I will install perfume counters
with fine extract of goat
for those not able to stink.
without spending a lot of money.

My fellow party members
who supported me
will get 10 bottles free
of this fine and pure essence
that I use personally
because there is no other perfume
that can compete.

And you, poet, friend
for I hold you in high esteem
I will give you 2 liters
of my renowned perfume
unplug the cork and open it.
I guarantee that there is no goat
that won’t rush to your side.”

When Stinky was finished
he gave a bleat
and I said good-by. I left
already a little scandalized
and to myself I said,
“Any Devil who uses your perfume
will be sorry!”

And it was this way, my readers
this special way
that I proved true the article
published in the paper
about this Stinky Goat
a bad-smelling yet
very popular town councilman.

(Now I say to the reader
with whom I have made a commitment
in telling of my chat with the goat,
even I don’t believe it,
but since the poor fellow only bellowed
I can only guess that he said
what he did.)

However, dear reader
the vote count,
you can believe:
Four hundred and seventy
eight votes in favor
made this Stinky Goat
today a proud councilman.

A councilman of the strong
now is the head of the town council
having obtained the majority
of votes from the “gang”
If the mayor resigns
Stinky is going to take over
the abandoned mayor’s chair.

The law determines
that he can’t really hold any position
in the council chambers
In order to take office
He registered himself and was rejected.
But all voted for him,
and he’ll get down to work.



A Mãe Que Xingou o Filho no
Ventre e Ele Nasceu com Chifre
e com Rabo, em São Paulo

by Minelvino Francisco Silva

A mãe que xinga o seu filho
É um pecado mortal,
Porque atrai para ele
O mais temeroso mal,
E é sujeita a um castigo
De Deus Pai Celestial.

Existem muitas mulheres
Que xingam os filhinhos seus
Nome de tremer a terra,
Faz pior do que os ateus,
Sem temer ser atingidas
Por um castigo de Deus.

Agora mesmo em São Paulo
Sexta-feira da Paixão
Do ano setenta e cinco
Assim diz a multidão.
Uma mulher teve um filho
Com chifre, rabo e esporão.

Dizem as más linguas que um homem
Tinha uma mulher xingadeira
Xingava já por esporte
Ou mesmo por brincadeira
Nunca se viu outra
Nesta terra brasileira.

Pois ela xingava o fogo,
A panela e a bacia
Xingava os pratos e a mesa,
Com a carne que comia,
Pois ela xingava até
Mesmo a água que bebia.

Ela xingava as cadeiras,
Com a cama e o colchão,
A coberta e o lençol,
A cozinha e o fogão,
Xingava até a farinha
Com o arroz e o feijão.

Quando o marido falava
Que assim não ia bem,
Pois o nome do maldito
Não abençoa a ninguém,
Ela inda mais se zangava
E xingava ele também.

Certa vez essa mulher
Em estado interessante
Para ter o primeiro filho
Pra todos muito importante
Mas ela xingava ele
Na barriga todo instante.

Até que um certo dia
Sexta-feira da Paixão
O homem disse: mulher
Preste-me bem atenção
Vamos hoje para a Igreja
Assistir a explicação.

Comemoramos a morte
Do divino Salvador
Vamos pra ver na Igreja
Com sentimento e amor
Quanto o Bom Jesus sofreu
Pra salvar o pecador.

Ela mostrou pra barriga
E disse nesta razão:
Eu só posso passear
Quando tiver este cão
Que veio me atrapalhar
E fazer condenação.

O homem disse: mulher
Que coisa mais horrorosa!
Não diga com nosso filho
Esta palavra penosa,
Peça perdão a Jesus
E a nossa Mãe Poderosa.

Disse ela; eu já disse
E agora vou repetir:
Só pode ser o diabo
Que tenho comigo aqui
Que bole a noite todinha
Quase não deixa eu dormir.

Quando foi a meia noite
Essa mulher piorou
Sua barriga cresceu
E lá dentro começou
Um ronca-ronca danado
Que o homem quase assombrou.

Depressa pegou um carro
Levou-a para o hospital
Chegando lá o doutor
Fez o exame legal
E disse: misericórdia
Parece coisa infernal.

A coisa não está boa
Pra nascer este fulano
O jeito é chamar por Deus
O nosso Pai Soberano
E apelar no momento
Pra o parto cezariano.

E assim mesmo ele fez
Deu começo à operação
Com pouco tirou o moleque
De rabo, asa e esporão
Com dois chifres na cabeça
Pretos da cor de carvão.

O médico disse: danou-se
Assim não pode ficar
Com este moleque vivo
Vai tudo se complicar
Eu vou dar uma injeção
Pra ver se posso o matar.

Foi pegando um injeção
Daquelas que extermina
E aplicou no moleque
Para cortar sua sina
Mas ele sorriu e disse:
Para mim é vitamina.

Disse o médico: está danado
Isto assim não pode ser
Foi gritando ao enfermeiro
Por esta forma a dizer:
Traga uma jaula de ferro
Para este negro prender.

O enfermeiro que ouviu
Depressa correu lá dentro
E trouxe a jaula de ferro
Disse o moleque: eu não entro
Disse o doutor: você entra
E vai ficar bem no centro.

Em nome de Jesus Cristo
Você vai entrar agora
O moleque disse: eu entro,
Mas depois eu caio fora
Só vou ficar sete dias
Depois disso eu vou-me embora.

O moleque deu um pulo
Depressa na jaula entrou
O médico bateu a porta
Ligeiramente trancou
O negro deu uma dentada
Num ferro, que o envergou.

Continua esse moleque
Dentro dum quarto trancado
Naquela jaula de ferro
Pula mais do que veado
Ronca mais do que barrão
Por um cachorro acuado.

Se isto não for verdade
Esta história que rimei
Não sou eu o mentiroso
Pois nada presenciei
Apenas estou vendendo
Pelo preço que comprei.

O povo é que conta isto
Que em São Paulo se deu
Pois um menino de chifre
Naquele Estado nasceu
E a mulher xingadeira
Foi triste o castigo seu

De qualquer forma é exemplo
Ou uma grande lição
Para todas as mulheres
De pouca compreensão
Que deixa o nome
de Deus
Para chamar pelo cão.

Por qualquer uma tolice
Chama os filhos de diabo
De outro nome mais feio
E ainda muito mais brabo
Deste jeito só terá
É filho com chifre e rabo.

Por isso mães de famílias
Tomem os conselhos meus
Não chamem nomes horríveis
A nenhum dos filhos seus
Não devemos esquecer
É o santo nome de

Deus é quem dá a saúde
É Deus quem nos dá o pão
Deus é quem nos dá a sorte
Deus é que dá-nos o perdão
É Deus quem nos dá a vida
E ainda dá a salvação.

Jesus disse aqui na terra
Nos ensinamentos seus
A todo povo gentio
E a todos fariseus
Que o mais difícil ao homem
Facilmente é para Deus.

Quem pedir ao pai da terra
Para que lhe dê um pão
Ele não dá uma pedra
Por ser mau de coração
Deus que é um Pai de bondade
Não ouve a nossa oração?

Jesus disse que um inseto
Por menor que seja ele
Deus sabe que ele existe
E está cuidando dele,
Quanto mais sendo um cristão!
Seja este ou seja aquele.

Portanto vamos a Ele
Sem sair fora dos trilhos
Ralar no chão os joelhos
Pedindo por nossos filhos,
Que prontamente Ele dá
Compreensão, saúde e brilho.

Se temos um filho mau
Que seja descompreendido
Que luta contra os seus pais
E faz papel de bandido
Com o poder da oração
Tudo será resolvido.

Pois Jesus disse na terra
Em um a bendita hora
Que quem pede coisa a Deus
Ele atende sem demora
E qualquer que vai a Ele
Não será jogado fora.

Portanto chamem por Deus
Que pode a todos salvar
Deixam o nome do diabo
Não queira se condenar
Deus nos dá tudo de bom
Diabo não tem o que dar.

Diabo é o pai de mentira
Diabo não tem riqueza,
Diabo é o ente mais pobre
Que ficou por natureza,
Perdeu a graça de Deus
Ele é o autor da pobreza.

The Mother Who Cursed Her Baby
in Her Womb and It Was Born With

Horns and a Tail, in São Paulo

A mother who curses her child
commits a mortal sin
because whoever attracts
He The Most Fearful Evil,
is subject to the punishment
of God the Heavenly Father.

There exists many women
who curse their little ones
with that earth-shaking name.
It’s worse than the atheist
who has no fear of being hit
by the punishment of God.

Right now in São Paulo
On Good Friday
in the year of 75
(so the people say),
a woman gave birth to a son
with horns, tail, and spurs.

They say that a woman who curses
has more than one tongue
whether cursing for sport
or even as a joke.
Never did anyone see
anything like this case
in this land of Brazil.

She cursed at fire,
at pans and the sink,
she cursed the plates on the table
and the meat that she ate,
she even cursed
the water she drank.

She cursed at the chairs
at the bed and the mattress
at the blanket and sheets
at the kitchen and the stove.
She even cursed at the flour
and at the rice and at the beans.

When the husband spoke
that this would not go well,
as the name of The Cursed One
would not bless anyone,.
She got even more angry
and cursed her husband as well.

At a certain time, that woman
was in an interesting condition,
for having a first child
for anyone is very important
but she cursed the one in her belly
the whole time.

Then the special day came:
Friday of Holy Week
the man said, “Wife
pay good attention to me.
We are going to church today,
to attend a sermon.

We are commemorating the death
of the Divine Savior.
Let us go to church
to show our devotion and love.
How much the Good Jesus suffered
to save the sinner!”

She displayed her belly
and gave this reason,
“I can barely walk
when I have this devil inside
that came to screw me over
and condemn me.”

The man said, “Wife,
what a horrible thing to say!
Don’t call our child
that injurious word!
Ask Jesus and our Powerful Mother
their pardon.”

She said, “I already said
and now I will repeat:
It can only be the devil
that I have inside of me
that stirs the whole night through
and barely lets me sleep.”

When it was midnight
that woman got worse.
Her belly grew
and inside, such a furious
snoring began,
that the man was very amazed.

In a hurry he caught a cab
and took her to the hospital.
Arriving there the doctor
made the required exam
and said, “What a pity!
This seems like an infernal thing.

It is not a good idea
to give birth to this so-and-so,
We must call on God
Our Sovereign Father
and appeal to him right this moment
for a Caesarian birth.”

In any case
the doctor started the operation
and in a while he pulled out a rascal
with a tale, wings and spurred feet
with two horns as black as coal
on his head.

The doctor said, “I’ll be damned!
thus you can’t keep
this scoundrel alive
it will complicate everything.
I will give an injection
and see if I can kill it.”

He picked up the needle
the kind that exterminates
and applied it to the urchin
to cut his fate
But the boy smiled and said,
“For me, its no more than a vitamin.”

The doctor said, “Damn!”
“This cannot be!”
He shouted to the nurse,
Talking this way:
“Bring an iron cage
and lock this dark thing up!”

The nurse who heard
came running into the room
and brought with him a cage of iron.
The little scoundrel said, “I won’t enter.”
The doctor said, “You enter
and stay well in the middle.

In the name of Jesus Christ
you are going to enter now!”
The scoundrel said, “I’ll enter
and stay for seven days
but afterwards I’ll sneak out
and leave for good.”

The boy gave a hop
and hurried into the cage.
The doctor slammed the door
and swiftly locked it.
The rascal bit the iron bars
and bent them.

That rascal still remains
locked in a room
in that cage of iron
He jumps about more than a deer
and grunts more than a wild boar
cornered by a dog.

(If this story I told
isn’t true,
I’m not the liar here,
For I witnessed nothing.
All I’m doing is selling
for the price I paid.)

The people who told me this
swore that in São Paulo
the boy with horns
was born in their fair state
and the woman who cursed
she had a sad punishment.

Whether really happened or not
this is an example, a big lesson
for all women
who don’t understand well.
They must stop using the name
of God
in order to call the devil.

For any kind of foolishness,
if you call your kids the devil
or another name even uglier
or even bolder,
you’ll have
a child with horns and a tail.

For these mothers of families
take my advice.
Don’t call children horrible names
and never one of your own.
We oughtn’t to forget
the child is blessed by the name
of God.

It is God who gives us health
It is God who gives us bread
It is God who gives us luck
It is God who gives us forgiveness
It is God who gives us life
and salvation.

Jesus said here on this earth,
in his teachings to us
to all of the gentiles
and to all of the Pharisees
that what is most difficult for Man
is easy for God.

Who asks the father of the earth
for bread
doesn’t get a stone
Even if they are wicked in their heart.
God is a Father of giving
Doesn’t he hear our prayer?

Jesus said God knows
that even an insect exists
and God takes care of him
as small as he is.
How much more is a Christian!
He cares no matter what we are.

Therefore let us go to Him
on our knees, scraping the ground
and not stray from the path,
but plea on behalf of our children.
He promptly gives
Understanding, Health and Light.

If we have a bad child
that is incomprehensible
that fights with his father
and acts like a bandit,
with the power of prayer
all will be resolved.

Thus Jesus said on the earth
in the blessed hour
that whoever asks of God
God will respond without delay.
And whoever goes to Him
Will not be cast asunder.

Therefore call on God
who can save us all.
Forget the name of the devil.
You don’t want to condemn yourself.
God give us everything good.
The Devil gives us nothing.

The Devil is the father of lies
The Devil has no riches
The Devil is the poorest being
who stayed in his natural state
and lost the grace of God.
The Devil is the author of poverty.


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