issue 254 - April 1994
Biu on the roller coaster
Sandwiched between Antonieta and Lordes, Biu (pictured below) was once
the most beautiful of the three half-sisters. Her life is like a roller coaster, its ups
and downs colliding, sometimes jerking the cars off the tracks entirely.
All photos on this page: Nancy Scheper-Hughes
One day I tried to find Biu in the smoky lean-to on the dirt path called the Third Crossing of the Indians. She was cooking outside on a small table using a little clay charcoal burner.
It was next to impossible to get her to be still long enough for an interview, let alone a life history. Her hands and legs were always in motion. She talked incessantly and almost always with a hand-rolled cigarette between her lips. She liked a pipe even better, but older Alto women had taken their pipes ‘underground’, smoking them only in the privacy of the outhouse or late at night outside after everyone else was quite asleep.
Biu is my agemate. In 1989, at 45 years, she could easily be mistaken for a woman 20 years older. She has worked in fields and factories, in streams and on hillsides. She has cleared plantation lands, staked cut cane, fished, hunted for small game, collected grasses for animal feed and kindling for resale. She has worked in the infested river digging up sand for construction sites and washing pack animals. She has washed, starched, and ironed clothes for wealthy families, all outdoors and without the help of electricity.
I had to catch her story on the run and in small, disconnected fragments. These I have patched together into the semblance of a single, seamless narrative from several short conversations during the four days of Brazilian carnaval in 1988:
‘There isn’t much to tell about the early years. When I was little my situation was triste. I had to beg as soon as I could walk because my father left my mother soon after I was born. After my father left us, Mãe had to go out to work, so she gave me and Antonieta to Tia Josefa to raise. Often Tia sent the two of us out begging to help things along. Tia washed clothes and ironed them for a living, and we helped her with that work, and that’s how we got by...
‘When I was about eight years old we moved to Tia’s house on the Alto do Cruzeiro, and Mama and Auntie tried to put me into school. But it wasn’t for me. I was always into mischief; I even tore up all the schoolbooks. The teachers said that I was malcriada (poorly raised). Finally, they sent me home for good. I left without learning how to sign my name, and to this day I am a pure, unadulterated illiterate!
‘At the age of 15 I ran off with Valdimar, the older brother of our neighbor Sebastiana, who lived on the Indians’ Road. Valdimar was old, almost 50, and he was a widower. My family tried to prevent us from getting together. They raised every objection. Mama and Auntie said that Valdimar was too old for me, that he was “finished” (sterile and/or impotent), and that he was ugly and too dark. They said he would blacken our race. They said that Valdimar was a drunkard and that he ran around with other women. But I just laughed and wouldn’t listen to a thing. I was determined to have that old black man no matter what!...
‘The truth is I never wanted a husband under my roof,
and getting pregnant always involved men.’
‘So I was a mother by the age of 16. They were wrong about one thing. Valdimar was good in bed, and I had six pregnancies by him. My firstborn, Sonia, lived to be a year and four months, and then she died of gasto, the diarrhea that has no cure. By the time she died she was so wasted, and so was I. After that I had a miscarriage. Then came another living child, a son named Severino, but he lasted only eight months. I began to have some luck, finally, when Edilese was born. You remember because you were her mamãe de umbigo (godmother of her navel), the one who cut her cord.
‘I never much liked being a “wife”, but I loved being pregnant. I adored it when I was huge with a pregnant belly! I always felt so beautiful. Pregnancy was my form of riches. Any woman who doesn’t want babies shouldn’t take a man in the first place. As for me, I had 15 pregnancies in my life, and if I hadn’t got so disgusted with men I would have had 15 more. But as it was, after Mercea was born, I told the doctor to tie my tubes. I was willing to call it quits. The truth is I never wanted a husband under my roof, and getting pregnant always involved men. Although I’ve lived with men, I never took one for a husband. It was my choice. I am single today and, God willing, I will die the same...
‘Life with Valdimar was pretty awful. Soon I lost my taste for sex with him. I left Valdimar several times. Six of those times I came back to him. I would put up with a lot, and then one day I would come home from work, dog-tired, and I’d take one look at him sleeping on the floor or in a hammock, dead drunk, and I would say to myself: “This is no head of house; this is a worthless bum”. And when he came to, I’d put him out the door. If he refused to leave I would pack up a few things and leave myself. “Now you can take care of the kids,” I would tell him.
‘What kept me coming back? I’d begin to worry about the children. Or I’d think about getting old and skinny and worn out. I was beautiful once, but I was losing all the good looks I had. In the whole world Valdimar was really the only person I had. And I would look in the mirror and say: “Who would ever want you now?”. I began to think of Valdimar as my “fate” in life, and so I would decide to make the best of it. But no sooner would I come back than he would do something to disappoint or annoy me and I would leave him again.
‘And that’s how it happened that we were living apart when Valdimar hung himself. It was his sister, Sebastiana, not me, who cut him loose. Valdmimar’s end didn’t surprise me. He was never right in his head. He would brood and brood and go for days without talking to anyone, and then suddenly he would fly into a rage. I once had him locked up in the “hospital for crazies” in Recife, but it didn’t do him any good at all. He was a rum drinker and in the end it was the cachaça that turned his head for good.
‘After Valdimar died I had nowhere to turn to. My family had all turned against me because I always did what I wanted. I never took their advice. So I did the only thing a woman in my situation could do. I’m not ashamed of it. I took the children with me by bus to Recife and I lived in the center of the city begging on the sidewalk. I would lay out a large piece of cardboard and set up my little clay burner, and that was how we lived, in the street up against a building next to the bridge. There was always a lot of action there and I could catch people coming and going across the bridge.
‘But it was during this time that my firstborn daughter, Edilese, went bad on me. She ran away and became a street moleque. I lost her to the streets of Recife. Then my baby, my little son, died. His nervous system was too fragile for life on the street. He couldn’t take all the noise and the fights and the violence. All I had left then was Edilene, my middle child, and I could see that she wasn’t going to last too long either. I was killing the last of my children off, one by one. But it was not from ill-will toward them. No! Word of my situation got back to Tonieta, and she took pity on me. She told me to come back to Bom Jesus and to give her my Edilene to raise. I did, and that was the girl’s only salvation. It’s because of Tonieta that Edilene is alive and well today and a mother herself.
‘After I returned to Bom Jesus I found myself a job on the Votas plantation. It was hard fieldwork, but I was happy again. I adore life in the country! I like to work without anyone on my back telling me every minute what needs to be done. I can see that for myself! When you work in the country you get paid by the amount of land you clear or weed, and the time you put in is up to you. I am a woman who was never afraid of work. Tonieta and Lordes were always ashamed to see me set off before dawn with a rag wrapped around my head and a pair of men’s trousers covering my legs and held up with a piece of rope for a belt! “What a beauty!” they would say. But shame is for those who cheat and steal. Shame is for those who do violence to others. There is no shame in walking down the hill with a hoe across your back!
‘It was while working in Votas that I met Oscar. I was assigned to a field where he was working, and we started joking with each other, calling each other names, and it didn’t take long before we got together. And so I took up with another man after telling myself that I was completely through with men. I certainly wasn’t out looking to find another man. But it was a good arrangement at first, and I wound up living with Oscar for 14 years. I had nine pregnancies with him. But I am still alone and single...
‘I never much liked being a “wife”,
but I loved being pregnant...
I had 15 pregnancies, and if I hadn’t got so
disgusted with men I would have had 15 more.’
‘Look, I won’t speak badly about Oscar. He treated me and the children well at first. He didn’t drink and he was faithful to me. He never abused me or the children. At first we lived in a little mud hut near the top of the Alto do Cruzeiro. After a few years Antonieta helped us to get a good COHAB (state-subsidized) house close to hers on the Alto de Independência. Those were good times for us. They were never better, and we might have been living there still if Oscar hadn’t gotten it into his head to try making an even better life for us in São Paulo. Tia and Mama and Antonieta tried to talk us out of it, but Oscar was determined. He had a brother living in São Paulo, and his brother sent word for us to come and join him there. His brother said that there was good work at high wages and a better place to live and bring up our children. He said that we could make our way in São Paulo and that it was where everything was happening. Bom Jesus was a backward place, a place for motatos. The future, he said, was in São Paulo.
‘So against everyone’s objections we sold our COHAB house and we took up a collection for our bus fare. But what misery lay waiting for us in São Paulo! We had been completely deceived by Oscar’s brother. We arrived exhausted and hungry after days riding the bus, only to find that his brother lived in a filthy, crowded hovel far, far outside the city. His neighborhood was an ugly and violent shantytown. The local police were killing people at liberty. There was no protection for the poor. The buses into the city were crowded and dangerous. There was no room for us to live and no work to be found. The children became sick with fevers and ’flus. I thought we would all die of cold. At night our teeth rattled in our heads from such cold that I never knew existed in this world, let alone in our Brazil.
‘I started to lose my mind. I suffered from a nervous attack that almost cost me my life. I finally had to send word to Mama begging her to forgive me and asking her to arrange the money for a return bus fare, or else we would be dead within the month. Tonieta sent the money for me and the children. After I came home, Oscar soon followed me. We tried to put our life back together again on the Alto do Cruzeiro, but it was never the same. We had lost so much, and neither one of us had the energy to start over again. Oscar started to drink, and everything began to go downhill. He took up with another woman. Before long Oscar had two families on the Alto do Cruzeiro...
‘This continued for several years, with each of us complaining about the other woman and insisting he let one or the other go. And finally he did. On the night of São João in 1986, the night of the barn fires and square dances, Oscar came home early and in a bad mood. He ordered me to pack up his belongings in a satchel because he was finally leaving me for his other woman. Then he took his pick of the children, our two healthy sons, to help him in the fields and our beautiful, fat Patricia. He left me with the rest, the two, worthless older girls, Xoxa and Pelzinha, Carolina, the skinny middle girl and Mercea, my hopeless last born, who has never been well a day in her life.
‘I became hysterical and I yelled: “Why are you doing this to me now?”. He said to my face: “Because you have turned into a caroa, a toothless old hag. You are used up, and you’re not good for anything anymore.” I was so revolted by him and by what he did to me that I began to take it out on the children. I told them I hated them because they were his and that looking at their faces reminded me of the abuse I had suffered at his hands. But the more I abused the children, the more they stuck fast to me.
‘There are times, Nancí, when I think I can’t stand it anymore. I tell the children: “If you bother me, if you ask me for one more thing that I can’t possibly give you, I am going to pack up your clothes in a tight little bundle and send you off to live with your papa and his other woman. Let him take care of the whole lot of you!” But they are so attached to me. The little one never lets me out of her sight. Mercea hangs onto my skirts and she cries whenever I leave the house. I can’t take a step without her. What kind of children are these, so afraid to move without their mama? So I yell at them to toughen them up. I say, “Hell, you are eating me up alive! When I die they are going to have to make me a very large coffin so I can carry you all along with me!”
“What does the future hold? My life will be more of the same. My only fear is that I will die a pauper on the streets, neglected and abandoned à míngua, with no one to bury me. That would be a fitting end to the life of Biu!’
The tears had begun to form at the corner of Biu’s eyes. But just as suddenly as they came, Biu banished them away. She roughly wiped her eyes with her charcoal-sooted hands, making herself look for all the world like a coal miner. Reflecting suddenly on the days of carnaval ahead, Biu jumped up, hitched up her skirt and showed the crowd of small children gathered in front of her door a lively frevo step. Soon her antics – sticking out her tongue, shaking her behind, pushing her false teeth out of her mouth – had her children splitting their sides with laugfhter. She gave me a wide and mischievous grin.
In concluding the account of her life history, Biu refused to let it end on a sorrowful or desperate note. She came close up to my face, so close I could smell the faint scent of dried fish and celantro, as salty and bitter as tears. But Biu would not have it that way.
‘Can I argue with God for the state I’m in?
No! So I’ll dance and I’ll jump and I’ll play carnaval !’
‘No, Nancí, I won’t cry,’ she said. ‘And I won’t waste my life thinking about it from morning to night. My life is hard enough. One husband hung himself and another walked out on me. I work hard all day in the cane fields. What good would it do me to lie awake at night crying about my fate? Can I argue with God for the state I’m in? No! So I’ll dance and I’ll jump and I’ll play carnaval! And yes, I’ll laugh, and people will wonder at a pobre like me who can have such a good time. But if I don’t enjoy myself, if I can’t amuse myself a little bit, well, then, I would rather be dead.’
The madness of mingau
When I first lived on the Alto 25 years ago the only available powdered milk was supplied freely under the US Food For Peace program. These handouts, which I myself helped to distribute, eventually fostered a powdered-milk dependency which Nestlé and other companies later took advantage of when free distribution ended.
Today it would take a miracle to dislodge the practice of artificial infant feeding. The weekly purchase of powdered babymilk is a chronic anxiety on the Alto. It is the single most expensive food purchase made by young families and consumes about a fifth of their weekly income. In the central supermercado in Bom Jesus the display of infant formula took up a full aisle, more than any other food product.
Alto mothers still use the breast as an initial supplement to mingau, which is made of such thick consistency that it is often finger-fed the newborn. (Maternal colostrum is rejected as ‘dirty’ and is manually extracted and thrown away.) Their stomachs full of mingau, it is not surprising that so many infants spurn the breast when it is offered. In a few days mother’s milk fails as infants are not put to the breast often enough to build up the milk supply. And women then explain they are unable to breast-feed because of insufficient milk.
If they want to survive at all the mothers of the Alto must work. In the transition from semi-subsistence peasants to wage laborers food becomes a commodity to be purchased rather than grown on one’s rented garden plot. So infant food is easily seen as a pre-packaged commodity as well. In the desperate situation in which many Alto women find themselves, bottle-feeding is really the only possible ‘choice’.
What has been lost through the commercialization of infant feeding is the whole ‘culture’ of breast-feeding. Breast milk is a powerful metaphor speaking to the scarcity and bitterness of their own lives. ‘If we feed them,’ said one woman, ‘they would make us sick and skinny and old.’
The perceived inability to breast-feed reinforces these young women’s already deeply eroded sense of self-worth and self-sufficiency. What has been taken from them is nothing less than their belief in the ability to give.