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The Cleansing Fire


new internationalist
issue 254 - April 1994

The cleansing fire
Photo: Nancy Scheper-Hughes

The cleansing fire
Existence, not resistance, is celebrated by the people
of the Alto do Cruzeiro. But dreams of Utopia have not been
abandoned and there are breaches in the culture of silence.

Like others in Northeast Brazil the people of the Alto remain skeptical of radical solutions to their problems. And not without cause. They have suffered a long history of popular uprisings, armed struggles, messianic movements, anarchist fantasies and Peasant Leagues – all of them crushed. In addition, two decades of military government have driven the point home. Now, for the most part, people can be depended on to police, silence and check themselves.

Consequently, they do their best to survive in the cracks and crevices of daily life in Bom Jesus da Mata. ‘Silence is protection,’ my friends on the Alto are wont to say. ‘Whoever says nothing has nothing to fear.’ Even community leaders often counsel each other to ‘take the path of least resistance’ when they confront opposition from the local élite to their modest plans for improving the shantytown.

The traveling repentista singers in the marketplace keep alive the memory of heroic bandits, rebel priests and defiant cowhands of the Northeast. But even as they sing the praises of traditional folk heroes, the repentistas usually strike a note of caution, warning against acts of open defiance.

The people are influenced by the weight of their own history. They assume human nature is flawed, and they are not surprised when their own leaders turn against them if the rewards for doing so are great enough. ‘In the end,’ former Peasant League activist Zé de Mello told me sadly, ‘our heroes always desert us.’

For the most part Alto residents are patient, long-suffering and non-violent. They are gentle in the face of the aggression of local bosses, with their hired thugs and gunmen. However, their nonviolence and reluctance to challenge the powerful do not mean they passively accept the situation in which they are trapped. Though there is much that separates them, the poor are still united by a common destiny and a shared social identity.

Their street parties and spontaneous gatherings are the celebrations of a collective social body. And the people of the Alto make merry as often as they can: the more festas the better. All it takes on a lazy Sunday afternoon is a transistor radio, a few bottles of Coca-Cola, a daub of cologne and one’s sandals kicked off, all the better to dance.

They also understand and freely comment on the evils of the local political economy, using the traditional folk-Catholic idiom of the seven deadly sins. Little escapes their devastating, running critique of human culpability, in particular the greed, pride, lust and sloth of their political bosses and of the planter class. It is a tradition that has been greatly expanded in the work of ‘liberation theology’ and its humanistic Marxism.

Little escapes their devastating,
running critique of human culpability.

When Padre Agostino Leal arrived in Bom Jesus in 1981 he brought with him this new interpretation of the Gospel. First he closed the modern chapel in the Franciscan convent which had been used by the wealthy of Bom Jesus for private prayer and exclusive liturgies. All masses were made public and held in the dilapidated main church, Our Lady of Sorrows. And all parishioners were expected to share the same pews.

The Mass was transformed too: the liturgy was in the simple dialect and idiom of the rural workers. Hymns were addressed to ‘Our Lady of the Oppressed’ and ‘Our Lord of the Workers’. The Offertory and Thanksgiving prayers asked for clean water, fair wages, food to fill hungry stomachs and rain for the traditional squatters’ gardens.

This new ‘theology of the poor’ has also brought ‘workers’ Masses’ and ‘liberation missions’. On the last night of one such mission the priest led a procession to an empty field for a celebratory bonfire, the roaring fire that was to cleanse the community of its social ills. Each person was to bring a stick of dried sugarcane, with each stick to represent a social ill – hunger, sickness, illiteracy, exploitation, paternalism, racism.

That night, one by one, the people of the Alto came forward, each tossing a stick into the fire, some cursing the sugar bosses and the mill managers. Others came forward to throw half-used bottles of medicine into the flames, saying they had been fooled by the doctors and pharmacists of Bom Jesus. Children burned blank pages of notebooks from local schools where ‘the children of the poor were taught nothing at all’.

‘Who are the chosen people of God?’ asked the priest.

‘We are,’ answered the crowd, ‘the poor and the humble’.

‘Who are the sinners?’

‘The landowners, the mill owners, the plantation owners.’

Today this ‘popular religion’ is one way the poor of Bom Jesus dare to criticize their oppressors and dream of Utopia, a new world where all wrongs will be righted and ‘where the first shall be last and the last shall be first’. In rituals like these the culture of silence begins to be breached and the poor can begin to relearn the everyday practices of personal and, eventually, political freedom.

‘Today, I spoke at the women’s circle in the creche,’ an elderly woman told me proudly. ‘Later I realized it was the first time I had ever spoken out in public. I was always someone who kept quiet and accepted whatever was said. But I learned today that I do have an opinion even though I was raised not to be a person.’

Writing about institutions of fear and domination in the culture of Bom Jesus has been a delicate balancing act. I have tried to acknowledge the destructive signature of poverty and oppression on the individual and the society as a whole. But I’ve also tried to underline the creative and often contradictory means the people of the Alto use to stay alive – even to thrive – with their wit and their wits intact. The goal of the poor of the Alto do Cruzeiro is not resistance but simply existence. And in the context of these besieged lives I find human resilience enough to celebrate with them, joyfully and hopefully, if always tentatively.

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