issue 254 - April 1994
Foot of the factory,
foot of the cane
I have seen death without weeping.
The destiny of the Northeast is death.
The cattle they kill,
but to the people they do something worse.
Geraldo Vandre, Diaspora
All photos on this page: Nancy Scheper-Hughes
The subjects treated by Nancy Scheper-Hughes are not for the faint of
heart. Introducing her account of everyday life and death in Brazil’s
Northeast she explains how and why she faced up to them.
There was an artist living on our block on South Third Street in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. He lived in a basement apartment, the kind below street level with iron bars across the windows, so that when you looked out all you could see were amputated legs and feet scurrying across pavement. We didn’t have a clue that the funny little man – Morris Kish was his name – was anything at all until he invited several neighbors to a ‘showing’ in his flat. We children sat together, in the front, on straight-backed kitchen chairs, half expecting we would have to suppress gales of laughter. For what could Morris Kish ever think to paint?
I remember quickly becoming lost in a swirl of colors, vivid impressions and impish magic. He showed us what we never thought to see in the rundown, workaday world of Williamsburg. But what I remember most of all in those huge surprise canvasses were the men of Berry Street, South First and South Second converging on the front gates of the black monster that dominated our landscape, which we knew only as the ‘Sugar House’.
Those of us who grew up at the foot of the factory all responded to the movements of the beast. We woke to its shrill whistles. Its humming and clangings were a permanent backdrop to all our conversations. We breathed its foul fumes. Finally we went to bed to the sound of foghorns guiding ships and their precious cargo into its docks.
It is no coincidence that my anthropology finally brought me ‘home’ to Northeastern Brazil, to those verdant but cloying fields of sugarcane (more akin, Claude Levi-Strauss was to write, to ‘open-air factories, than to a landscape’) to work with people who invariably describe themselves as having grown up ‘at the foot’ of the cane.
Bom Jesus da Mata is a pseudonym, although the Alto do Cruzeiro is not. At first sight it appears to be a typical ‘developing’ town in an aggressively self-conscious modernizing nation. Its residents take pride in its dynamic rhythms, exaggerated by the constant din from trucks and public speakers tuned to the municipal radio station. Until the 1970s the public speaker system was turned on at 5.30 am and went off precisely at 9 pm with the playing of ‘Silent Night’, which during the military years signaled the start of curfew. Lights went out on the main street, and kerosene lamps were lit on the three hillside Altos, giving the town its nickname, ‘the mountain princess’. The candlelit Altos (hills or heights) were the jewels of the crown, and from a safe distance one could hardly fault that lilting description.
Bom Jesus has all the trappings of modernity. Its single, long main street was newly paved in 1989, replacing its more picturesque cobblestones, and cars, trucks and motorbikes whiz by in disdainful contempt of pedestrians. Some of those on foot carry heavy or painful cargoes in their arms, across their shoulders, or on their heads: a dozen or more hammocks neatly folded and precariously balanced; a TV set to be delivered to an elegant home; fiera baskets filled with sweet manioc, mangoes and bananas; a deathly sick infant carefully wrapped and hidden in stone-washed sugar sacking.
The candlelit Altos were the jewels
of the crown, and from a safe
distance one could hardly fault
that lilting description.
If one veers off the main street and takes the dusty, sometimes muddy footpaths that criss-cross the town the images of modernity vanish. One is immediately plunged into another world. If one descends into the dried-fish market or into the small zona (the red light district), or if one climbs the Altos, the trucks and cars give way to horses, donkeys and stray goats. At night on each of the hillside Altos the entertainment is provided not by televisions and stereos but by African circle dances and bawdy troubadours, called repentista singers, whose witty verses tumble the mighty and exalt the lowly and the weak.
Here we enter a rural world, an extension into the city of the mata – the country, the woods, the forest. The people who have come to reside in the hillside crevices of Bom Jesus look very different from the bronzed Europeans who are their bosses. Their faces are browner; their bodies are smaller and slighter. One can see both the Amerindian and the African in their eyes, cheekbones, hair and skin, although it is the African that predominates.
I first lived and worked in the Alto do Cruzeiro from 1964 through to the end of 1966. My experience of this small and tormented community now spans a quarter of a century. My story begins in a specific relationship to the community, one generally thought of today in critical and enlightened anthropological circles as something of a stigma, just one step removed, perhaps, from a Christian missionary: I was a 20-year-old public health/community development worker with the Peace Corps. Ours was the first group sent into the state of Pernambuco. We arrived on the coat-tails of a ‘bloodless’ and ‘peaceful’ military coup in the spring of 1964 that turned out to be not so bloodless or blameless as time wore on.
The 16-year hiatus between the time I left Bom Jesus at the close of 1966 and my initial return in 1982 meant that all of us had changed, some almost unrecognizably so. Meanwhile I, Dona Nancí, was now both a mother and an anthropologist.
The original – and in many respects still the central – thesis of my research and of this story is love and death in the Alto do Cruzeiro, specifically mother love and child death. It is about the culture of scarcity, both material and psychological.
As a woman and a feminist – although not a conventional one – I am drawn (I won’t say ‘naturally’) to the experience of women. Mothers and children dominate these pages just as they dominate Alto life. So I return again and again to the lives of Lordes, Biu, Antonieta and their neighbors on the Alto do Cruzeiro, Northeast Brazil, to illustrate in a graphic way the consequences of hunger, death, abandonment and loss on ways of thinking, feeling, acting and being in the world.
Foot of the factory, foot of the cane. We are all implicated, as workers and as consumers, in the vicious sugar cycle and the ‘deadly misery’ it leaves in its wake. As a child of the Williamsburg Eastern European (later Puerto Rican) slum, I was marked by the image of the Sugar House. In writing about the cane cutters and their families of Bom Jesus da Mata I am also reaching out to touch the fading images of those other sugar workers whose faces I remember, as it turns out, only in the impressionistic paintings of Morris Kish.
We are all implicated, as workers
and as consumers, in the vicious
sugar cycle and the ‘deadly misery’
it leaves in its wake.
These are no ordinary lives that I am about to describe. Rather, they are short, violent and hungry lives. I am offering a glimpse into Nordestino society through a glass darkly. It entails a descent into a Brazilian heart of darkness that touches on some of our worst fears about ‘human nature’ and about mothers and infants in particular.
You may well experience a sense of indignation: ‘Why am I being served this?’ Death is never an easy topic, not for science, not for art. But lest we forget: reading, reflecting, writing are as nothing in comparison with the cost to those who have lived the stories told here. And these lives, these faces, although pained and as fleeting as photos, have also been touched with beauty and grace.
This special report appeared in the daily life in n.e. brazil: death without weeping issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.