Note: photos here are scans or photographs of the original film photos.
Children. Kids perpetually followed us everywhere through town in Pirabas, and when the camera was out snapping photos, hordes of them would come out of the woodwork, crowding in front of the lens. One afternoon Paula and I took a stroll down a path past some grass huts on stilts into a small, empty, open field. Two little boys were hanging around us and we snapped their picture. That sent out the invisible beacon that only the children could see, and within no more than two minutes, twenty some kids were suddenly around us.
A guy in his late teens came by then with a big snake draped around his neck. He was walking right toward us, and Paula and I were a bit freaked, but I have learned that the worst thing you can do around a boy with some creepy critter is to act or even look scared. So we feigned interest and he showed us his snake. Much to our relief, it was dead. He had taken the fangs out, and the mouth still dripped blood. He showed it to us proudly, and we touched it and said it was very nice. Then he did just exactly what I dreaded he would do to us to the little kids all gathered around: He flung the snake at them and they all scattered, screaming.
As we interviewed a young mother sitting outside her tiny house with an infant in her arms, little barefoot boys ran up and down the empty dirt road with small, white kites trailing after them. They were in the rough shape of diamonds and obviously put together by small hands. I had a conversation with two little boys. I drew maps in the dirt to show them where the U.S. was in relation to Brazil, and where England was, as they wanted to know where our gregarious volunteer, George, was from. The boys kept pointing to my necklaces, but I couldn’t figure out what was so interesting about them. I suspect, though, that it was something to do with the fact that I told them I wasn’t Catholic, but I had a Saint Christopher hanging around my neck. It was difficult to explain to them that it had been my great-aunt’s and I only wore it for the good luck I believed it was infused with by virtue of being my aunt’s who had looked so kindly after me. I also had an ankh hanging from another necklace that I think they thought was a cross, and again my meager Portuguese wasn’t enough to explain the Egyptian symbol.
As we traveled up the road to another young couple’s house, the little boys all followed loyally and grew in number. They pointed to things along the road and taught me the words for them in Portuguese and asked how to say them in English. One little boy picked a flower for me, smiling gleefully as I stuck it behind my ear. And I pondered their destinies in their impoverished town, wondered how they’d feed their kids and buy them costumes, how confident they’d sound when they smoothed their wives’ hair and told them everything would be all right. Would they ever wonder if they were living in the right life? If maybe there was a mistake and they had been born into the wrong world? Would they ever seek out the jungle that was their heritage?
[The reference to costumes above I posted a Tuesday Tale about this. Please see this post to see the lovely costumes inside one of my favorite homes we visited HERE.]
Maria and friends. Maria lived next door to us with her parents, her boyfriend, and the daughter they’d had out of wedlock. Three-year old Jessica would scamper between our legs and bounce her head of perfect ringlets up and down the patio chasing after her two kittens, Florinda and Matteo. Jessica brought her two kittens over to us each day for us to play with them. This also had the coincidental effect of showers of affection being rained over Jessica, who was about the cutest little girl a person could imagine.
We first met Maria and her family through giving them our formal interview. They immediately took us on as neighbors and friends. We had to shoo our chickens out of their house on occasion. We spent a fair amount of time on their patio, as it was furnished with some plastic tables and chairs and a mini pool table. They were equipped to sell bottles of beer to anyone who asked for it, as people often did when they used the coin-operated pool table, which was there for public use. (I don't know if it’s correct to say they were licensed to sell beer, because I don’t know if any license was actually required.)
Maria had several friends who were regularly over at her house, keeping her company while she washed mounds of dishes in a sink outside the house. I don’t know where such huge piles of dishes came from unless they were feeding more people than the five family members who lived there. But Maria seemed to perpetually have her arms plunged into the deep sink, up to her elbows in cold water and soap suds.
The girls were keenly interested in the women volunteers. Interested in our clothes and hair, and they watched us talk with the same lightly veiled fascination that I watched them talk, speaking mutually unintelligible languages until antics of charades were thrown in, until Paula brought out her nail polish and painted their nails, or we combed through their long hair. Jane, in particular, saw our group with girlish admiration. She brought to us a little scrapbook she’d made and asked us to sign it. She and her girlfriends were all in high school together, but they were different ages, from 17 to late 20s.
In Pirabas, and all of rural Brazil, nobody is mandated to go to school, and it appears that a lot of children don’t. The government pays for books for students through the eighth grade, but then the students have to buy their own books if they want to continue on through high school. (This was the case in 2000, anyway. Quite a while ago by now; things may have changed but I'm posting my documentation of that time.) So education was often a sporadic affair, particularly high school education, with enrollment based on an individual's motivations, time, and finances.
But even a completed high school education in a rural system is a pale education. The schools in Pirabas were run in three three-hour shifts—morning (elementary), afternoon, and the night shift went from 8pm to 11pm (high school). So the students only got three hours of schooling a day. And during those three hours, they had very little augmentation of their books. Our volunteer crew was given a tour of one of the schools, and we found the classrooms virtually bare save for the chairs. There are no teaching aids except a chalk board, and a few rooms had a VCR and a television screen. One of the teachers made the comment that if one student checks a book out from the school library, it appears to be empty. We didn’t get to see the library, but I pictured shelves like those in the Office of Social Services. If a kid from a town like Pirabas wants to go to college, the only prayer he has is after graduating high school, taking a two-year long college prep class in the city, wherever the university is. The teachers themselves are a generous lot, working at a labor of love, because sometimes many months go by before they are paid anything.
In our interviews almost everyone said they thought education was important. But I looked at their pathetic education system and wondered why they didn’t try to improve it. We asked some people about this, but received very vague answers with sighs and downcast eyes, hands flicking through the air above their heads as though the situation were hopeless. They said simply that the government won’t help them.
Most people we interviewed, when asked a series of questions about trust, told us they trusted their families, but about half of the people didn’t trust their neighbors, and a surprising number of young people didn’t trust their friends. While practically no one trusted the local government, generally stated as “don’t trust at all,” about half of the people trusted the state and/or federal government. I wondered how anyone could feel trust in the federal government when it wouldn’t even help them achieve a decent education. Everything I read about Brazil before going there talked about how the social structure is still modeled on a slavery-based society and that, while slavery is officially abolished, the society still operates in such a distinct and widely separated class system so as to perpetuate a lower class. I originally thought that seemed so insidious as to be unlikely, but now I can understand such statements. They’re now ruled by a government that doesn’t respect their ancient way of life and yet won’t help them succeed in living a new one.
There is evidence everywhere that rural Brazilians—who, in the northeast where Pirabas lies, are mostly mixed blood of native heritage and descendants of slaves—are forgotten or purposefully overlooked by the government. When it controlled the phone lines in the rural areas, there was one single phone in the town of Pirabas, and people waited in line for hours to use it. In about 1997 the phone system was taken over by a private corporation and in 2000 there was a phone every several blocks (although no phone lines into private households). One look at the neglected roads through Pirabas will provide this evidence as well.
So here are people whose country-wide genetic heritage is shaped from the ancient race of Amazonian tribes, from transplanted African slaves, and from the European race the Portuguese took their stock from. But these rural folks are shedding two of their ancestries in a bid to act as though they are the third, the one that’s trying to forget and overlook them. I asked one of the Social Services women if people in the village knew anything of their tribal heritage, what their Amazonian roots were. She said no, though these roots are so relatively near to them. Certainly near geographically, and even quite so temporally. This is the part of the people I really hoped to know, but they don’t know it themselves. I was profoundly disappointed. The villagers were wearing drab clothes and building their houses to look like the rest of the Westernized world. They were frantically acquiring televisions as if they are the single most important item a person need own. People who say they can’t afford to go to school are sitting in their shacks in the evenings watching television. Only a single handful of people, after two weeks of interviewing, didn’t have a television in their home.
The Cemetery House. One day we walked down a dirt road lined with small, thatch-roofed shacks on stilts, built just inches away from each other. Fishing nets canvassed the ground before them. We talked to a woman who had buried one of her children under her house. She said she couldn’t afford a cemetery plot. There were two low, wooden stools and one shelf for furniture inside the tiny shack, and yet, sitting on the shelf was a small television. It continually amazed me how even the most poverty-stricken people had somehow scraped up enough for a television with satellite reception. I felt guilty for being a member of the society that perpetuated the culture of television. Surely this family’s money could be better spent.
The woman’s other children played in the dirt beneath the stilted house on top of their sister’s decaying corpse. Surely this rural village, once rich in music and dancing culture, could rise above the insidious pull of the television. Surely they did not want to be homogenized by soap operas and talk shows and sitcoms. I was angry at them for not being able to resist, for succumbing. I wanted to shake the woman by the shoulders. “Didn’t the corpse smell?” I wanted to ask her. The houses on that road were on stilts because the water of high tide and storms regularly crawled onto the road and sloshed beneath the houses. I thought the rest of the day of that little girl buried, unmarked, in the dirt, of the water seeping in all around her, the hot, stale air that would soak up her scent. Buried like a pet in the backyard, her siblings sitting cross-legged on top of her, tossing a ball between them.
Across the road, a family was taking a “shower” outside. I had seen several houses with platforms in their yard and I wondered what they were for. These people stood on a small cement platform, the whole family white and sudsy with soap, the small children naked, the adults in shorts and t-shirt. The father walked back and forth between the platform and a well in the corner of their yard, pouring buckets of water over them until the soap disappeared. Underwear of all sizes and colors was impaled on the low fence posts surrounding their yard, drying in the sun.
I think of all the interviews we conducted this is the one that sticks with me the most. It's not like the woman seemed callous and blithe to the bizarre situation, but I just couldn't wrap my head around her priorities. There is a beautiful cemetery right in town. If I were her, I'd be haunted by the ghost of my daughter every day while I watched television.