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The situation for women in Brazil has improved greatly since I grew up there. But, the principle stories included in this chapter are representative of the poor status for women during the time I was growing up. Women in rural areas suffered even more than those in urban areas. It is tough growing up a woman in such a macho culture!
A long shack with a kitchen in the middle and one bedroom on each side became our home for one year while Papai made bricks and tiles in this new place. Thick trees and bushes surrounded that area. Minha Santa did all the heavy work
since our mother was in the last months of a later in life pregnancy. My chore was to wash the dishes in a creek by a forest. I enjoyed that job. Bare faced curassows came to eat the leftover food I threw at the edge of the brook for them. They looked like hens and walked in pairs. Their feathers were the color of night. Frequently, a group of long-tailed monkeys appeared, jumping playfully from branch to branch, hanging by their tails and making faces at me. I considered myself honored by these private shows.
One afternoon, while doing my task, I talked with Benice, a granddaughter of my
stepfather. Her family had also come to work in the brickyard.
Benice said, “You know, Senhor Queiroz asked my father to ask Aunt Crioula if she
wants to marry him.”
“That short guy?” I asked.
“I doubt that Crioula wants to marry him. He’s too old for her. Besides, she likes
Jairo.” Jairo was one of the sons of the farmer, in whose land we were living.
“Every Saturday night he comes to see her,” I said.
Benice added, “I heard when my father spoke to Aunt Crioula. She laughed out loud and said: ‘Me, marry Mr. Queiroz! You’re crazy, Juca. He’s much older than I am and he’s not a widower; he’s a separated man. If he finds a woman who wants him, she has to agree to live with him without marriage.’ Divorce was not legal in Brazil until the 70s. My aunt continued, ‘Besides, Dona Florinda wants me as their helper at the farm. Now that their two older daughters are married, and it is the season to make brown sugar, she needs help.’ My mother replied, ‘What you want is to be near Jairo. But remember, I’m telling you, rich farmers don’t marry poor girls. Even if Jairo wanted to, his father wouldn’t let him.’ Aunt Crioula answered laughing, ‘Don’t worry, sister.’”
Weeks later, Benice and I went to the farm to play with Zélia, Dona Forinda’s
While we played with our cloth dolls under a mango tree, we put together pieces of
the story that each one of us had heard.
“Is it true that Crioula went to live with Senhor Queiroz?” asked Zélia.
“It is,” I answered.
“Poor Crioula!” Zélia added.
“One day, Zélia, your father, came to our house at dinner time,” I continued.
“When he arrived I noticed something was wrong. He didn’t joke, as he usually does. He called Papai outside to talk. From there he went away. Papai then called my mother for a conversation outside. After that he got his hat and also left. When Papai returned, he brought Crioula with him. She had red eyes and went straight to bed. When I woke up next morning Crioula had all her belongings packed. After a while, Papai arrived with Senhor Queiroz. Senhor Queiroz was mounting one horse and pulling another, and then Crioula went away with him.”
Benice added, “When they passed by our place, Aunt Crioula dismounted and entered the house. Senhor Queiroz stayed on his horse. Aunt Crioula had tears in her eyes while she hugged us goodbye. When she left, my mother started crying and my father said, ‘Crioula is paying for giving in to the temptations of the flesh.’
‘Yah, but Jairo also gave in to the temptations of the flesh and didn’t have to pay for his sins,’ mother argued.
‘But men are different. For men everything is permitted. She was lucky to find
Queiroz – a man who likes her and accepts her as his woman after what happened.’
‘Poor little sister,’ mother said. ‘It is a tragedy to be born a woman.’”
That afternoon, when I came home, my brother David had come for a visit. His jolly personality helped dissipate the sadness of the latest happening.
“Come here, I want to hug you, little sister, who is not really my sister. You are one
of the daughters of our neighbor, Senhor Jeremias. They had too many kids, so they threw you in the canal. You came floating down to our chácara, like Moses. We rescued you and raised you. This is why you are not as blond as the rest of the family.” teased David.
“If I am Senhor Jeremias’ daughter then you are really my brother because you and I have the same tone of skin,” I answered.
“I’m really becoming old,” David said. “My little sister is so big now that she doesn’t cry anymore because of my jokes as she used to. I am married and am going to become a father soon.”
“Is it true, David? When?” My mother asked.
“The baby is due in December.”
“How nice, my son.”
Dinner consisted of rice, beans, fried okra and yucca beef stew that Minha Santa had prepared. While we ate, David continued, “Yes, I am a serious married man, now, and I have to work a lot. I have a plantation of corn and rice. I wonder if you will let me take Doutor to help me out. Will you, mother?”
“Of course! I like the idea. He never accepted his stepfather well. You can be a father to him. He likes you a lot. I am happy for you, David. You married a nice girl, a daughter of a farmer, people we know and trust. Not like your brother Joaquim…” With the back of her hands she dried some sudden tears.
“Oh, mother, you have to accept it and stop suffering. This is not good for my little
brother or sister who is coming soon. Joaquim is happy with Almira. They already have a baby son.”
“A son! I didn’t know the baby was already born.”
“I’m telling you. You have to make peace with Joaquim. Let them bring the grandson for you to meet.”
“Alright, I can forgive Joaquim. He is still young and doesn’t realize the
consequences of what he is doing. But his uncles? They should have known that what they did to Senhor Armando is wrong, and then when they pushed Almira to Joaquim…”
“Mother, senhor Armando also wasn’t a law abiding man, you know that.”
“Yes, but one mistake doesn’t justify another. What morality allowed your brother-in-law and your uncles to call the police to arrest Senhor Armando? Their intention from the beginning was to take the women away from him. What a pity that of all your uncles only your father converted. If they also had converted, their lives would be different. They would keep away from gambling, loose women and confusion.”
The story that my mother referred to started on the land that my father’s father had left as inheritance to his youngest son, Sebastião. Senhor Armando, who had come from another region, had rented the farm.
Everybody knew that Senhor Armando had three women: Zulca, Almira, and Mara. Zulca, more courageous than the others, escaped from him by hiding in the bushes and walking until she arrived in the city, 70 kilometers away. Almira and Mara were left. Almira had five children. Mara none. Two women for a man was not something too weird in that region; my uncles João Ferreira and Lino also had two women. Senhor Armando’s women were sisters; uncle João’s women were also sisters. The scandal was that Senhor Armando’s women lived in the same house.
Aleixo, Sebastião, José (Neném’s husband) and others often spent the weekends
in Armando’s place playing a card game called ‘truco’ and flirting with his women. This situation went on for a while. Finally, after one of those Sundays, Senhor Armando reacted, “I have to end this situation,” he yelled at Almira, who busied herself by the stove making dinner while the young kids hung on her skirt. “I can’t stand being betrayed by you.”
“Betrayed? The betrayed one here is me, and I am not allowed to complain.”
“There you come with excuses and exhibiting an air of innocence. I see very well
when you stay behind Sebastião’s chair, as I instructed you to do, how you enjoy touching Sebastião’s back with your belly.”
“Me? Virgin Mary! What bug bit you today, man? You always asked me to help you
by giving signals of the cards that your adversaries have. You enjoy the easy money that you get from the Ferreiras playing truco. I was only helping you. So then why are you jealous and mad?”
“Shut up!” yelled Senhor Armando.
At that moment Mara entered the kitchen and asked, “What is happening? Why all
“And you, too,” Senhor Armando turned to Mara. “I see Aleixo winking at you.”
“You’re becoming crazy, man. If you continue this way, Almira and I will have to do what Zulca did: run away from you,” answered Mara.
“Run away? You’re going to see what happens if you run away.” Saying this, he took his gun out of his waist, and pointed it at Mara’s face. “If you run away, I’ll kill you.” Almira came up from behind with an iron frying pan and hit him in
the head. He instinctively raised his right hand and contracted his muscles. The bullet hit the ceiling, as he crumpled to the floor. While he was seeing red stars and screaming ugly names, the two women left with the children crying and running after them. They took refuge in Uncle Lino’s house.
This incident created an opportunity for the Ferreiras to take away the women
from Senhor Armando. Aleixo wanted Mara and Sebastião wanted Almira. My brother-in-law went to the city to denounce Armando. The police came the next day to arrest him for bigamy. Handcuffed, he was taken to Quirinópolis and was never heard from again.
Uncle Sebastião’s wife heard that her husband was going to have Almira as his
second woman. “One of us is going to hell,” she said. “Either I kill her or she kills me. No partnership in my marriage. No way!” Uncle Sebastião backed off.
Uncle Aleixo built another house and took Mara over as his second woman. But,
what to do with Almira and her five kids? So they offered my brother Joaquim, who was still single, a house and supplies for a year if he agreed to take her as his woman. He did.
The day David went back with Doutor, mother went into labor and after two days
Jesuíno was born. He was the scrapings of the pan, as his siblings would say, because he was the last one.
Before Jesuino was born, I had enjoyed hiking in the savanna among the scrubby
trees and bushes. On one of these occasions, I met a wolf. Seeing me, it halted and I turned back and ran for my life. After that I always asked Doutor to go with me on my hikes. Now I lost my carefree life roaming the savanna. My protector was gone and I had the responsibility of watching my little brother Jesuíno. Even when Jesuíno slept, I had to stay put. So, I searched in a box of old stuff and found a book that had lost its first pages. Books were rare in our house. I started reading it.
The beginning was difficult. I couldn’t quite understand, but I didn’t give up. I learned from Minha Santa that the book was the New Testament and it was the second part of the Bible. I read about the life of Jesus up to his crucifixion and resurrection. I had so many questions, and I wanted to learn more. I commented to Minha Santa, “Jesus was the son of God and also God. I think that because He was God, He had the power not to suffer pain on the cross.”
“Oh, yes, he suffered. He was God, but He became man and came to earth to die in
our place for our sins, so that if we believe in Him, we have salvation.”
I also remembered my mother’s explanation about accepting Christ as our savior.
Minha Santa’s words then, had an impact on me and I started thinking about the
consequences of sin in the world around us, like the suffering of Almira, Mara, Crioula and mother. Crioula, because of a mistake, had to accept living with a man she didn’t love for the rest of her life. Almira and Mara were enslaved by a tyrant for many years and then manipulated like puppets by other unscrupulous men. My mother almost lost her life in that backlands giving birth to Jesuíno with no medical help. I didn’t know such concepts as social injustice, women’s oppression, illiteracy, the third world, but I noticed many things were wrong, and I plunged into the reading of the New Testament. I didn’t have a sudden conversion. The teachings of the gospel worked on me little by little.