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Retratos falados (Composite sketches)
People from here, there and everywhere
First came the shock. From the sea, immense ships arrived, ripping through the sargassum and carrying people as strange as they were splendid. They were men, all of them, and they had faces covered in hair and pale skin. They brought with them stenches and infections, due to their long months on the ocean, but they also brought beautiful and unsual things like combs, mirrors and machetes. For a moment, the natives thought that such people could only be sorts of gods. For their part, the newcomers, while still on the water, saw the beach fill up with crimson, gleaming people, bereft of all clothing, shame and sin. They lived in the forest and from the forest they took everything that was provided them, whether it be plump fruits or the succulent flesh of the animals they hit with arrows. It seemed like paradise, such was the pleasure and innocence of the pagan lives they led. For a moment, someone thought they had to be angels.
But angels they weren’t, as was soon seen, since they were also given to war and, even worse, consumed human flesh. At the same time, they represented a serious hindrance to any advancement upon that recently-discovered land and all that it contained of value. The initial fright having passed, friction set in. The ones from here employed themselves in staying alive or free, armed with sharp and blunt objects as well as the forest which served them well with a stronghold of vegetation, permeable only by those who could undertsand it. The ones from there, though less in number, had brought arquebuses, epidemics and Jesuíts. Those who didn’t die by the gun succumbed to smallpox. And the ones who survived spent their lives carrying logs of brazilwood or lost their souls to the cross of the missionaries.
But there was also the peace that came with sleeping in the hammocks. While, at the ports, Indian women offered themselves to the white men in exchange for gifts, to later in their huts present themselves to them in hopes of becoming pregnant – for it was better to be the mother of a mameluco than nothing at all. With no white women to marry, the men from there also stripped themselves of clothes and guilt, moved by the dual desire to sate the flesh and populate the land. Some of them came to build families, with many wives and numerous children, tied to entire villages by family bonds.
Along the entire coast, the wombs of savages bore new people. They were a diverse breed, neither from here nor from there. They didn’t recognize themselves in their mother, as Indian mothers were rejected, nor did they enjoy the respect of their father, as he saw them as impure. To turn them into something recognizable, the priests made efforts to make them Christian, at least. When they weren’t saying mass, however, they themselves also became a new race, by farming the land, as there would be no such thing as destiny without sustenance.
In the beginning, they lived as the people here did, since it was the only life that the rustic land permitted. With the people of their mothers, they learned to raise corn, peel manioc, bathe in rivers, sleep in hammocks, weave baskets and speak Tupi. They also had the eyes, ears and nostrils of savages, sharpened by the forest and, while still children, they placed the flags that enlarged the colony’s borders in the hunt for gold and new Indians to enslave. From their fathers, they inherited wisdom that came from beyond the seas, which greatly helped them to tame the land and the pagans: they ground corn in mills, cooked in metal pans, extracted meat and milk from live stock and forged iron in factories into axes, hoes, knives and machetes. It also didn’t take long for them to trade the straw of their huts for adobe and stucco. And, in a short time, their settlements became villages.
NEW PEOPLE, NEW BACKLANDS
This is how the first century was. Mamelucos thrived wherever there was brazilwood to chop down or savages to capture. And so it went in the sweltering, fertile lands of the northeast, but there, where sugar plantations wreaked havoc on the black soil earth, this new people proved essential. They also came from overseas, but from other, hotter lands and as such better endured the forced labor of the sugar mills. There, no peace was to be found, but there was race-mixing and the slave quarters were breeding grounds for new peoples. Indian mothers and their mameluco-producing uteruses were added to African ones, procreators of mulattos; together they made up the incubator in which the first Portuguese seeds were germinated.
At the mills, mixed-race children were born slaves and they died as such, but not before untying the knots which bound them to their original tribes. As they couldn’t understand their peers, equal in skin but different in speech, they learned the Portuguese of their overseers. When free, they mixed with mamelucos and transformed into Indians as well, since the best means for sustenance in that new land were learned from the natives. They also turned into Christians, but stored in their souls memories of the ancient divinities imported on the slave ships. With them, they reinvented what remained of Africa in their yards.
And when the coastal region was no longer enough, they had to take custody of the backlands. In the inland northeast, far from the sugar plantations, lived stout and fierce Indians which, not being Tupis, were called Tapuias. When they could no longer resist, these natives ended up mixing with the mamelucos who occupied the caatinga in search of pastures for livestock. Wherever cattle trod, roads opened up. Where they rested, villages were born. And in this way vast plots were carved into the backlands in service of the mills which they supplied with meat, leather and work bulls. There, men became either cowboys or lords: some dressed in leather for the labor, others in charge, holding archaic power over a nearly feudal operation. Both of them rangers, comrades in the drought and accomplices in that wilderness which made them strong before anything else.
In the south, beyond the Serra do Mar, mamelucos from São Paulo departed for other backlands. Since they had no sugarcane nor pastures, they made their professions from virgin forests, territories and natives. They sought them at missions, already tamed by the cross, or in their tribes, still heathen, and for this, they ventured to the furthest distances they could. They spoke Tupi and in Tupi they named the mountains and rivers which they came across. If they stumbled onto gold or diamonds along the way, even better. And that’s how it happened: from the ravines of the Rio das Velhas where the first deposits were spotted, mining settlements multiplied. So many that the most glorious civilization in this land sprouted many miles from the coast.
There, backlanders and Paulistas came together, some from the north, herding cattle, others from the south, cutting through the jungle. Since they got there first, they made themselves owners of the lands, but not without a struggle. White people also came, both those already here and others who came later, fevered and adventurous, retracing their grandparents’ steps. And there were blacks as well, lots of them, imported from local sugar plantations and distant tribes. The locals, speaking the imperial language, gave the deposits names in Portuguese, which overtook Tupi except in matters of topography. In the maelstrom of the colony, they all came together: blacks, mulattos, whites, savages and rangers. They learned from each other’s wisdom and were enriched with the most diverse colors via makeshift beds. As they were no longer a single thing, they began to see themselves as one people.
FROM THE INITIAL KNOT TO THE FINAL AMALGAM
Minas was the knot that first bound Brazil together. People from all parts arrived and nearly the entire colony seemed bent on feeding on or gathering strength from the riches that poured forth from mining deposits. This included the extreme south which, previously separated from the national destiny, was now attached to the center and north via an extensive network of muleteer roads. There, in the southern pastures, other mxtures colored the country people of Castilian and Guarani blood, who, having no greater resources to extract from the infertile flatlands, skilled themselves in taming the wild live stock left by the Jesuits. The Paulistas arrived there as well: they herded cattle, employed the Gaúchos and connected the plains to the mines and the rest of the colony on the backs of mules, horses and bulls.
When the gold in the mines ran out, some stayed there, mixed and miserable, while other repopulated the valleys of the south. They all returned to the mameluco life, which was all they knew, but now speaking Portuguese and imbued with black genes. Wherever they settled, they dedicated themselves to clearing land in the mountains and the meadows to make room for farming and pastures for live stock. They turned themselves into “caipiras ” – a Tupi word which means “cutters of forest” – and, in order to overcome the hardships imposed by the daily labor, reaffirmed their Christianity. They erected villages, churches and chapels named after the most varied saints and there they found not only a common faith but also the ties that bound them to one another. At the parties and churchyards, they became even more “caipira.”
And then there was the north. Via the mouth of the Amazon, the Portuguese ventured into the jungle and navigated streams in search of cacao, vanilla, pepper, nuts and whatever else they took to calling “the drugs of the backlands.” For this purpose, the natives proved valuable, serving as feet, hands and eyes for all that they knew. There, the whites also intermixed; they made themselves into rangers, as did the savages, via the civilizing efforts. Regardless of what tribe they came from, in captivity they were muddled together and also learned to pray as Christians and speak Tupi – not their Tupi, but that of the mamelucos, the general language of possession and conversion. The original Indians, the ones from there, fled to the upper reaches, but the rangers arrived there as well, though a bit late, seeking the rubber trees. With them came the backlanders, fleeing the droughts, until they reached the frontiers. And there, they also took on a ranger lifestyle: they learned to farm the land in between the rise and fall of the rivers, to live in stilted houses, to hunt with bows and arrows and to fish with spears.
At that point, there was almost no one left, throughout the entire territory, who knew of their ancestry. They were all from that place, grandchildren of uncertain grandparents, who had only a vague reminiscence of origin. Not white, not black, not Indians, and yet all of these at once. Afterwards, new whites came, speaking various languages, destined to settle across the farms of São Paulo and the valleys of the south. They brought with them unheard-of knowledge which would contribute to the nation’s progress and some of them would replicate the lifestyles of their homelands in the tropics. It’s true that they whitened the population, but many of them also mixed in. And this is how they proceeded, as was the destiny of this people: removed from their primary points of origin to convert into that final amalgam, the bridge between what never was and what perhaps will be. Just Brazilians, nothing else.