Cleansing Honor with Blood: Masculinity, Violence, and Power in the Backlands of Northeast Brazil, 1845-1889

Cleansing Honor with Blood: Masculinity, Violence, and Power in the Backlands of Northeast Brazil, 1845-1889

Cleansing Honor with Blood: Masculinity, Violence, and Power in the Backlands of Northeast Brazil, 1845-1889

Cleansing Honor with Blood: Masculinity, Violence, and Power in the Backlands of Northeast Brazil, 1845-1889

Synopsis

This book offers a critical reinterpretation of male violence, patriarchy, and machismo in rural Latin America. It focuses on the lives of lower-class men and women, known as sertanejo/as, in the hinterlands of the northeastern Brazilian province of Ceará between 1845 and 1889. Challenging the widely accepted depiction of sertanejos as conditioned to violence by nature, culture, and climate, Santos argues that their concern with maintaining an honorable manly reputation and the use of violence were historically contingent strategies employed to resolve conflicts over scant resources and to establish power over women and other men. She also traces a shift in the functioning of patriarchy that coincided with changes in the material fortunes of sertanejo families. As economic dislocation, environmental calamity, and family separation led to greater female autonomy and an erosion of patriarchal authority in the home, public- and often violent- enforcement of male power maintained patriarchal order in these communities.

Excerpt

Here they stand, then, with their characteristic garb, their
ancient customs, their strange adherence to the most remote
traditions, their religious sentiment carried to the point
of fanaticism, their exaggerated point of honor, and their
exceedingly beautiful folklore and folk poetry, three cen
turies old…. a strong and ancient race, with well- defined
and immutable characteristics, even in the major crises of
life—at which times the cowboy’s leather garb becomes the
jagunços’ flexible armor—sprung from far-converging ele
ments, yet different from all the rest of the population of the
country, this stock is undeniably a significant example of the
importance of those reactions induced by environment.

—Euclides da Cunha, Rebellion in the Backlands.

This passage from Os sertões, Euclides da Cunha’s highly acclaimed treaty on the history and customs of the Brazilian Northeastern hinterlands and its peoples, encapsulates one of the most enduring and influential tropes of Brazilian literature, history, and popular culture: the idea that the sertanejos, or male inhabitants of the semiarid backlands, have been the possessors of a well-developed sense of honor, and have been conditioned to aggression by deep-seated cultural traditions that appear fixed in time and landscape. Da Cunha belonged to the intellectual, coastal elite of the turn of the twentieth century. This generation condemned rural backwardness—embodied in the figure of the rude, racially mixed sertanejo—as an obstacle to the attain-

The word jagunço denoted a Northeastern rural gunman or a bandit. However, Euclides
da Cunha applied the term to the armed defenders of the Bahian millenarian community
of Canudos—destroyed by the Brazilian republican army in 1897—whom he described as
mixed-raced descendants of “virile and adventurous” men, whose character had been formed
“in a turbulent society.” Da Cunha, Rebellion, 78. Unless otherwise noted, all translations from
the Portuguese are my own.

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