Death Without Weeping
Has poverty ravaged mother love in the shantytowns of Brazil? Nancy Scheper-Hughes
I have seen death without weeping, The destiny of the Northeast is death, Cattle they kill, To the people they do something worse
Anonymous Brazilian singer (1965) "WHY DO THE CHURCH BELLS RING SO
often'?" I asked Nailza de Arruda soon after I moved into a corner of her tiny mud-walled hut near the top of the shantytown called the Alto do Cruzeiro (Crucifix Hill) . I was then a Peace Corps volunteer and community development/ health worker . It was the dry and blazing hot summer of 1965, the months following the military coup in Brazil, and save for the rusty, clanging bells of N . S . das Dores Church, an eerie quiet had settled over the market town that I call Bom Jesus da Mata . Beneath the quiet, however, there was chaos and panic . "It's nothing," replied Nailza, "just another little angel gone to heaven ." Nailza had sent more than her share of little angels to heaven, and sometimes at night I could hear her engaged in a muffled but passionate discourse with one of them, two-year-old Joana . Joana's photograph, taken as she lay propped up in her tiny cardboard coffin, her eyes open, hung on a wall next to one of Nailza and Ze Antonio taken on the day they eloped . Nailza could barely remember the other infants and babies who came and went in close succession . Most had died unnamed and were hastily baptized in their coffins . Few lived more than a month or two. Only Joana, properly bap-
tized in church at the close of her first year and placed under the protection of a powerful saint, Joan of Arc, had been expected to live . And Nailza had dangerously allowed herself to love the little girl . In addressing the dead child, Nailza's voice world range from tearful imploring to angry recrimination : "Why did you leave me? Was your patron saint so greedy that she could not allow me one child on this earth'?" Ze Antonio advised me to ignore Nailza's odd behavior, which he understood as a kind of madness that, like the birth and death of children, came and went . Indeed, the premature birth of a stillborn son some months later "cured" Nailza of her "inappropriate" grief, and the day came when she removed Joana's photo and carefully packed it away . More than fifteen years elapsed before I returned to the Alto do Cruzeiro, and it was anthropology that provided the vehicle of my return . Since 1982 I have returned several times in order to pursue a problem that first attracted my attention in the 1960s . My involvement with the people of the Alto do Cruzeiro now spans a quarter of a century and three generations of parenting in a community where mothers and daughters are often simultaneously pregnant . The Alto do Cruzeiro is one of three shantytowns surrounding the large market town of Bom Jesus in the sugar plantation zone of Pernambuco in Northeast Brazil, one of the many zones of neglect that have emerged in the shadow of the now tarnished economic miracle of Bra-
zil . For the women and children of the Alto do Cruzeiro the only miracle is that some of them have managed to stay alive at all . The Northeast is a region of vast proportions (approximately twice the size of Texas) and of equally vast social and developmental problems . The nine states that make up the region are the poorest in the country and are representative of the Third World within a dynamic and rapidly industrializing nation . Despite waves of migrations from the interior to the teeming shantytowns of coastal cities, the majority still live in rural areas on farms and ranches, sugar plantations and mills . Life expectancy in the Northeast is only forty years, largely because of the appallingly high rate of infant and child mortality . Approximately one million children in Brazil under the age of five die each year . The children of the Northeast, especially those horn in shantytowns on the periphery of urban life, are at a very high risk...
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