Why you should care
Because the world needs more queer icons.
This weekend, millions of people will descend on São Paulo for one of the biggest gay pride parades in the world. Paulista and Consolaçao avenues will burst with brilliant colors and outrageous costumes, meant to both shock and celebrate the act of being out in the open exactly as you are. And were he alive today, João Francisco dos Santos might be up on top of the parade trucks, covered in red glitter, basking in the sun and adoration — liberated, at last.
Today, Santos has come to define the celebration of deviance and revolt in Brazil. Born into a family of former slaves in the poorest region of the country at the turn of the 20th century, Santos spent his young adulthood locked up, serving a 10-year prison sentence for conspiracy of murder. Once released, he ran for Rio, and it’s there that his legend started to percolate. At a time when social barriers were iron-clad, Santos was a poor, black, Northeastern, queer capoeirista. And he wasn’t ashamed to own it. He began to call himself Madame Satã — Madame Satan, the goddess of everything “wrong,” named after a 1930 Cecil B. DeMille film.
This blend of spotlight and outcast, right and wrong, elevated Madame Satã into bohemian mythology.
On the one hand, he was a cross-dressing cabaret performer, his microphone clutched between painted nails, sparkling beneath plumes of red glitter, a star of the Rio nightlife. But on the other hand, he was a street-smart malandro, a slick-talking, tough-guy hustler who knew how to wield a knife and kick a wooden baton out of a policeman’s hands. His particular fighting technique was capoeira, the dance-fight developed by slaves in Brazil generations before him, the power tool of outcasts and the disempowered. No surprise, he often landed in prison.
This blend of spotlight and outcast, right and wrong, elevated Madame Satã into bohemian mythology, and still today, performance artists in Rio cite him as a major influence on the city’s counterculture. “Today we would call him queer, but that is ahistorical,” says James Green, professor of history and director of the Brown-Brazil Initiative at Brown University. “Most homosexuals at that time would have been discreet, so he really stood out.” He also happened to be married to a woman. But for Santos, regardless of social strictures, every day was a new Carnaval.
For years, his legend was kept tucked into the narrative history of Rio’s bohemia, a cult figure few knew about. He was a criminal, after all. He’d spend nearly 30 years of his life incarcerated on charges that included a sprinkling of homicides. And yet, thanks to the 2002 release of the film Madame Satã, by Karim Aïnouz, a new generation of Brazilians and foreigners learned about his story. Seen as an iconic piece in the body of queer film studies in Brazil, the film sympathetically portrays Santos’ confrontation of all forms of limits, from city laws to social prejudice. The film would launch both the career of its star, Lazaro Ramos, now a top-tier Brazilian film actor, and also the name of Madame Satã into mainstream culture.
While the gay movement has built up in Brazil since his death, Madame Satã “represented something outside of the middle-class lesbian couple at the pride parade,” notes Green. “Madame Satã represents the true Brazilian counterculture,” wrote Brazilian journalist Paulo Francis. As the São Paulo pride parade swells each year, with 5 million participants and counting, it’s hard not to also consider that while Santos may have loved to have seen it, between waves to the crowd he’d be plotting an outrageous way to disrupt it all.