Why you should care
Lawlessness in Brazil has a rich history in folklore. It started with Lampião and Maria Bonita.
In the first week of the World Cup, broadcasters at the Brazilian media conglomerate Globo interrupted the sacrosanct evening drama to stream live footage of a group of masked vandals wielding fire extinguishers and demolishing a garage full of sports cars. As plumes of fairy-dust glass ballooned into the air, the packs of TV camera crews arrived to capture a scene of pure lawlessness.
Dial back nearly a hundred years to find the original precursors to these roving gangs. In the scraggly caatinga (brushland) of Brazil’s Northeastern region ruled the country’s original anarchists: Lampião and Maria Bonita. A sort of Brazilian Bonnie and Clyde.
The fact is that Lampião was, strictly speaking, nothing more than a murdering, raping, pillaging bandit. And yet today, he’s a folk hero. It’s something about Brazilians: They admire the fight against the powers that be, the fight of the unlikely anarchist, the underdog.
Ever-present in the shadows of Lampião in old films from the time, always just a half-step behind, stood Maria Bonita, a young girl with mischievous brown eyes who seemed out of place in the bramble with the bands of armed cangaçeiros.
Although they may look like Halloween costume inspirations, with their funny leather crescent-shaped hats bedazzled with coins, Lampião and his band were a real people, born into the turn-of-the-century hellscape of the red Brazilian hinterlands, the sertão, where a combination of heat and drought melted away hopes for building a life, setting off a miserable exodus. The migrants, who included the ancestors of Brazil’s ex-president Lula, headed toward urban centers, kicking off an unceasing boom of urban poverty in the slums of Brazil’s major cities like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.
Simultaneously, this population shift birthed a form of anti-Northeasterner racism that is still such an issue in Brazil today that people can be jailed for verbalizing anti-nordestino sentiment.
But rather than move, Lampião grabbed a Winchester and went marauding.
It was a time of transition. Slavery had ended, a new republic had been declared, and urban development was taking off in the South, buoyed by coffee and rubber economies. But in the harsh environment of the rural Northeast, where slavery ruled on sugarcane plantations, times were tough. Landowners, still called coronels, ran the show, with local politicians and police in their pockets.
That painful past and feeling of victimhood helps explain why Lampião’s crimes get airbrushed. Many Brazilians, particularly in the Northeast of the country, think of Lampião as a resistance fighter, a Robin Hood struggling recklessly against the powers-that-were, whose crimes paled in comparison with the violence of the police and coronels at the time.
Many Brazilians think of Lampião as a resistance fighter.
The cangaço lifestyle died away once the dictatorship of Getúlio Vargas began in 1930. A new law bluntly mandated the killing of all cangaçeiros. This order in Brazil’s collective memory links up with the backlash against dictatorship, elevating Lampião into the group of dissident voices against authoritarian rule, the righteous rebels. But the bounty on Lampião’s head weighed heavily, and by 1938, his whole cangaço gang was caught, their heads cut off and displayed buffet-style, searing the grisly photo of 11 heads and the legend of the cangaço Bonnie and Clyde into Brazilian minds forever.
One evening last week, after a long World Cup day, in a worn-out bar in the Pinheiros neighborhood of São Paulo, I asked a group of locals what they knew about Lampião.
“I know he was caught because of a woman,” one man immediately responded. Another chimed in, “Yeah, if it hadn’t been for Maria Bonita, his head wouldn’t have ended up on the block.”
They explained to me that by taking on Maria Bonita as his wife, Lampião had introduced women to the all-male gang, and slowly but surely, the women got pregnant. The first man explained, “They got slow — they couldn’t move around as much with the babies. That’s how the police were able to get them at their last hideout.”
The table full of men all nodded their heads — the woman was to blame for the demise of this mighty man. Perhaps, when it comes to old folklore, some things never change.
Shannon Sims is a writer, photographer and lawyer living in Brazil, and a recent Forest & Society Fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs. Follow her @simssh.