Brazil's Ragamuffin Revolution
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Brazilians had their own version of the Texas Revolution, gaucho-style.
By Shannon Sims
Last winter, Brazilians went to the polls in what turned out to be one of the closest presidential elections in the country’s history. When the voting maps came out afterward, they looked a lot like the U.S. in 2000: red versus blue falling along stark geographic lines. Some Brazilians suggested the country should split because it was seemingly more divided than ever.
Except for the fact that there was a moment in time when the country was much more divided … and almost split, thanks to a bunch of so-called ragamuffins and their Ragamuffin Revolution.
These gauchos are damn proud of being different from the rest of Brazilians, not unlike Texans.
The southernmost region of Brazil is its own kind of animal, positioned like it’s dripping off the country and into Uruguay. Its culture is remarkably different from the rest of the country’s. In some places in the south, children sing the state anthem each morning in school. Residents raise the state flag, fire guns into the air during celebrations and tip their flat-rimmed cowboy hats as they greet each other with jaunty accents. These gauchos — as those from the southernmost state of Rio Grande do Sul like to be called — are damn proud of being different from the rest of Brazilians, not unlike Texans.
And like the Texas secession movement, they, too, had a go. In one of those strange historical coincidences, their revolution began the exact same year: 1835. Their beef? Beef. Gaucho ranchers were furious that the Brazilian government was taxing their production of dried beef, called charque, while Uruguayan and Argentine ranchers were simultaneously flooding the market with their own tax-free jerky. The poor ranchers — called farroupilhas, or ragamuffins, for their shoddy threads — joined together and armed themselves, their grievance quickly morphing into calls for secession and independence. Suddenly, Brazil was at war with itself. The revolution dragged on for 10 long years, and featured some interesting twists. Halfway through, Giuseppe Garibaldi, the Italian liberation leader, hopped the pond and joined the rebels, spreading the secession movement north, through the state of Santa Catarina. Swept up into the war on the rebel side were thousands of Black slaves, temporarily freed to fight: Brazil’s version of buffalo soldiers.
In the end, nearly 50,000 died and the movement failed, despite a 25 percent tax being added to imported dried meat. Rio Grande do Sul and Santa Catarina stuck with the rest of Brazil, but the sting of defeat drove their cultural roots even deeper. The influence of the secession movement continues to be felt and celebrated in the region every September 20, the date the war started, when the farroupilhas are paid homage with a week of festivities. Jocelito Zalla, a professor at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, refers to the war as “the emblematic event in the public memory” of his state — a modern myth, full of heroes and villains, that defines the regional identity.
As last year’s election and any cultural tour of the country displays, the failure of the revolution helped make Brazil the massive, diverse place it is today. Most scholars believe that if the state had in fact seceded, it would have soon collapsed — experts notably say similar things about Texas. But as Bryan McCann, a Georgetown University historian writing a book on the subject, points out, “The fact that they reincorporated into the empire only made it easier for that myth of being different to endure.”