landless women

Image: Philipi Bandeira


Commentary on the book organized by Adelaide Gonçalves, Paula Godinho and Maria de Lourdes Vicente da Silva

How to measure the interest and usefulness of a book? Not just a text, a report or a story, but the whole that constitutes the object? One way is certainly to think about what such an encounter awakens in the senses and brings with it the potential for transformation or elaboration. How much it is in sync with the issues of the time itself, but goes beyond and, sometimes intuitively, distills what remains, offers what does not fade away. Or even if it brings more than it should be supposed, not only because it is renewed at each reading, but because of the intangible that it does not control, nor foresee, but in which its whole participates. Whatever the path, these are beacons that can guide the reading of Between the impossible and the necessary: ​​hope and rebellion in the paths of landless women in Ceará (Popular Expression).

Composed of correlated studies and reports, but which maintain independence from each other, it has the quality that each part is more than what it sets out to be. That is, it would not be incorrect to say that the book focuses on 15 life stories of 16 landless women in the State of Ceará based on interviews conducted by the Portuguese anthropologist Paula Godinho, author of the introduction and epilogue. It is also organized by the Brazilian historian Adelaide Gonçalves and the pedagogue Lourdes Vicente, both teachers and activists of the Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST), who also signed the study “Essential is the crossing”, as in Guimarães Rosa, in order to preface. But, once read, saying this becomes insufficient or inaccurate.

Throughout the reading it is perceived that the unpretentiousness from the synthesis and even the simplicity of the graphic elements (such as the homemade photos, amateurs in the best sense of the word) do not immediately reveal the sophistication of the proposal, the interweavings that were being built, the ways in which individual authorship yields to a collective construction, the role transformations of the listener and the speaker throughout the process, or even how a bibliography simultaneously becomes a document about a history and a society. If the principle of hope runs through the reports, if “realities are always unfinished, and the story does not prove to be complete” (p.23), it is also reflected in the power of the constructed document.

The book does not spell out all of its strategies, nor does it need to. But it is easy to see that there is a feature that runs through it: women set the tone in the chorus of voices. In an effort to avoid idealizations, the narrative brings women who claim other possibilities of existence while seeming to do what they have always done: take care of life, take care of death, cultivate the land, cultivate themselves in the land and, as a metalanguage, are in dialogue also in the making of the book itself, whose craftsmanship brings singularities to be valued.

The Introduction and the text “Essential is the crossing” are two studies, to a certain extent complementary, that go beyond the role of introduction and presentation, for example. These are reflections that, although departing from an academic perspective, aim at “readers of various types” (p. 45) and want to undo artificial dichotomies (us and them, intellectuals and people, researchers and research object), seeking to understand complexities without disregarding the sensitive, in an approximation that goes so far as to lead one of the authors, Lourdes Vicente, to also become an interviewee in another section.

Following autonomous paths, both texts accept the challenge of materializing rigorous ways of building knowledge, without hiding the defense of clear positions. Admittedly, they do not wear “rubber gloves in voice and writing” (p.21) when building a situated and critical interpretation, on the contrary, they convince that they could not get where they got with dissimulated distance.

For those who are more familiar with the terms, episodes and geographies mentioned, there is always distrust of the Brazilianist perspective. This is not the case with the strategy used in the Introduction. It is not about the pose of a specialist in Brazil, but about valuing the freshness of the astonished look, the foreign gaze that reveals the extraordinary in what is apparently not strange, is usual, hence sometimes looked at, but not seen, correlated, reflected.

The author does not alleviate the profound “necrosis of the social fabric” in Brazil, while refusing to strengthen the narratives of fear, of the inevitable, of relentless defeat. By pointing to other and new readings that intersect, the text hooks those who think they already know what it is talking about and calls for the urgency of knowing themselves more. There is the reflection of pain on a large scale as control, a key to understanding a time (p. 19). Of the triumphs, not always resounding or easily recognizable, that open paths (p. 22). Or even interpretations of recent events, correlating them with narratives from the book, which demonstrate the great topicality of the themes and the power of reflection.

The text “Essential is the crossing…” is a study that both demonstrates the virtues of the document-book, in its originality and density, and locates it and puts it in dialogue with a vast bibliographical production. By offering a reading of the interviews articulated with a bibliography of references for some of the topics covered – the footnotes are a study within the study – the authors build knowledge and suggest methodological possibilities. This is how it is in the framing, from the narratives, of categories such as “memory” – pointed out by the interviewees as a “well” to be dug, “sap and root” (p. 47), what moves the struggle –, “history” – constructed as a heritage of the social struggle –, “space and time”. They announce it as an inventory of the multiple keys to understanding the book, the geographies, the words, the flavors, the music, the ways of eating, dreaming, living and dying.

As well as the possibilities for studying hunger, abundance and poverty, the sertão and drought, social movements, migrations, multiple relationships with the Church (the one that oppresses and the one that liberates), violence in the countryside, childhood, literacy. And its many sub-themes, such as environmental degradation, infant mortality, games, food, the sensory dimension, parties, relations with the present, past and future territory.

In a diversity of narratives, which passes through landscapes as varied as possible in the imagination of the hinterland, the mountains, the coast, hunger and abundance, strolling in retrospect through territories of childhood and maturity, it is evident that the protagonism belongs to the narrators: Maria Genoveva, Maria Isaltina, Francisca Alexandrina, Maria Paz, Maria de Socorro, Virgínia Pereira, Chiquinha Louvado, Dona Chaguinha Maria de Jesus, Maria Moura, Maria das Graças, Cacique Pequena, Cleomar Ribeiro, Maria Ana and Lourdes Vicente. In them there is a desire (sometimes even pressing) to fix the stories, to retell them so that they exist or so that they do not die. Or even, that they manage to cross borders and, thus, that they themselves reach far, through the book. It is the desire to be told in a book. As well as the need for food, land and education, the combination of which creates a common culture.

From these singularities, it is easy to understand that it is not just a question of the MST and its formation (even though it is a strong aspect of the book), but of the processes of confrontation and resistance that arise due to the urgency of the acts, of their relationships that constitute and go beyond the very Landless Movement. With bodies and memory, they act on their own lives and those around them, even when men occupy leadership positions, as in the presidency of unions, for example. It is a fight that is also carried out from within and that is also permeated with contradictions and permanent learning, including internal conflicts, relations with machismo and resistance within the movements.

Preceding each report, the anthropologist recounts, rather than contextualizes, each conversation and each interviewee, whom she follows in a sensitive listening manner. She also likes, when editing the interviews, respect for orality and speech rhythms. As a whole, the book is sewn together by a strategy that goes the right way: it is the visible and the invisible in the Rosean tradition, revealing the complexity beyond what it seems to be; it is singular, in valuing what is unique and unrepeatable, but which has its greatest meaning in the collective, in shared experiences; it is when the concrete and the abstract meet, recognize and question each other, whether it be clay, food, fence, dream, hope, hunger or plenty. In summary, the reading is crossed by the tension between experience (as “current past”) and expectation (“present future”, which encompasses, but is greater than hope) as in Reinhart Koselleck's lesson in the book Future Past. Contribution to the semantics of historical times. The women, in the pulse of their narratives, intertwine past and future, and show the possible history by being able to be imagined, by provoking new solutions.

From what has already become the future of the book, in 2021, the mention of moments when “the present suffocates” (p. 273) gained an unimaginable relevance at the time. And, unlike other authoritarian periods, the epithet “Brazil, country of the future” is no longer even mobilized, explicitly or implicitly, by official disclosure. On the contrary, in an affirmed plan of destruction, in the actions of scorched earth, there is the project to crush sensibilities and imaginaries of possible futures. The women of the book, those who tell and write, those who think and those who move to cut fences or conduct interviews, contradict and insist on showing what is in the works, which already exists and at the same time struggles to germinate in force. And that alone would suffice for the greater usefulness of the book.

*Debora Dias holds a PhD in contemporary history from the University of Coimbra (Portugal) and researcher at the Humanities Center of the Universidade Nova de Lisboa.



Between the impossible and the necessary: ​​hope and rebellion in the paths of landless women in Ceará. Collection and organization: Paula Godinho with Adelaide Gonçalves and Lourdes Vicente. São Paulo, Popular Expression, 2020, 276 pages.


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