1 Article 18 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) “W HY 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 shan- tytown called the Alto do Cruzeiro (Cru- cifix 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 follow- ing 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, how- ever, 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 muf- fled but passionate discourse with one of them, two-year-old Joana. Joana’s pho- tograph, 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 ex- pected to live. And Nailza had danger- ously allowed herself to love the little girl. In addressing the dead child, Nailza’s voice would range from tearful implor- ing 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 mad- ness that, like the birth and death of chil- dren, came and went. Indeed, the premature birth of a stillborn son some months later “cured” Nailza of her “inap- propriate” grief, and the day came when she removed Joana’s photo and carefully packed it away. More than fifteen years elapsed be- fore 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 com- munity where mothers and daughters are often simultaneously pregnant.
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- Alto, Bom Jesus, Cruzeiro, Ze Antonio, Bom Jesus da Mata