rural migrants to Bom Jesus were squat- ters who were given tacit approval by the mayor to put up temporary straw huts on each of the three hills overlook- ing the town. The Alto do Cruzeiro is the oldest, the largest, and the poorest of the shantytowns. Over the past three de- cades many of the original migrants have become permanent residents, and the primitive and temporary straw huts have been replaced by small homes (usually of two rooms) made of wattle and daub, sometimes covered with plas- ter. The more affluent residents use bricks and tiles. In most Alto homes, dangerous kerosene lamps have been replaced by light bulbs. The once tat- tered rural garb, often fashioned from used sugar sacking, has likewise been replaced by store-brought clothes, often castoffs from a wealthy patrão (boss). The trappings are modern, but the hun- ger, sickness, and death that they con- ceal are traditional, deeply rooted in a history of feudalism, exploitation, and institutionalized dependency. My research agenda never wavered. The questions I addressed first crystal- ized during a veritable “die-off” of Alto babies during a severe drought in 1965. The food and water shortages and the po- litical and economic chaos occasioned by the military coup were reflected in the handwritten entries of births and deaths in the dusty, yellowed pages of the led- ger books kept at the public registry of- fice in Bom Jesus. More than 350 babies died in the Alto during 1965 alone—this from a shantytown population of little more than 5,000. But that wasn’t what surprised me. There were reasons enough for the deaths in the miserable conditions of shantytown life. What puz- zled me was the seeming indifference of Alto women to the death of their infants, and their willingness to attribute to their own tiny offspring an aversion to life that made their death seem wholly natural, indeed all but anticipated. Although I found that it was possible, and hardly difficult, to rescue infants and toddlers from death by diarrhea and de- hydration with a simple sugar, salt, and water solution (even bottled Coca-Cola worked fine), it was more difficult to en- list a mother herself in the rescue of a child she perceived as ill-fated for life or better off dead, or to convince her to take back into her threatened and besieged home a baby she had already come to think of as an angel rather than as a son or daughter. I learned that the high expectancy of death, and the ability to face child death with stoicism and equanimity, produced patterns of nurturing that differentiated between those infants thought of as thrivers and survivors and those thought of as born already “wanting to die.” The survivors were nurtured, while stigma- tized, doomed infants were left to die, as mothers say, a mingua , “of neglect.” Mothers stepped back and allowed na- ture to take its course. This pattern, which I call mortal selective neglect, is called passive infanticide by anthropolo- gist Marvin Harris. The Alto situation, although culturally specific in the form
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- Spring '16
- Alto, Bom Jesus, Cruzeiro, Ze Antonio, Bom Jesus da Mata