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Local midwives and traditional heal-ers, praying women, as they are called,advise Alto women on when to allow ababy to die. One midwife explained: “IfI can see that a baby was born unfortu-itously, I tell the mother that she need notwash the infant or give it a cleansing tea.I tell her just to dust the infant with babypowder and wait for it to die.” Allowingnature to take its course is not seen assinful by these often very devout Catho-lic women. Rather, it is understood as co-operating with God’s plan.Often I have been asked how con-sciously women of the Alto behave inthis regard. I would have to say that con-sciousness is always shifting betweenallowed and disallowed levels of aware-ness. For example, I was awakenedearly one morning in 1987 by twoneighborhood children who had beensent to fetch me to a hastily organizedwake for a two-month-old infant whosemother I had unsuccessfully urged tobreast-feed. The infant was being sus-tained on sugar water, which the motherreferred to as soro(serum), using a med-ical term for the infant’s starvation re-gime in light of his chronic diarrhea. Ihad cautioned the mother that an infantcould not live on soroforever.The two girls urged me to console theyoung mother by telling her that it was“too bad” that her infant was so weakthat Jesus had to take him. They werecoaching me in proper Alto etiquette. Iagreed, of course, but asked, “And whatdo youthink?” Xoxa, the eleven-year-old, looked down at her dusty flip-flopsand blurted out, “Oh, Dona Nanci, thatbaby never got enough to eat, but youmust never say that!” And so the death ofhungry babies remains one of the bestkept secrets of life in Bom Jesus da Mata.Most victims are waked quickly andwith a minimum of ceremony. No tearsare shed, and the neighborhood childrenform a tiny procession, carrying the babyto the town graveyard where it will join amultitude of others. Although a few freshflowers may be scattered over the tinygrave, no stone or wooden cross willmark the place, and the same spot will bereused within a few months’ time. Themother will never visit the grave, whichsoon becomes an anonymous one.What, then, can be said of thesewomen? What emotions, what senti-ments motivate them? How are they ableto do what, in fact, must be done? Whatdoes mother love mean in this inhospita-ble context? Are grief, mourning, andmelancholia present, although deeply re-pressed? If so, where shall we look forthem? And if not, how are we to under-stand the moral visions and moral sensi-bilities that guide their actions?I have been criticized more than oncefor presenting an unflattering portrait ofpoor Brazilian women, women who are,after all, themselves the victims of severesocial and institutional neglect. I havedescribed these women as allowingsome of their children to die, as if thiswere an unnatural and inhuman actrather than, as I would assert, the wayany one of us might act, reasonably andrationally, under similarly desperateconditions. Perhaps I have not empha-
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Alto, Bom Jesus, Cruzeiro, Ze Antonio, Bom Jesus da Mata