Before leaving for Brazil, my father gave me his 1975 copy of Tereza Batista, Home From The Wars, by the Bahian author, Jorge Amado. I had read Tieta and Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon, and was captivated by Amado’s descriptions of life in Ilhéus, Bahia, and Sant’Ana do Agreste, here in the Nordeste do Brasil. However, it was not until I reached Aracaju, Sergipe, sitting at a sidewalk café, sipping pineapple juice and waiting for my beiju de tapioca to arrive, when I cracked it open. I nearly dropped the book in astonishment. The first section was titled “Tereza Batista’s Debut in the Aracaju Cabaret”. My father had hailed it as a tale about a powerful female figure. The book jacket mentioned a woman who is “fire and roses, steel and honey,” with African and indigenous roots, who escapes slavery, and reigns as the “goddess of love, inspiration to poets, painters, and sailers on leave, and triumphant Queen of the Samba.” Yet my father had mentioned nothing of the setting of the story—or perhaps he had forgotten.
Tereza Batista is a Sergipana, the name for those born and raised in the state of Sergipe. The synchronicity of my situation has not been lost upon me. As I traverse the geography of this state, I can’t help but wonder—am I retracing Tereza’s steps? Could I possibly be re-writing the story in some way, re-inscribing meaning on the places that she visits?
Not long after my first performance in Aracaju, I joined a caravan of capoeiristas headed for the small inland town of Boquim, in Sergipe. I was told that it would be a roda de roça, or a “farm roda”, where everyone would wear hats in the typical farming style. The roda was opened by Formando Baiano, pictured above, and Professor Tubarão, below, on the motorcycle.
Formando Baiano and Professor Tubarão live on a parcel of land in Boquim that is divided between 90 families. They live in flat houses with ceramic tile roofs, and with them live some of the most gregarious and inspiring young capoeiristas I’ve ever seen.
Their community in Boquim fosters positivity and promotes education. In Formando Baiano’s opening speech, he cited capoeira as a means to keep folks away from drugs, gangs, and violence, in a town where those issues are on the rise more and more every day. My own Formando Manhoso, with whom I had arrived, asked me to say a few words. This was only my second month in Brasil, and I did not yet have a facility with Portuguese. Yet I fumblingly thanked everyone present for allowing my participation in their event, and repeated what Grupo Capoeira Brasil’s founding mestre, Mestre Boneco, is fond of saying: “capoeira is the art of transformation. We do not train to become strong in our own circles; we train to become stronger out there in the real world.”
It was one of the most beautiful days I had ever experienced. Part of it’s magic was the surprise of it all. I had risen at 7 in the morning to get in my friend Sereia’s car and drive two hours away from Aracaju. I had dozed in the car, and awoken to the maroon gravel and bright, lush green of Baiano and Tubarão’s properties. After the roda, we ate in Baiano’s house, children doing macacos and bananeiras in the living room and tearing open mangoes with their teeth.
As I watched Baiano and his students doing backflips into the lake in the back of their property, I felt a profound sense of joy and peacefulness.
Back in Aracaju, I continued to read. In shock, I read the following: “good sport Oto Espinheira had invited her to Buquim in order to protect herself from the engagement and marriage that would inevitably result if he went all alone in to the interior.” Where was Tereza Batista off to? The very same Boquim, to the southeast of Aracaju. Yet, where Tereza Batista met horrors and abandonment, I found a pocket of strength, a gentle people tenaciously cultivating hope and power. Though Boquim and its inhabitants may have often been subjected to suffering and ill-treatment, my experience of the landscape of Amado’s book revealed nearly incomprehensible beauty, berimbaus vibrating in unison, and a community producing mangoes, maracujá, and respect for themselves, one another, and their own history of resistance.