By Richard Simas,Contributor (*)
You could come to the island of Santa Catarina in Southern Brazil to surf world-class waves, to vacation, retire, or invest in the region’s booming economy. However, another excellent reason is to savor Santa Catarina’s singular cultural heritage. Local anthropologist Luiz Nilton Corrêa returned to his native area after an 11-year absence for studies at the Universidade dos Açores in Ponta Delgada and Spain’s famed University of Salamanca. His doctoral thesis offers a comparative study of the Holy Ghost traditions in the Azores and Brazil. Corrêa’s commentary on local culture is informed, clear-sighted, and abounds in intriguing details. Conversing with him while touring Santa Catarina Island (the fishing community of Barra de Lagoa, attending a municipal ceremony initiating the ‘cycle of Holy Ghost Feasts’ in Florianópolis, a late-night dinner in Praia do Matadeiro, and sharing a live interview on the local Rádio Católica) reveals a treasure of perspectives on the vestiges of Azorean influences in Santa Catarina as well as on broader issues of cultural identity.
…and I also stopped being the Azorean that I was in Brazil.
Between 1747 and 1756, Portugal sent nearly 7500 immigrants from the Azores and the Madeira archipelago to populate and secure its colonial territory in Santa Catarina. More than two and a half centuries and ten generations later, the region proudly exhibits its references to Azorean cuisine, folk culture, architecture, and handcrafts. Many people on Santa Catarina Island are quick to declare themselves “manezinhos,” a term generally referring to a local with Azorean background and one with pejorative connotations in the past. Now it is a symbol of pride and cultural identity.
Dedicated to the preservation of Azorean heritage, the regional Açor festival is currently in its 22nd edition. There is also an ethnographic museum, a Casa dos Açores, and Center for Azorean Studies (Nucléo de Estudos Açorianos) integrated in the local federal university. The center boasts an academic program in addition to research and archive facilities. A visitor can’t help noticing this all-encompassing affirmation of Azorean influence and wonder why ethnic specificity is of such importance in this era of globalization and in a country as obviously diverse as Brazil. Anthropologist Luiz Nilton Corrêa proposes some intriguing interpretations.
“This is a relatively recent phenomenon. Until the 1950’s Azoreans generally felt inferior with regard to the continent. As a former colony, Brazil inherited this stigma, particularly those in the south.” In 1948 the Santa Catarina Institute of History and Geography organized a congress to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the arrival of Azorean immigrants. This was a turning point as specialists re-evaluated the Azorean contribution to Santa Catarina’s culture and history. Also significant, Corrêa notes, was the post-Second World War context in which Brazilians of German background, also a significant demographic and historical presence in the region, were subject to prejudice.
“In this quickly evolving social environment it became fashionable to affirm Azorean identity. Popular culture began to be viewed as just as valuable as the academic culture of the elite, intimately linking traditional culture and identity…. It was empowering. Factory workers purchased encyclopedias in order to educate their children.”
Corrêa cites other factors that influenced this change, for example the Brazilian dictatorship from 1964 to 1985 that discouraged manifestations of popular culture because of their association with socialism. Ironically, such repression eventually created an atmosphere conducive to celebrating all things local, popular, and by extension, Azorean, with the end of the dictatorship and eventually the cold war. ‘Fala Mané’ (speak like a manezinho), was a favorite chronicle and television program celebrating Santa Catarina Island’s popular culture. The first Saturday of June is now officially ‘Manezinho Day’ in Florianópolis, the regional capital.
“Being Azorean became somewhat fashionable, almost sacred, and nothing is more revered by Azoreans than the Feast of the Holy Ghost. Until the late 1980’s these religious festivals were still simple community manifestations. Eventually laws and declarations began validating the celebrations and people scrutinized the Azores in an effort to appropriate heritage as faithfully as possible, including folklore religious festivals, and traditional music and dance.”
Corrêa, the anthropologist, reflects on this fascination with the “culture of origin” and how it informs the current dynamic. “One fear is that by establishing rules and making culture official, you eliminate the particularities of authentic popular tradition. Passing a law to preserve culture is perhaps the moment you pronounce its natural death. In the Azores, the festivals are alive because they are true expressions of local populations.” During the ceremony initiating the ‘cycle of Holy Ghost Feasts’ at the Florianópolis city hall, we watch the Holy Ghost banner passed around the room to be kissed by everyone in attendance. Symbolic red capes, crowns, sceptres, and white doves are visible everywhere as the television cameras broadcast live. Following speeches and prayer, officials lead the attending crowd in song and a procession mixed with solemnity and celebration.
Luiz Corrêa grew up in the heart of this period that might be termed the ‘Azorean revival’ in Santa Catarina. He performed folk dances from the distant islands wearing a traditional costume, sang Azorean songs, and strummed a Viola da terra, the 12-string folk guitar native of the archipelago. Now an anthropologist with international credentials, Corrêa’s views are influenced by the scientific methodology required of a legitimate researcher. Having returned home, he vibrates with the dualities implicit in exploring the facts and fictions of cultural traditions in contemporary manifestations.
“When I went to the Azores to study I stopped doing folklore and playing the viola. Azorean mythology wasn’t mentioned in the academic milieu and ‘being Azorean’ became a daily reality for me. I knew more about the islands’ history than most locals, and I necessarily developed a scientific look at Azorean culture. As a consequence, I lost my nostalgia and emotion about it. I realized that many elements that were valued as Azorean in Brazil didn’t exist in the Azores. For example, whaling in the southern Brazil occurred before the Azoreans arrived, but everyone insists it originated with the Azoreans. The islands became a regular place for me, not a land of folklore. I didn’t need saudades (longing) for the Azores, because I lived there.”
In a world dominated by technology and science, this subject of the insistence on heritage, perhaps even ethnic mythology, makes Corrêa’s comments intriguing. He recounts an anecdote about how world-class tennis player Gustavo Kuerten, a local of German background, affirmed that he too was a manezinho. Could the homogeneity inherent in current globalized culture contribute directly to the insistence on affirming one’s specific ethnic identity? Corrêa acknowledges that it is profoundly human to want to identify with something greater and more powerful: human, and not without risks. He also remarks on how difficult it is for individuals to confront the reality of their own identity.
Fiction, fact, mythology, tradition. Author Salman Rushdie articulates the complex connections between nostalgia, memory, heritage and creativity in ‘Imaginary Homelands,’ his collection of essays and criticism: “If we do look back … we will not be capable of reclaiming precisely the thing that was lost; … we will, in short, create fictions, not actual cities or villages, but invisible ones, imaginary homelands.”
“Once you know the facts, being sad or nostalgic doesn’t count.” This comment informs a reading of Corrêa’s passionate and critical perspectives. The issue is professional for him, not a source of personal conflict. “It is the Holy Ghost festival itself that should be protected not a photo of something else… There is evidence indicating that the tradition originated in continental Portugal rather than the Azores, but it is almost heresy to make this claim about such an important mythology.” He pursues with an interpretation: “The symbolic origin of the Holy Ghost tradition suggests that they promoted the monarchy and articulated power by providing an occasion in which, by imitation, any common person could be regal once a year.” The tradition, as it confers power and shares it symbolically, is arguably part of a system of control. These are some of the elements of Cornea’s doctoral thesis.
What is ritual if not a creative enactment of human imagination, an attempt to collectively explore intuition? Such interpretations as Corrêa’s, informed by scientific research, require one to question a contemporary experience of traditional celebrations and how essential are facts with regard to beliefs and imagination. Where is the fine line if one exists?
“The local, the believer in traditions, doesn’t ask why they kiss the Holy Ghost banner when it passes. They believe in its power and meaning. The outside observer, the anthropologist, attempts to interpret why and tries to read the symbols. I avoid personal opinion because it is not scientific.”
Corrêa’s voice hesitates. He pauses. Does he sense a responsibility to set the facts straight, to correct erroneous interpretations? Have we crossed a fine line? He continues, providing a bridge that connects the scientist and the believer: “It is important to insist on the variety of information rather than what is right or wrong. Ritual and intuition are essential intelligence. Things are also what you see inside of them.” The folk tale about the Emperor’s new robe comes to my mind and how only the child in the crowd could see that the emperor was naked rather than elegantly dressed.
“All of this,” Corrêa says, referring to the emphasis on promoting Azorean heritage in Santa Catrina, “has also inspired the consideration of what it means to be Azorean and this is extremely valuable.” He suggests I attend the Holy Ghost celebrations nearby in Ribeira da Ilha that are reputed to be one of the most traditional on the island.
Luiz Nilton Corrêa himself rarely attends the festivals in the church right to his house. Currently, he teaches in Florianopolis, is an active member of the Santa Catarina Institute of History and Geography, and is involved in a number of research projects including a study of Azorean immigration to the Dominican Republic based on an archive of correspondence.
Following his suggestion, I cross the island to attend the Holy Ghost festival of Nossa Senhora de Lapa in Ribeirão. The afternoon hurricane winds and twisting seas that tossed around fishing boats have subsided. The night sky is starlit and crossed by swift clouds. A crowd lines the village’s main street where locals stand in doorways and lean from windows to watch the procession begin at the far end of town then snake through the multitude towards a priest and acolytes who are waiting in the street to bless them. At the rear of the cortege, the local marching band alternates tunes with a trio composed of a singer, drum, and violin called Foliões de Reis, a tradition dating from the middle ages.
The king and queen of Ribeirão’s Holy Ghost feast are two local teens dressed in silk and velvet medieval finery. Transformed by their roles, they lead the procession with expressions that are portraits of nobility and absolute dignity. Crowded on the sidewalk next to three women, a grandmother, mother, and daughter, I watch them approach. When the king, queen, and cortege are close enough for us to hear the rustle of silk, close enough to touch, the three women whisper in awe one after another, ‘Ah, que beleza, que bonito!…; (Oh, what beauty, how pretty….!) The three medieval musicians follow close behind with their call and answer refrain, the thumping drum and simple violin motif. Enchanted, I fall into step behind them, listening again and again to the singer’s call. A voice inside me responds to the power and mystery, and I could follow them without questions.
‘Azorean (new) Waves…’ is one of a series of articles resulting from a writing residency on Santa Catarina Island facilitated by Professors Lélia Nunes and Irene M. Blayer, The Santa Catarina Press Association, The Historical and Geographical Institute of Santa Catarina, and the Seo Arante Cultural Institution.
Richard Simas, 2015 – firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo credits: Joi Cletison
(*) Richard Simas is a free-lance writer with a background in literature and the performing arts, in particular contemporary music. He lives in Montreal and contributes regularly to contemporary arts and literary reviews. His work has been published in Europe and in North America, including Canada’s Journey Prize anthology and a winner of a Fiddlehead Fiction Prize. He is a frequent collaborator for Musicworks magazine in Toronto.
Other posts by Richard Simas:
- Profile: Jacinto Lucas Pires – Essay
- Author: José Luís Peixoto, a voice with range – Interview
- Kleztival: Brazil’s Great Jewish Musical Event – Report
- Kleztival: 4th International Klezmer Music Festival – São Paulo,BR