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Africa in Brazil

Film reveals the life of a slave who created a personal religion

Cafundó is, in the common sense of the word, a place too far. For the university it was a major ‘discovery’, which occurred in 1978, when a journalist visited the rural district of the same name, Cafundó, located in the municipality of Salto de Pirapora. Here there was a ‘Galapago’ culture, since, in the land donated during the 19th century to two ex-slaves, the inhabitants had guarded, in language and customs, their African ancestry. Carlos Vogt and Peter Fry, from the State University of Campinas (Unicamp), studied the region and in 1996 published the book, Cafundó: a África no Brasil [Cafundó: Africa in Brazil]. “The African language of the Cafundó doesn’t just mean the survival of some Bantu language, it is, above all, a linguistic practice in constant process of transformation and whose political and social significance is given by the context of the relationships where it has life”, they observed. The more remote one had gone, the closer the past would come.

Cafundó, therefore, became a symbol of integration and of the permanence of traditional values of the blacks in Brazil. It was in this context that the actor and director Paulo Betti dubbed  his new film, which should be in the cinemas during the second semester, as Cafundó (with Lázaro Ramos, Leona Cavalli and Luís Mello). Since, in spite of the name, the full-length film does not speak of the community, but of João de Camargo, an ex-slave and founder of a curious religion that brings together Catholic saints, Brazilian camdoble and spiritualism. The syncretic cult caught the attention of a young sociologist, Florestan Fernandes, then 22 years old, and led him to write Contribuição para o estudo de um líder carismático [Contribution to the study of a charismatic leader] and to rethink the racial question. “I learned sociology in the field with research into the cult of João de Camargo”, he later said.

The legend says that the ex-slave, always drunk, had a revelation in front of the cross placed in the stream called Red Waters in memory of Alfredinho. In 1859 the young boy, the son of a Portuguese merchant, had been riding through the region hunting with his catapult, when he slipped from his horse and, imprisoned by his stirrup, was dragged by the animal. His body, badly cut up, was found in the waters of the stream. In 1906, João had received a message from the young boy, which promised him protection if he were to assume the mission of curing and helping people. From this prosaic story sprung the culture that impressed sociologist Florestan because of its rapid development starting from such a modest beginning. In a short time, the ex-alcoholic mounted his own church, in which, wrote sociologist Fernandes, “at the side of the practice of healing, he developed a Catholic cult devoted to the images of Saints, and at the same time, also organized traces of African culture, founded on spiritualism”. In the beginning he conquered his followers with small ‘miracles’ carried out in the waters of the stream. The multitudes arrive shortly afterwards to the region

“He founded a religion and turned himself into its almost Messianic leader. Downcast and delirious, fascinated with the world in transformation and desperate to live in it, João de Camargo left the slave quarters of a plantation, went through everything that was bad, picked himself up and turned himself into a religious leader”, observes Betti. It was exactly this fascination that most attracted the attention of the sociologist. “It’s probable that João de Camargo found in the understanding of the values of African origin and their observance n a religious cult that developed to the point of extraordinary strong support, the capability of attracting, in itself, a relatively large number of followers”, notes Florestan. This was the permanence of Cafundó. “If at the start, he had still knelt in front of the image of Our Lady of Bom Jesus do Bonfim in order ‘to receive’, at the height of his influence no longer did he kneel in order to ‘speak’ with the Saints”, he observed. “Later he went on to receive ‘orders’ from the Holy Spirit, and in the end from God himself. Even he was supplanted since, at the height of his career, considered thaumaturgist, he was to receive the ‘orders’ of the church, a wide and abstract entity, which appears to me, for him and for the initiated faithful, to be above God himself.”

In a process that had mixed up African heritage and an understanding of Brazilian reality, João managed, through his religion, his personal and social rehabilitation. “His career is an example of the forms assumed by the transformation of personality upon the influx of group life. After the evaluation criteria of this person had been altered, with the success obtained, he put himself successively into new categories of social performance, transforming the cycle of social relationships and the nature of those relationships”, said sociologist Florestan. “With his increase in prestige, he, in parallel, widened the structure of the church and went on to ‘receive’ ‘much stronger’ spirits: hence the transition of the young boy Alfredinho to that of Monsignor Soares, from this to the Saints, to the Holy Spirit, to God and finally to the Church” The sociologist observed that this movement, linked to the alterations suffered in the form of the social performance of João de Camargo, reflects itself in the elevation of his status within the social structure of the town of Sorocaba. Which led to the authorities, in 1913, taking him to court for “the practice of charlatanism”. Once more, Cafundó brings from afar that which is close.