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Matarazzos’ Big House and Slaves’ Quarters in the Rich Interior of São Paulo State.

Unesp study shows the semi-slavery of the daily life of sugarcane cutters at Amália, a plantation in the Ribeirão Preto region that was part of the old agricultural and industrial empire

An almost forgotten page in the history of Indústrias Reunidas Francesco Matarazzo – The United Industries Francesco Matarazzo, the old agricultural industrial empire that in the 30s became the largest business conglomerate in South America, was recovered with the completion of a study of the life of farm workers on one of the family properties: the Amália plantation, in Santa Rosa de Viterbo, in the Ribeirão Preto region, in the northeast of São Paulo state. In the project Sugarcane Women: Memories, which was financed by FAPESP, the sociologist Maria Aparecida de Moraes Silva, of the São Paulo State University (Unesp), ended up doing more than she originally set out to. She reconstituted in detail the day-to-day lives of semi-slavery, almost ceaseless work and isolation, not just of the women sugarcane cutters, the main purpose of the study, but of whole families (including men and children) who toiled to expand the glories of Amália over its 11,000 alqueires (approximately 24,200 hectares). The study focuses on a period of more than 60 years in the history of the plantation, still today, after having been broken up and leased, partly owned by the Matarazzo family. It begins in the 30s, a time when sugarcane was definitively taking the place of coffee at Amália and the workers lived as farmhands in houses on the property. It moves on to the second half of the 60s, when these farmhands lost their steady jobs and their dwellings on the plantation (in many cases without being paid what was due to them in severance pay) , became day-laborers and had to look for somewhere to live out the Matarazzo property. And it ends today, marked by the growing mechanization of farming and chronic unemployment for sugarcane laborers and their descendents, whether at Amália or on other farms in the region.

In each of the phases, the relationship of the sugarcane cutters, most of them illiterate, or with only a rudimentary knowledge of the written language, with the masters of Amália, develops on a different basis. With each change, the rural laborers’ situation becomes more precarious, in spite of some local gains, such as the provision of boots and clothing more appropriate for sugarcane cutting. In the period covered by the study, the sugarcane cutters – the most numerous (perhaps 5,000 people) and the least well regarded in the hierarchy of employees and residents of Amália – experience a progressive social decline. “It is the story of losers”, sentences Maria Aparecida.

The day-to-day life of farmhands
Until the end of the 60s, when Amália’s sugarcane cutters worked as field hands and lived in houses built by their employers spread over the land of the property, a working day on the plantation was, literally, spent religiously working. And  nothing else. At five in the morning, at the first ring of the bell, the laborers awoke. They had their breakfast and they labored hard until nine o’clock at night, when the bell rang again. With only short pauses for lunch and a snack.

At harvest time, they also had to slash the cane down on Sundays and holidays, sometimes extending work into the night, according to some reports Maria Aparecida gathered. Vacation? Not to be thought of! For women the day was usually longer still, with a double workload. They woke up earlier then their husbands to fix breakfast and, after hours of labor at the sugarcane field, they still had to take care of the children, prepare supper, and clean the house before going to sleep.

Formally, the head of the household was generally the man; he was the only worker legally employed by Amália. He had the so-called title; he was the employee registered with the employers. But, in practice, all the dependents forming his clan – wife, and children, especially after they reached five years of age – worked on the sugarcane plantation. The task of binding up the sugarcane cut by the adults was reserved for the tiny hands of the children. At the time to be paid, the quantity of cane cut by the whole family was weighed and accounted for. The amount due – a magical sum, its logic beyond the grasp of the cane cutters – was given only to one of the employees, the title-holder. For all effects (especially legal ones), all that cut cane had been the work of a single employee. As they had no legal backing, although the title-holder’s dependents were treated in the plantation hospital when they injured themselves, they received no compensation if they suffered an accident at work. The study found lawsuits brought against Amália by injured laborers, non-titleholders, which were not settled by the company.

The strategy of exploitation did not stop there. The cane cutters were paid, but, on payday, no cash filled their hands. The tons of cane cut in the month were worth a voucher (or order) to the families of workers, which obviously had to be exchanged for food and medications at the farm shop or drugstore. In other words, the little they earned had to be spent right there at Amália. They almost always consumed Matarazzo brand products, coming from the more than 350 factories the group had, some of them operating on the Santa Rosa de Viterbo property, on other parts of the farm..

Very often, the titleholder was unable to cover all his expense with the voucher he received from his employers. The amounts owed to the company store or pharmacy (which means to the Matarazzos) increased every month, and ended up creating the so-called debt bondage. “We prayed to God not the become ill. If we had to buy medication, there was no way of paying”, recalls former cane cutter João Flausino, 72. Unable to pay off their debt, some workers made a radical decision: they abandoned their house and fled from the farm. From being so frequent, a particular expression was employed among the Amália cane cutters to describe the fugitives, who fled in the protective darkness of the early morning, “So-and-so went to bed but didn’t wake up”.

Aware that the hard life of the cane cutters at Amália could easily become fuel to ignite and unify the workers, the Matarazzos tried to disperse the field hands over their immense property. The strategy had the clear purpose of making it difficult for the employees to get in touch with each other, thus undermining the organization of any great protest movement. According to Maria Aparecida’s survey, the cane cutters at Amália were housed in dwellings built in 21 different rural sections, small communities located in different parts of the property in the middle of the cane fields.

When they were not off cutting cane, the laborers were confined to their sections, with little contact with their peers in other sections. The isolation was only broken at weekends when there were parties in the sections, or soccer games on the farm ground. “There was a sort of feudal relationship at Amália. The workers practically never left their sections”, says the retired professor of Unesp’s Philosophy, Science, and Arts College at Araraquara.

Besides the pharmacy and store, each section housed a group of around a hundred title-holders. There was, therefore, around this number of dwellings for the workers’ families. Community baths and washing tanks were installed for each group of four or five houses. “Each woman was given a day for washing clothes”, recalls Maria de Lurdes da Silva, 57, a former Amália resident. Around each house, a sort of kitchen garden or place for raising small animals was allowed.

Water and electricity
From the statements and evidence gathered in the study, not all the dwellings had running water or electric light. In addition to the cane cutters’ houses, built in stone or wood, there was also the section manager’s house and those of the foreman or and the inspector. Some sections had a school. The best houses were reserved for the Matarazzos’ favored employees. And further refining the system of segregation, the masters of Amália avoiding putting all the Italians in one place (this minority had their own section, with better quality houses) together with the other, Brazilian, field hands.

The Matarazzo family had little direct contact with their employees, particularly the more humble of them. According to the reports of many former employees, it was common for cane cutters to hide in the middle of the canebrakes, at the request of their bosses or foremen, in order to” clean up” the pathway for some member of the family. Matarazzos were feared and, not uncommonly, revered by the workers.

To make up the panel of labor relations on the Amália plantation, located in one of the richest rural regions in the State of São Paulo (not to say, Brazil), Maria Aparecida spent four years on the survey and turned to various sources of information. With the help of three students, with grants from the National Scientific and Technological Development Council (CNPq), she examined the course of the lives of 70 men and women that went through the property’s sugarcane plantation. These people and their families (spouses, children, or even parents) responded to the questionnaires with biographical information and told their stories in interviews, resulting in more that 140 hours of recordings. Two hundred and eight labor suits cases brought by ex-employees against the Amália Mill (122 in the Santa Rosa court and 86 in São Simão) were also found and examined and the two judges that heard these cases were interviewed. The researcher was unable to gain access to the descendants of the Matarazzo family, whose statements would undoubtedly serve as a counterweight to the data found in the survey. The magazine Pesquisa FAPESP tried to interview a family member, but was also unsuccessful.

A detailed pictorial study of the lives of the cane cutters managed to assemble 300 photographs. Many of these photos were provided by the interviewees, some recovered by the Santa Rosa de Viterbo Cultural Foundation, others (the more recent) were taken by the researcher herself or her colleagues. There are practically no photos of workers cutting cane, especially in the further past. This is interpreted as a sign that the workers themselves had no very high opinion of themselves socially. When they were able to spend money on photos, the cane cutters preferred to portray leisure moments, at parties or events.

Amália’s origins
There probably has never been an estate like Amália in the State of São Paulo. At least not with same ingredients and refinements that made it one of the Matarazzos’ favorite properties. Originally a coffee plantation, Amália, before ending up in the hands of the then largest Brazilian industrial group, belonged to Henrique dos Santos Dumont, brother of the father of Brazilian aviation. Although located in Santa Rosa de Viterbo, the rural property’s 24,200 hectares  also extended into the municipalities of  São Simão, Serra Azul, Cajuru and Tambaú. In the 20s, Henrique decided to get rid of this huge area, equivalent to 40% of the city of Ribeirão Preto.

At that time, after having quit growing coffee, and taken up sugarcane growing, something that would be imitated decades later by other estates in the Ribeirão Preto region, the property already had its sugar mill, an alcohol distillery, and a small railroad. Taking its first step in the world of canebrakes, Amália attracted the attention of three São Paulo businessmen, who bought it in partnership. Francisco Schmidt, Alexandre Siciliano and count Francesco Matarazzo were partners in the estate until 1931.

That year, after countless disagreements with his business colleagues, the founder of the   IRFM passed his share in the rural property to his son and future successor, Francisco Matarazzo Jr. A plant and animal lover, the young man became interested in Amália. He soon set out to buy out the other partners and become the sole owner of the undertaking. It was the beginning of a small revolution that would emphasize the estate’s present agro-industrial calling.

The commemorative book Matarazzo 100 Anos (Matarazzo 100 Years), published in 1982 by the family itself, summarizes very well the changes that took place spurred by a new vision of the future of the property, “The industrial organization of Amália followed the family’s traditional pattern: maximizing the use of raw materials. Thus, along with  the mill and the distillery, Count Jr. set up a paper plant, to make use of the crushed sugarcane bagasse; a citric acid plant, processed by fermentation fed by sugarcane molasses; a sulfuric ether factory, making use of the surplus alcohol”. As well as implementing these new industrial undertakings and erecting an imposing residential palace in his property (see box), Francisco Matarazzo Jr. established, in 1937, a candy and preserve factory. Produtos Amália used as the ingredients the fruit of new crops introduced into the farm, quince, guava, and pineapple.

Over time, Amália became the nerve center of life in Santa Rosa. Even from the standpoint of social life. After all, as well as being an agro-industrial power, the farm had a cinema, a soccer pitch, a church, a school, and a hospital. It organized the best parties, weddings, and carnival dances. It had a small palace, which no other farm had – and almost nobody saw it. It was a town within a town.

The titleholder system, of paying the head of the household while making use of all the family’s labor can be morally disapproved of, but it was legal, at least until 1963. In that year, the Rural Worker Statue came into force, making farm workers’ rights the same as those of town workers and making the titleholder system illegal. As from that date, cane cutters began having the right to vacations, a thirteenth month’s wage, a signed work card (for every worker and not just the titleholder), medical treatment through the  INSS – The Federal Health system and retirement benefits. According to Maria Aparecida, as the legislation prior to the creation of the statute had been silent on rural workers’ rights, private contracts between employer and employees, such as the titleholder ones, predominated.

In 1964, however, with the establishment of the military dictatorship in Brazil, a framework  of legislation began to be created – National Security laws and the right to Strike – which were to used by some rural bosses to get rid of field hands to avoid paying the new rights the statute provided for. And, in their place, they recruited the same workers as temporary employees, day laborers, who had almost no labor protection and for whom they had no longer to provide housing.

The sociologist Maria Aparecida points out the emergence of an event in 1966,  as a  result of this new context, which was to become a turning point in the history of Amália workers. There was a six-day strike for better wages and working conditions. According to evidence and statements by ex-employees gathered by the researcher, the management of Amália, which controlled the recently created trade union, secretly provoked this movement.

After the strike was over, the Amália management began firing the hands that had gone on strike. “Few people that went on strike went back to work”, recalls the retiree Alcides Brandão, 77, who lived at Amália from 1950 to 1972. For the sociologist the reasons for the act of protest are today quite clear. “The strike was orchestrated by the company (the owners of Amália) with the backing of the military dictatorship, to create an excuse to get rid of the field hands without paying them their due rights and indemnities, in particular the retirement benefits of the older employees. It was a trap”, says the professor.

As soon as a cane cutter was sacked and persuaded to leave the estate, the owners put down his old house to make impossible for him to return as a field hand and the titleholder system, based on the granting of a house and work to the cane cutters, began to collapse. As almost nobody was satisfied with the settlement proposed by the owners, there was an avalanche of lawsuits brought against Amália, challenging the amounts of the settlements.

While the legal dispute dragged on through the courts, the plaintiff cane cutters obtained legal backing to continue living in their houses. They could continue living there until the judges handed down the final ruling, but the Matarazzos gave them no more work – at least not officially. And they also engaged in reprisals. “After the lawsuit against the mill, they (the owners) killed the animals and destroyed the kitchen gardens”, says Helena Teodoro, 82, who lived at Amália for almost three decades.

In some cases, the legal impasse lasted for five years. To survive, these sacked farmhands, but actually still living on the estate, had to support themselves without their former bosses seeing. They began hiring themselves out as temporary laborers to contractors who had begun to supply day laborers to the Amália sugarcane plantations. Maria Aparecida suspects that some of these contractors were companies set up by the owners of the estate themselves.

In the more than 200 labor cases examined in the study, the two São Paulo judges that heard many of the cases usually found in favor of the employees. But the law takes time and allowed a series of appeals and legal maneuvers. Before receiving a final verdict, a lawsuit may, for example, go through – stroll slowly through, is perhaps the more appropriate term – a series of jurisdictions, like the courts of Santa Rosa, Ribeirão Preto, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and, finally, Brasília.

Years of uncertainty made many people stop demanding their rights in court or to opt for a disadvantageous out-of-court settlement. “Those that won their cases got enough money to buy a small house”, says the sociologist. The result: in the early 70s, the process of expulsion of the farm laborers had practically ceased and the system of recruiting day laborers for the sugarcane plantations was already a fact with no turning back. Few of the former laborers stayed in Santa Rosa de Viterbo. Most found themselves obliged to move to other towns, far from the influence of the Matarazzos. Maria Aparecida located a group of former Amália residents in Leme and Barrinha.

The recovery of the history of countryside
Her interest in recovering the history of the countryside, such as that of the Amália sugarcane cutters, has a lot to do with Maria Aparecida’s own rural background. Born in Altinópolis, a town near Ribeirão Preto, where the red earth made coffee bushes flourish, the researcher remembers her childhood on the family farm, a 220- hectare  property. “I even worked at planting and harvesting coffee. But my father always wanted the children to study”, she recalls. That was what she did. She graduated in Social Sciences and did her master’s degree and doctorate in France, always studying the ways that farm labor was exploited. Among her old memories, the image of migrant farm laborers, coming to the Ribeirão Preto region from other States in search of work in the sugarcane plantations, stands out.

As we know, this agricultural crop finally took the place of coffee, which had brought fame and fortune to the local elite. In the mid 80s, Maria Aparecida began working on the question of women and migrants in the São Paulo rural environment. In 1988, to soak up the life style of the migrants better, she stayed for 40 days in the Jequitinhonha River Valley region, in the north of Minas Gerais State, which reaches the border with Bahia. Jequitinhonha is known for being one of the poorest regions in the country, a sort of antechamber to the poverty deprivation that afflict the neighboring northeastern region of the country . With many years on the road and work on the situation of women in the countryside under her belt, the researcher wrote the book Errantes do Fim do Século (End of Century Wanderers), financed by FAPESP, CNPq and Fundunesp, a work that, in 1999, won an honorable mention in the Casa Grande & Senzala (Big House and the Slaves’ Quarters) prize, run by the Joaquim Nabuco Foundation, in Recife.

Current situation
It is not unusual, nowadays, to find families of ex-Amália workers whose household head is a woman. This is essentially for two reasons: either the former head of the household has died, sometime of some sickness deriving from years of work in the sugarcane plantations, or, if he is still alive, he has become more of a burden than pillar to his clan. Because of the difficulty of finding employment in the town, and the inability to adapt to a new kind of existence without the protective-oppressive staff of the old masters of Amália, many ex-cane cutters became alcoholics.

To play this part of emotional and financial mainstay of the household, these women had to overcome still greater challenges than in their past as farmhands. They have to compete now with younger men and the machines that are taking over sugarcane cutting. The day-laboring women face huge difficulties in finding employment in the agricultural job market . The only alternatives left to them are services, generally the worst jobs, those that neither men nor machines can or want to do. Work such as crouching to gather up remnants in sugar plantation (the stumps of the cane that the machines leave after cutting) or handling pesticides in greenhouses.

The picture depicted by the study suggests little prospect of improvement to their families  through rising in the social scale of the new generations. Although they have more schooling than their parents, the children and grandchildren of the ex-field hands of Amália are still in the lower ranks of society. When they get a job, they are domestic servants, bricklayers, or they labor in the sugarcane plantations or in harvesting other crops in the interior of the State. “Like their parents, they perpetuate what is called class destiny. They are born, grow up, and relate to other people of the same social class”, states the sociologist Maria Aparecida.

The orphans of Amália

When they learn about the life of privation and semi-slave labor that the cane cutters of Amália led, many people’s first reaction is that nobody should be nostalgic about having lived on the estate. This impression, however, is false. Although some, generally the younger people, spare no criticism of their former bosses, many ex-field hands – now free in the world outside the closed rural universe controlled with an iron fist by the Matarazzos – still retain fond memories of that difficult time.

They evoke the companionship that ruled among those living on the estate. They talk about the great bustle of people on Sundays and holidays, when the property became the hub of social life in Santa Rosa de Viterbo. Older women remember that when their children were born, they were given small presents said to have been made by the countess Mariangela Matarazzo herself, wife of count Francisco Matarazzo Jr. But one gesture of their former bosses most of the ex-field hands have not understood – nor  forgiven  – even today: why, after all, were they thrown out of their houses and a fence put around the property, in many cases without receiving their due compensation?

We pass the word to Maria Aparecida Brandão Flausino, 50, who, alongside her parents and eight brothers, lived and worked from the age of 7 to 19 in the Amália sugarcane plantations. “I was upset when they threw us out of there”, says this woman from Minas Gerais, short and strong, still today working as a cane cutter or working on harvesting other crops – when she can get a job – on the outskirts of Leme where she currently lives. “Plantation life was hard, we worked a lot, but it was good. We could plant rice, beans, and corn. It was easier than in town. Here you have to buy everything in the market, you’ve got to have credit”.

In her very modest house, with bare, unpainted walls , made up of two tiny bedrooms, a living room/kitchen, a hall with a washing sink, and an yard at the back, live six people: she, her husband, José Aparecido (50), three children and a grandson. As the children have no fixed employment and her husband will not go without a good glass, Maria Aparecida is the mainstay of the household. Luckily, she is still healthy and willing to work. The years cutting cane bent over have not yet affected her back, as happens with many workers. Her short stature, at little more than a meter and a half, seems to have saved her from back pains, at least for now. The shorter you are the less you have to bend over.

Born on a farm between Santa Rosa and São Simão, Fátima Aparecida Silva Pereira, 42, cut cane at Amália for eight years from 1970 to 1978. She was not of the time of the resident field hands and she was never able to live on the farm, the best time, in the view of most former residents of the property. She lived in Santa Rosa and worked as a day laborer for contractors who sub-rented the labor to sugarcane plantations. Always active in strikes and the labor movements that began to spring up in second half of the 60s, Fátima liked the friendly atmosphere that prevailed among her co-workers in the struggle, but she has a more acid view of her time at Amália. “Everybody left there with some kind of (heath) problem. I had back pains and varicose veins, which sometimes burst out  during the cutting. We also handled poison (fertilizers, pesticides) and we had no face masks or anything”, tells Fátima, who has huge varicose veins on her legs.

After the experience at Amália, she spent time at other sugarcane plantations and even tried being a domestic servant  in Ribeirão Preto and São Paulo. She cold not adapt to life between four walls. “I didn’t like staying inside a house. Cane cutting is more fun”, she compares. So Fátima returned to Santa Rosa, but, after marrying and having a daughter (Maria Brígida, almost 5 years old), she had to leave her old job definitively. “A woman with varicose veins and a child can’t get a job nowadays (as a day laborer with contractors)”, she says resignedly. The answer was to make and sell T-shirts, boxes, and slippers to add to the family budget. Her husband, Adilson Pereira, earns little more than R$ 7 a day laying insecticide to kill ants at an old Amália sugarcane plantation, nowadays run by a firm that rents the land from the Matarazzos. Her dream is to move to the city and try her luck elsewhere. “Amália is finished. For us and for the Matarazzos. There are no jobs here. There’s no one interested in handicrafts. I have to think of the children. You can’t live on R$ 200 a month”.

Who are, in fact, the orphans of Amália? It is almost impossible to know how many of the cane cutters that worked at the estate are still alive. But the 70 people whose life story was recovered by the work of the sociologist Maria Aparecida de Moraes Silva, of Unesp, had the following profile: More than half were born in São Paulo state. Around 30% were from Minas Gerais. Two thirds of those interviewed were white and one third black or mixed race. Fifty-five percent were male and 45% female. Almost 85% were over 50 years of age (the oldest were over 90), nine out of ten interviewees were illiterate or had only incomplete primary education. Half the individuals interviewed were retired, 12% described themselves as unemployed, 10% were housewives, 10% were farm laborers and 7% were not working (probably without having managed to get their retirement benefits). The rest had other types of occupation.

Some ex-Amália hands harbor contradictory feelings with regard to the period they lived in the estate, a kind of love-hate relationship with the methods employed by the former owners. Such is the case of the retiree Joaquim Lourenço dos Anjos, 77, Amália field hand between 1944 and 1977 and currently owner of a house in Leme. During his period at the agro-industrial complex of Santa Rosa, he was a cane cutter and also worked as a foreman and a night guard. Even today, he speaks proudly of having won the prize as third best cane cutter on the plantation in 1955. In terms of the worker-boss relationship, he followed the advice of his father, also an Amália resident, who was against the strikes. He thought it was a waste of time. The Matarazzos had lots of money and bought everything and everyone”, he says.

Although he says that life in the São Lourenço section, where he had his house, was “exceedingly good”, he has quite a bit of criticism about the system employed on the estate. “To tell the truth, we worked for free, we were very exploited. If I had come here before, it would have been better”, he believes. This type of opinion, rare among the Amália orphans, can perhaps be explained by the fact that Joaquim got a good job when he moved to the town – he was a security guard for ten years with a firm in Leme. This position enabled him to retire and lead life with a minimum of decency. Most of his former colleagues were not so lucky.

A small Italian  palace among  the sugarcane

Not very far from the sweat of sugarcane plantations and the gears of the agro-industrial sector at Amália, an impressive construction embodied (and still embodies) the pomp and the power, associated for decades during the last century, with the aristocratic Castellabate family that came to build America in Brazil: the palace, with its gardened boulevards, served as a residence for the Matarazzos when they visited Santa Rosa de Viterbo. We should not confuse this building, unique in São Paulo rural history, with traditional ‘big house’ that served as the headquarters of the old coffee estates in the State.

Designed by Italian architects, the place was decorated with Florentine frescos, renaissance style statues and engraving by the French artist Jean-Baptiste Debret, who lived in Brazil at the beginning of the 19th century. The gardens were created in the 30s by count Francisco Jr., son and successor of the group’s founder, who had a special devotion to the property. In the book Matarazzo 100 Anos – The Matarazzos 100 years,  published by the family in 1982, the businessman’s appreciation for the place is described as follows: “I wanted to create a dream island where I could relax and even live, receiving my children in harmony. Amália was ‘his’ house. He liked to receive friends and personalities there”.

For Amália’s farm laborers, the palace was more than a dream. It was a complete mystery. Their entrance was in the pompous place was forbidden, and, according to the stories gathered by the sociologist Maria Aparecida de Moraes Silva, very few cane cutters even saw it at any time. “Like a castle in the Middle Ages. The palace, in the minds of these workers, evoked a fairy tale world”, she points out.

In order to facilitate access by family members and illustrious guests – president Juscelino Kubitschek and the American politician and businessman Nelson Rockefeller signed Amália’s visitors’ book – the Matarazzo even built a private road to this center of luxury and pleasure, linking the center of Santa Rosa to the palace. Nowadays, anyone visiting the Mariah Pia square, in the heart of the town, can still see the padlocked gate escorted by two metal lions, marking the beginning of the estate’s road. In time: the palace is one of the few parts of Amália that still belongs to the Matarazzos.

The project
Sugarcane Women: Memories (96/12858-2); Type: Support for research project; Coordinator: Maria Aparecida de Moraes Silva; Investment: R$ 15. 367,00