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The color that invaded the backcountry

Mystical luxury and wealth underscore the esthetics of the cangaço banditry

Pictures taken from the book "Estrela de couro – A estética do cangaço"Corisco, one of the vainest cangaceirosPictures taken from the book "Estrela de couro – A estética do cangaço"

“Hail, lace-making woman / hail, oh lacy woman / you teach me to make lace / and I´ll then teach you to love,” says the symbol-song of the cangaço [the roving, colorful and legendary banditry of Brazil’s northeast in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries]. When it came to fashion, Lampião [called the “king” of the bandits, captured and killed by the authorities in 1938] and his men had little to learn and much to teach. Their attire was colorful and full of gold ornaments. As frontiersmen, they knew how to create all sorts of things and their clothing also, without their virility being doubted: the “kings of the cangaço” sewed his own clothes and that of his godchildren and could use a sewing machine to embroider perfectly, and was proud of his skills. “Lampião’s band, especially in the 1930’s, had greater and more frequent esthetic concerns that those of the modern urban man,” states the historian Frederico Pernambucano de Mello, a researcher at the Joaquim Nabuco Foundation and author of the book Estrela de couro: a estética do cangaço [Leather star: the esthetics of the cangaço] (Escrituras publishing house, 258 pages, R$150), containing 300 historical photographs and 160 pictures of the objects of personal use of the cangaceiro bandits, many of which now belong to the author. Such care with visuals, full of details even in the most prosaic daily things (dogs with silver-decorated collars!) served to ward off the evil eye, besides being a tool of internal hierarchy. They could also be used for military purposes and were a powerful instrument of propaganda among the poor, who were astonished to see all that luxury, color and glitter. It was also a form of art that the cangaceiros carried on their bodies.

“There was pride in all of that, an effort designed to attain each one of the men’s aspirations to beauty. Also noteworthy was a systematic disregard for hiding their appearance, an attitude that is the opposite of those who see themselves as criminals,” he explains. “Living in a gray and impoverished environment, the cangaceiros would dress colorfully and richly, satisfying their desire for mystical comfort and art. It was as if the most elusive inhabitants of that grayness rose against the despotism of the lack of color in the caatinga brushlands and proclaimed a carnival of tones and contrasts.” Rather than seeking camouflage, they developed brilliant and conspicuous esthetics, their attire decorated with mirrors, coins, metals, buttons and multicolored patches that, paradoxically, made them an easy target even in the dark. “All of them armed with carbines, sporting bizarrely adorned rigouts, they would arrive singing their warsongs, as if in the midst of a diabolical full-fledged carnival celebration,” wrote the Diário de Notícias, a Salvador city newspaper, in 1929. “Although fascination with the cangaço has always existed, fostered by popular booklets, Lampião know how to play with all the visual elements to ‘magnify’ his life and convey the image of a wealthy, powerful bandit. He was the first cangaceiro to look after his esthetics, using modern media such as the press and photography that had not been part of his original culture,” explains the French historian Élise Grunspan-Jasmin, author of Lampião: senhor do sertão [Lampião: lord of the backcountry] (Edusp publishing house. ).

Once their looks had been praised in the popular booklets, photography proved to be a delight for the cangaço when in arrived in the backcountry in the first decade of the twentieth century. “This criminal existence seems to have been created to fit in a photograph, such was the care of the cangaceiro about visuals, with grandiosity and richness of his warrior’s ensemble,” Pernambucano adds. “The bandits’ garments were improved on until they became fancy dress, essentially. This was one of the aspects of the extreme vanity of those bandits,” observes the historian Luiz Bernardo Pericás, author of Os cangaceiros: ensaio de interpretação histórica [The cangaceiros: an historical interpretation essay] (Boitempo publishing house, 320 pages, R$54). The cangaço bandit was a proud person that honed his garments right to the end, as one can see in the famous photo of the heads of Lampião and his men next to their hats: “Among the thirteen hats, there are no two that are alike, as rich in terms of their themes and material as those of the boss, a proof of esthetic grandiosity, which , exaggerated toward the end, characterized the cangaço in its final stage, when the bandits actually imbedded gold wedding rings into the mouth of their weapons,” notes Pernambucano. “There was a rich esthetic that conferred a ‘mystical protective shield’ upon the cangaceiro, content with his beauty and still safe in the midst of supposed inviolability.” To the point of contaminating the clothes of policemen, who copied the garments, and changed the focus of the war. “The inescapable contact enhanced this esthetic and highlighted the presence of another struggle, in parallel, on the plane of symbolic representation. The cangaço’s esthetic revenge against elimination by the military took place when the main icon of their symbology becomes the trademark of the Northeast: the half moon with a star from the hat of Lampião.”

Pictures taken from the book "Estrela de couro – A estética do cangaço"Decorated canteen and flowery bagPictures taken from the book "Estrela de couro – A estética do cangaço"

At the heart of this “thirst for ostentation” was the very political essence of the cangaço. “The cangaceiros wouldn’t admit being compared or confused with common bandits; this was an unpardonable offense. They saw themselves as distinct social actors, with the same stature as the ‘coronels’ [the local strongmen],” explains Pericás. This enabled them to use and to overuse their fancy dress: proud of themselves, they also had a taste for the military, promoting their men to positions in the military hierarchy and regarding their members as “soldiers.” “One should note that all military groups hold symbols, insignia and representations of power in high regard. Remember Breznev with so many medals that they couldn’t fit on his chest back in the time of the Soviet Republic? An extremely intelligent person, Lampião turned sewing and embroidery into yet another promotion and status criterion for the band and he himself sewed the garments of his group. Knowing how to make them and to confer them upon his men was a major advantage,” Pernambucano highlights. “One doesn’t round up cattle by slapping your leggings,” the “king” used to say, well aware of a policy of being friendly to ease the discipline that he valued highly. “Esthetics was a tool to infuse the pride of the bandits’ territorial aspirations among the recruits almost instantly. Prior to this esthetic trick, I suppose that this inoculation must have taken quite a while.”

“The bands of cangaceiros were hierarchical structures with clear distinctions between the leaders and the ‘small fry’, who had no voice in the command and held a clearly subordinate position. Many regarded the cangaço leaders as bosses.” “And these commanders also saw themselves like this, almost like the ‘colonels,’ [the local political strongmen], with whom they were on good terms, ascribing themselves a position equal to that of the rural potentates,” states Pericás. Going directly against common sense, the cangaceiro commandants came from traditional families that were relatively well off. Lampião for instance, came from the landowners’ class and had raised cattle. Therefore, says the researcher, the cangaço was not a struggle to reconstruct or modify the traditional social order of the backcountry, as most literature indicates. “They didn’t fight to maintain or to change any political order, but rather in defense of their own interests, via violence, indistinct and indiscriminate. They tried to keep on good terms with the powerful protectors, which could lead, among other things, to attacks against their own people,” says Pericás. Thus, the famous explanation according to which people joined the cangaço because of social dispute or family revenge should be regarded with suspicion. “The cangaceiros described themselves as victims who had been forced to fight for reasons of honor, but this was largely an ‘ethical shield,’ an argument to persuade the impoverished population that they were moved by higher motives, which set them apart from common bandits, which, however, was untrue.” Lampião never regarded helping those in need as a priority. “Generally speaking, they kept the big money and gave the small change to the poor and the churches. And they always made sure that this was publicized, in order to establish a positive image among the people.”

Pictures taken from the book "Estrela de couro – A estética do cangaço"Bandanas made out of English fabric, which belonged to LampiãoPictures taken from the book "Estrela de couro – A estética do cangaço"

In practice, the cangaceiros’ behavior was similar to that of the “colonels,” who also behaved paternalistically in relation to those that they saw as “their” poor. “They weren’t social bandits and one can even state that their existence was an obstacle to more significant social protest. This notwithstanding, as an independent executor of the silent rage of the rural poor, the cangaceiros enjoyed the popular appeal of a higher agent. Their violence was a gesture admired, a gesture of psychological statement due to the lack of justice and positive change,” believes the historian Linda Lewin, from the University of California, the author of The oligarchical limitations of social banditry in Brazil. Câmara Cascudo had already pointed out that the backcountry man doesn’t admire the criminal, but the brave man.” “The cangaço can be seen as the continuity of the violent backcountry environment, where it was common for non-military men to carry and use arms daily, their life being underscored by moral issues of honor and prestige,” says Pericás. The cangaceiros built themselves an image of wronged men who had entered the world of criminality with good reason. However, if they were violent, the same could be said of the soldiers that pursued them. “The population, which had endured the violence of the authorities, turned to the bandits in response, or because they saw them as the opposite of the agents of the law,” Pericás analyses.

“With their unmistakable and far from discreet garments, they felt invested in an older mandate, considered more legitimate than the law, which, to them, represented an intrusion from the coast into the rural domains,” adds Pernambucano. The cangaceiros filled the gap of institutional power in the backcountry. “As a parallel power, they represented the true balance in many cases, but a power that, though fluid and inconsistent, appealed to the rural masses,” says Pericás. Over time, however, the cangaço revealed itself as a business, “Cangaço Inc.,” in the words of Pernambucano. “It was a profession of sorts, a means of earning a living. The bandits were equidistant between the ‘people’ and the ‘bosses,’ even though they were closer to the rural elite,” agrees Pericás. As they were “independent,” their image was dissociated from that of the strongmen. “Being nobody’s employees, they were in a sense autonomous, taking from the richer strata of society and the government the monopoly of violence. However, one should always keep in mind that most of the backcountry population, despite being destitute and exploited, despite the lack of jobs and the droughts, did not join the cangaço.” According to the researcher, one of the reasons for the longevity of the “good” recollections people have of the cangaceiros is the fact that the latter were the opposite of the institutional order of things.
“The police represented the government, but they used their uniform to transgress. Thus, part of this society turned toward the cangaceiros, seeing them as the opposite, in other words, those who fought against the established order.” Their crimes were then justified in the greater picture of the struggle between two ‘parties,’ the cangaço and the police.

Pictures taken from the book "Estrela de couro – A estética do cangaço"The leather hat of the “king” of the cangaço banditryPictures taken from the book "Estrela de couro – A estética do cangaço"

Politically “rehabilitated” and highly regarded, they allowed themselves the luxury of ostentation, which began with their hats, whose raised rims could be as wide as 20 cm, a hyperbole relative to the original model of the herdsmen, with rims that were turned up, but short. “I tried Lampião’s hat at the Historical and Geographic Institute of Alagoas and my head wobbled. So much ornamental weight had nothing to do with military functionality, but with far subtler values,” Pernambucano tells us. The hat has some 70 pieces of gold, including coins, medals and other forms of decoration, leading a reporter of the time to define it as a “veritable numismatic exhibition.” The hat was the focal point of the symbolic addenda that characterized the cangaceiro’s apparel.

Common things were turned into amulets that, besides reinforcing the hierarchy, became symbols of mystical belief. “The mystical armour was converted into many signs (star of David, fleur-de-lis, sign of Solomon, etc.) and into using them profusely in all the parts of their clothes, which vied for attention with pure esthetic expectations, blending with the latter and conferring utilitarianism upon the combination, by bringing alive traditional beliefs, in a supposed inviolability in the midst of extreme dangers.” Still, the spectator should not assume that the bands were “mobile superstition schools.” “The bulk of the men, aged 16 to 23 and very young, simply went along with the law of imitation, with no awareness of what they were wearing. The boss wore it? Good enough.” The women followed suit when it came to these fashions, but in a different manner. “With a few traces of the Valkyries and almost none of the Amazon, the backcountry women that joined the cangaço never adopted the leather hat, a man’s thing. They sported a felt hat, with a medium-sized brim, along with a scarf or towel on the head,” Pernambucano tells us. The same was true of the daggers, which could be as long as 80 cm for men (the upper limit was the length of Lampião’s dagger, which could not be exceeded), but was never longer than 37 cm in the case of women.

Pictures taken from the book "Estrela de couro – A estética do cangaço"Short knife with a hawk handle, which belonged to LampiãoPictures taken from the book "Estrela de couro – A estética do cangaço"

Cutting weapons, actually, were a paradigm of the cangaceiros’ attire. With their military usefulness virtually gone after the advent of the repeating shotgun, the daggers were used for the lethal, Northeastern bleeding ritual, or as a status symbol. “It was proudly used over the abdomen, in full view of everyone, steel of the best European quality with a decorated silver handle. Enjoyable at a glance. Or in the first photo.” The value of Zé Baiano’s dagger, a gift from Lampião, was assessed as greater than one million reals at the time, the price of a house. The bandolier, a broad belt to hold the shotgun on the shoulder, was another symbol of prestige, as was the crossed cartridge carriers, born out of the need to carry extra ammunition: 150 cartridges of a Mauser rifle, held with gold decorations. It was common, however, for the authorities, aware of the prestige of such wearing such accoutrements, to target the bandits who wore these. Next to this the cangaceiros carried their carefully decorated canteens, a surprising area for art designed to impress. As were the gloves to which the cangaceiros, in their pomp of the 1930’s, added colorful embroidery. The chief area for color, however, was the side bag, whose multicolored visuals led a journalist to describe the cangaceiros as being “ornamented and bedecked in loud colors, so that they seemed to be rigged out for carnival.” Visible from all sides, these bags accounted for more than two thirds of this “color overdose,” the balance being handled by the jabiraca [a sort of bandana worn around the neck], also used to filter the liquid extracted from the plants of the caatinga brushlands. ?With its two ends pulled forward and no knots, the cangaceiro collected gold wedding rings in it, becoming rich once a cylinder had formed. There were some with more than 30 wedding rings on their neck,” he tells us. Traveling in the state of Sergipe, in 1929, Lampião had his “gear” weighed on the scales of a general store: 29 kilograms, arms excluded. All in all, the weight carried in the torrid sun of the caatinga brushlands could reach almost 40 kilograms.

Although less elaborate, this type of apparel infected policemen. “The seduction of the cangaceiros’ garments was ravishing in its functionality, its esthetics and its mystic elements. It was imitated to such an extent that the men  had little left of their own image, to the despair of the authorities, who felt that they had been defeated in the symbolic level as well. It is required that  prohibition be adopted of any exotic uniforms, charms, stars, elongated daggers and other notorious exaggerations, because of the impression they make on  uneducated brains and, at the first opportunity, the leather hat covers the forehead and the rifle hangs sideways,” warned an official report. Oddly, the researcher comments, painters such as Portinari or Vicente do Rego Monteiro were unable to capture the luxury and colorfulness of this esthetics in their pictures of the cangaço. Instead, they ideologically chose an opaque monochromatic view, in order to stress the social aspect of the phenomenon, at the cost of depicting reality faithfully. “It is no exaggeration to state that whether in painting or the cinema, someone capable of depicting the ethos and ethnos of these communities is yet to appear,” assess Pernambucano. “The cangaço was the last movement to exist ‘with neither law nor king’ in our days, after five centuries of history. And it was the last to do this so proudly, so colorfully, so festively and with such a significant visual heritage.” As, indeed, state the verses of Mulher rendeira, the song about the lace makers: “Lampião’s musket / has five bows of ribbon / and there where he lives / pretty maids are not lacking.”