Friday, March 22, 2013

Homage to Miguel Hernandez

                    y ahi te quedas, al mundo le diria / and you stay here, I say to the world

For so much suffering from love
Of your wife's sweet olive breasts
And the halo of salty air
Around the head of your son
Whom you never saw,
You retched in your cell seven years
And groped along the shit-littered floor
For the lost pulse of Spain,
And when your last fit of coughing began,
Spitting out the scraps of your lungs,
You sent down to us, in your death,
Your poems smuggled between bars
And out under the noses of the Civil Guard,
Into hands that did not want to go on.

                    --Floyce Alexander

                    (first published in The Nation,
                    collected in Bottom Falling Out of the Dream, Lynx House Press, 1976)

Monday, March 4, 2013

from Sebastiao Salgado, TERRA: Struggle of the Landless

                                        Preface by JOSE SARAMAGO:

May the idea never enter God's sublime head to journey one day to this land to see for himself whether those people who survive here on the brink between life and death are satisfactorily serving out the punishment that at the beginning of the world he handed out to the father and mother of us all. Just because they wanted to find out why they had been made, they were condemned--she to give birth in pain and travail, he to earn his family's bread by the sweat of his brow, and their final destiny was to return (dust to dust) to that selfsame land from which, by divine whim, they had been expelled. Of the two transgressors, let it be said, it was the woman and her daughters who came to bear the heavier load, for after having to suffer and sweat to give birth, as had been determined by the ever-merciful will of God, they also had to sweat and suffer working at their husbands' sides, had to exert themselves as much or more than the men, because for long millennia life did not enable married women to stay at home idle like queen bees, their only obligation that of laying eggs from time to time lest the world become a desert, leaving God with no-one over whom to rule.

If, however, that same God ignored the recommendations and counsels and insisted on coming here, he would surely recognize how unimportant a god is after all since, despite his famed attributes of omniscience and omnipotence, a thousand times exalted, in every language and dialect, so many errors of foresight (and errors so gross) were committed in the creation of humanity, such as that, unpardonable in any view, of providing human beings with sweat glands and then denying them the work that would make them (the human beings and the glands) function. In the light of this, it is meet to ask whether the pristine innocence that led our first mother and father to taste of the tree of knowledge of good and evil did not merit reward rather than punishment. The truth, let authorities--ideological, civilian or military--say what they will, is that strictly speaking they did not eat it; they only bit into it, which is why we are as we are, knowing so much of evil and so little of good.

A sense of shame and of contrition for errors committed is what is expected of any well-born person from a solid moral background, and God, having indisputably been born of himself, was clearly born of the best there was in his time. For these reasons, because of both the guilt he was born with and that which he acquired and after having seen and understood what happens here, he had no alternative but to cry out mea culpa, mea maxima culpa and recognize the enormity of the mistakes he had made. It is true that, to his credit, and so that this does not turn into one unending criticism of the Creator, there is the irrefutable fact that when God decided to expel our first mother and father from their terrestrial paradise for their disobedience, our first mother and father, despite their imprudent shortcomings, were to have the whole of the earth at their disposal, where they might sweat and work as they chose. Unfortunately, however, a second error in divine foresight was soon to reveal itself, this one much more serious than all those that had gone before.

It came to pass that the earth was now abundantly peopled with the children, the children of the children and the children of the grandchildren of our first mother and father. Some of these people had forgotten that because death belongs to all, so too should life, and they began to draw lines in the ground, to hammer in stakes and to erect walls of stone. Then they declared that from that moment on, it was forbidden (a new word) to enter the land thus demarcated, on pain of punishment that, depending on the times and the customs, could be death, or prison, or a fine, or again death. To this day no-one has ever learned why this happened, and there are those who affirm that the responsibility cannot be put onto the shoulders of God, since our ancient forebears, although they had witnessed the despoliation and heard the unprecedented warning, not only did not protest against the abuse whereby public property had become private property, but also believed that such was the incontestable natural order of things. It was said that if the lamb came into the world to be eaten by the wolf, as could be concluded by simple verification of the realities of pastoral life, then it is because of the desires of natural order that there be servants and masters, that the latter give commands and the former obey them, and that everything that is not so should be called subversion.

Faced with all these men, all these women, all these children (be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth, for thus have you been told), whose sweat was borne not of the work they did not have but from the agony of not having it, God repented of the evils that he had carried out and had permitted, until in an outburst of contrition he tried to exchange his name for a more human one. Speaking to the multitude, he announced, 'From this day forward, ye shall call me Justice.' And the multitude answered him, 'We already have Justice, and it heeds us not.' Then God said, 'If it be thus, I shall take the name of Law.' And again the multitude answered him, 'We already have Law, and it knows us not.' And God said, 'In that case, I shall have the name Charity, which is a pretty name.' The multitude replied, 'We have no need of charity; what we want is a Justice that is fulfilled and a Law that holds us in respect.' Then God understood that he had never truly possessed the world, although he had judged it his own, nor had he held the place of majesty that he had imagined, and that in the end everything had been an illusion, that he too had been the victim of deception just like that of which the women, men and children were complaining. In humiliation, he withdrew to eternity. The penultimate image that he saw was the rifles pointed at the multitude, the penultimate sound that he heard was the shots, but in the final image there were fallen bodies bleeding, and the final sound was a cacophony of cries and tears.

An 17 April 1996, in the Brazilian state of Para, near a town called Eldorado dos Carajas (Eldorado: how ironic the fate of certain words can be . . . ), 155 military policemen, armed with rifles and machine guns, opened fire on a demonstration of peasants who were blocking the roadway in protest against the delay in the legal proceedings to expropriate land. The proceedings concerned the rough draft or facade of a supposed agrarian reform in which, amid minimal steps forward and dramatic steps back, fifty years had already gone by without ever sorting out the grave problems of subsistence (it would be more correct to say survival) of the farmhands. That day, nineteen dead and fifty-seven wounded lay scattered on the ground at Eldorado dos Carajas. Three months after this bloody event, the Para state police, arrogating to itself the role of judge in a case in which obviously it could only be the defendant, declared publicly the innocence of its 155 soldiers, alleging that they had acted in self-defense, and, as if that were not enough, they brought criminal charges against three of the peasants for contempt, injuries and illegal possession of weapons. The protesters' arsenal consisted of three pistols, rocks and farm implements which were more or less capable of being brandished. We are all too well aware that long before firearms were invented, rocks, scythes and harpoons had been considered illegal in the hands of those who, obliged by necessity to demand bread to eat and land to till, found themselves facing the military police of their time, who were armed with swords, lances and halberds. Contrary to what we are usually asked to believe, there is nothing easier to understand than the history of the world, which many enlightened folk still insist on deeming too complicated for the doltish comprehension of the people. 

Around 3am on 9 August 1995, in Corumbiara, in the state of Rondonia, 600 landless peasant families in an encampment on the Santa Elina plantation were attacked by police troops. During the siege, which lasted the rest of the night, the peasants fought back with hunting rifles. At daybreak, the police, with uniforms and helmets, their faces painted black, with the help of a group of professional killers hired by a large landowner in the region, invaded the encampment, sweeping it with gunshots, knocking over and burning the shack where the landless were living. Ten peasants were killed, one of them a seven-year-old girl, shot in the back while trying to flee. Two policeman also died in the battle.

The total area of Brazil, including the lakes, rivers and mountains, is some 2,100 million acres. Roughly half of this area, some 980 million acres, is generally considered suitable for agricultural use and development. But currently only 150 million of those acres are regularly being used for growing grain. The rest, except for those areas that have come to be used for large-scale cattle ranching (which, contrary to the conclusions of an initial and hasty examination, actually signifies an inadequate application of the land), remain in an unproductive state, abandoned, fallow.

Peopling in dramatic fashion this landscape and this social and economic reality, drifting between dreams and despair, are four and a half million rural homeless families. The land is there, before their eyes and their arms, the immense half of an immense country, but these people (how many all told--fifteen million? twenty million? even more?) cannot enter it to work, to live with the simple dignity that only work can confer due to the voracious descendants of the men who first said 'This land is mine' and found others like them ingenuous enough to believe that saying it was enough. They surrounded the land with laws to protect them, with police to guard them, with governments to represent and defend them, with gunmen paid to kill. The nineteen dead at Eldorado dos Carajas were merely the latest drop of blood in the long martyrdom that has marked the persecution suffered by the farm workers, a continuous systematic and merciless persecution that cost 1,636 lives between 1964 and 1995, causing misery for the peasants of every state in Brazil and particularly for those in Bahia, Maranhao, Mato Grosso, Para and Pernambuco, where more than  a thousand have been murdered.

What about agrarian reform, the reform of usable Brazilian land, which has been in laborious and irregular gestation, with hope alternating with dejection ever since the Constitution of 1946? Following the redemocratization movement that swept Brazil after the Second World War, the Constitution adopted the precept of social utility as being fundamental to the expropriation of lands. At what stage today do we find that humanitarian marvel that was to startle the world, that work of thaumaturges so often promised, that banner for elections, that enticement of votes, that delusion of the desperate? Without going beyond the last four Brazilian presidents, it is enough to recall that President Jose Sarney promised to settle 1.4 million families of rural workers and that, at the end of his five years in office, less than 140,000 had been placed; it is enough to recall that President Fernando Collor de Melo promised to settle 600,000 families, and not a single one was; it is enough to recall that President Itamar Franco assured that he would settle 100,000 families and stopped at 20,000; it is enough to mention, finally, that the current president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, has determined that agrarian reform will grant awards to 280,000 families in four years, which means that, as a simple calculation shows, if such a modest objective is carried out and the same programme continues to be repeated, it will take seventy years to settle the almost 5 million families of rural workers who need land and who have none, land that for them is a condition of existence, an existence that can no longer aspire to anything more. Still, the police absolve themselves and condemn those they murdered.

Christ's statue on Corcovado Hill has disappeared. God removed it when he retired to eternity, for having it there served no useful purpose. Now there is talk of putting in its place four enormous panels turned to the four corners of Brazil and the world, all saying in large letters the same thing: LAW THAT RESPECTS, JUSTICE THAT IS SERVED.



                                                Poetry by CHICO BUARQUE:

                                                        BREJO DA CRUZ

                                                             The news  
                                                        In Brejo da Cruz
                                                        Is that the children
                                                        Are feeding on light

                                                        Children are turning blue
                                                        And giving up the ghost
                                                        There in Brejo da Cruz

                                                        They cross the skies of Brazil
                                                             At the bus depot
                                                        They take on thousands of shapes 

                                                             Some peddle grass
                                                             Some have seen Jesus
                                                        Lots of blind accordionists
                                                             Singing the blues

                                                             Some are homesick
                                                             And dance maracatus 
                                                             Some throw stones
                                                        Others wander around nude

                                                        But there are millions of these beings
                                                             All so well disguised
                                                             That no one asks
                                                        From where such people come    

                                                             They're gardeners
                                                        Housekeepers and guards
                                                             They're bus riders
                                                        They're plumbers and nannies

                                                             They no longer remember
                                                        That there's a Brejo da Cruz
                                                        That they used to be children
                                                             And once fed on light

                                                        They wash dishes, do cleaning
                                                             They sway on girders
                                                             Sell tickets to shows
                                                        Or gumdrops or wait on tables
                                                             They  no longer remember
                                                         That there's a Brejo da Cruz
                                                         That they used to be children
                                                             And once fed on light



                                                 He loved that time as if it were the last
                                                      Kissed his wife as if it were the last
                                                 And each child as if it were the only one
                                                      And crossed the street with timid steps
                                                 He climbed the building as if he were a machine
                                                      Raised on the landing four solid walls
                                                 Brick by brick in a magical design
                                                      His eyes enfeebled by cement and tears

                                                 He sat down to rest as if it were Sunday
                                                      Ate rice and beans as if he were a prince
                                                 Drank and sobbed as if he were a castaway
                                                      Danced and laughed as if hearing music

                                                 And he tripped in the sky as if he were a drunk
                                                      And floated in the air as if he were a bird
                                                 And landed on the ground like a flaccid package
                                                      Lay agonizing in the middle of the public walk

                                                 He died in the street disturbing the traffic

                                                 He loved that time as if it were the last
                                                      Kissed his wife as if she were the only one
                                                 And each child of his as if it were the prodigal
                                                      And crossed the street with drunken steps

                                                 He climbed the building as if it were solid
                                                      Raised on the landing four magic walls
                                                 Brick by brick in a logical design
                                                      His eyes enfeebled by cement and traffic
                                                 He sat down to rest as if he were a prince
                                                      Ate rice and beans as if it were the best
                                                 Drank and sobbed as if he were a machine
                                                      Danced and laughed as if he were the next one

                                                 And he tripped in the sky as if hearing music
                                                      And floated in the air as if it were Saturday
                                                 And landed on the ground like a timid package
                                              Agonizing in the middle of the walk like a castaway

                                                 He died in the street disturbing the public

                                                 He loved that time as if he were a machine
                                                      Kissed his wife as if it were logical
                                                 And each child as if it were the only one
                                                      And crossed the streets with timid steps
                                                 Raised on the landing four flaccid walls
                                                      Sat down to rest as if he were a bird
                                                 And floated in the air as if he were a prince
                                             And  landed on the ground like a drunken package
                                                 He died in the street disturbing Saturday


                                                           RAISED FROM THE GROUND

                                                           Ripped from the land? What then?
                                                                Raised from the ground? How so?
                                                                As beneath our feet the ground
                                                           Like water slipping through your hand?

                                                           Like running the road in a dream?
                                                                Slipping in a single spot?
                                                           Like losing your footing in a dream
                                                                And falling to the hollow earth?

                                                           Ripped from the land? What then?
                                                                Raised from the ground? How so?
                                                                Or under your feet the earth
                                                           Like water in the palm of your hand?

                                                                Living in bottomless mud?
                                                                Like lying in a bed of dust?
                                                      In a hammock swinging without a hammock
                                                                Seeing the world upside-down?

                                                                Floating farmer? Is that it?
                                                           Heavenly pastures? A celestial corral?
                                                                A flock in the clouds? But how?
                                                                Winged cattle? Ethereal stallions?

                                                                So odd a tillage! But how?
                                                           Ploughed fields in heaven? Can it be?
                                                           What orange, what apple will rain down?
                                                                Buds? Nectar? Hail? Manna?
                        (This poem's verses were set to music by Milton Nascimento)


This book is dedicated to the thousands of landless Brazilian families who survive in makeshift encampments along the highways, struggling and hoping one day to win a piece of land on which they can be productive and live in dignity.
                                                                      Sebastiao Salgado


Translations of Jose Saramago and Chico Buarque, from Portuguese to English,  by Clifford Landers.
London: Phaidon Press Ltd., 1997. Copyright 1997 by Sebastiao Salgado and Lelia Wanick Salgado.