Life at № 42 by E.M. Coutinho
I want to continue talking about that period because it’s oddly relevant to what’s going on in the world today…
As a child with grandparents from three different countries and living in a fourth, I had no choice but to become a fast learner. In fact I have no memory of not speaking the languages I speak. I do however have memories of figuring out how systems worked.
By the end of my first month in Bahia I knew many things. I knew men were more important than women; consequently sons more important than daughters. I knew whites were more important than browns, who in turn were more important than blacks. And no one called themselves black unless their skin was jet black. They were cafe-com-leite, pardo or any other range of adjectives which describe shades of brown. I knew people who owned casas de praia (beach houses) were better than people who didn’t, but owning a Fazenda (not living in one!) meant you were proper. Fazenda is the Portuguese equivalent to Hacienda. An agricultural property in the countryside. They look like this:
In those days (in Bahia) people had much of what they consumed sent over from their Fazendas. How much you had sent over showed how important your Fazenda was. If all you got was fruit you were evidently less important than people who got beef. The exception were the Cocoa families. Back then, before Africa got into the game, they were mega-rich. Cocoa was gold. And instead of the concept of minimum wage Brazil went with the Cesta Basica (basic basket.) Why minimum wage when you can give them rice and beans instead? Also, when people wanted a maid, they sent to their Fazenda for one. That’s because there are little houses (huts) on your fazenda where your workers live. They reproduce and so you have an endless supply of people looking for work.
Exchanging stories on the “state of the girl” you had sent over from your Fazenda was a regular occurrence at social encounters. She was so covered in lice/fleas/ticks I had to spray her with common insecticide! She’s got the funniest accent! Can you believe she eats with her hands, I’ve told her she must at least use a spoon!
As a child, I didn’t know enough to make a judgement on the quality of that society, but my first reaction was that it suited me. It looked like everything was in my favour. Like it had all been designed for me to win. If life in America had been the equivalent to Ravel’s Bolero, Brazil was suddenly the Ride of the Valkyries. And yes, it did go straight to my head. A monster was about to be born.