The Cangaceiros: Bandits Covered in Stars and Flowers

Mariana von Hartenthal, PhD candidate, Southern Methodist University


     A woman sits with her legs crossed, each hand resting on the back of a dog. She wears a dress, necklace, and a wavy hairdo (figure 1). A man on her left has a more elaborate outfit: cropped Jodhpur pants reveal checkered socks and leather shoes; what looks like a scarf adorns his neck and a decorated belt sits on his waist. Multiple large rings adorn his fingers. A headband with three round metal pieces is topped by a half-moon shaped hat. The couple’s attitude hints to a scene of bourgeois domesticity, but the impression does not linger. The man’s attire is too eccentric; the setting is not a living room but the raw outdoors of brambles and mud. The sitters’ pose looks contrived. They do not seem at ease and stare at us with suspicious eyes. The man holds a magazine that separates him from the viewer; its back page is illustrated with the full-bodied image of a scantily clad woman.(1)
     The couple’s defensive look is not surprising for these are Lampião and Maria Bonita, leaders of the cangaceiros, Brazilian outlaw men and women who inhabited the semi-arid northeastern inland area known as sertão.(2) Lampião’s group at some point reached over one hundred men and dominated the region for almost twenty years, starting in the early 1920s and only ending with the leader’s assassination in 1938. By the time photographer and filmmaker Benjamin Abrahão took the picture in 1936, they were the Brazilian Government’s most-wanted criminals.(3)
     Like all photographs do, Abrahão’s picture flattens the visible world onto a surface. Whether or not intended by the photographer, the resulting image superimposes a curvaceous woman and the quintessential “macho” bandit, Lampião. I see this juxtaposition as a metaphor of the complex gender negotiations that informed the visual production of the cangaceiros — negotiations that took place on the surfaces of objects carried over the body. This paper focuses on the early 1930s, a moment of profound changes in the group and the height of the cangaceiro visual production. I argue that the radical embellishment of surfaces during the period was a response to disturbances of the pre-established cangaceiro social structure, which was largely based on local definitions of masculinity. Here I take Judith Butler’s (1990) affirmation of the superficial aspect of gender identity in a literal sense to interpret the compulsion of the bandits to cover themselves in showy outfits. I follow Butler’s lead and encounter in Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger (2001) the connections between local beliefs in the mystical “enclosing” of the male body and the elaboration of cangaceiro apparel.
     Douglas proposed that the body can stand for any bounded system as its boundaries can represent social boundaries perceived as threatened or precarious. She demonstrated that social groups structured around inherent contradictions, for example, societies in which men are seen both as superior and vulnerable to female influence tend to emphasize fears of pollution. These ideas are analogies for social order and become especially relevant when an established situation is under threat and a community fears for its cohesiveness. Sources of danger are varied: external pressure, transgressions of internal divisions, internal contradictions – anything that blurs the limits between inside and outside or confuses that which should be kept separated. During the early 1930s the cangaceiros were experiencing many of these perils as the proximity with the police, local population, and women challenged the previous contours of their existence both in real (physical) terms and their identity as a distinct group.
     For Douglas, the vulnerability of social systems is located at their margins which are therefore both dangerous and powerful. While the cangaceiros occupied a marginal place in the backlands, women in the band were especially potent in such a patriarchal society. Disorder, Douglas observed, has potentiality. It is destructive, but it can also create new patterns. Women represent the culmination of the new cangaceiro order, did not bring immediate disintegration, but set off a creative climax that reflected the anxiety for the integrity of the cangaceiro (male) body. That eventually led to the annihilation of the group, but right before the end they experienced the height of the group’s identification.
     Brazilian historian Frederico Pernambucano de Mello (2010, 48) described the surfaces covering the cangaceiro in the 1930s as “hung, buckled, engraved, stitched,” abound with symbols, patterns, and shining pieces. We would likely expect fugitive outlaws to be inconspicuous, but instead the cangaceiros adopted a flamboyant apparatus replete with flower motifs, colorful silk scarves, and an abundance of jewelry. Smaller objects were tied to the body or to other pieces of attire; sandals and belts were intricately buckled; leather was carved and stamped; fabric was embroidered; ammunition belts, worn diagonally across the body, were covered with multiple eyelets. Because members of the band had to carry their objects on them as almost all journeys were made on foot (the use of horses or mules was rare), the number of things they could own was limited, resulting in relatively few belongings whose surfaces were “soaked” with symbols, details, and visual patterns.
     The visual appeal of the cangaceiro’s accoutrements is certainly one of the main reasons for the group’s lasting fame. In Brazil, Lampião and his men have inspired a wealth of cultural manifestations in the visual arts, music, film and theater, and even video clips.(4) His and Maria Bonita’s love story made them one of the most well-known — probably the most well-known — Brazilian folk heroes. Cangaceiros are ubiquitous in popular art, the subject of clay figurines, posters, and other knick-knacks. They have also inspired pop culture abroad: Lampião appears in one of Corto Maltese’s stories, the Italian graphic novel character created by Italian Hugo Pratt in the 1970s.(5) The group was the theme of films such as Lima Barreto’s O cangaceiro (The Bandit), from 1953, Glauber Rocha’s celebrated Deus e o Diabo na Terra do Sol (Black God, White Devil, 1964), and Carlos Coimbra’s Lampião, o rei do cangaço, also from 1964, among many others. In 1982, their story was the theme of Globo TV series Lampião e Maria Bonita.(6) The group apparently caused an  impression on Swiss-French poet Blaise Cendrars (1887-1961), who had a series of drawings of the group made by Brazilian artist Oswaldo Goeldi (1895-1961).(7) In the 1950s series of paintings by Candido Portinari (1903-1962), one of Brazil’s most accomplished artists. Portinari’s paintings, however, depict the cangaceiros in drag, dull colors. Mello (2010, 48) criticized the artist because he followed images of Marxist revolutionary fighters created by Mexican muralists more than the real bandits.
     Although the group has been the subject of numerous anthropological, historical, and literary studies, few authors have looked at the cangaceiros’ sophisticated visual production, still largely unknown in American visual research circles.(8) The leading scholar on cangaceiro aesthetics is Mello (1985, 1993, 2001, 2010, 2012) who has extensively written about their objects and representations in popular art. His beautifully illustrated book Estrelas de couro: a estética do cangaço (2010), published by Editora Escrituras, is the most thorough research on the theme and will be extensively quoted in this text.(9) The scholar has systematically acquired cangaceiro apparel, amassing an impressive collection and contributing to the preservation of these fascinating objects. French historian Élise Grunspan-Jasmin (2001, 2005, 2006; Jasmin 2007) has also written on the topic, especially about the photographs taken by Benjamin Abrahão.
     The cangaceiro outfit developed from clothing and objects commonly used by sertanejos (dwellers of the sertão), which they transformed to better suit their practical, and as we will see, mystical needs. Thanks to the region’s cattle raising practices, the hide of cows, deer, and goats was abundantly used for the confection of hats, sandals, belts, and other objects that the cangaceiros punctuated with a plethora of eyelets and carved patterns and exquisite color combinations. The contact with the thorny scrub forest of the backlands, known as caatinga, required the employment of a broad range of protective elements, such as gloves, leg protectors, thick stockings, and sandals with heavy soles. These were versions of local attire whose decorative elements were taken to an extreme level of elaboration.
     The most striking example of adaptation of local attire is the cangaceiro hat (see figure 2). A twist on the traditional sertanejo leather hat, a dome-shaped covering with a brim that is turned upwards in the front and back of the head. The cangaceiro version has exaggerated brims measuring from five to almost eight inches. The oversize brim functioned as a large blank canvas ready for the placement of motifs on the back and the front parts of the hat. These images were variations from a limited vocabulary that included fleurs-de-Lis, Maltese crosses, Stars-of-David, and multiple other interpretations of stars, always with an even number of points, sometimes enclosed by a circle. The half-moon shaped hat became the most noticeable attribute of the cangaceiro and an identity mark; to the extent that when a bandit wanted to go unnoticed the hat was the first thing he would take off (Mello 2010, 71).
     Other group identifiers were the jabiracas, silk scarves. Initially made in neutral colors, with the growing elaboration of the cangaceiro outfits jabiracas started to be produced in more colorful cloth. The most popular was red, which contrasted with the neutral background of shirts and trousers made of thick cotton of good quality. The only color avoided was white, as it was supposedly too visible in the midst of the grayish vegetation (Mello 2010, 71). Multiple rings, usually of gold, were used to fasten the scarf around the neck which was never tied in a knot (Mello 2010, 142).
     Sets of two or four colorful shoulder bags called bornais, worn diagonally across the body, were used to carry food, clothes, money, and other small items (figure 3). Due to their size and the way they were donned, the bags could be seen from almost every angle and were carefully produced. Their surfaces were almost entirely covered with colorful embroidered flower motifs, zigzags, and other geometric figures. Bornais were meticulously designed, with internal divisions and straps to keep them in place and attached to the body even in the case of an abrupt movement of the wearer. Colorful patterns also adorned the fabric pouches that covered aluminum water bottles, one of the few industrialized objects used by the cangaceiros (figure 4).
     They were fascinated with shiny metals, especially gold. Tassels, little pieces of gold, coins, and all sorts of small metallic objects were attached to clothing, even to interior surfaces. By the time of his death, Lampião’s hat was covered with fifty-five golden trinkets; the hat of cangaceiro Corisco even had a pair of golden nail scissors tied to its interior surface (Grunspan-Jasmin 2006, 139). Metal tokens inscribed with mellifluous sayings such as “Longing,” “Love,” “Mother love,” “Remembrance,” and “Friendship” were attached to hats and other surfaces. A golden ring with the name “Santinha,” Lampião’s affective nickname for Maria Bonita, was affixed to his hat.
     Mello explains the profusion of decoration in the cangaceiros’ outfits as a reflection of spare time and money, besides female taste and their needlework expertise. Women’s influence on the confection of clothes and objects is undeniable as they creatively contributed with new motifs and techniques. Cangaceira Dadá (Sérgia Ribeiro da Silva, 1915-1994), for instance, a skilled embroiderer, was responsible for the introduction of many new designs. Still, it is hard to believe that these men would be convinced to cover themselves in stars and flowers only to please women’s preferences.
     Moreover, as we see in Abrahão’s picture, male attire was more elaborated than that of women. According to Dadá (Araújo 1985, 102-114), there were two types of cangaceira clothes: the first were everyday dresses similar to the ones used by local women like the one Maria Bonita has on the picture, was donned when they felt protected in a refuge. The second type, worn during the long journeys in the backlands when they were exposed to danger, was inspired by the male outfit. These dresses were made with thick cotton fabric and had very long sleeves to protect the skin from spiky vegetation. The only decoration was the bands embroidered on the chest, made according to the owner’s preference. On the waist there were another two bands whose colors would not vary: one was always red and the other white as they were a distinctive trace of belonging to the band. Women also worn scarves, another sign of group association, but they would never wear the half-moon shaped leather hats; instead, they used industrialized pieces made of felt. Like their male counterparts, women wore many rings, some made of gold and others with gems. These were not hidden by the use of richly decorated gloves that did not cover the fingers (figure 5). Although some female items exhibit a degree of decoration similar to the masculine version, but overall the abundance of symbols and details is not present. As Mello (2010, 73) notes, the cangaceira attire is discreet if compared to the masculine version.
     It is relevant to point out that the confection of clothing was not an exclusively female activity. It was common, and even expected, that leaders (called padrinhos, or Godfathers) helped newcomers to garnish themselves. According to one account, Lampião once took two months to create a satchel (bornal) for a new member he liked (Mello 2010, 74).
     Long before he became a cangaceiro, Lampião made his own clothes and knew how to use an embroidering machine with dexterity. Limited commercial activity in the backlands and economic restraints imposed on sertanejosmeant that men could not always rely on others to make or amend their clothes. Men were accustomed to make clothes and all sorts of leather and fabric objects without having their virility questioned, unlike what happened on the coast and South (Jasmin 2005, 28). Such skills were part of a masculine identity that allowed for a familiarity with fabrics, colors, and shapes as well as with cattle handling and guns.
     The sartorial preference for lavish masculine apparel is not exclusive to the cangaceiros and appears in other subcultures that cultivate a rebellious, criminal, or underground image.(10) For instance, groups such as 1960s mods, 1980s punks and, more recently, gangsta rappers often favor distinctive, elaborate dress codes that challenge the established norms of masculine propriety. In her study on the Americanization of 1950s Germany, Uta Poiger (2000) pointed out that young German men who emulated rock and roll outfits were called “Halbstarken,” that is, “half-strong” or not manly enough. Critics do not understand that these groups frequently adopt codes of conduct that praise definitions of “manliness” linked to violence and/or sexual prowess, but which do not define the attention to clothing and personal appearance as feminine or effeminate.
     Cangaceiros had long been known for their aesthetic preferences. In 1912, Brazilian writer Gustavo Barroso (1962, 117) noted that backland bandits frequently wore a specific hairdo to distinguish themselves; he also commented on Lampião’s predecessor Antônio Silvino’s love for perfume and diamonds. What distinguishes Lampião and his group is that they not only further elaborated previous predilections but created a whole new set of aesthetic values that forever transformed the cangaceiro image. Under his leadership in the early 1930s, the embellishment of the group’s apparel intensified to a paradoxical extravagance.
     Lampião’s group was virtually the last of a long list of insurgent bands that roamed the backlands since colonial times.(11) The term “cangaço” can be found in popular literature as early as in 1871, in Juvenal Galeno’s romance Cenas populares (1969), but its precise origin is hard to locate. In his 1876 romance O Cabeleira, Franklin Távora (1966) affirms that it came from canga, meaning “yoke,” probably referring to the heavy weaponry horizontally carried on the criminal’s shoulders. The word therefore evokes two staples in cangaceiro culture: cattle ranching and violence.
     Through a long and discontinuous process, these nomadic bandits acquired an aura of romance and adventure that has almost surpassed the remembrance of their criminal activities, a fascination that also draws from the distinctive landscape they inhabited. In a country known for tropical rainforests and abundant rivers, the barren sertão stands out. It roughly coincides with the region called “Drought Polygon” (Polígono das Secas), an area covered in the rough caatinga that spreads over seven Brazilian Northeastern States.(12)
     Sertanejos survived on a meager economy that relied on cattle ranching and, when environmental conditions were favorable, cash crops, besides subsistence products.(13) Historically abandoned by State institutions, they had to adapt to a harsh social reality and a non-yielding nature, becoming a national symbol of resilience. In his book Os sertões (Rebellion in the Backlands) Brazilian writer Euclides da Cunha (1944, 89) famously described the sertanejo as “above all else, a strong individual,” a stereotype that still lingers today.
     The backlands conjures up an image of a “deep Brazil” populated by the religious and laconic people. Small farmers often lived in a state of despair and destitution that spurred the appearance of messianic leaders who preached a variety of mystical versions of Catholicism. The most renowned of these religious figures was Antônio Conselheiro (“the Counselor,” Antônio Vicente Mendes Maciel, 1830-1897), who wandered the backlands for twenty years and eventually established the community of Canudos in the state of Bahia in 1893, decimated four years later at the infamous “War on Canudos,” one of the bloodiest events in Brazilian history.(14) The sertão’s second biggest religious leader was the Catholic Priest “Padre Cícero” (Cícero Romão Batista, 1844-1934), who attracted thousands of sertanejos to the town of Juazeiro, also in the state of Bahia. Contrary to the revolutionary communal values proposed by Conselheiro, Padre Cícero himself owned large extensions of land and became the first mayor of Juazeiro in 1911. Lampião, an ardent Catholic, venerated the Padre, even though he would never let the clergyman convince him to abandon his criminal activities.
     The backlands were never a priority for Portuguese settlers, who traditionally privileged the more bountiful Atlantic coast.(15) Since the sixteenth century, occupation was based on large extensions of land granted to entitled noblemen (sesmarias),a system that fostered isolation as self-sufficient estates suffered little intervention from the Crowd.(16) The void left by the State empowered landowners known as coronéis (“Colonels”), who through nepotism, violence, and grafting, controlled local politics (Singelmann 1975; Santos 2004, 2007).(17)  Colonels gathered private police forces of hired men (called jagunços or capangas) who used violence to coerce their bosses’ workers and subdue their enemies.
     The State was present in the area as law enforcement troupes called Forças Volantes(“Flying Forces”), established in the early 1920s. Ill-equipped and also largely dependent on coronels, they were frequently brutal to small farmers and villagers. As Peter Singelmann (1975) noted, it was often hard to tell the difference in behavior among the colonels’ men, the police, and cangaceiros. Allegiance to one or the other side of the law was usually a result of accident rather than conscious choice or vocation.
     Prolonged droughts in the nineteenth century compelled unprivileged farmers and landless sertanejos to roam in search for better chances to survive. Nomadic individuals would gather in their wandering and form groups united against misery and hunger, sometimes resorting to looting and stealing. These groups were precursors of the cangaceiros but still did not build permanent associations and a distinct identity. Bands would stay together for a limited period as means towards an end: for instance, to assure subsistence, or to avenge acts perceived as wrong according to the strict code of honor of the sertão (Facó 1963). 
     Founded on definitions of manliness that encouraged acts of retaliation, the sertão’s code of honor was the region’s de facto legal system and pushed many young men to join the cangaço. Perceptions on what constituted an adequate masculine behavior established that “honored” men were supposed to provide for their families and protect their property, even if resorting to violence. As Martha S. Santos (2007) has demonstrated, disputes of ownership of small plots of land were a major trigger of violence in the backlands, especially after the sesmarias started to be partitioned in the mid-eighteenth century. The lack of consistent legal institutions to provide reliable documentation meant that sertanejos often had to fight to maintain their small farms and ranches.
     At the turn of the century, the “cangaço as a way of life,” as Mello (1985) described it, gets clearer contours. Crime becomes a long-term activity, a career for many men. Around that time the first “celebrity” of the cangaço appears in the figure of Antônio Silvino (Manuel Batista de Morais, 1875-1944), a man who ruled the backlands from the late 1890s to 1914, when he was finally arrested (Lewin 1976). Silvino achieved national reputation and accounts of his exploits were mentioned by the press, not only in the Northeast but also in large urban centers such as Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. His fame was largely constructed by his frequent appearances in the cordéis, short booklets that combine poetry and woodcut illustrations to tell stories based on local events, some of which reported almost daily the feats of different cangaceiro groups.(18) The exploits of outlaws like Antônio Silvino and others were also narrated by cantadores, troubadours who improvised verses in the sertão’s many popular markets.
     No cangaceiro would be as famous as Lampião, whose death was even reported by the New York Times (1938). According to Luís da Câmara Cascudo (1962, 417), in the 1960s he had starred in more than one hundred and fifty chapbooks, the most popular editions selling over ten thousand copies. If his predecessor Antônio Silvino had been the “Governor” of the sertão, Lampião was certainly its “King.” Born Virgulino Ferreira da Silva in Vila Bela (state of Pernambuco) in 1898, Lampião became involved with skirmishes with the police and criminal activities in late adolescence. He and his two brothers, Antônio and Levino, purportedly joined a small cangaceiro band to revenge their father’s murder in 1921 (Chandler 1978), but for Mello (2004) the vengeance was more an excuse for Lampião’s life, an “ethical shield,” as the cangaceiro missed many opportunities to confront the murderers. Lampião became the leader of a group in 1922, when he achieved notoriety after the bold assault to the mansion of the wealthy Baroness of Água Branca, Joana Siqueira Torres.(19)  
Years of robbery and murder throughout the backlands brought substantial wealth to Lampião and his men. While Antônio Silvino was seen by many as a Robin Hood-type of character, a classic example of “good thief,” Lampião was initially identified as a blood-thirsty criminal: he robbed and killed in cold-blood; his men raided villages bringing havoc, carnage, and rape (Chandler 1978, 153-155).(20)
     Lampião’s image went through major changes after his death. From a monstrous criminal he became to many a folk hero, a symbol of resistance. Eric Hobsbawm (1959, 1981) identified the cangaceiros with what he called “social banditry,” a primitive form of peasant rebellion that resisted oppression and poverty. Authors such as Anton Blok (1972) have questioned Hobsbawm’s analysis because they see an undue emphasis on class struggle and a failure to acknowledge the bandits’ association with landed gentry and local authorities.(21) More recent responses to Hobwbawm’s model often focus on how “truthful” his analysis was to real-life bandits, dismissing the historian’s reliance on manifestations such as poems and ballads (Slatta 2004).(22) The problem with this type of criticism is that it tends to invalidate the cultural aspects of social banditry as irrelevant. Blok’s initial response (1972), however, admitted the importance of imaginary constructions of social banditry because he acknowledged that they represented the “fundamental aspirations of people.”
     Lampião was active in the creation of his public persona. He gave away souvenirs to the local population, such as cartes de visite, postcards, and business cards with images of him and his group (figure 6). The cangaceiro was fascinated with photography, an interest that reached a peak between 1935 and 1937 when he allowed filmmaker Benjamin Abrahão to live with his band for a couple of months. Abrahão, an immigrant from Syria who had moved to Brazil in 1915, took pictures and collected footage for a 35mm documentary film (most of the footage has unfortunately disappeared, but an excerpt of around fifteen-minute has survived).(23) The filmmaker was heavily criticized by the press at the time because he did not portray Lampião’s men as the repulsive aggregation of monsters expected by the government of President Getúlio Vargas, who was systematically trying to eliminate the cangaceiros. Instead, Abrahão showed Lampião dancing and praying with his men; in one scene his hair is combed by Maria Bonita. Maybe as a result of what was seeing as complicity with the bandits, in 1938 Abrahão was stabbed forty-two times; the murder case has never been solved.
     There is currently an overall consensus among scholars that Lampião and his men had no higher goals of fighting for the poor. As Singelmann (1975) pointed out, their values did not clash with those of the powerful and that in some ways the cangaceiros contributed to the continuity of the status quo with their frequent association with colonels and men such as Padre Cícero. But it is important to note the utilitarian nature of these associations, only maintained as long as they served Lampião’s goals. The cangaceiro would never become part of the “respectable” backland elite.
     In the early 1930s, President Getúlio Vargas was invested in weakening local political chiefs in an effort to consolidate a national centralized State. Vargas appointed political allies as “interventores” to govern the Northeastern states, who disturbed previous’ chiefs protection of the cangaceiros. Tightly encircled by the Flying Forces, Lampião’s group went through radical structural changes. The band was reorganized in smaller subgroups of six to ten cangaceiros led by a lieutenant chosen by Lampião (Mello 1985, 113-168).(24) Now, instead of roaming large extensions of land, the group now camped near the margins of the São Francisco River, in the properties of coiteiros, sertanejos whohelped the bandits, sometimes allowing them to camp on their farms. At this point, the group had almost completely abandoned armed assaults to rely on other strategies for getting money, such as kidnapping and extortion, benefitting from the cruel persona Lampião had built earlier in his career.
     In his early days in the cangaço Lampião, as others before him, led an almost ascetic life. By the early 1930s there is a shift in the group’s habits and he and his men adopted a life of dance, music, and imported liquor. The proximity with the river brought more comfortable living conditions, and the more densely populated fertile area allowed for closer contact with nearby villagers, frequently invited to balls in the cangaceiro camp. Lampião’s precursors kept a safe distance from outsiders, but the leader changed this reality in the early 1930s when and the separation between the group and local society became less clear. Accounts by former group members highlight that, except for the sporadic combats against the Flying Forces, their time was filled with pleasure. Money was not an issue, music was a common habit as many members of the group could play an instrument or sing; they also played cards and took time to work on the confection of their clothes.
     The most radical change introduced in the cangaço by Lampião was the acceptance of women into his group. The first one to join the band was Maria Bonita (“Pretty Maria;” Maria Gomes de Oliveira, 1911-1938), Lampião’s wife and companion until their death. Maria Bonita met Lampião in 1929 when she was eighteen years old and married to a shoemaker, her cousin, who she abandoned to live with the cangaceiro. After their union, most cangaceiros took women to live with them, although none became as famous as the first lady.
     Maria Bonita followed Lampião on her own volition, but this was not the case with all cangaceiras. Some were kidnapped by their partners, sometimes as an act of revenge against the honor of men in their families. Dadá, for example, was taken from her family as a teenager, but she later claimed to have developed a profound devotion to her husband Corisco (Maxado 1988). Other women, however, never got used to the cangaço or to their partners and had little chance to escape their fate. Cheating was harshly punished and those accused of betraying their partners could be executed.(25)
     Still, women were often seduced by the cangaço as it represented an alternative to the drab, strenuous life they would otherwise have been destined to live. Unlike the laborious life of mother and housewife in an impoverished subsistence farm, the cangaceiras’ occupation was to be the companion of a warrior (Souza and Orrico 1984). As Dadá declared, “we were for love with our partners” (Maxado 1988). Few women other than Dadá participated in combat, nor were they the ones exclusively in charge of all domestic chores.(26) The previous distribution of work in the group, in which men took turns to take care of the kitchen, was kept after the entrance of women and there are several accounts of women being served by their partners. Maria Bonita, for instance, was seeing as spoiled by Lampião (Salem 1996).
     I do not mean to downplay the violence that often characterized the cangaceiros’ interactions with women. There were cases in which behaviors considered “inappropriate” for women were violently punished. Cangaceiro Zé Baiano, for instance, marked women’s faces and other parts of the body with a branding iron with his initials “ZB” if they wore short dresses or short hair (Araújo 1987, 26). According to many accounts, rape was not an uncommon practice (Chandler 1978; Araújo 1987). Barroso (1962, 105) in 1912 already mentioned cangaceiros who raped. Araújo (1987, 90) who interviewed former cangaceiros and sertanejos, found many mentions to rape and group rape, especially of young girls or “honored” married women. Also Prata (1934, 103, 104) writes about gang rape. The problem is what is out of the sexual norm of the backlands: sexual relations with prostitutes are considered normal and even “hygienic” but violations of virgins, married or “honest” women, is problematic for the writers (not for the cangaceiros, apparently). What threatens the cangaceiro is love and the companionship of women, not sex.
     Under Lampião’s rule the cangaceiros subverted gender constructions that had been adopted by previous groups. The connection between asceticism and invincibility appears early in the history of Christianity, as Michel Foucault noted (1990). Barroso (1962, 115), member of a family of sertanejos, quoted Caesar’s “ad effeminandos animos pertinent.” By admitting the companion of women, the cangaceiros turned away from solitary asceticism and opened up the possibility of erotic pleasure in the life of warriors.
     Besides land, masculine codes of honor in the backlands were tied to the perceived sexual “purity” of female relatives (Santos 2007). A common act of revenge against an enemy was to kidnap and rape women to attack the reputation of a kinsman. The “pure” body of virgin or married women could be debased by the unauthorized sexual contact with men, and women who were victim of sexual violence could be considered “impure” and therefore not worthy of respect. Women, like land, had to be bounded, encircled.  
     The result of the need to control women is that they become powerful determinants of male identity. Until Lampião, no cangaceiro allowed women in their bands, supposedly for practical reasons as they were considered slow and unable to fight. But far more important than pragmatic concerns, women were seen as a powerful threat to the integrity of the supposedly invincible cangaceiro body.
     The cangaceiros were extremely superstitious, structuring their lives according to a series of beliefs. They followed an extensive list of taboos and constraints conceived to protect themselves from the perils that are part of a violent existence. A common conviction in the backlands was that the body of the cangaceiro was “enclosed,” mystically armored against firearms and sharp weaponry. This protection, however, was always at risk and the bandits followed a long list of rituals and prescriptions to ensure protection. Women were seen as an especially potent force capable of “opening” the cangaceiro’s body, which would therefore lose its invulnerability. The fear of female was so powerful that extended even to animals. Grunspan-Jasmin (2001, 178) mentions, for instance, that a man would not ride a pregnant mare and would check before riding if there were any pieces of female attire hidden under the saddle.
     Comments on the female threat are abundant in accounts by former cangaceiros. Sinhô Pereira, Lampião’s master and friend, for example, never understood his pupil’s decision to allow women in his group, saying that “women could only bring bad consequences” (Macedo 1975, 32). Padre Cícero, Lampião’s spiritual guide, affirmed that he would “be invincible as long as there are no women in the band” (Maciel 1987, 62 footnote). Even the enemy agreed. The former member of the Flying Forces Pinto Ribeiro mentioned that “Cangaceiro, while he is not attached to a woman, while he does not love, is difficult to defeat; but when he falls in love, he is vanquished, easy to fall” (reproduced in Lins 1997, 25). Women would have a similar impression; Balão’s mother told him to “never live together with a woman, the day you do so your body will be open” (Araújo 1985, 103) and cangaceira Mocinha argued that “if a man gets together with a woman, he becomes a woman himself: it is magical, we cannot explain” (reproduced in Grunspan-Jasmin 2005, 229). The comment of Balão in an interview to the magazine Realidade in 1973 is particularly revealing: “A man of battle cannot go around with women. If he has a [sexual] relation, he loses the prayer, and his body becomes similar to a watermelon: any bullet can pass through it” (Alves, 1973, 46). The multiple remarks on the power of women to “open” and weaken the male body reveal a fear of contamination from “lesser,” “pollutant” individuals, who were no longer “pure” virgins or mothers – nor even prostitutes. The women who joined the band did not fit in any of the previously delineated models of female sexuality.
     The belief in the mystical “enclosing” of bodies is found in several cultural and religious expressions in Brazil, such as the African-Brazilian religion of candomblé and popular Brazilian Catholicism. Candomblé practitioners, for instance, wear devices such as umbigueiras around their waists and contra-eguns on each arm to “enclose” the body. Rituals for securing this kind of mystical protection are also part of catimbó, a religious practice that combines elements from African, Amerindian, and European traditions that has followers throughout the country (Lody 2003; Gaspar 2002, 117-122; Barroso 1962, 152-153).
     The cangaceiros wore a variety of talismans to protect themselves. Under the clothes, close to the skin, small bags were tied around the neck contained invocations written on pieces of paper, known as orações fortesorrezas forçosas (“strong prayers”). At the time of his death, Lampião had seven of these amulets (Grunspan-Jasmin 2001, 171-179). These were invocations from popular Catholicism, often slightly modified versions of the same orison, conjured only in moments of great danger. Many mentioned pleas for the “enclosing” of the body. There is often a reference to clothing or cloaks. For instance, the prayer to Saint Sylvester pleads for protection from the saint who, “with the three shirts he wears,” would stop enemies and prevent their weapons from touching the believer; in case they did so, weaponry would not pass through his body (Cesar, 1941, 196-197). Saint George, for instance, has the ability to protect and “enclose” the believer’s body. The prayer to him highlights the mystical power of his clothes to shield the body against physical assault (Cesar 1941, 83-86; Gaspar 2002, 155; Grunspan-Jasmin 2001, 173). Well-known in the backlands and part of the cangaceiros’ long list of religious invocations (Grunspan-Jasmin 2001, 173), it says “I will walk around dressed with the clothes and weapons of Saint George, so that […] fire arms will not reach my body; knives and spears will break before reaching my body; ropes and chains will break but will not tie my body.” Even more significant is the insistence on summoning the Virgin’s cloak, for instance in the “prayer for the crystal clear rock” (“oração da pedra cristalina”) (Gaspar 2002, 133; Sales 1984, 110-112; Cesar 1941, 197-198).  
     Symbols attached to the clothes and objects also summoned protection. Mello suggested that the motifs used by the cangaceiros were remnants of patterns that came to Brazil via Iberia and were preserved in the backland’s visual memory and transformed in the new environment (Mello 2001, 2010). Eight-pointed stars resemble the mancambira, acommon, spiky plant of the region whose aggressive surface the cangaceiros knew well from their journeys in the backlands. The Maltese cross might refer to the four cardinal points, hinting to the importance of a good sense of direction for people who constantly move in a landscape with few points of reference. The Star-of-David was a protective symbol. The fleur-de-lis, the representation of the lily, related to purity, innocence, and love, attributes cherished by the bandits. Mello suggested that the cangaceiros deliberately chose these images based on established iconography. Rather, they used such emblems in a bricolage whose power derived from their combination.
     The patterns and ornaments that covered the surface of the cangaceiros’ apparel, which became abundant after the entrance of women into the band, were rich in apotropaic connotations. Stars were placed on the hats, on the front and back, to protect the bearer from the “evil eye” (Mello 2010, 68). Gold, applied all over clothing, was perceived as a powerful talisman. Objects from the Catholic tradition like crucifixes were used as amulets placed under clothes; the leader always wore a crucifix stolen from the Baroness of Água Branca, his first significant assault. These amulets were only removed on the occasion of bathing and sexual encounter. After the removal, the talisman would lose power for a number of days, leaving the body of the cangaceiro “open” and vulnerable, water being another element capable of breaching the mystical protection of the cangaceiro body (Grunspan-Jasmin 2001, 172).
     The apotropaic character of cangaceiro regalia has been noted by various researchers on the subject. Mello (2010, 49) described the cangaceiro outfit a “mystical armor,” and mentioned that art historian Valladares had suggested that the profuseness of ornaments in cangaceiro clothing was related to supernatural protection. What I propose here is an explanation for this phenomenon that links the confection of highly elaborated apparel and the new cangaceiro culture born under Lampião’s leadership. By covering the surfaces of objects carried over the surface of the body with protective symbols, the cangaceiros “re-enclosed” their vulnerable boundaries at a moment when previous definitions of the group’s identity were at risk. The highly visible marks that identified the cangaceiros as hyper-masculine warriors were a response to the anxiety caused by a body that loses clear contours when its boundaries are opened by the contact with women.
In his lecture on femininity, Freud (1989) argued that among the few technical contributions of women to civilization is the invention of weaving. Commenting on this, Sarah Kofman (1988) noted that the female weaves to conceal the fact that she has no penis; that is, she makes a veil to cover a hole. In the sertão, men created their own cloak to cover the “opening” of their bodies. Curiously, they did so by often resorting to images and signs we tend to consider “feminine,” like flowers, tender words, and the cloak that covered the body of Virgin Mary. Looking back to Abrahão’s picture, we see Lampião keeping his arms close to the body, protected by the image of a voluptuous woman.

     Ironically, their mystical shield sometimes worked against the cangaceiros, as members of the Flying Forces started to target those wearing the most showy ammunition belts and clothing, thinking that they were the leaders of the group — the cangaceiro protective surface became a flashy bull’s eye (Mello 2010, 95). The display of luxurious objects and a life of pleasure intensified their harassment by law enforcement men, poorly paid, hungry sertanejos in tattered clothes who were envious of their wealth. It became common for soldiers to wear the clothes of their killed enemies and proudly pose for pictures (figure 7). Since soldiers shared much of the cangaceiro mysticism and the belief in their invincible bodies, this reaction was more than an act of revenge; it was the incorporation of the cangaceiro armor. 
     In the end, it is almost as if the cangaceiros had gotten so enthralled with their supernatural carapace that they exposed themselves to the enemy. In 1938, when Lampião’s camp at the Angico Farm was attacked by the Flying Forces, it took him too long to realize the gravity of what would be a fatal assault, even though the chief had mentioned in an interview that the police would hardly find him with an “open body” (O Ceará, 1926, reproduced in Grunspan-Jasmin 2001, 177). Some believed that the assault was successful only because the leader did not have time to wear the “angel foot insole” that protected his right foot, wounded on battle years earlier and left permanently “open.”
     Lampião, Maria Bonita, and nine other members of the group were killed and decapitated; their heads then taken from city to city to be exhibited in the central square of many villages of the sertão.(27) In a striking photograph, likely taken by a soldier, the heads are symmetrically arranged on a stairway, amidst weapons and other personal items, like a trophy display or a museum window (figure 8). On the upper left, a handwritten note identifies the bodies and registers the date. Lampião’s head is prominently placed in the front row, surrounded by the group’s emblems on the surface of three hats. Two sewing machines flank the steps, suggesting that their importance for the making of the cangaceiros was not lost on the person who took the picture.


I am thankful to my advisor, Roberto Tejada, who guided me in the process of turning this paper into an article, and to Eric Stryker, who encouraged me to write about the cangaceiros for his seminar on subcultures. I am also indebted to Roberto Conduru and Adam Herring for their input and critical comments. I am especially grateful to Frederico Pernambucano de Mello, whose commitment to cangaceiro visual culture has made this kind of research possible. Mello and Editora Escrituras kindly agreed to share the images from his collection.


1. According to Mello (2012, 36), Lampião holds a copy of A Noite Ilustrada, a popular magazine published in Rio. Abrahão turned this image into a postcard and sold it in free markets. 

2. Cangaceiro is a man who becomes part of a band, adopting the cangaço as a way of living. Cangaceira is a woman who enters the cangaço. The word sertão is usually translated as “backlands” or “hinterlands.” According to Levine (1992, 16) sertão comes from the Portuguese desertão, meaning “big desert.”

3. For more on the pictures by Benjamin Abrahão see Grunspan-Jasmin (2005) and Mello (2012), a thorough analysis of the photographer’s work and life. Also the movie Baile perfumado (1996), directed by Lírio Ferreira and Paulo Caldas, is based on Abrahão’s time with Lampião.

4. For instance, Chico Science & Nação Zumbi’s video Sangue de Bairro, which was part of the soundtrack for the movie Baile Perfumado.

5. As noted by Ramonet (2001). The episode “Samba con Tiro Fisso” was republished in 2013 as a Kindle edition.

6. The TV series, broadcast for the first time in 1982, was written by Aguinaldo Silva and Doc Comparato and directed by Paulo Afonso Grisolli.

7. Roberto Conduru, “Feitiço gráfico – a macumba de Goeldi,” in Pérolas negras – primeiros fios: experiências artísticas e culturais nos fluxos entre África e Brasil (Rio de Janeiro: EdUERJ, 2013), 27-28.

8. A good introduction to the history of the cangaceiros in English is Chandler’s biography of Lampião (1978).

9.Estrelas de couro (2010) includes a summary in English. For an introduction to Mello’s studies on cangaceiro aesthetics in English, see Mello (2001).

10. I am aware that the term “subculture” is complicated and hard to define; still, I find it useful to refer to the group. Hodkinson (2002) provides a useful definition of subcultural groups as based on four indicators: identity, consistent distinctiveness, autonomy, and commitment, all of which can be ascribed to the cangaceiros.

11. Corisco (Cristino Gomes da Silva Cleto, 1907-1940), also known as Diabo Loiro (Blond Devil), was Lampião’s right hand and survived the leader. After Lampião’s death he led a band of cangaceiros with his wife Dadá, but soon was killed by the Flying Forces. The movie Corisco, o Diabo Loiro, from 1969 (directed by Carlos Coimbra) was inspired by his life.

12. The “Drought Polygon” encompasses the Northern region of the state of Minas Gerais (the Jequitinhonha Valley) which is not always considered part of the sertão (Secretaria de Políticas de Desenvolvimento Regional, 2005).

13. Main cash crops were cotton, tobacco, caranaúba wax and rubber. For more on the historical transformation of the geographic limits of the sertão (Ferreira, Dantas, and Simonini, 2012).

14. Canudos became the second largest city in the state of Bahia, the second most populous state in Brazil at that time (Levine 1992, 2). For an introduction on the history of Canudos, see Cunha (1944).  

15. Franciscan Frey Vicente do Salvador (2015), considered Brazil’s first historian, said in 1627 the Portuguese had the habit of “clinging to the coast like crabs.” For more on the historical transformation of the geographic limits of the sertão, see Ferreira, Dantas, and Simonini (2012).

16. A sesmaria measured between one and three leagues or 16.7 and 50.1 square miles. This system was adopted throughout Brazil and was effective until 1822.

17. Singelmann (1975) compares coronelismo to what is known as caciquismo in Spanish-speaking Latin American countries.

18. The name cordéis (cordel, in the singular) refers to the strings in which the booklets were hanged for sale in sixteenth-century Portugal. For an introduction to the history of this book form in English, see Slater (1981). According to literature historian Daus (1982, 34), in 1904 Antônio Silvino was the first cangaceiro to be the protagonist of a booklet, “A vida de Antônio Silvino” (“The Life of Antônio Silvino”), by Francisco das Chagas Bastista.

19. Vila Bela, now Serra Talhada. Lampião’s date of birth is still controversial. Taking a vulgo or nickname was part of the process of ‘turning cangaceiro’ since earlier days (Barroso 1962, 124). The alias comes from “lamp” and it was adopted because he was always under the light of the firing rifle, according to Daus (1982,36).

20. As Chandler notes, although there are many reports on rape, even gang rape, by members of Lampião’s band, the direct involvement of the leader in these acts is disputed. The author collected a number of testimonies that assert that Lampião was indeed personally involved in rape, while others vehemently denied these acts (1978, 153-155).

21. See also Hobsbawm’s response (1972).  

22. For further discussions on Hobsbawm’s interpretation of Latin American banditry, see also Gilbert J. Joseph (1990) and Paul J. Vanderwood (1982).

23. Excerpts of the original footage were included in the 1959 documentary Lampião, o rei do cangaço, directed by Alexandre Wulfes and Alcebíades Ghiu. For more about the making of this film, see Mello (2012).

24. For an examination of Lampião’s military tactics, see chapter “Do cangaço e de cangaceiros: o escudo ético,” in Mello, Guerreiros do sol: o banditismo no Nordeste do Brasil (Recife: Fundação Joaquim Nabuco, 1985), 113-168.

25. Such was the case, for instance, with the cangaceiras Lili and Lídia (Grunspan-Jasmin, 2005, 130).

26. Dadá would eventually be seriously wounded on a fight and had her right leg amputated (Lins, 1997, 73).

27. The heads were then displayed at the Museu Antropológico Estácio de Lima at the Nina Rodrigues Institute for Legal Medicine for three decades. After a long legal battle, Lampião and Maria Bonita’s remains were finally buried in 1969. The descendants of cangaceiros, led by Silvio Bulhões (son of Corisco and Dadá) put an end to the macabre exhibition in 1965.


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Figure 1: Lampião and Maria Bonita, 1936. Photograph by Benjamin Abrahão.
Figure 2: Lampião’s hat. Image courtesy of the Pernambucano de Mello Collection. Photograph by Valentino Fialdini.
Figure 3: Shoulder bags (bornais) that belonged to cangaceiro Português. Image courtesy of the Pernambucano de Mello Collection. Photograph by Fred Jordão.
Figure 4: Lampião’s water bottle. Image courtesy of the Pernambucano de Mello Collection. Photograph by Valentino Fialdini.
Figure 5: Cangaceiras’ gloves. Image courtesy of the Pernambucano de Mello Collection. Photograph by Fred Jordão.
Figure 6: Lampião’s carte de visite. Image courtesy of the Pernambucano de Mello Collection.
Figure 7: Flying Force section led by Sargent Aniceto (Piranhas, Alagoas, 1938). Unknown photographer. Image courtesy of the Pernambucano de Mello Collection.
Figure 8: Body remains and personal belongings of the cangaceiros. Unknown photographer, 1938.