Sex, Politics, and the Tocantins River

(Tocantins – Brazil, 1990)

At four-twenty-four in the afternoon, the five dogs in the hard-packed dirt farm-yard were oblivious to the political meeting going on inside, not seeming to care whether the Workers’ Party won or not.  Two of them, indeed, remained oblivious to everything but their own dreams – rolled up fast asleep in separate, dust-brown balls, lying on the hard red dirt like figures in an abstract painting. 

    But the other three were acting out a drama of their own.  To the left was the couple: a perky white male with pointed ears and gray splotches – sitting up straight, lean and handsome; beside him, reclining demurely, a lovely female dog of an unusual light beige tone with white markings.  Across from them was an old, lazy, yellowish male, gentle looking and twice the size of his rival.  

    The two males were rivals.  Every so often the big yellow dog wandered over and sniffed towards the female.  Then the perky male, without moving, bared his teeth and growled – a low, intense, powerful growl.  The older dog, not yet having reached the female, looked around vaguely – a university professor half remembering something on the way to the bank – then turned around, headed back to the spot he’d started from, and sat down.  The perky dog, immensely pleased with himself, glanced at his mate. Unimpressed, she lay with eyes closed, assured of the unquestionability of her virtue, her beauty, and her social standing.  

    After a moment, the perky dog rose and walk to her hind side.  Lifting one paw, he tapped her behind, indicating his desire.  She ignored him.  He tapped again.  Again, she ignored him.  Then he moved toward her more forcefully and suddenly, angrily, she turned her head and snapped out a growl, warning him off.  Chastened, he returned to where he had first been sitting.  She resumed her lady-like position with half closed eyes.  Then, after a short pause, the old yellow dog slowly got up and start sniffing toward her. The whole drama would run its course again.  


    Smoking a cigarette, leaning against the adobe wall of the farmhouse, Carlos watched them.  He half listened through the open window to the speech of the candidate for state representative.  She spoke of justice.  Right now she was telling them, he knew, that seventy percent of the people in the state were illiterate and that the state government spent only seven percent of its budget on education rather than the twenty-five percent mandated by law.  He wondered vaguely whether the people had any idea what “per cent” meant, but he knew she’d explain it.  She’d explain about health councils too, and how the money was syphoned off, and about land titles and how the governor had said that it would be better to move in competent farmers from the south than to let the people stay on the land, and a dozen other things.  She was a good candidate.  She listened to the people and, months later, she would still remember this place, these people, and care about them, about their problems.

    He believed in the Workers’ Party.  In the four years since he left São Paulo to work for the Church’s Land Commission (in what his father called ‘that God-forsaken place’), he had also worked during his time off for the Party.  He had believed in the Workers’ Party this morning, he would believe in it again tomorrow – after all, it was the only party that took the poor seriously.  But right now, at (he glanced at his watch) 4:37 in the afternoon on the seventh stop of the day, after driving the Toyota jeep 300 kilometers, he didn’t believe in much of anything.  

    So he stood and smoked cigarettes and watched the dogs. Their repeated pattern, their little canine ballet, would make him think of something, he knew, if his mind weren’t past thinking.  It was pleasant in a way to be here, just tasting the smoke, feeling the rough adobe wall through his shirt, hearing the murmur of voices inside, watching the sunlight and the growing shadow on the hard dirt.  Too tired to be anything except in the present moment, to think anything except aimlessly meandering thoughts.

    Yet thought came.  The female dog, for instance, how she handled herself.  Letting her mate protect her, then protecting herself from him.  In her calm assurance there was something essentially feminine.  And the perky male – ready to face and fight the world, and yet cowed by the slightest displeasure of his lady.  Carlos smiled, remembering a certain young woman with bright eyes and dark, long hair who had once had much the same effect on him.  But today he felt much more like the yellow dog – old, tired, torn between a memory of what adventure was and a desire to sit in peace, sniffing out the adventure but retreating from it at the first growl.  

    How had he gotten here?  Four years ago, he’d been a bored engineering student at the University of São Paulo, looking forward to graduation and no job in a country overflowing with engineers.  Then, here in Tocantins, agents for landowning interests gunned down Padre Josimo Tavares, a priest working with land rights.  Suddenly the region, the issue of land reform, was on everyone’s lips.  Carlos left school, applied for a job with the Catholic Church Land Commission, and – somewhat to his surprise and the admiration of his friends – got it.  He came up here – over a thousand miles north from São Paulo. Starting work, he was scared at first – the risks of being killed were real – but elated also to be part of a small team whose comradery grew from the knowledge that they depended on one another for life and death.  

    Those were heady times, with the eyes of the nation, even Europe and the United States, focused on rural Brazil.  The fight for land reform.  Then came empty promises from the government, a few token reforms.  Public interest shifted elsewhere.  On his last trip to São Paulo, a year ago, a young woman – a friend of friends – said to him, “Oh, land reform.  Wasn’t that already done?”   And he had looked at her, amazed that she didn’t know that no land reform had taken place, that the poor were losing their land as fast as ever. 

    But the Land Commission plodded on, knitting together a network of priests, sisters, Protestant pastors, farmer’s union organizers, and local communities who, at risk of their lives and against high odds, worked to help poor farmers stay on the land.  Helped them win title to their land, to fight off the crooked land agents – who dealt in lies, threats and bribes, crop and house burning, beatings and murders.  Carlos’ job was a small part of that struggle – risky, wearing, sometimes uplifting, often disheartening, much of the time – like any soldier’s – slow and tedious.   

    And the Party never forgot.  Time after time, the handful of Workers’ Party members in the Federal Congress, elected by the big urban labor unions in São Paulo and the southern states, rose up and demanded land reform, spoke of twelve million landless workers, of half the country’s land sitting idle while two-thirds of the people were mal-nourished.  The Party did not forget.


    “We have a place for you, Carlos,” his cousin Josué said.  “We know how good you are – how smart and — what can I say? – careful, yet innovative.  You can have a job while you finish up university – then become a full partner once you’re an engineer.”

    They were sitting on the veranda at the family’s summer home, two hours from São Paulo.  On the lawn, younger children – family, friends – were playing and laughing – while the men – Carlos’ father, uncles, brothers, cousins – watched over the grilling meat, talking animatedly, drinking large glasses of golden beer.  Josué – five years older – who Carlos always looked up to, had pulled Carlos aside, but Carlos knew that the whole family was there in spirit, speaking through Josué.

    “And all of us,” Josué continued, “all of us at the firm feel like you do.  The Workers’ Party is the future.  It’s growing here – you can feel it surging among the people.  We’ll have a Federal senator next year, lots of state legislators and municipal officeholders – there’s a need for people like you.  You can do much more here….” 

    The yellow dog, growled at once more, moved back again to safety and looked over at Carlos, as much as if to say, “Is it worth the fight?”  


    And is it? Carlos thought.  

    Here, in this state where Padre Josimo died fighting for the people’s right to land, where land reform was needed – here sometimes it seemed the people didn’t care.  Here, where the Party should be strong, it was weak.  It had no chance to win the governorship, a seat in the Federal Senate, or even to elect a Federal Representative to Congress.  Perhaps, for the first time, a state legislator or two would be elected.  Was it worth the fight? 

    He had no illusions.  In an election year, the large landowners were well behaved, not wanting to draw attention to the issue, not wanting to radicalize the situation or create martyrs, waiting for their candidates to win.  But once the elections passed, the pressure would be on again – people told to get off their land, tricked, beaten, burned out of their homes, murdered.  And wherever he interfered, he also would be a target.  Was it worth the fight?

    Inside the candidate stopped talking.  Carlos looked in through the open window.  An old man had risen to his feet.  He had shaggy white hair and a thick mustache.  The people hushed.  He was clearly a leader.  “Companheiros,” he started.

    “Companheiros.”  He spoke softly, but the words were clear in the crowded room.  “Companheiros, I think we owe these people our vote.  We have tried everyone else; we have tried all the other parties.  No one will help us.  We owe these people our vote.”   


    They reached the Tocantins River at midnight, the candidate asleep in the back seat, the other driver – Luis – asleep in the front beside Carlos.  Carlos turned off the jeep’s motor and sat for a moment, the windows open, listening to the chirp of insects.  The dirt road was built up above the low fluvial plain – it led straight to the river where the ferry boat, barge-like metal and able to carry a dozen vehicles, sat moored and silent.  The moon, almost full, stood high above the river, lighting the water, the ferry, the road.  Small wooden shacks nestled in shadow where the roadside sloped down to the low lands. 

    Luis, struggling awake, looked around him.  

    “The ferry,” he said.  He spoke in a hushed voice.  

    Carlos nodded.  “We’ll have to find someone.”  He opened the door, got out quietly and left the door open so that the sound of shutting it wouldn’t wake the candidate.  Luis quietly got out the other side.  They walked half a dozen yards to the ferry, a light breeze cooling their faces.  A watchman – an old man in a long-sleeved white shirt and dark pants – lay snoring on a small, backless bench.  Carlos reached down and gently shook his shoulder.  

    “What is it?” the watchman sat up quickly.  He looked at Carlos and Luis, confused.  

    “We need to cross,” Carlos said.  

    “Five o’clock,” the watchman said.  “First crossing, five o’clock.”  He started to settle back down on his bench.  

    “We need to cross now.”

    “What?  The boss won’t do it,” the watchman said.  

    “Tell him we’ll pay.  Pay extra.”

    The watchman hesitated, then got up reluctantly.  Grunting, he started toward one of the shacks, back down the road.  

    Ten minutes, fifteen.  Carlos and Luis waited, calmly, listening to the insects, watching the river – the play of moonlight on the water.  

    The watchman came back.  “He didn’t like it,” he said – meaning the boss – vindicated in what he told them.  He gave them a price – ten times the normal price.  “I’ll pay half that,” Carlos said.  “He won’t like it,” the watchmen said again, and turned back to the shack.  Three minutes later he was back – they settled on three-fourths the original offer.  The ferry man – big, burly, and dark haired – came lumbering up to the road, buckling his belt, muttering under his breath.  


    The ferry’s motor growled deeply as the boat moved across the smooth water.  Carlos stood on the deck, smoking, looking over the railing, watching the water in the moonlight, the dark forested bank on the distant far side.

    “Companheiros, we owe these people our vote,” the old man had said this afternoon.  And he meant it, and the people meant it – at the moment.  But other candidates would come by, with projects to offer, money to spend, favors to give.  Money and favors the poor could ill afford to pass up. Getting men and women to pledge their vote (a pledge they always kept) for a cash payment of two day’s wages. Carlos remembered a conversation with Auberto – a sturdy worker who lived by planting rice on a small island that emerged in the Araguaia River during the dry season; “I know, Seu Carlos,” Auberto said, “that the Workers’ Party is better for us in the long run – but I can’t think of the long run, I have a family to feed today.” 

    Yes, some of the people would vote for the party.  But the Party, Carlos realized, would lose the elections. 

    He continued to look out over the water, gently sparkling in moonlight. The water here all flowed north, and suddenly Carlos knew that his life flowed with it.  He would never go back south again, not to live.  Maybe after a few days rest he’d be energetic again, maybe he’d still be an old yellow dog.  Maybe he’d roll up and go to sleep.  But whatever it was, it would be here in this God-forsaken place, where he’d stay.  

    He laughed to himself.  Some said sex moved the world, and some said politics.  He supposed they were right.  Yet sometimes it was something as simple as moonlight on the river.

    He flicked his cigarette butt out into the night.  The orange ember arched into the darkness, then fell and snuffed itself out in the water. 

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