Padim Ciço: Questioning the Plantation System

By Plínio Tadeu de Góes, Jr. - Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA - 25 November 2015




Father Cícero Romão Batista is known to the people of Brazil as Padim Ciço, an abbreviation of Padrinho Cícero, which means my dear Father Cícero. Every June 20th, the date of his death, thousands of pilgrims flock to Father Cícero’s tomb in Juazeiro do Norte, in the northeastern Brazilian state of Ceará, a city of over two hundred thousand with a large statue of Cícero in the city center. Cícero essentially created the city of Juazeiro do Norte as an independent Christian community.

He was born in the city of Crato, also in the state of Ceará, on the 24th of March of 1844. He grew up in a family of modest means and was sent to be educated in a religious school, and then graduated from a local seminary and was ordained a priest on November 30, 1870. He returned to Crato and taught Latin at a local school, traveling to surrounding cities to celebrate masses.

Cícero came to the tiny village that would come to be known as Juazeiro do Norte on April 11, 1872 to celebrate mass. Juazeiro do Norte lies in the Cariri Valley. This valley is a very special region unique from the surrounding arid, semi-desert landscape. The Cariri is a land with comparatively fertile soil and water giving rise to agriculture for export like sugar cane and cotton co-existing with cattle ranches and local food producers in a diverse economy distinct from the typical monoculture of northeastern Brazil. Cícero realized he could build something unique in this specific spot and decided to make the village his home.

In 1875, the town of Juazeiro do Norte most likely had less than 2,000 inhabitants, two streets, and little commerce, a situation that would change rapidly after the mass of March 1st of 1889. On that day, the host placed in the mouth of a devout local woman named Maria de Araújo allegedly released the blood of Christ, the residents of the Cariri divulging the miracle everywhere they could. By 1891, an eyewitness account of the miracle by a respected medical doctor had been published in a newspaper in the state capital and then similar declarations were published by other educated men -- another doctor and a pharmacist -- and pamphlets were sold containing these accounts. The bishop of Ceará issued a decision rejecting the veracity of any such miracle and then issued another decision on August 5, 1892, prohibiting Padre Cícero from preaching. But thousands came to Juazeiro anyway. The tales of those cured from maladies drew more pilgrims who came to hear Cícero preach in defiance of the bishop's orders.

Cícero described his initial vision for Juazeiro in his final testament: "Desde muito cedo, quando comecei a ser auxiliado com esmolas pelos romeiros...que aqui chegavam....resolvi aplicar parte das mesmas esmolas recebidas em propriedades…." ("From very early on, when I began to be aided by alms from pilgrims...who came here...I decided to apply part of these same alms to buy properties.") He purchased productive, unused plots of land to grow manioc as opposed to allowing land to lie fallow. The migrants who arrived in the city were provided with work. They helped to grow corn, rice, and many other crops, and the city grew from two to twenty-two streets packed with local businesses, themselves providing more employment, especially in home building and home goods production. The city came to have factories making forks and knives, shoes, fireworks, hats, and pots, and to employ many blacksmiths. Juazeiro do Norte, therefore, came to have not only export-based production in large plantations but a local economy based on local production for local consumption. Thus, it hardly mattered when the Vatican itself issued a decree in July 1894 condemning the miracle as false, ordering that pilgrimages to Juazeiro do Norte stop, and also ordering that the so-called miracle could not be discussed by priests, and also when the Bishop of Ceará actually suspended Padre Ciço in April of 1896. The pilgrims kept arriving in great numbers.

Cícero would never find vindication in the Church, his voyage to Rome from March to October 1898 leading him nowhere in his appeals. But his followers, many of them low-born peasants or emancipated slaves, adored him. Although most of these individuals are lost forever in terms of biographical details, investigations by the Church revealed that Maria de Araújo was a mulata born as Maria Madalena do Espírito Santo Araújo, in 1863, and subsequent reports indicated that she worked until her last days as a laundress. Much of Juazeiro's administration was comprised of people who could not otherwise have exercised leadership positions.  

Aside from economic development, Cícero wanted political independence. Padim Ciço turned for help to an ambitious physician named Floro Bartholomeu da Costa who had come to the region in search of copper deposits, meeting Cícero in 1908 and becoming his chief advisor. Padre Cícero adopted aggressive tactics in his move for independence, including a declaration that Juazeiro would not pay taxes any longer. The tax protest worked and Juazeiro do Norte was given municipal autonomy shortly thereafter, on July 22, 1911. The ceremony on October 4, 1911, celebrating the inauguration of Juazeiro as a city separate from Crato included the presence of a number of powerful figures in the Cariri valley. Cícero was embraced by the power structure for a short period of time, becoming one of the vice-governors of the state of Ceará.

The political and financial independence of Juazeiro frightened the plantation-owning elite, however. Anticipating an invasion of the town, Cícero sent the residents out to dig trenches and prepare for war. Invading troops did come, on December 20, 1913, but were repelled, the war lasting over a month. The forces from Juazeiro then went on the offensive and took Crato and then took the state capital, the city of Fortaleza. Juazeiro had established itself as a city to be respected and feared. Cícero died of natural causes in 1934 but his followers kept his memory alive and followed his example.

One of his followers named José Lourenço, for example, was born somewhere around 1870 to 1872, in a city in one of the states in northeastern Brazil, possibly Paraíba, Pernambuco, or Alagoas, to the emancipated slaves Lourenço Gomes da Silva and Tereza Maria da Conceição, who went to live in Juazeiro to live near Padim Ciço as pilgrims. José Lourenço grew up under the tutelage of Cícero. José Lourenço established the Baixa Dantas community around 1894 or 1895 on land owned by Cícero, who sent José Lourenço a steady supply of workers to develop the land. The workers were pilgrims who had come to Juazeiro. Juazeiro became the center of a wheel with several spokes. José Lourenço eventually moved to a new plot of land where he established the Caldeirão da Santa Cruz do Deserto, his most famous community, where a great deal of food was produced and shared during the suffering of droughts such as the drought of 1932.

The Caldeirão site contained hundreds of homes, a warehouse with tightly packed sand to preserve locally-produced edible blocks of cane sugar known as rapadura, production facilities, a smith and a carpenter’s shop, as well as land dedicated to ranching and cultivating different crops. The community grew from 200 to 300 people in 1926 to around 1,500 to 2,000 people by 1936. José Lourenço preached sermons without being a priest and three literate women worked as teachers in a school. The government became suspicious that the practice of sharing profits equally among community members was the result of communist influences. The military invaded the premises on September 11, in 1936, the community members were arrested and tortured, and then the Brazilian Airforce firebombed the Caldeirão on May 11, 1937, with the goal of killing any remaining sympathizers -- all before an official edict evicting the inhabitants of the community was promulgated in 1940.

In the context of a plantation-based economy, the work of Padim Ciço and those who followed his example can be thought of as an attempt to merge Christian principles with ideas of economic fairness. As the middle class disappears in the United States, his example is important not only for South Americans but North Americans as well.