Santa Cruz

By Arthur Powers - Raleigh, North Carolina, USA - 12 February 2016



Brazil, 2012.



Santa Cruz used to be a small, rural village, nestled in a valley guarded by ancient granite mountains.  But the old colonial city to the south and the tourist town to the east have both grown -- the first slowly, inexorably, and the second rapidly.  All the riff-raff has been pushed into Santa Cruz, where housing is cheap and built any which way, and the riff-raff kids have grown up any which way.  There are drugs in the school and gangs on the streets.  Most of the folk are hard-working. They get up early and go to menial jobs in the factories of the old colonial city or the pousadas in the tourist town. But they also walk through the streets of their own town under a cloud.  They are afraid -- not so much for themselves (it isn’t that bad yet) but for their children, growing up with riff-raff, easily led the wrong way. 


Some of the families are there still, from when it was a village, and Dona Maria’s is one of these.  She’s a strong old woman. Her younger years working the land show in her muscular arms and legs.  She looks almost seventy, though she may be ten years younger.  She’s been widowed for years, and lives in the rambling, plastered white mud-brick house that she's lived in since she was married -- an old farmhouse.  The town has grown up around it, but she still has a yard with a few fruit trees, a coop of chickens, and a bright, neatly grown vegetable garden. 


Dona Maria lives with her daughter-in-law -- the son disappeared to Brasília four or five years ago and is rarely heard from -- and seven kids.  Two of the younger kids are the daughter-in-law’s, but Dona Maria is unquestionably the matriarch of the house.  The other kids are from her two daughters. One died in childbirth years ago, and the other is lost -- in more ways than one -- though they can find her when they need to and when they are willing to roam through the bars and brothels looking for her. 


The old woman lives well enough for the town.  She has her old age pension, plus the small bolsa escolar -- the government subsidy she receives for keeping the younger kids in school.  The oldest boy, Dário, who is 16, and his sister Loriana who is 15, both study at night and work during the day, bringing their earnings home.  Dona Maria and her daughter-in-law take in some laundry and sewing and earn a little bartering eggs and vegetables.  They struggle, but they get by -- rice and beans on the table, coffee in the pot, clothes and shoes on the kids.  And, of course, there is the full government pension they get for the child Tiago, Dona Maria’s special one, loved one -- her xodó.


Tiago is, I think, the oldest child of the lost daughter.  He may be twelve or thirteen.  It’s hard to say, because he is what people uncharitably call a vegetable.  Dark hair, pallid white skin, twisted limbs, he sits all day in an arm chair in the living room.  His dark brown eyes fix on one at times like a dog’s, then again seem to wander, looking into a world of his own -- or perhaps a world we cannot see.  Undoubtedly he sees -- but what he sees, what he comprehends, is unknowable.  He makes sounds that, to most people, seem unintelligible, though Dona Maria, his aunt, and the other kids claim they understand him, and he them.


The other kids are all good kids.  Dário is a sturdy young man, good humored and handsome, with tousled dirty-blond hair.  Unlike his sister -- who is a pillar of our youth group -- he is not particularly religious, but he is steady, hard-working and good at school.  His sister, who adores him, is a healthy, hardy, good-looking girl.  Together they set a pattern for their younger cousins.


If you ask Dona Maria how she manages to raise her grandchildren free from drugs and gangs, shrill greed, and predatory sex, she will tell you it is because they pray the rosary.  Every morning, before the young children go to school and Dário and Loriana head off to work, she assembles the family in the front room for the rosary.  Tiago is there, of course, looking on with his dog-like eyes.


And, without diminishing the rosary, I believe that it is Tiago himself who is the secret of the family.  The way the others speak to him -- gently, lovingly -- the way they watch out for his needs.  I have seen it before. A wounded family member, useless in the eyes of the world, seems to hold a family together, make it strong -- becomes the heart of the home.




I had been away from Santa Cruz for several months, on a mission out west.  Back in town a week or so, I stopped by Dona Maria’s house, as I often had in the past.  She welcomed me warmly, and offered me a sweet, black cafezinho.


Dona Maria is a lively talker, an intelligent observer, a great story teller.  She is also an invaluable source of information about the neighborhood, the whole town.   Her daughter-in-law greeted me, but then went back to work in the kitchen.  The children were at school, Dário and Loriana at work.   Dona Maria and I sat in the front room talking -- mostly she talking and I listening.  Tiago, of course, was also there, seated in his arm chair, and she would turn toward him, include him with words and gestures in the conversation, as though he understood.


“Did I tell you about this one?” she said, after a while, motioning to Tiago and talking about him in that off-hand, third person way working-class Brazilians use when speaking of their deeply loved children -- as though to cover up their brimming pride in them.  She half turned and smiled at Tiago as she spoke, her smile revealing how much she loves him. 


“Tell me what about him?”


“You know, he’s a happy child,” she said, turning again and smiling at him.  “He fills this house with joy.  We all know it.  But…” she paused for a second…“about a year ago, maybe more, I noticed that he was getting sad.”




“Yes.  Not every day.  But some days.  He would sit, and his eyes would grow sad, and tears would well up in them, and sometimes brim over and run in streaks down his cheeks.  But mostly you could see -- we could see -- that he was sad inside, deep inside.  It would last all day -- into the night.  Then…” she motioned with her arm…“the next day he’d be fine.  Happy, filling the house with joy.”


I looked over at Tiago with new interest. 


“Do you have any idea what it was?”


“Well, we thought of all kinds of things.  Dona Ana” (her neighbor) “said it must be depression, and that there are pills now that make you happy again.  Constância” (her daughter-in-law) “thought there might be something hurting him -- some sore or ache or something.  We took him to the health post. The doctor looked at him.  There was nothing.”


She hesitated a moment. 


“Then I -- God forgive me” (she crossed herself) “I thought that maybe one of the other children might be doing something mean to him.  For days I watched like a hawk.  But again there was nothing. The others were kind to him as always.”


“So what did you do?”


“Well, what could we do?  Nothing, really, except pray, of course, and try to think about what it could be. But it always seemed to be just out of reach, scurrying around the corner of my mind.  As though I should know, but didn’t know.  Then it was Loriana who noticed.”


“Noticed what?”


“Well, she began keeping track…putting things down in her notebook.  These young people are so smart these days.  And she noticed…the days that he was sad.  And it was always Tuesdays and Fridays.”


She said it as though it should mean something to me, but I was baffled.  “Tuesdays and Fridays?”


“Yes,” she said.  “The days of the sorrowful mysteries.”


“You mean Tiago was sad because…”


“Because of Jesus’ suffering, his death.  Every Tuesday and Friday morning, we prayed the sorrowful mysteries.  And all day long Tiago wept.”


The room was silent. 


“Did you do anything?”


She smiled.  “Of course.  On Tuesdays and Fridays we add a sixth mystery -- the resurrection of Christ.”


“And Tiago…”


“He’s happy now.  No more sad days.”




“Dona Maria!” her daughter-in-law called, and the old lady got up and went back toward the kitchen.  I was alone with Tiago. I looked at him, and he looked back out of brown dog-like eyes.


I reflected for a few moments -- and a thought flitted across my mind.  What happened inside his mind?   He must see, or feel, or somehow know Christ’s pain, Christ’s loss.  I wanted to ask whether, if we take away Tiago’s day of sorrow, are we helping him? Or are we denying him, denying him his time of weeping?  Are we somehow -- in the grand scale of things -- upsetting the delicate balance among joy, sorrow, and glory -- upsetting the path of joy passing through sorrow to become glory?


Tiago made a soft, incomprehensible sound.  I looked again into his dark eyes, imprisoned in that pallid, twisted body.  Dona Maria walked back into the room, and the question hovered in my mind.  But I knew -- suddenly and definitely -- that the question wasn’t mine to ask.