I met Leopoldina in 1965, at the age of 18. He was 31 and, and despite being in great shape, full of energy, with a lean and muscular body that was very toned, his face looked like that of a much older man. The curious thing is that as the years passed, his face and body remained almost the same.
I was attending the UFRJ (Federal University of Rio de Janeiro) School of Engineering, located on an island in the Guanabara Bay called Ilha do Fundão. Leopoldina taught capoeira in Atlética, the sports department there.
Leopoldina was kind and friendly to students. He did not allow an older or more experienced student to hit a beginner. He carried the most interested of his students to samba, candomblé and umbanda, to the hills and to the carnival parades on Avenida Presidente Vargas.
He was a great Master without even trying to be one, who introduced those university students, myself among them, to Brazilian “popular” culture; to the philosophy of high-spirited roguery – “good business is good for everyone” (as opposed to the so-called Gérson Law, “I take the best from all”, the 171 fraudsters and ordinary scammers); and with a radical and revolutionary approach towards women and sex as compared to bourgeois morality and sexist approaches: “No one belongs to anyone”.
Mestres Leopoldina, André Lacé, Artur Emídio e Celso do Engenho da Rainha at Apoteose – Sambódromo, Rio de Janeiro. Photo collection André Lacé.
Leopoldina thought that capoeira classes should only be taught twice a week, and that they should last one hour; the rest of the time would be for rodas and games.
His teaching method consisted of a brief warm-up (a run around the room and some jumping jacks), some strikes and counter strikes in pairs of students (similar to those he learned from Artur Emídio, who in turn based this on Mestre Bimba’s exercises). Occasionally there would be training of kicks, with students approaching a chair in a row and giving a blow over the chair one by one, and at the end of the class, there would be a fifteen to twenty minutes roda. The classes generally had four to eight students. Leopoldina has never been what would be considered “successful” in terms of student numbers, nor did he teach for more than five years in the same location.
In fact, when I met him in 1965, although he was known and beloved amidst capoeira practitioners, Leopoldina was not as renowned as Artur Emídio was or, later, the Senzala capoeira group. His fame grew slowly over time, on the trips he constantly made to São Paulo and on the friends he made among the Grupo Senzala, which became hegemonic in Rio at the time. This was mainly due to his high-spirited and positive personality, as he was someone who only made friends and avoided enmities, and was liked even more for his capoeira songs which, while being inventive with the lyrics and especially in harmony, appealed even to the players that wanted to remain closest to tradition.
Gradually, his figure began to be associated (and rightly so) with the last of the “good rogues” and Zé Pelintra himself, a spiritual entity from the Afro-Brazilian religion Umbanda.
In 2005, when he was over 70 years old, he was still in great physical shape, playing at a fast pace with four or more young capoeiristas, one game followed by the next. He was one of the best-known masters of our time, along with Mestres João Pequeno and João Grande (former students of Mestre Pastinha from Salvador).
His greatest interests were women, capoeira, samba, big cars (which he bought and equipped with a lot of chrome and painting), trips around Brazil and abroad (where he started to go around 1990), parties, friendships – in short, he enjoyed the small pleasures of life.
To see more
The documentary Mestre Leopoldina – o último bom malandro brings an interview Leopoldina gave to Nestor Capoeira. Click here the third part.
Quinzinho (approx.1925-1950) was a dreaded and well-known young outcast in his day. Drauzio Varela, the doctor from the Carandiru Penitentiary who wrote a highly successful book which later became a film, mentions Quinzinho in his Estação Carandiru (SP, Cia. Das Letras, 1999, p. 270):
Mr Valdomiro is a mulatto with a creased face and gray patches on his frizzy hair… Seventy years and countless prison stories alongside legendary bandits such as Meneguetti, Quinzinho, Sete Dedos, Luz Vermelha, e Promessinha made Mr Valdo a respected man in the prison.
Leopoldina recounted (in a testimony to Nestor Capoeira, included in the film Mestre Leopoldina, the last good trickster (2005) how he met his first master, Joaquim Felix, or Quinzinho, around 1950; Leopoldina was about 18 years old and Quinzinho was maybe 23 years old.
Leopoldina: “I would look at him [Quinzinho], look at the guys around, and he would scream at me ‘Flip!’. When I prepared to attack, he would do these things with his body. I thought: ‘I’m going to kill him!’ Inside the Central Train Station, hidden under the tracks, I had an 8 inch knife that I used to hide there. At dawn I would take the knife and fall back into the night. So I left Quinzinho and went to Central Station to get that knife. At that moment, a newsboy I had never seen before, I think he is dead now, called Rosa Branca, asked me: ‘what is going on?’. He saw me very agitated and asked: ‘what is going on?’. I said, ‘Quinzinho stole my hat and I’ll give him a facada conversada’ (a stab in conversation)
Leopoldina explained what the facada conversada was:
The facada conversada is this: I’d have to wait for the moment when he was drinking, approach from behind, and tap his shoulder for him to turn around. When he turned I would stab him from the front, not the back. Because if I was arrested later this is how I would be thought of in jail: ‘This is a rascal, he gave the guy a facada conversada’. But if I stabbed him in the back, they would say, ‘Coward,’ and they would beat me.
Luckily for Leopoldina, White Rose calmed him down and he didn’t go looking for Quinzinho. Shortly after, Leopoldina was at a bus stop and found Quinzinho once again:
Leopoldina: “Mineiro Bate Pau, another guy named Peão, Testa de Ferro they also got off the bus, and then, Quinzinho. When I saw Quinzinho, I froze and thought, ‘This is it!’ But no one there knew what happened between us and they started talking to me. Quinzinho, seeing that I was respected and a friend of the rogues, approached me and said: ‘I don’t want trouble with you, because you’re also a trickster’. He was holding a cuíca and passed it to one of the guys. He went through his cuica and suddenly gave me a geral (searching someone for weapons)! Just imagine. He said, ‘I don’t want trouble with you because you’re a rascal, etcetera and all,’ and then gave me a geral! ”
The weeks go by and Leopoldina, who is eager to learn capoeira, is slowly working up to approaching Quinzinho:
Leopoldina: “I said, ‘Quinzinho, I want to ask you a favor’. ‘What?’ He replied suspiciously. ‘I want you to teach me capoeira’. ‘Then go to Morro da Favela tomorrow’. Gosh, I wouldn’t be so happy if someone gave me a million reais. That first day, I went back to Morro do São Carlos and went to sleep on a mat. The next day I could not get up. My whole body was hurting. And at the same time, I was worried that he wouldn’t want to teach me anymore. ‘How will I go?’ And in the Favela I still had to climb over a hundred steps. So I went the next day and said to Quinzinho: ‘I couldn’t come because I was hurt’. And he, without giving me any trouble said: “It’s okay, it’s okay”. And he started to teach me: ‘do it like this …. do it like that.’
“Then one day Juvenil appeared. He said hello, looked at me and said: ‘Let’s play?’ I looked at Quinzinho and as he said nothing, I said: ‘Let’s go’. Juvenil took off his hat, vest, tie, and stood naked from the waist up, and we started to play. But as soon as we started playing, he gave me a kick that grazed me on the head. Quinzinho was sitting with a 7.65 tucked into his waist. He was in shorts. At that time (approx. 1955) we wore football shorts and not the swimwear of today. Everyone wore shorts. And he had a handkerchief in his lap, hiding the pistol. When the Juvenil shot that kick, Quinzinho stood up and pointed the pistol in Juvenil’s face: ‘Don’t do that! Don’t do that, or he’ll become a coward!’
Elegance in dress and care in berimbau: Mestre Leopoldina. Photo collection André Lacé.
The outcast and the master
I find this story, told by Leopoldina, amazing. You see, Quinzinho was a dangerous young outcast, a gang leader. When the then young Leopoldina met him, around 1950, Quinzinho already had some deaths on his conscience and had already served time in the penal colony. We could think of Quinzinho as a kind of heir to the violent capoeira practiced by the carioca gangs in the 1800s.
Quinzinho didn’t really have a structured teaching method; as this method already existed in Bahia, with Mestre Bimba, since 1930; or with Sinhozinho, in Rio, in the same period. Leopoldina explained how Quinzinho taught: he was playing with the apprentice and saying, “Do it like this … Do it like this.” However, when he embodied the “capoeira master”, Quinzinho had an impeccable work ethic. Even more impeccable, because at that time, in Rio in the 1950s, students learned capoeira taking beatings to “get smart”. And even today, even if the teacher doesn’t hit apprentices (some do), it is common for more experienced (and / or stronger) students to beat beginners (and / or weaker ones).
I see this story as something very emblematic of the complexity of the capoeira world, with its bizarre paradoxes, which, in fact, do not seem so strange to those who have the body and the head shaped by the foundations of capoeira malice.
Artur Emídio teaching method
Mestre Leopoldina told me that Artur Emidio’s teaching method was based on sequences similar to those of Bimba, but performed to the sound of berimbau played at a fast pace.
At first, according to Leopoldina, it was Mestre Paraná who played the berimbau at Artur’s academy, another Bahian who became well-known in Rio and was the teacher of, among others, Mestre Mintirinha. Artur only started playing berimbau later on.
Artur, like every Mestre, worried about the continuation of his style. Around 1963, Leopoldina began to attend an informal circle of angoleiros, estevedores of the docks in the harbour, which was held in their backyards in the suburbs of Rio. Arhur complained that Leopoldina was getting “very slow,” letting himself be influenced by Angola when, according to Artur, Leopoldina should “impose his capoeira.”
To see more
The documentary Mestre Leopoldina – o último bom malandro brings an interview Leopoldina gave to Nestor Capoeira. Click here the second part.
Paulo Gomes da Cruz was born on January 25th, 1941 in Itabuna, southern Bahia – a cocoa region and native home of writer Jorge Amado. He moved to Rio de Janeiro like many other Bahians who, according to Iphan (BRASIL, 2007), came looking for better life opportunities.
In the carioca capital, he learned capoeira from Mestre Arthur Emídio, who was also from Itabuna and who had a capoeira academy in Bonsucesso, a suburb north of the city centre. There, he trained and graduated as a Master along with other important names such as Leopoldina, Celso do Engenho da Rainha and Djalma Bandeira. It was at this academy that he came to be respected and known as Mestre Paulo Gomes, his capoeira baptismal name. His genealogy in capoeira is as follows: “Son” of Mestre Artur Emídio (1930-2011), “Grandson” of Mestre Paizinho (Teodoro Ramos) and “Great-grandson” of Mestre Neném (MACHADO, 1998).
In the 1960s, Mestre Paulo Gomes moved to the Baixada Fluminense, or more specifically to São João de Meriti, in the Coelho da Rocha neighborhood. It was in this district that he began to teach capoeira and to instruct capoeiristas, among them Mestres Valdir Sales (1942-2019) and Josias da Silva, who became his main disciples and established important academies in the Baixada, respectively the Capoeira Association Valdir Sales, in the municipality of São João de Meriti, and the Capoeira Josias da Silva Association, in the municipalities of Nova Iguaçu and Duque de Caxias.
Mestre Paulo Gomes and his wife, Aureliana, in his academy in São Paulo. Source: Machado, 1998.
In another chapter of his life, Mestre Paulo Gomes went to live in São Paulo and there, just as in the Baixada Fluminense, he was one of the founders of a capoeira community, where he created the Capoeira Centre Ilha de Maré and, in 1985, the Capoeira Association of Brazil (ABRACAP). Mestre Paulo Gomes was also an advisor to the former governor of São Paulo Mário Covas, helping to establish the State Law nº 4.649 on August 7th 1985, which defined August 3rd as a “Capoeirista Day” in the State of São Paulo.
Mestre Paulo Gomes met a tragic death in 1998. He was murdered at age 57 in São Paulo inside his capoeira academy Ilha da Maré. The motive for the murder had been a debt the master owed to a car rental company (Folha de São Paulo, 1998). According to the testimony by Mestre Ribas Machado (1998):
It was at night, when the class had just ended and many students were changing in the locker room, when a bailiff, accompanied by another man, for reasons that only those who were there know and can speak of for certain, unloaded his weapon at the Mestre who, after a while, was taken to hospital, but he did not survive… During the tragic occurrence, two other capoeiristas were lightly wounded while trying to appease the situation, and they are Mestre Fernandão (ABRACAP leader at the time and traditional capoeirista at the Praça da República Roda in São Paulo) and Cristhiano, a capoeira graduate.
Mestre Paulo Gomes’ wake was held in the academy hall, full of homages from fellow capoeira masters, who gave speeches and held a roda in honour of the Mestre. Again according toMestre Ribas Machado:
Then we all went to the São Pedro cemetery (located at Francisco Falconi Avenue, 837 – Vila Alpina – São Paulo) and there, in the presence of more Mestres and capoeiristas (who had been gathering since the wake), the body was buried to the sound of cries, capoeira songs, [chulas], prayers and berimbaus …
Mestre Paulo Gomes is greatly missed in the world of capoeira, with acknowledgments and contributions given by his disciples for the memory of capoeira, such as the 1982 book “Capoeira: Brazilian Martial Art” and the CD “Roda de Capoeira da Ilha de Maré”.
I was in my first year of UFRJ (Federal University of Rio de Janeiro) School of Engineering, in the distant (in relation to Copacabana, where I lived with my parents and brothers) Ilha do Fundão. One day, I was in the schoolyard talking to some friends when I saw a man on the road pedalling at full speed.
As I approached, I began to notice the details of the figure’s clothing: a short-brimmed hoodie worn by sambistas; a red vest with white polka dots, completely open over his bare chest, which swayed in the wind like a bird’s wings; striped pistachio green and gray bell-bottoms and a wide black leather belt with a huge buckle at the waist; 3-cm-high platform soles, studded with silver stars.
He entered the courtyard at full speed and then skid, spinning, ended up standing beside a pillar, where he calmly left the bicycle after jumping. Then I noticed something even stranger: he was carrying, between his lips, a kind of twig painted black, red and white, about 30 or 40 centimetres long. Suddenly, the twig began to move and wrapped itself around the strange person’s neck: Leopoldina raised snakes at home, and this one – a milk snake – was one of his favourites.
I asked a friend, “Wow, who is this guy?” He replied: “It’s Master Leopoldina. He teaches capoeira in Athletics”- which was the sporting part of the student directories. “He comes by bicycle from Cidade de Deus to Fundão Island. It’s far…”- completed this friend of mine.
CHILDHOOD AND YOUTH
Demerval Lopes de Lacerda (1933-2007), the master Leopoldina, was born in Rio de Janeiro on a carnival Saturday. He was raised by his mother, and later by aunts and other ladies who took him in. When he was still a child, he ran away from home to sell bullets to other kids who dominated the railway lines of the Central Railway of Brazil, which joins the city centre with the more distant suburbs of Rio. It was in Central Brazil that he graduated and made after degree in trickster, approximately in 1950.
As a teenager, and in a time of great poverty, he went of his own accord to SAM (Serviço de Assistência ao Menor) – a dreaded Child Care Service. Leopoldina had no complaints from his time there; on the contrary, as a young street rogue, he soon joined the “directors” team. He learned to swim, among other things, regularly circling the island where the institution was located, which left him in excellent physical shape.
When he left SAM, already eighteen years old in 1951, and too old to sell candy and peanuts on trains, he began selling newspapers and soon set up a team. For the first time, he began earning money, dressing in expensive clothing and visiting the Zona do Mangue brothels, where he encountered fame due to the size of his penis. Leopoldina frequented prostitutes, often more than once per day, without wearing any protection, and somehow never contracted any venereal disease.
Mestre Leopoldina, joyous on a parade day at the Rio de Janeiro Sambadrome. Photo Collection André Lacé.
It was at this time that he met Quinzinho, or Joaquim Felix, a dangerous young delinquent and gang leader, who had already served time in the Penal Colony and had a few deaths on his conscience. Quinzinho was a capoeirista and was Leopoldina’s first master in the art of “tiririca”, the capoeira without berimbau of the carioca reprobates, descended from the capoeira of gangs of the 1800s.
A few years later, Quinzinho was once again arrested and this time murdered in prison. Leopoldina disappeared from the area due to fear of reprisals from delinquent enemies. When he returned to the streets, he met Artur Emídio, recently arrived from Itabuna, Bahia. He became Artur’s student around 1954, knowing then the Bahian capoeira was played to the berimbau.
Later, Leopoldina went to work at Cais do Porto and eventually managed to join Resistência, one of the dock branches. He retired early – before the age of forty-five, due to a work accident (which fortunately left no consequences) and lived the life of a capoeirista and high-spirited trickster more intensely.
Another important aspect of Leopoldina’s life was his relationship with samba. He went out with Mangueira for the first time at the 1961 Carnival at the age of twenty-eight. Mangueira was the first samba school to include capoeira in its parades, which gave capoeira great visibility. Leopoldina even organized a group of sixty capoeiristas to demonstrate the artform in the V.C. Entende wing, the show hall of Mangueira. He kept his partnership going with Mangueira until about 1974.
I myself paraded several times in Mangueira when I was still a capoeira novice, at the invitation of Leopoldina, around 1968/1970.
TO SEE MORE
The documentary ‘Mestre Leopoldina – The Last Good Trickster’ brings an interview Leoopoldina gave to Nestor Capoeira. Click here the first part
Obligingly, Tourinho launched his short, muscular body forward on the steep, cobblestoned slope of Pedro América. A round-off cartwheel into a back handspring, flip-flops somehow staying on his feet. My heart skipped a beat as I worried that this time his arms would fail and land him on his head. The men seated on plastic stools outside the botequim cheered and raised their beer glasses. Tourinho grinned at me, demanding praise. At the bottom of Pedro América we cut through the alleyway that connects to Tavares Bastos and there, parted ways: Tourinho turning left for a short downhill walk home, and I turning right for a longer walk home uphill.
From 2001 to 2004, while conducting ethnographic research on capoeira in Rio de Janeiro for my Ph.D. in anthropology, I lived at the top of Rua Tavares Bastos in Catete. I had chosen this neighborhood for its historic buildings, mixed demographics and geographic location: I could easily reach Humaitá where I trained with Mestre Camisa three nights a week, and could also catch a bus or metro out to the Zona Norte where I maintained connections with various capoeira groups. Before graduate school and becoming an anthropologist, I had begun travelling to Rio de Janeiro as a capoeirista with my first teacher, Mestre Beiçola, who had introduced me to his extensive capoeira network in the Zona Norte. By the time I came to live in Rio for three years to conduct fieldwork, I had transitioned to ABADÁ-CAPOEIRA, training first with Mestra Edna in New York City, and then with Mestre Camisa in the CIEP do Humaitá.
I discovered many stylistic, pedagogical and social differences between Zona Sul and Zona Norte capoeira. However, consistent across my research was the role capoeira played in the lives of underprivileged youth from diverse areas of the city. My experience with these youth, and in particular Tourinho whose story I tell here, taught me about the transformative power of capoeira. As mestres and instructors often told me, it was not in the private nursery and elementary schools or health gyms where many of them taught capoeira, but in poor communities that “capoeiristas are made.” Tourinho’s birth as a capoeirista is marked in my field notes by the transition of my use of his real name, Matheus, to his apelido: Tourinho captured his “little bull” strength and stubbornness and symbolized his new identity and inclusion in the capoeira world.
I met Matheus on Rua Tavares Bastos, a cobblestone street that snakes a mile up a hill that marks the back boundary of Catete. Like the rest of Catete, Tavares Bastos was constructed in the 18th and 19th century when growing commerce pushed Rio out from the ports and inner bay towards the sea. Tavares Bastos and adjacent Pedro América were carved out from the hills that were once quarries supplying stones for the Igreja da Glória and other Rio churches. In the 19th century the quarry owners and members of the merchant class built large sobrados decorated with blue and white Portuguese tijolas and bungalow row-houses along Tavares Bastos where they lived side-by-side with their workers. At the top of the hill the land owners maintained a chácara for cultivating food and escaping the heat and chaos of the streets below. After World War II, as Rio’s population swelled, the hilltop area developed into a small favela.
Tavares Bastos’ architectural mix, now also punctuated with 20th century high rise apartment buildings, reflects a persistent socio-economically mixed demographic. Today, in a microcosm of the larger city, middle class and poor families, artists, tourists and expat foreigners live side-by-side up and down Tavares Bastos. I lived at the top of the hill, just below the entrance to the favela in a subdivided 19th century sobrado. At the bottom, at the last curve before the cobblestones of Tavares Bastos meet the asphalt of Rua Bento Lisboa, is one of Rio’s last standing 19th century cortiços (beehive) boarding houses. The narrow façade of the two-storey house, squeezed between another more modern and well-maintained house and a rock wall, is deceptive. Pass through the dilapidated doors on the right and you will discover a third, subterranean level and a long walkway flanked by one-room apartments leading to an outdoor courtyard and communal toilet. In this dim, decaying interior lived several dozen families, among them Matheus and his constant companions, his best friend Erick and Eric’s cousin Debora.
Six when I met him, Matheus was physically small yet mature for his age: the lingering baby fat of his cheeks and belly contrasted sharply with his muscular strength and brash independence. Erick was Matheus’ opposite in every respect. A year older, he was tall and lean, his skin tanned and hair bleached from hours spent with Debora and Matheus at the nearby Praia do Flamengo. While Matheus was a bundle of energy, unruly and disdainful of adult authority or affection, Erick was quiet and contemplative, ready to tuck his hand into mine as we walked down the street. Debora was seventeen years old and despite a somewhat sour expression and badly cared-for teeth, possessed a lanky beauty. She had dropped out of high school and, unemployed, spent her days looking after her younger siblings as well as Erick, whose mother was sick, and Matheus, whose single mother was burdened with nine young children.
On Tuesday and Thursday evenings, Matheus, Debora, Erick and I would cut over to Pedro América and walk up to the casarão, at the entrance to Santo Amaro, a slightly larger favela that sits at the top of a street with the same name and just below Santa Teresa. Naldo, a graduado in ABADÁ at the time, had recently begun teaching classes for kids and teens from the community. That Naldo had grown up and continued to live with his wife, young daughter, mother and grandmother in the community won the trust of local parents. The growing popularity of his classes was measured by the expanding pile of multi-sized flip-flops abandoned in the doorway of the small community center during training. There were as many if not more girls, anomalous for the early 2000s, but indicative of the growing acceptance of females in capoeira (and of Naldo’s good looks and charm which also kept the young mothers hanging around to watch class).
Matheus was Naldo’s most talented student. His stocky strength and fearlessness – which quickly earned him his nickname – gave Tourinho a remarkably facility for mastering even the most difficult floreios. Naldo could demonstrate an acrobatic move once and after a few attempts, pink tongue poking through his lips in concentration, Tourinho got it – shouting out “Look, I’m Naldo!” It was not just Naldo’s capoeira game that Tourinho imitated, but also the posture and attitude of an older capoeirista. He would swagger to class, shirt tucked into the top of his abadá, proudly displaying on his bare chest the beaded necklace I had given him from my trip to Angola, telling anyone who asked that it was from the “ancestral home” of capoeira. He boasted of his rowdy, boyish exploits in the street, and (with Debora’s encouragement) of his many little girlfriends.
Naldo started taking Tourinho to Mestre Camisa’s monthly aulão which brings together all of Rio’s ABADÁ instructors and students to train together. Everyone enjoyed watching and playing with Tourinho, and soon he was accepting invitations to batizados and performances around town; a pint-sized capoeirista with such skill in the roda was always a crowd-pleaser. Tourinho would proudly show off the t-shirts he was given at these events, provide blow-by-blow accounts of the games and, like a baseball card collector reciting the stats of famous players, teach the other kids at the casarão the names and characteristics of his favorite capoeiristas.
For months before their first batizado – that important ceremony that would mark their formal induction into ABADÁ and the larger capoeira world – Naldo’s students speculated with great excitement as to which instructors would “baptize” them. On the morning of the batizado, Erick and Tourinho waited impatiently for me outside their house, freshly bathed, abadá rolled and tightly bound with their corda crua, soon to be replaced with new student cords dyed yellow at the tips. They ran ahead to the CIEP in Glória, where dozens of ABADÁ instructors and students (capoeiristas easily outnumbering audience members) were gathering. The ceremony lasted several hours and included the presentation of cords and maculelê, puxa de rede and samba de roda performances which Naldo’s students had been practicing for weeks in advance. For Tourinho, Erick and many of the young capoeiristas present, the batizado was the most important event of their short lives thus far.
Not all of Naldo’s students were as physically talented as Tourinho. Erick, not as daring, struggled with the acrobatic movements. I worried about him, always in Tourinho’s shadow and never achieving that air-borne sensation of the body in flight that so many young capoeiristas crave and delight in. As one student told me, “capoeira is flying to the moon.” But getting to the moon on capoeira can take many forms. One day coming down Tavares Bastos I heard the melodic strains of a high-pitched berimbau. Rounding the last curve, I saw Erick standing in front of his house, face raised to the sun, playing his heart out on a small berimbau. Dente, a skilled capoeirista and instrument maker, had seen that Erick was drawn to the music – often hanging around after class to learn rhythms on the drum or awkwardly handle Naldo’s berimbau. So, Dente had made Erick a child-size instrument. Every day Erick practiced his berimbau, becoming more skilled and finding his own place in capoeira.
Debora also quietly developed as a capoeirista alongside her two male charges. She was reluctant at first to train as she was much older and taller than the other students at the casarão. But I eventually convinced her to try and she doggedly stuck with it, improving over time and shifting from her caretaker role to a capoeirista in her own right. Debora’s mother had worried at first: “My daughter is already a brigona!” she told me. It was true that Debora often displayed bruises and scratches, the telltale signs of fights with her brothers and other kids on the street. But capoeira in the casarão did not incite aggression. Rather, it provided the youth an alternative way to express with their bodies. Often, I was impressed that rasteiras or martelos that met their mark – something that in the street would have sparked a fight – were amicably accepted in the kids’ rodas.
Tourinho’s “I am Naldo!” verbalized a poignant desire I witnessed in many of the young capoeiristas I meet in favelas: the desire to become someone with skill and recognition. As an older capoeirista who grew up on Rua Santo Amaro told me in an interview:
I practically lived in the streets. I was never home. One day I saw a street roda in the market in Glória and what made the biggest impression on me was seeing all these boys my size playing. And I thought, I’ve got to do this. Because someone arrives and you don’t know who he is, he’s nobody. And then he jumps in the roda and starts to play and you see him in a totally different light – you know then that he is respected. And I wanted that as well – respect where I lived. My neighborhood has a lot of poverty and crime. And a lot of adolescents chose a path of crime. Capoeira gave me a different direction.
Naldo was very aware not only of Tourinho’s potential, but of his own responsibility towards the young capoeirista: “He wants to be just like me so I have to be careful about how I behave. Sometimes he tells people I’m his dad and I go along with it because I want to be involved in his life, not just in capoeira.” When Naldo discovered Tourinho was acting out in school, he showed up in his classroom one day, much to Tourinho’s astonishment, to talk to his teacher; later Naldo rewarded his protégé for improved behavior with new school supplies.
But Naldo also noted, not without some pride, that Tourinho had something within him that made him a capoeirista no matter what: “Tourinho is the essence of capoeira. Capoeira is in his blood. Even if he stops training tomorrow, he will always be a capoeirista.” While seeming to naturalize Tourinho’s knack for capoeira, Naldo also astutely recognized that it is the environment that children like Tourinho grow up in that make them into capoeiristas: “kids in the community have no limits. They are always having to overcome barriers and adapt to new circumstances. So, if you give them a little reassurance, they learn quickly.” Ironically, having “no limits” comes from growing up in an environment with limited resources. When the only playgrounds are the streets where soccer is played barefoot and kites flown from rooftops, kids develop daring and physical dexterity. When resources are scarce – sometimes no more than a kite or a sense of self-worth – kids develop daring and creativity (and at times malandragem and aggression) to hold on to what is theirs. These activities foster resourcefulness and self-reliance, necessary survival skills in precarious life conditions. Capoeira also cultivates these attributes, but with a sense of grace, beauty, freedom and camaraderie.
In the end, perhaps capoeira came too easily for Tourinho. He may have identified with it, but he never developed compromisso, that important next step in a capoeirista’s journey. In 2015 I sadly learned via Facebook that Tourinho had died. Apparently, capoeira had not been a strong enough force in his young life. As a teenager, he felt the pull of drug trafficking. Naldo, still teaching and respected in Santo Amaro, approached the traffickers in the community and asked them to prohibit Tourinho from getting involved. He had potential as a capoeirista. They obliged. But when Tourinho moved with his family to another community, where perhaps once again he felt like a “nobody,” there was no one stopping him. Eventually he was arrested and sent to prison where, under uncertain circumstance, he died.
What was it about Tourinho that prevented him from committing to capoeira? Why didn’t he pursue his childhood dream, as he often told me, of one day becoming an instructor “just like Naldo”? Was Tourinho too much “the essence of capoeira”? Too rebellious? Or did capoeira fail to challenge him enough to keep reaching for the next goal. Perhaps he learned too young to fly too high, and like Icarus who flew too close to the sun with his waxed wings, fell too soon.
Matheus Bernardo (07/13/1995 – 05/04/2015) Rest in Peace.
Author’s Bio: Katya Wesolowski (Camarão) is a lecturing fellow in Cultural Anthropology and Dance at Duke University in the United States. She is currently working on an ethnographic memoir of more than twenty years playing, researching and now teaching capoeira. Her previous publications include “Professionalizing Capoeira: The Politics of Play in Twenty-first-Century Brazil.” (Latin American Perspectives. Volume 39, Issue 2, 2012); “From ‘Moral Disease’ to ‘National Sport’: Race, Nation and Capoeira in Brazil.” (In Sports Culture in Latin American History, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015). And forthcoming, “Imagining Brazil in Africa: capoeira’s transatlantic roots and routes” (In Capoeira and Globalization: Interdisciplinary Studies of an Afro-Brazilian Cultural Form. Cambridge University Press) and “Baile Funk and Kuduro: (dis)articulations of national belonging in Brazil and Angola” (In Dancing the African Diaspora: Theories of Black Performance in Motion. Duke University Press). This piece draws from her dissertation, “Hard Play: capoeira and the politics of inequality in Rio de Janeiro” (Columbia University, 2007), research for which was supported by the Wenner-Gren Foundation.