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The Sights and Voices of Dispossession: The Fight for the Land and the Emerging Culture of the MST (The Movement of the Landless Rural Workers of Brazil)


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Ênio Bönhenberger
(Militant of the MST; coordinator of the Cultural Collective of the Movement. Essay translated by Thomas L Burns, Revised by Catherine McGuirk.)


The importance of art for the MST

Sem Terra (Landless) relates to things demonstates that its own production is connected to the production of the existence of all species. The Sem Terra are patient beings in origin. In the nature of their activities, they are obliged to respect the developmental cycle of nature to be able to defend their own life. It is this mystery of preparing the soil that motivates in them the fertilizing force, causing them to imagine the seed germinating, raising itself upon this red bed of earth to become a plant with blossoms, green fruit, then ripe fruit, to allow the festival of the harvest to take place, which is transformed into plenty, satisfying the needs of the family where other relations, of love and affection, are developed.

At the origin of the words of the music composed by the Sem Terra poets is the life that blossoms from the ground and passes through the different forms of life. There is, therefore, a utopian aspect in this digression. The time of waiting is a fertile time. It is a waiting that moves toward the realization of unexpected dreams or frustrations. In the latter case, the poet becomes melancholic and sings of the sufferings in order to be relieved of them, like the wounded wolf that howls to externalize its pain. These characteristics are displaced onto the songs that tell of political action, and because we have a greater consciousness of how difficulties work, there is a mixture of anger, melancholy, and a mística that promises resistance. At the same time as the music denounces, it announces. The pain is mixed with the celebration, creating smaller moments within this large space of conquests and victories that are born in the body of made history.

It was self-seeking theoreticians and artists who made public a deformed image and later uprooted the back-country man in order to urbanize his features. The world of the Sem Terra has nothing to do with Jeca Tatu and even less with the Cowboy that only shows up in rodeos, making official the cattle culture, or Texas colonialism. The Sem Terra is, above all, joyful and loyal, because he has learned to live and dream along with his companions. There is art in the forms of organizing, educating, and producing, because there are dreams being made by the combination of the movements of each hand. The art in the struggle for agrarian reform is the element that gives color to the steps that we consciously take.

The artists are the incarnation and expression of beings who have learned to produce dreams by looking at the horizon that glimmers behind the latifundia protected by the power of the governing-class and its murderous weapons. To sing to the Sem Terra is to tell parts of its history, a history made by the obligation that imposes needs. The laments are expressions of pain that the poets and singers capture from the clouds of rebellion, that spring from the decision to take a step forward in search of this collective harvest. There are also in this universe other forms of artistic expression, such as the theatre where people stage their own stories, without having written the plays. It is research done in the files of each memory, transformed into an art told with the body, while the mouth stays closed to contain the grief. We call it the mística. It is the mystery of succeeding in joining the yesterday to the tomorrow.

We have paintings that make our homes in the settlements true works of art. Each family displays its aesthetic consciousness based on what it has managed to experience in the difficult path of the search for the liberation of the land and of its own body. The landscapes set up around and within the space in which each family produces its own existence, in the settlements and communities, are a practical form of showing that utopia is present in everything we do. The rivers and lakes surrounded by trees and flowers, with houses built at the foot of the mountain, with animals serving as toys for the children, are in the picture of life, painted by the ability of each one to live in common, showing that the only one who is the architect of his dreams is he who succeeds in making of his existence a living picture that is modified with every breath taken.

Art is therefore the factor that unifies through beauty and gives creativity to the steps we take towards the building of a new society. Without art, the struggle becomes sad. People stop being authentic in the quest for their own dreams and began to build the dreams of others.

Editor's Note: Jeca Tatu (literally 'Armadillo Bumpkin') is a negative stereotype of a Brazilian man of the country. In its first literary representation in Urupês, by Monteiro Lobato (1918), Jeca Tatu is sick, lazy, lacking energy, backward, fatalistic, and naïve. Later, Monteiro Lobato came to understand that laziness was not a character trait of the man of the country, but the result of disease and the poverty in which he lived. New stories were then written in which Jeca Tatu, once cured, promotes social change.

Essays : Edited by Else R P Vieira. Translation © Thomas Burns.


November 2002

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