Antigamente

Karyn Miller - Brazil


March 18, 2011

On January 15, I think I learned more about Nova Suica in one day than I did over the course of the two months prior.

It began when I arrived at the settlement school to greet a group of Brazilian university students who were arriving for a 10-day program. I found the school empty but for their baggage and Dona Mira, a tiny, sun-aged, well-muscled woman. “You haven’t heard the history of the settlement yet, have you?”

The real name of Nova Suica, apparently, is Assentamento 5 de Maio, 1996—the date of the land occupation. It began quite like any other MST assentamento: an encampment with borracas (think wooden frames with black tarps on top), and political and environmental struggles—“a luta,” the fight. The settlement itself was supposed to have 100 houses, but they only received federal funding for 40 houses—the state funding for the other 60 never came. And so, in true MST fashion, everyone banded together to squeeze 70 houses out of the materials.

“Nova Suica will be celebrating 15 years this May,” Dona Mira explained, “and I will be celebrating my 15th birthday. I was born again with the settlement. I love this land.”

But that MST togetherness—the passion that I saw in her eyes and heard in her voice—has faded over the past 15 years in the overall population of the settlement. The school would sit uncared for if it wasn’t for Dona Mira, because it’s the responsibility of the assentamento to maintain it—a responsibility that no one else takes. And people aren’t working the land anymore—they’re looking for outside opportunities.

I returned home with a new insight into the settlement but confused as to why I had never heard any of this from my host mom, Raquel. That night, I witnessed my second significant conversation of the day.

With great passion and a clear underlying nostalgia, Raquel explained to my temporary Brazilian sister that when the settlement was founded it was, indeed, an agricultural, communal society. But of the original settlers—people like Dona Mira—only about 5 remained. The problem that Nova Suica faces is a population split: between an older group who came to claim and work the land, and a newer group, many of whom came from Salvador seeking houses and work, who have little interest in working the land, and never experienced “a luta” (the fight) or the MST values at work. Some depend on retirement for money, some on Bolsa Familia, but many work outside the settlement—in Santo Amaro or at the toilet paper factory up the road.

My “sister,” who had studied the MST and come to Nova Suica with an image of how the assentamento should work, was in shock. Seeing this, I think, was what made it sink in—this was unfortunate. Somewhere along the way there had developed a stark difference between the ideal and the reality in Nova Suica. While things might have been different here “antigamente,” “agora, e complicado…”

Karyn Miller