A Jangada for Roosevelt

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“Eleanor Roosevelt was already the most important first lady in US history when she disembarked in Recife, on March 17th, 1944, at the height of WWII. She had come from Belém and Parnamirim (in Natal). Her husband, president Franklin Rossevelt, had come to Brazil the year prior, also having visited the base in Parnamirim.

The president’s visit entered the Brazilian history books, something fairly obvious given the circumstances — war, American troops on Brazilian soil, the meeting with Getúlio Vargas. But it was Eleanor’s visit that was all but forgotten, which was also quite obvious — for however important she may have been, she was just a first lady; and her trip had no striking photos to accompany it, unlike those of the American president and Getúlio in a military jeep.

The episode would have perhaps been completely forgotten if it weren’t for the mention of it in five lines of a prized book launched originally in the US and later in Brazil, “No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt — The Home Front in World War II,” by Doris Kearns Goodwin. The author says that Eleanor took a souvenir from Recife for her husband. “It was a miniature jangada, a small native boat in the shape of a raft, made with six rounded sticks, used by fishermen in Recife, Brazil.” The president kept a collection of mini boats, and the jangada became the newest piece of his collection.

The mention served as a starting point for the researcher and professor of post-graduate studies in Administration, Pedro Muniz, for searching out the details of Eleanor’s trip to Recife. After getting in contact with institutions in the US and with the US Embassador in Brazil, he ended up discovering that the sculpture is intact in the Franklin Rossevelt Museum, in New York. He received photos of the piece as confirmation. The Diario report contributed with researching its archives, rescuing information about the visit, and in the archives of Eleanor herself (available online). As the first lady, Eleanor broke a series of prescedents. She was engaged human rights activist and opened the White House to African Americans, much to the dismay of the conservative sectors in the US.

“She came from a rich, developed and industrialized country, that was producing the most modern ships, aircraft and guns, and all of a sudden she would take notice of a rustic artifact like a jangada…That must have been a cultural shock for her, like finding an exotic Egyptian or Greek relic ,” says Pedro Muniz. “Her sensibility made her perceive that item as a manifestation of the people’s culture, and felt the piece would be a valued one in her husband’s collection.”

Eleanor arrived in Recife on the 17th and left on the 18th of March. She wrote a newspaper column in the US (another novelty, since no other first lady until then had done this), and in the one published on April 3rd, 1944, she speaks of her meeting with fisherman. “Their fishing boats fascinated me,” she said. – Diario de Pernambuco (PT)

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