Invention of the Northeast

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The referential book A Invenção do Nordeste E Outras Artes (The Invention of the Northeast & Other Arts), by Paraíban historian Durval Muniz, looks at how and when the concept of what we now understand as the Brazilian Northeast was formed. [1Below, I’ve translated three answers he gave in a longer Q&A session by Diário do Nordeste. [2]

Diário – When speaking about the process of the invention of traditions, Eric Hobsbawm points out that some established and apparently very old ideas are actually quite recent. As an invented tradition, how was the Northeast born, and what shape did its invention take?

Durval – The Northeast is a regional division that will emerge in the geography of the country only in the first decades of the 20th century to replace the old division between North and South. It arises from practices and regionalist discourse carried out by elites linked to the sugar and cotton-livestock economies that were undergoing a process of economic and political subordination at the national level. The expansion process of capitalist relations in the country, the formation of the national space for capital, subordinate this space to the dynamic center of the national economy which is now the Center-South. The oligarchic pact that underpins the newly implanted republican regime is centered around the mining and Paulista elites while relegating the elites from states that would become the Northeast. The Northeast emerges as a political reaction of the northern elites in the face of a historical process that subordinates and takes from them the centrality of economic life and politics of the country and, with modernism, even threatens to take their cultural importance from them.

Diário – Gilberto Freyre defended the existence of two Northeasts, one of the coastlines, marked by sugarcane culture, and other by the backcountry, born of cattle. Suassuna, Dias Gomes, Altimar Pimentel and many other Northeastern playwrights chose the latter to create their theater. Why so much fascination with the Northeast’s interior?

Durval – Precisely because the hinterland supposedly would be more authentic, more original, more distanced from foreign influences. It’s funny to think that a country that consisted of expatriates from all quarters, of outsiders and transplanted people, proposes an identity that supposedly disowns the strange, the foreign, outsider. The idea that the sertão, being inland, would preserve the purity of our traditions, our roots, would be the locus of our soul, our spirit, our ethos, can only be established by an erasure of the history of a space marked by conflicts, genocide, killings promoted by white outsiders, mestizos, and even indigenous against indigenous in the sense of subordinating this space to the dictates of civilization, therefore, from a strange, external, foreign culture: a culture that’s European, Iberian, Christian. The hinterland is seen as a privileged theme, precisely, too, because it would represent the resistance against modernity, resistance against an urban-industrial, bourgeois society, which represent the coast. The mystification of the colonel is the mystification of the most representative figure of this pre-capitalist, agrarian society, of profoundly unequal and authoritarian social relations, made by intellectuals who are mostly descendants of rural oligarchies who adopted intellectual careers precisely because the decline of the oligarchic group prevented other professional, economic and political opportunities, and led them to use the only capital that they continued having – cultural capital – in a society of the illiterate majority.

Diário – In the last forty years, the Northeast has seen very intense urban growth. Fortaleza, for example, increased its population of just over 500,000 inhabitants in the 1960s to nearly three million today. Has this change in the region’s profile caused a change in your understanding? Does a Northeast that’s more urban than rural need to review some of its cultural codes?

Durval – This questioning of this idea of the Northeast in my work, in my book “The Invention of the Northeast and other arts” – , but also in books of other intellectuals from the pioneering work of Francisco de Oliveira, “Elegia para uma religião“, through the work of Rosa Godoy Silveira,”O Regionalismo Nordestino“, of Frederico de Castro Neves, “Imagens do Nordeste”, of Castro Iná,”O Mito da Necessidade“, of Maura Pena,”O que faz ser Nordestino?“, to more recent works, – was only possible because this image, this narrative about being in the Northeast and being a Northeasterner, this visibility and utterability of the regional, became clearly anachronistic, it has increasingly less to do with the economic, social, and cultural reality of this space. This regionalist speech was becoming increasingly shifted, the image of the region became increasingly uncomfortable for the middle class, the urban population, the new intellectual elites that emerged along with modernization and the increasing urbanization of the region. Profound cultural changes that pass through this area, with the emergence of an urban culture, of the masses between us, makes the image of the region, conveyed by much of the cultural production of the region and by the country over this region, obsolete, revealing its stereotypical character. Although the urban phenomenon is a reality in this space, since at least the beginning of the last century, since Recife was already one of the largest cities in the country, this can be forgotten, if not despised and reproached by works of art and cultural production done in the region’s name until recently. But today, when we have three of the largest cities in the country, to pretend that the city does not exist, that we still continue to be a region of little towns, dominated by a colonel and a priest and whose only escape route is a brothel headed by a powerful pimp allied to local government, it’s becoming increasingly impossible and increasingly ridiculous. Although, even though in movies and TV shows this is still the tone, this outdated and stereotyped image is beginning to bother the local political elites.

If interested in the topic, Durval Muniz also wrote a book about how the nordestino presents himself, which also seems quite interesting. Here’s an article (PT) about it.

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