Of Clubs and Whiskers: Young Men, Honor, and Violence in the Backlands of Northeast Brazil, 1865–89

Saturday, January 4, 2014: 12:10 PM
Thurgood Marshall Ballroom West (Marriott Wardman Park)
Martha S. Santos, University of Akron
Abstract: Of Clubs and Whiskers: Young Men, Honor, and Violence in the Backlands of Northeast Brazil, 1865-1889

One of the most enduring tropes of Brazilian literature, history, and popular culture is the idea that the sertanejos, or free poor inhabitants of the semiarid hinterlands of the Northeast, have been the possessors of an essential aptitude for violence and a culturally-conditioned obsession with honor. Confronting these representations as static and as focused on violence and honor only as discourse, this paper historicizes the reproduction of aggression and the concern with masculine honor among young and poor men from the interior of the northeastern province of Ceará during the competitive and conflict-ridden years of the second half of the nineteenth century. It argues that rather than representing anachronistic macho reflexes, the young sertanejos’ preoccupation with maintaining honorable reputations and the use of violence constituted strategies to resolve conflicts over scant resources and to establish authority and power over women and other men within a context of broad-ranging social and economic shifts that destabilized the survival strategies of free poor families and communities. Through an examination of the discursive explanations that young rural men who engaged in fights presented in criminal trials and the language that local jury tribunals and local authorities used to exonerate much of this violence, as shown in criminal cases, this paper also demonstrates how various actors exalted bravery as the “natural” masculine endowment that guaranteed a form of power or status. In turn, this discourse contributed to legitimize the use of male violence in service of the reproduction of power imbalances between men and women and within different groups of men.