Margaret Keck Collection of Brazilian Labor Movement Materials
BY RYAN LYNCH
As staff processed the Margaret Keck Collection, I peeked into a folder of Worker’s Party (PT) election ephemera from 1982. This was the first year that the PT, the party of future president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, gained official status.
I immediately gravitated to several ads in cordel format, including this one. It was a physical piece of populism, using the northeastern Brazilian folkloric genre in an attempt to appeal to the region’s diaspora in São Paulo. The text underlined this by celebrating the culture in northeastern states by bringing up food, drink, dance, and music. It went on to narrate the journey of migrants and their struggles in the Southeast, sympathizing with their efforts to find jobs and the strangeness, dishonesty, godlessness, and discrimination faced by northeastern migrants.
Significantly, the text intertwined identity-based populism with the story of a candidate for federal deputy, the Pernambucan J. Carneiro, while also using language that tried to build class and political identity for northeastern migrants based on their status as workers. It also reclaimed the pejorative term nordestino by making it a point of pride.
I had already shown cordéis, cheap chapbooks typically associated with Brazil’s Northeast, to visitors. However, this cordel made me look more closely at the Benson’s 10,000+ cordéis. In doing so, I discovered a rich political tradition. I saw the rise of the MDB/PMDB* as the dominant party in the agricultural Northeast through the overrepresentation of PMDB candidates. I saw cordéis that were not about candidates but rather about political issues: direct elections, corruption, voting, inflation, the new constitution, the death of president-elect Tancredo Neves, and the scandal that led to Fernando Collor’s impeachment. I learned about the tongue-in-cheek Partido Kordelista, and attempts throughout Brazil to convince Franklin Maxado, a northeastern cordelista living in São Paulo, to run for president.
Most importantly, I learned that the Benson’s collection of inexpensive, ephemeral cordéis represents incredible resources that tell the political, cultural, and social history of Brazil as it transitioned from dictatorship to democracy.
*MDB, Movimento Democrático Brasileiro (1965–1980), the official opposition party created by Brazil’s military dictatorship; PMDB, Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro, the successor political party formed during the dictatorship’s abertura (opening), now renamed the MDB.
Ryan Lynch is head of special collections and senior archivist at the Benson Latin American Collection.
IN HONOR OF THE CENTENNIAL of the Benson Latin American Collection, staff members submitted short descriptions of some of their favorite items in the collection.