Four fishermen, Orson Welles, and the making of the Brazilian northeast

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In 1942 Orson Welles traveled to Brazil to film a movie about four Brazilian fishermen who had protested their labor conditions by traveling nearly 2,500 kilometers for sixty-one days from the city of Fortaleza to Rio de Janeiro on a rustic sail-raft called a jangada. Their voyage pressured Brazil’s so-called New State (Estado Novo) to recognize the fishermen’s trade as an official profession within the state’s expanding social programs and centralized labor laws. Through an analysis of the fishermen, their voyage, Orson Welles’ visit, and Brazil’s Northeast, this article examines the role of the region in both imagining and moving beyond the nation in the twentieth century. It presents press accounts, intellectual essays, music, images, film, and the Diário dos jangadeiros – a scrapbook of sorts in which supporters from all social classes left messages for the fishermen at each port. While structurally, the fishermen’s protest pulled the most rustic element of this newly defined region into the modern legal apparatus of a centralized state, symbolically, the fishermen’s journey generated an archetypal figure that provided a way to talk about the Northeast in terms of its rusticity, developing both racialized and folkloric characteristics of its people and uniting the semi-arid backlands and the humid, tropical coast. The fishermen of the Northeast were transformed from brave labor organizers into non-threatening folkloric figures through a process of memory, narration, and forgetting. Examining the fishermen’s story as a regionally-defining moment that transcended national boundaries provides a significant case study of how, by the mid-twentieth century, the nation came to be understood as a series of interrelated regions, with one region serving as both national scapegoat and root of authentic culture.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)173-212
JournalPast & Present
Issue number1
Early online date29 Jan 2017
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2017


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