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Brazzil - Places - September 2004

Between a Saint and a Sinner in Laguna, Brazil

Brazil never felt more like Spain or Italy. At the present time in Brazil,
evangelical Protestantism is making deep inroads into Catholicism.
Everybody seems excited and amused. A local man tells a miraculous
story about a sixty year-old retired teacher who had rather suddenly
gotten married. "The real miracle was that she was a virgin."

Terry Caesar

Picture "The saint is coming!" This would be Santo Antônio, whose image was being returned to the church where it resides 364 days of the year. Only on his feast day, June 13, does the saint leave his home, to be kept at another church (it varies each year) until nightfall.

I yelled when I glimpsed a staff, wobbling off in the distance, over the heads of the hundreds of people crowded into Laguna's town square. The staff got closer. It turned out to be pink, fluffy cotton candy. Everybody laughed, and renewed shuffling their feet to keep warm.

Laguna is in Brazil, a small city of some 70,000 on the coast of the southern state of Santa Catarina, 100 kilometers south of the state capital, Florianópolis. The whole state is far enough south to get quite cold during winter; by June each year, there is usually a report of snow somewhere.

Snow in Brazil? The surprise only reveals how limited is our imagination of the huge country, which is more typically defined by a Laguna rather than a Rio de Janeiro, and whose rituals partake far more of Catholicism than samba or soccer.

History only happened in Laguna once, in 1839. Brazil was still a Portuguese monarchy. But republican sentiment was widespread. Of all people, Guiseppe Garibaldi appeared in Laguna, among a group of secessionists from Rio Grande do Sul who had made their way into Santa Catarina.

Their plan was to surprise imperial forces by landing in Laguna's harbor. In fact, an encounter failed to take place, the insurgents declared a republic, and Garibaldi laid eyes on Anita, the town beauty, who was married to a shoemaker.

She abandoned her husband, joined Garibaldi, fought with him elsewhere in South America, continued the fight when Garibaldi returned to Italy, and was pregnant with their fifth child when she was killed during the Retreat from Rome in 1849.

But already we are far afield from Laguna, where by some accounts Anita was not in fact even living and her husband was actually a fisherman, not a shoemaker. No matter. The story as it is told in Laguna is a good one. There is a statue of Anita—arm upraised—at one end of the town square, entitled, "Heroine of Two Worlds."

The Museum is named in her honor, and her house is featured in tourist brochures. However, locals may finally care no more about the historical Anita than they do the historical St. Anthony, who is known throughout Brazil as the patron saint for those who want to get married.

His feast day is recognized during June along with St. Paul and St. John as part of the "Festa Junina" festivities, where children dress up in straw hats and dirt-stained faces and everybody celebrates the nation's rural roots.

Excitement in the Air

Back to the saint's immanent reappearance. Distant firecrackers could be heard. More people milled about. The chill in the air was sharp and deep. There were booths featuring saint's medals, others offering special vinhão, "big wine" (made with water, sugar, ginger and cinnamon) or cakes made with corn.

Everybody seemed excited and amused. A local man in our party told a miraculous story about a sixty year-old retired teacher who had rather suddenly gotten married. "The real miracle was that she was a virgin."

Two of my stepchildren took digital pictures of themselves holding coins; each was in his or her early 20s, unmarried, and therefore happy to conform to the legend that you will marry the one you love if you deposit thirteen coins at the feet of the saint on this night.

Brazil never felt more like Spain or Italy. My Brazilian wife assured me that hundreds of Brazilian towns and cities are similarly organized around feast days, enduring religious rituals, and the entire liturgical year of the Church.

At the present time in Brazil, evangelical Protestantism is making deep inroads into Catholicism (which has developed an extensive "charismatic" movement in order to counter it). Yet such a conflict felt as distant as Garibaldi's this night in Laguna, which, once again this year, simply is Laguna because of its devotion to Santo Antônio.

A large statue of Nossa Senhora da Glória stands on a hill above the town, rather like the far more famous and immense statue of Christ atop Corcovado towers over Rio. Only in Laguna, unlike Rio, everybody is pleased to be in some way comprehended by the statue.

Time for Prayers

At last the saint appeared, holding a baby Jesus in one hand and a cross in the other, bourne on a wooden platform by a dozen men. Members of the saint's fellowship, they were attired in scarlet robes. Another group of men, similarly attired, preceded them.

Among these was the Governor of Santa Catarina, no less, as well as his opponent. The Governor is reportedly on his last legs, politically. Somebody joked about what the saint might be being asked by him, while also being asked the same thing by the opponent.

Fireworks were going off everywhere around us. The church bells were louder than the fireworks. The air even began to feel warm. There was a small band-drums, trombones, flutes-behind the saint.

They played a march by John Phillip Sousa. How for an American not to think of the 4th of July? Or at least some sort of American festival at some time during the year, staged in thousands of towns and cities, based on some seasonal or historical theme? This June 13th in Laguna was different, though, and demonstrated the sheer power of religion to absorb all manner of social, cultural, and political categories.

An effigy of Anita Garibaldi would not have seemed out of place. Religion in Brazil is remarkably syncretistic, even this far south. As for up north (where in fact the statue of the saint was made, 250 years ago), I remembered a guide in the famous Church of São Francisco in Salvador, Bahia, who once remarked, "We Brazilians are so Catholic we don't have to go to Church."

No Room to Move

Brazilians in Laguna are perhaps less "Catholic," at least on the biggest night of the year. The saint passed, we surged forward toward the entrance of the Church of Santo Antônio. Then it was impossible to proceed farther.

It was barely possible to get into a large building next door to the church, where special booths had been set up across the ground floor, mostly offering food, drink, and games. Off to the left I noticed a cute little contraption, consisting of a tiny circling airplane, attached to a thin wire.

What could the exact game have been? As well ask what the Church looked like inside, or even what music would be played later in the square. Everything was too crowded. Our hostess was eager for us to visit her home, have a drink, and watch a video of the saint's days past.

She had arranged for us to stay at a hotel along the beach. Laguna has a nice one. Its historical central area is lovely—a facade of colorful colonial buildings along the waterfront with high windows and tile roofs, a warren of cobbled streets in the center with old stone buildings in various states of preservation.

But if the town flourishes it will be because of its beach, as clean, ample, and shapely as any in Brazil. The trouble with the Santo Antônio festival is that it takes place during the wrong season.

During winter, hotels are empty and the beach is barren. In effect, Laguna is divided between its major event, which is religious, and takes place almost exclusively for locals, and its major source of income, which is touristic, and exists almost exclusively for others.

The Church vs. the Beach. The figure of Anita Garibaldi sits rather awkwardly in the middle. She was no saint. There was some opposition thirty years ago to the erection of her statue and there remains, it seems, plenty of sentiment in Laguna that denounces her as a whore.

Yet a town does what it can with its history, and it is invariably significant insofar as the history participates in larger historical currents. (Hence, the loss of the railroad, which limited Laguna's economic development, is judged to be of no interest to anybody else and receives no public representation.)

The trouble is, this history in the case of Laguna has nothing to do with religion or tourism. And so the story of Anita Garibaldi is fated to be "romantic" in a purely antiquarian sense.

Meanwhile, the festival of Santo Antônio continues to be an occasion for widespread devotion in the strongest popular sense. The worst thing about the timing of the festival may also be seen as the best thing, because it gives Laguna an annual reason for being that has nothing to do with the tourism that takes place, several kilometers away from the central square, later in spring and summer.

In this respect, the festival of Santo Antônio reveals that, no matter how willing to trade on the sun of its geographic favor or to exploit its modicum of historical accident, a town does not have to sell its soul in order to remain spiritually alive.

Terry Caesar is the author of, most recently, a collection of essays on academic life, Traveling Through the Boondocks. He has been traveling to Brazil for some nineteen years, ever since he first arrived in Rio de Janeiro on a Fulbright. He welcomes your comments at

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