Madame Satã (Dos Santos, João Francisco)

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Madame Satà (dos Santos, JoÃo Francisco)

February 25, 1900
April 14, 1976

João Francisco dos Santos, popularly known as Madame Satã (Madame Satan), was a streetwise rogue figure and longtime resident of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He projected the virile masculinity of a Brazilian malandro (bohemian, scoundrel, or hustler) and at the same time was a self-avowed homosexual. In the early 1970s Madame Satã became a symbol of a bygone era of bohemian Rio. He has been the subject of books and movies, including a feature-length, internationally released film, Madame Satã (2002), directed by Karim Aïnouz.

Santos was born in the town of Glória do Goitá in the hinterlands of the northeastern state of Pernambuco, Brazil, one of seventeen sisters and brothers. His mother, a descendent of slaves, came from a humble family. His father, the result of a sexual union between a former slave and a son of the local landed elite, died when he was seven. The next year, with seventeen mouths to feed, his mother swapped her young child to a horse trader in exchange for a mare. Within six months he had managed to escape from this harsh apprenticeship by running away with a woman who offered him work as a helper in a boardinghouse in Rio de Janeiro, at the time the nation's capital.

At age thirteen, Santos left the boardinghouse to live on the streets and sleep on the steps of the tenement houses in the Lapa neighborhood of downtown Rio de Janeiro, at the time the center of a bustling nightlife of clubs, prostitution, and gambling. For six years he worked at odd jobs in and around the neighborhood. In his memoirs Madame Satã remembered that he began sexual relations with other boys during this period. At age eighteen he was hired as a waiter at a brothel. Madames commonly employed young homosexuals as waiters, cooks, housekeepers, and even as part-time prostitutes if a client so desired.

During this period Santos assumed the public persona of a slick, well-dressed, and virile malandro. In 1928 he landed a small part in a musical review in which he sang and danced, wearing a red dress with his long hair falling down over his shoulders. His artistic career, however, was aborted when he was convicted of killing a security guard who had allegedly called him a faggot.

In 1938 some of his friends convinced him to enter a costume contest during a Carnival ball. Santos created a sequined-decorated outfit inspired after a bat from the northeast of Brazil, and won first prize. Several weeks later he was arrested with several other homosexuals while strolling through a park in downtown Rio de Janeiro. When the booking officer at the police station asked those detained to identify themselves, including their nicknames, Santos offered the appellation Madame Satã in reference to a recently released American film with the Brazilian title, Madame Satã. The name stuck.

Madame Satã projected multiple, apparently contradictory images. He identified himself as a malandro who was willing to fight and even kill to defend his honor. Yet in Brazil until the 1980s, popular notions associated homosexuality with effeminacy and passivity. Satã, therefore, became an anomaly. Satã was proud of his ability to wield a knife and win a fight, two marks of a malandro 's bravery and virility. Yet he openly admitted that he liked to be sexually penetrated, a desire that was socially stigmatized and the antithesis of the manliness of a piercing knife blade. While the popular respect usually afforded a malandro was linked to his potency, masculinity, and his willingness to die for his honor, Madame Satã simply contradicted the stereotype. He was aware of the anxiety his persona provoked, especially among the men who picked fights with him.

The myths surrounding Madame Satã's prowess and bravery grew with time and even followed him into prison, where he served multiple sentences for robbery, larceny, assault and battery, and murder. He retained widespread respect even though he was considered a "faggot." In the early 1970s he was rediscovered by journalists from the middle-class underground, and the satirical weekly O Pasquim ran a feature interview with him, depicting Madame Satã as the last surviving bohemian from the 1930s. He died a pauper in 1976 and was buried in the trademark attire of a malandro a white suit, a stylish Panama hat, and a red rose.

See also Masculinity; Music, Religion and Crime in Early-Twentieth-Century Rio de Janeiro


Aïnouz, Karim, dir. Madame Satã (film). Wellspring, 2002.

Green, James N. Beyond Carnival: Male Homosexuality in Twentieth-Century Brazil. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Green, James N. "Madame Satan, the Black 'Queen' of Brazilian Bohemia." In The Human Tradition in Modern Brazil, edited by Peter M. Beattie. Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 2003.

james n. green (2005)