Sertão, Sertanejo

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Sertão, Sertanejo

Sertanejo Sertão. Except during periodic droughts, average annual rainfall in the sertão—the semiarid region of Brazil extending from the interior of Minas Gerais and Bahia to the interior of Piauí and Maranhão—differs little from that of other areas; but rain tends to come in violent downpours punctuating prolonged dry spells. Sertanejos (inhabitants of the sertão), predominantly people of mixed European, Indian, and African ancestry, live as subsistence farmers, cotton sharecroppers, or ranch hands. In some contexts, sertanejo connotes uncouthness.

During the 1600s, the decline of coastal Indian populations and rumors of riches in the interior fueled exploration of the sertão by Bandeiras (armed expeditions privately organized by coastal settlements) and other sertanistas (backlands explorers). Cattle ranchers spearheaded settlement of the backlands in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and in the 1800s, cotton became a significant sertão crop.

Fazendeiros (owners of great estates) exercised broad economic, social, and political power over the majority of sertanejos. Among some sertanejos, such domination—together with poverty and weak policing mechanisms—fostered a tradition of banditry (cangaço) lasting until the late 1930s, when federal troops subdued the Cangaceiros. Occasionally, rebellions or movements superseded banditry, notably the followers of Antônio Conselheiro (suppressed at Canudos in 1896–1897) and the movement (ca. 1891–1934) headed by Padre Cícero Romão Batista of Joaseiro in Ceará.

In the twentieth century, leftist appeals seemed potential sparks of popular unrest; but despite the Prestes Column (1924–1927), popular-front propaganda, and the example of the Cuban Revolution, Communism failed to attract a large following in the Brazilian hinterlands.

In normal years, the sertanejos raise livestock and crops sufficient to feed themselves. Drought, however, leads quickly to hunger, driving tens of thousands of flagelados (literally, "the flagellated") or retirantes from the sertão to commercial and industrial centers and to the Amazon Basin. Government efforts to improve conditions in the sertão by encouraging industrial development, undertaking irrigation projects, and providing medical, educational, and other services progress slowly.

See alsoMessianic Movements: Brazil .


Euclides Da Cunha, Os Sertões (1902), translated by Samuel Putnam as Rebellion in the Backlands (1944).

João Capistrano De Abreu, Caminhos Antigos e o Povoa-mento do Brasil (1930).

Allen W. Johnson, Sharecroppers of the Sertão: Economics and Dependence on a Brazilian Plantation (1971).

Joseph A. Page, The Revolution That Never Was: Northeast Brazil, 1955–1964 (1972); Edinaldo G. Bastos, Farming in the Brazilian Sertão: Social Organization and Economic Behavior (1980).

Thomas E. Skidmore, The Politics of Military Rule in Brazil, 1964–85 (1988).

Additional Bibliography

Caldeira, Jorge. O banqueiro do sertão. São Paulo: Mameluco, 2006.

Langfur, Hal. The Forbidden Lands: Colonial Identity, Frontier Violence, and the Persistence of Brazil's Eastern Indians, 1750–1830. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006.

Silva, Tania Elias da, and Eliano Lopez. Múlitplos olhares sobre o semi-arido nordestino: Sociedade, desenvolvimiento, políticas públicas. Aracaju: Fundação de Amparo à Pes-quisa do Estado de Sergipe, FAP, 2003.

                                            Cara Shelly