Bonita, Maria (c. 1908–1938)

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Bonita, Maria (c. 1908–1938)

Backwoods consort of the famous Brazilian bandit and folk hero Lampião who accompanied her lover on a series of campaigns against government forces in 1930s Brazil and, in so doing, became a legend in her own right. Name variations: Pretty Mary, Dona Maria, Maria Déia, Maria Déia de Nenem. Pronunciation: Mah-REE-uh Boo-NEE-tuh. Born Maria Déia in the interior of the Brazilian state of Bahia in 1908 or 1909; gunned down in a military ambush at Angicos ranch in the state of Sergipe on July 28, 1938; daughter of José Felipe and Maria de Oliveira Déia; illiterate; married in her teens to José Nenem (a cobbler); children: one girl (three other children, all boys, died in infancy).

Born into primitive circumstances in the most impoverished region of Brazil (c. 1908); spent early years with her family just scraping by; married in her teens to a cobbler, José Nenem, but as the match was loveless, spent more and more time with her parents; made acquaintance of Lampião, whose fame as a bandit in the Brazilian backlands had by that time grown to legendary proportions (early 1931); ran away with Lampião; entered a life of adventure and crime that only ended with both of their deaths in an engagement against the army (1938).

The barren backcountry of northeastern Brazil has regularly given rise to figures of heroic proportions. It could hardly be otherwise. The weather there is the most brutal in the country, with heat so blistering that outsiders can only catch their breath with great difficulty. The air itself is often so dry and dusty that it seems illuminated by the rays of the sun; it is impossible under such circumstances to discern a horizon, and it leaves sand, thorn forest, and mirage to blend together in a swimmingly hot vista in every way reminiscent of Hell. Little wonder that popular imagination in the Northeast often turns to supernatural themes: to animals who speak, to miraculous apparitions of devils and angels who battle with golden swords in the sky, to wild-eyed prophets who make streams run with wine or with blood, and, most commonly, to heroes and heroines who, without any blemish on their own reputations, manage to deliver the poor from the worst sorts of despotism. Every so often real historical personages appeared on the scene in the Northeast who seemed to encapsulate these qualities. Two such figures were the "bandit-king" Lampião, and his female companion, Maria Bonita.

The historical facts behind the appearance of these two are, on the one hand, straightforward enough and, on the other hand, quite obscure. The Sertão, as the Northeast is usually called, was undergoing considerable change at the turn of the present century. Long the most ignored area of Brazil, until the 1890s it was the exclusive preserve of cowpunchers, minor rural bosses, and scrub farmers who only rarely made a go of it.

The fall of the empire in 1889, however, brought with it direct government intervention on several levels. The new republic demanded standardization of weights and measures, and sent new scales and new government tax inspectors into the Sertão, where they were met with great hostility by the sertanejos. The latter knew nothing of the metric system but feared, with good reason, that the republic would impose increased taxes and take what little money that they had. Sugar planters and commercial entrepreneurs on the coast gained the cooperation of the new regime in bringing pressure on the sertanejos to give up their pre-capitalist ways (and, in effect, become day-laborers and debt peons).

But the sertanejos would have none of this. Their steadfast loyalty to the old habits—and their religiosity—provided the backdrop for a series of major rebellions in the 1890s and 1900s. On several occasions, most notably at the Bahian town of Canudos, these revolts took on the aspect of a holy war. Government troops came from as far away as Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. They brought with them modern repeating rifles and artillery pieces of impressive calibers. Still the sertanejos refused to give up. The final all-out assault on Canudos in 1896 left the community almost flattened and nearly its entire population dead. But rebellions large and small continued to plague the Northeast for another decade.

In the aftermath of these rebellions, the Sertão was outwardly quiet, reconciled now to the presence of outside government officials and to the republican regime that they represented. Other signs of outside authority, such as state schools and regular stage lines, were grudgingly accepted. Yet, at the periphery of sertanejo society, a continued resistance to the government was seen in the activities of armed bands of rebel cowboys, or cangaceiros. The most famous leader among these cangaceiros was Lampião. His chosen woman was Maria Bonita.

"Pretty Mary" was the first woman to enter the ranks of Lampião's cangaceiro band. That women should take an active role in such mobile bands was not, in itself, unusual in the Sertão. Traditionally, female camp-followers accompanied their men onto the range. They prepared their simple meals of beef and cornmeal, washed their neckerchiefs and undershirts, provided solace and companionship after long days of back-breaking labor, and had babies. Maria Bonita did all of these things, but she did something else as well. She carried a rifle.

She was born Maria Déia in 1908 (or perhaps 1909) in the Jeremoabo region of northern Bahia. Her family were dirt-poor ranchers, almost always hungry, and with many mouths to feed. Maria had five brothers and seven sisters. Her parents, José Felipe and Maria de Oliveira Déia, habitually worked on the Malhada de Caiçira ranch, and it was on this poor estate that Maria Bonita grew up. Not much is known of her childhood and youth. We can assume that she got a smattering of religious education, and that she learned something of the usual avocations of sertanejo women: leatherworking, cooking, embroidery, and, of course, field work.

Maria married early, as was traditional in the Northeast. Her husband José Nenem was the local cobbler, relatively well-established by sertanejo standards, with a house and shop at the nearby village of Santa Brígada. His brother had already married one of Maria's sisters, and he seemed perfectly placed to offer the pretty Mary a good life. In fact, however, their marriage was loveless. José did not diverge from his everyday customs. Maria was high-strung, with a sense of curiosity and adventure about her, and with a desire to see something more of life than just the tall pile of shoes waiting to be mended by her husband. She found herself regularly pulled back to the ranch and to her parents, who understood her ambitions, even if they did not really approve of them. It was on one of these periodic visits to her parents that she met Lampião.

Lampião was born in July 1897 in the interior of Pernambuco state. His given name was Virgulino Ferreira da Silva, and he only took the name Lampião after he began his life of crime. Like Maria Bonita, he spent his earliest years on a ranch, where he became an expert leatherworker and rodeo artist. The two occupations functioned well with each other: young Virgulino could present himself as the perfect horse rider, outfitted with the perfect backlander attire of leather breeches, heavy leggings, colorful bandannas, and a wide-brimmed leather hat, characteristically turned upward at the front and ornately decorated with inlaid crosses, Mogen Davids, and silver coins. Dressed in this manner, Virgulino looked the part of the cangaceiro. Soon he added cartridge belts to his costume and made the transition to full-fledged outlaw.

Lampião first made the headlines in 1922, when his armed band, which numbered around 50, sacked the home of the former baroness of Agua Branca in the state of Alagôas. The choice of the baroness was understandable, as it was believed that she had considerable wealth in her home. In addition, her sons controlled the chief political machine in the county and were strong allies of the police officials who enforced the tax laws. Lampião's own father had been killed by such officials. The attack on Agua Branca, therefore, combined several themes dear to the cangaceiro that also were understandable to all sertanejos: the desire to avenge the dishonoring of one's relative, the need to right wrongs done the poor, and, of course, clear availability of loot.

Lampião was only one cangaceiro among many in the band that raided Agua Branca. Soon, however, through the force of his own magnetism, he eclipsed many older members. The tip of his deftly wielded knife convinced younger members to likewise stay in their place. His band became an effective fighting force under his command and on various occasions numbered in the hundreds. His raids took him to every corner of the Sertão, traversing thousands of miles in the process. His face became familiar to the countryfolk throughout the region, and not merely because of his now-legendary exploits against the rich and the authorities. His men frequently distributed their loot to the neediest members of the sertanejo community. Lampião gave to poor churches and to the indigent. He spoke as an equal with the most powerful political bosses of the interior and never allowed any one of them to touch him militarily. After a decade in the bush, he could rightfully claim the popular title of "Bandit-King."

When Maria Bonita came into Lampião's life in early 1931, his name was already the stuff of ballads in the Sertão. Almost certainly he had already met her parents; their ranch lay in the Sergipe-Bahia border area through which he often passed. Like most sertanejos, they probably feared the legendary outlaw, yet at the same time they respected him as a great man and leader. It was Maria's mother who supposedly told Lampião how much her daughter admired him.

On the day Maria happened to come to the ranch while Lampião was present, the bandit, it is said, fell in love with her at first sight. In appearance, she was a fairly typical sertaneja; she was short, a bit stocky, had good teeth, very dark hair and eyes, and cinnamon-brown skin. She was then in her early 20s, as opposed to Lampião's 33 years. Lampião's passion for her was evidently genuine. After a few days, when the cangaceiro band departed, he took her with him, with her consent and that of her mother.

Lampião's desire for Maria might initially have been driven by her beauty, but he soon began to respect her for her other qualities. She rode as hard as any of the men. An accomplished seamstress, she often made her own and the bandit's clothes and elaborately decorated such things as hats, bandoliers, and the small packsacks (bornais) in which they carried their money, jewels, and personal items. Lampião even managed once to steal a sewing machine for her.

Maria Bonita did not initially carry a gun. Women camp followers were taught by their cangaceiro lovers how to shoot, as a matter of self-protection, but normally they were kept apart in battle whenever possible. Cangaceiros frowned upon their women straying too far from traditional women's pursuits. But Maria Bonita proved to be an innovator in this respect. Her own spunk, which distinguished her from the beginning, was doubtlessly an element in convincing Lampião to permit her to go about armed. Perhaps the Bandit-King felt so certain of his own authority among his men that he could permit an unusual departure from normal cangaceiro practice. In any case, by the mid-1930s, as the fortunes of Lampião's band grew more precarious, Maria Bonita (and, indeed, all of the band's women) was never found far from a rifle. On one occasion, she was wounded with that rifle in her hand.

By this time, Lampião had made the news nationally. His band had killed scores of government agents, soldiers, and police. He had made raids in at least half a dozen states and stolen money from many well-known people. Worst of all, his reputation in the Northeast was that of a Robin Hood, and although none of the lettered classes in that region thought it likely that he could become a political force, many among the poor were far less certain.

In Rio de Janeiro, the president's office had fallen to Getulio Vargas, a hardbitten Gaúcho from the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, and a man little given to compromise with outlaws. Vargas sent federal monies to bolster the anti-cangaceiro campaign. Artillery, machine guns, some airplanes, and, most important, modern military trainers arrived in the state capitals of the Northeast to be used against Lampião and his ilk.

From 1935 on, these measures of the federal government began to pay off. Lampião was necessarily more on the move than ever before. Several costly ambushes by sertanejos on the state payroll sapped the strength of the band. So did the frequent desertions. The core group around Lampião and Maria Bonita remained loyal, but they were increasingly anxious, and very, very tired. The story of the couple, and of the cangaceiro band they led, began to take on the character of a Greek tragedy, in which the players and the audience all know that doom lies ahead. The government offered amnesty to Lampião's men. Most did not take it.

In early 1938, after some months of relative inactivity, Lampião launched several major raids, pillaging 17 villages in Alagôas before retreating again into Sergipe. At one point he captured a nationally famous jazz combo (rather than mistreat them, he paid them a handsome sum to play for him and Maria Bonita). These raids were both costly and bloody, and soon the group was again on hard luck. Witnesses reported that its members now wore ragged clothes and were extremely dirty, with hair down to their shoulders and little hope.

On July 28, 1938, Lampião and Maria Bonita, together with a much-reduced band, had come to the Sergipe border region at Angicos, purportedly to make contact with other bands still technically under the chieftain's command. Police informants became aware of their presence immediately. Troops arrived in the middle of the night and stealthily began to encircle the camp. Lampião's dogs put up no ruckus because they had sought shelter from a sudden and tremendous downpour. For the same reason, no sentries had been posted.

It was all over in 20 minutes. The soldiers and police had set up machine guns and rifle stands and opened fire immediately. Surprised for once, Lampião rose from his place by the fire to reach for his weapon and was instantly cut down. Maria had also risen to cock her rifle. After seeing Lampião's bloodied body, several cangaceiros began to break and run, and Maria called to them, reminding them of their sworn loyalty to their chief. They all turned, rejoined her, and fought to the end. Maria was shot several times before dying.

After the battle, the jubilant soldiers mutilated the dead. Both Lampião and Maria Bonita were decapitated. Maria's headless corpse was left in a grotesque position, its legs pulled apart and a large stick rammed into the vagina. The heads were removed to the state capital for exhibition (they eventually served for many years as a key attraction at the Nina Rodrigues Museum in Salvador). What was left of the bodies remained at Angicos to be viewed by the curious, and consumed, in the end, by vultures.

The deaths of Lampião and Maria Bonita ended most cangaceiro activity in the Northeast. That the cangaço should end so violently encouraged the transformation of the pair from rural bandits to permanent features of folklore. Popular modern-day literature commonly focuses on their exploits. And, indeed, their exploits have not ceased: on the cover of one popular pamphlet published in Bahia in the early 1970s, Lampião is shown arriving in Hell, and he is forcefully booting Satan out in order to make that infernal domain his own. Just behind him, never flagging in her loyalty, stands Maria Bonita, rifle in hand.


Chandler, Billy Jaynes. The Bandit King: Lampião of Brazil. College Station, TX: Texas A&M Press, 1978.

Correa de Araujo, Antonio Amaury. Lampião: As Mulheres e o Cangaço. São Paulo, 1985.

related media:

The Black God and the White Devil, Brazilian film by Glauber Rocha.

O Cangaceiro, Brazilian film by Lima Baretto.

Thomas Whigham , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia