Reviewed by:
  • From Fanatics to Folk: Brazilian Millenarianism and Popular Culture
From Fanatics to Folk: Brazilian Millenarianism and Popular Culture Duke University Press, 2004 By Patricia R. Pessar

From Fanatics to Folk: Brazilian Millenarianism and Popular Culture by Patricia R. Pessar attempts to revise both the scholarly understanding [End Page 292] of Brazilian popular religious movements, as well as the methodologies used to study them. The book represents the culmination of Pessar's twenty five years of archival and field research on the small folk Catholic movement led by Pedro Batista in Santa Brígida, Bahia. The author's approach to this project integrates ethnographic observations of actual members of the still-existing community, and interviews of those who knew Pedro Batista personally. She locates this study within the larger field of research on Brazilian millenarianism—such as Canudos, Juazeiro and Contestado— but demonstrates how the example of Santa Brígida disproves some commonly held assumptions on the causes of these and other millenarian movements.

Pessar's primary goal is to contextualize the Pedro Batista movement (beginning in the 1930s) both within its contemporary political situation in Brazil, and within the wider frame of cultural resistance. The author argues that too often millenarian movements are explained purely as forms of social resistance marked by zealotry, rather than as religious movements that aim to negotiate cultural space within a period of economic, political and social turbulence. In doing so, Pessar asserts that millenarianism is not necessarily a resistance to modernity, but is rather an alternative form of modernity. These movements change and adapt to a constantly changing set of social factors. In this approach, she utilizes Marx, Foucault, Bordieu and Williams's theories that culture is "a strategic site for contestation between dominant and popular classes" (8). The author challenges the binary and "grand narrative" approach to the study of millenarianism in the search of a more profound understanding of the origins, motivations and adaptations of Santa Brígida.

Chapter one reveals the history behind millenarianism in the Portuguese colonies in Brazil. Pessar demonstrates that millenarian symbols were initially utilized by catechizers to reinforce the power of the Portuguese state, but that those symbols were later appropriated by the poorer classes as economic and political change concentrated wealth and power in southern Brazil.

In the second chapter, Pessar revises the common practice of studying millenarian leaders superficially by ignoring their background: she traces Batista's biography beyond his role as a leader. In doing so, she shows how rumors and literatura de cordel (popular poems) served to construct his image by removing his human attributes and assigning him supernatural qualities.

By far, Pessar's most convincing and enlightening arguments are found in chapter three, where she uncovers the intricate network of relations between the political powers of Santa Brígida and local and national politicians. Santa Brígida's general commitment of nonaggression with the regional authorities and the romeiros's lack of overt resistance to the dominant ideology allowed romeiros (followers of Batista) to practice their folk Catholicism and communal economy with virtually no resistance. Pessar's account of the relative success of Santa Brígida in negotiating both physical and cultural space without violent encounters with authorities stands in sharp contrast with other Brazilian millenarian movements that ended in violent encounters with the military.

Chapter four focuses on the end of Batista's life and the struggle of his followers to negotiate his passing, the failure of his apocalyptic predictions, and the survival of the municipality. Here she examines the role of Dona Dodô, a nun-like figure who led many of his female supporters. What is missing from this chapter is a full analysis of the role of gender in the power of Dona Dodô and the movement and its role in some romeiros' rejection of her rule after Batista's death.

Chapter six tells the story of the stratification of the community after the death of Batista into traditionalists, moderates and modernists. Key to this account is the author's examination of her own role within the community and as an anthropologist.

Chapter seven describes the ways in which the romeiros have been represented as "traditional folk" for the benefit of Brazilian national and regional identity projects. The author reveals the process of converting cultural objects into [End Page 293] symbols, utilizing the churches and museums frequented by tourists as her examples. These accounts lead into the final chapter of the book, which goes far beyond the historical examination of Santa Brígida to reveal its role in the more recent Brazilian search for national and regional folk identity. A movement once resistant to the State's idea of modernity is now being appropriated to represent "Brazilian National History," and Bahia as the cradle of Brazilian civilization. Although Pessar's arguments here are thorough and convincing, she does not utilize scholars such as Stuart Hall and Benedict Anderson, who offer a clearer framework of the use of folk symbols and historical events to "imagine communities." In this account she does, however, bring her analysis full circle, from the use of millenarian symbols by Portuguese colonizers to reinforce official power structures to their use by millenarian movements to resist dominant ideas of modernity and then back again to their employment by the current Brazilian government as a means for solidifying national identity.

Lucy Blaney
The University of Arizona

Additional Information

Print ISSN
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.