Not God but a swastika
So black no sky could squeak through.
Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.
Sylvia Plath, “Daddy”
It now appears that the dictatorship in Brazil, which began with the military coup of 1964, never really ended. Its official expiration date is April of 1985, the year of Brazil’s first democratic elections, but in retrospect we can now see that the dictatorship merely shapeshifted, nibbling at the edges of our unstable democracy like a house-rat that evades the trap, but still eats the cheese. The simile is mine but the assertion was Arthur’s, the only other Brazilian in our Politics of Brazil class and a semi-closeted neo-liberal. Arthur and I had just watched a pro-Bolsonaro demonstration on YouTube, shortly before the election. It was perhaps the most festive display of fascism I’d ever seen, a flash mob wearing the green, yellow, and blue of the flag, the number seventeen emblazoned on their foreheads and wrists, printed on banners and t-shirts, and chanted incessantly. The choreographed song and dance was mesmerizing, featuring face glitter and finger guns. Tropical fascism.
“This is the gayest pro-fascism demonstration I’ve ever seen,” Arthur said.
“It’s a whole new level of crazy,” I added.
“Or we just keep forgetting the old crazy.”
* * *
Arthur and I often say we hate men; he being a gay man and me being a straight woman, man-hating is a theme of our relationship. It’s not that we actually hate men, far from it, but we love to pretend we do. We disparage all kinds of boys – the ones who show up late to dates, or that only talk about themselves, and even the ones who only respond to texts three days later.
“Way too many micro-penises,” Arthur reminds me.
We laugh, pretending those really are the worst kind of men.
Arthur tells me he will never again date one of the self-hating ones. The gays, he means. Sipping our overpriced Blue Bottle lattes and sighing over the perfectly even stubble on the masculine jawline of our barista, who is the primary reason we go to Blue Bottle every Thursday afternoon, we joke that Bolsonaro is deep in the closet. Surprisingly, Arthur doesn’t hate the closeted gays. He tells me that he remembers the fear, the cold, pulsing pain in his gut that forced him to leave Brazil at fourteen and attend boarding school in England. He tells me he never felt Brazilian, maybe because he was gay or maybe because he wasn’t Catholic, but also because he never really liked black beans. I wonder if it was because he had no interest in the prostitutes that haunt the street corners and beach parking lots of our country; the women fathers purchase for their sons when they turn thirteen or that young boys, pooling their allowances, split among themselves, taking turns examining the crevices of women’s bodies, some for the first time. I tell Arthur that I hate men who make gay young boys too uncomfortable to live in their own countries, slinging slurs and fists whenever boys act too much like themselves, or too unlike the machista übermensch these men worship.
But I do not hate my father.
* * *
My father once told me that before I was born he prayed I’d be a girl, soft and delicate with ten fingers and toes, wrapped in pink. He wouldn’t know what to do if he had a gay son by some act of divine punishment; retribution for the years of unabashed homophobia, the jokes and slurs that ensured that any gay boy living in Joao Pessoa remained closeted at risk of losing everything. There was something inherently less aberrational, at least in my dad’s mind, about a gay woman. Maybe because, at least socially, there was less to lose and less to be ashamed of. Then again, that was years ago, and Northeast Brazil, the poorest region of my country, doesn’t exactly churn out socially aware liberals.
I have a tiresome (and I’ve come to think distinctly Brazilian) habit of forgiving men, a genetic inheritance much like my small feet and brown eyes. A palliative: I tell my friends I would never date a Brazilian, a geographic expansion of the game of telephone the women in my family have played for generations. Great-Grandmother started it, telling us to never date a man, like her own husband, from the farmland – the sertao – but Grandma didn’t listen. Mom did, and she married a man from the big city, Sao Paulo, and so I grew up knowing that Great-Grandmother’s demands were insufficient and settled on a no Brazilian men ever protocol. If my lineage continues with this game, perhaps my daughter’s daughters will have banned whole hemispheres of men. Arthur, having grown up in Brazil, tells me he often feels the same way. He made love to a Brazilian for the first time last summer, but it was an uncomfortable experience. His lover told him he was too quiet, too mechanical. Apparently, he didn’t make love like a Brazilian at all. Arthur had just gotten out of a relationship with an American named Eli and I wondered whether in the process of loving Eli, he forgot what it felt like to love anything else.
* * *
Arthur told me he created Eli before he met him. When he was fourteen, the year he moved to England for boarding school, he wrote a story about meeting another gay boy, one with striking red hair and blue eyes; the boy was fair-skinned and freckled and American. This creation of his entered his life in waves, leaving the pages of his fiction six years later in his third year of university in the United States.
Eli was two grades ahead of us and in the fifteen months that he and Arthur dated, I only met him once. To Arthur, Eli was the land he’d promised himself when he left Brazil and the creation he spent over a year learning how to let go of. If I had known then that Eli was more Frankenstein’s monster than Pinocchio, maybe I wouldn’t have let Arthur go that year, I wouldn’t have let his friendship slip away. But in those fifteen months, Eli warped Arthur’s sense of self, isolated him from his friends and family, and emotionally destroyed him. To disentangle yourself from the monster you made is never any easy thing to do.
“Every gay man adores a Fascist, too,” Arthur reminds me.
* * *
The fascist regime in Brazil of 1964-1985 was considered a “passive” dictatorship by most historians of totalitarianism; a non-violent regime often led by moderates who believed in the need for some, very limited, democratic principles. Military leaders executed “only” 300 “subversives” and the hyper-inflation associated with the second republic, the Estado Novo, was squashed in the first year after the military coup. Under the dictatorship, Brazil flourished. Until things fell apart. By the early 1980s inflation far surpassed the highest rates ever experienced under the Estado Novo. In 1975, a famous journalist, Vladimir Herzog, was murdered for his pro-communist opinions and the military court ruled his death a suicide. The men who killed him were later pardoned under Brazil’s Amnesty Law. All the military leaders, in fact, were pardoned. Many of the regime’s leaders, primarily the “bionic senators” who were the indirectly elected representatives of the regime, were subsequently involved in drafting Brazil’s first democratic Constitution.
Because the military regime systematically disenfranchised its most marginalized citizens, one might assume that there never was a role for women, and especially not poor, black, or Northeastern women, in Brazilian politics. And yet, it is an irony most contemporary historians never speak of: that one of Brazil’s most powerful women’s movements, the Women’s Campaign for Democracy (CAMDE), legitimized the country’s oppressive military dictatorship during the 1960s. CAMDE started as an anti-communist women’s organization that promoted Christian family ideals and in its fervent opposition of Goulart, Brazil’s last leftist president until Lula took office in 2003, CAMDE promoted a fascist regime, legitimizing Brazil’s military coup even in the United States. Women were in fact at the epicenter of the birth of Brazil’s political leviathan.
The legacy of the military dictatorship seeps into Brazilian society, unnoticed. Brazilian schoolchildren are taught to learn and regurgitate, not to question. Only one exam, multiple-choice of course, determines if a student will go to university. Public education is a national joke, with teachers on strike more often than they’re in the classroom. It’s as if the education system was created to make its population forgetful, a cracked door through which Fascism can slither in unnoticed, coiling itself around the minds of the Brazilian people.
* * *
My maternal grandmother, Vovó Lourdina, is in love with a Fascist, and not just her husband. I learn this after my Saturday morning Skype call with her and my grandfather. I try to call them every Saturday, mostly to indulge Grandma’s love of gossip, which now centers around the who’s who of the local obituary, but in the wake of the election, there is too much at stake for me not to confirm what I already know.
“So, who did you vote for?” I ask, trying my best to feign neutrality.
“Bolsonaro,” Grandfather responds. A justification soon follows. “He knows what’s wrong with the country. He’s getting good men. Moro is his Minister of Justice, and Moro is an upstanding guy.”
I pretend I haven’t repeatedly called Sergio Moro, the Judge behind Brazil’s biggest corruption scandal involving almost all high-profile members of the leftist Worker’s Party (the PT), the biggest Brazilian embarrassment since the 2014 World Cup. Grandmother smiles at the mention of Moro, perhaps because, like my mother, she’s absolutely smitten with him. Unlike my mother, however, Moro is second only to Bolsonaro himself in the esteem of my grandmother.
“I’ve never been very turned on to politics, but something about him makes me believe he can change things,” she tells me when I ask her about our new President. It’s the first time she’s used the word “I” in our conversation. I ask her whether she finds some of his statements about women disturbing. I remind her that this is the man who told a female Congresswoman: “I wouldn’t rape you because you don’t deserve it.”
For a moment, as I hold my breath, she is silent.
“I think he’s already softening his stances,” Grandma finally says before Grandfather takes over again. I deflate. It’s as if she’s already forgotten all the misogyny, the homophobia, the unbounded hate embodied by Bolsonaro. Evident in his speech, in phrases like: “I’d rather have my son die in a car accident than have him show up dating some guy.” Or, “I had four sons, but then I had a moment of weakness, and the fifth was a girl.”
Vovó Lourdina stands behind my grandfather and nods along as he reminds me that no, he’s not homophobic, but that marriage, well, it should be between a man and a woman. I’m asking the right questions, the ones I wrote down days before I called them, but I feel as though my brain has been stung by bees and the world muted. I remember our conversation only in disjointed soundbites. Most of it is already lost.
“We’re not prejudiced people,” Grandfather reminds me. “We were brought up poor so we never really could be prejudiced. At church, we’ll sit next to anyone.”
“But you think gay people getting married is wrong?”
“It’s not right, especially done in the church.” My grandmother nods more forcibly. They’ve been together since Vovó was twelve, survived a seven-year separation when my great-grandmother sent her away to a nun’s boarding school, and married promptly after she graduated. I don’t think they’ve ever been apart since.
I wonder if Bolsonaro reminds Vovó of my grandfather: commanding, gruff, domineering. Perhaps in the President elect she sees a reflection of her husband, of her father, of her son, of every man that has ever cared for her. She never sits down, never interrupts, never speaks first. In fact, I soon direct my questions to my grandfather it which seems to make her more comfortable. At the end of our conversation she smiles and tells me I should speak to my uncle, “because he knows a lot about these politic things.” I tell her I love her. She begs me to Skype them again next Saturday. She asks me if I’ve been eating enough, to which I respond that of course I have. I tell her I like her new haircut. This is ritualized, comfortable, easy. According to my grandparents, this is the kind of conversations women should have.
* * *
Vovó Haydée is forgetful and unreliable, her mind a sieve through which the past floats into oblivion, or at least to a place she can no longer access. Conversely, her husband, my paternal grandfather, remains sharp, his mind seemingly impervious to age. When I ask him about the election, he gives me all the right answers: He voted for Haddad, the PT’s presidential candidate and former mayor of Sao Paulo, because he is against neoliberalism and totalitarianism. He remembers the horrors of the dictatorship and hopes the country never returns to such an oppressive regime. My grandmother tells me, as I strain to hear my grandfather’s muffled comments over her soft voice on the telephone, that she voted for Bolsonaro. I am uncertain whether to believe her as there are days she no longer remembers even my name. When I ask her if she’d like to rest now, she begs me to keep asking her questions, as if with every probe, each more banal than the next, I’ll forget her dementia. Eventually, I tell her I have to go, and she finally relents before telling me I need to visit soon. I promise her I will.
Vovó Haydée was the most educated woman in my family and a feminist whose ideals were much better suited to the twenty-first century than the twentieth. And yet, I will never be able to access the depth of her experience or the nuances of her life. This is all gone from us, gone forever.
I can’t help but wonder if this is how fascism retains its hold of a country. We forget the horror of the past, we mix everything up, and so the dictatorship merely lies dormant until it can reawaken, stronger than before. Bolsonaro said the problem with the old military regime was that it did not kill enough people; it should have killed 30,000 not 300, and so I worry that as a society we let too many wounds fester in silence. For 30 years, the leviathan slumbered undisturbed.
“She mixed up the names,” Dad texts me when I tell him Grandma said she voted for Bolsonaro.
“Everything keeps flying away,” she had told me.
“What do you mean, Vovó?”
“My mind, everything is flying.”
* * *
I believe it was my maternal Grandfather, at his most resentful, who first told me my great-grandmother, Vovó Adelia, was the village whore. She had five children, four daughters including my grandmother, and one son, Tio Renaldo. It has always been unclear, much to grandma’s distaste, which of great-grandma’s progeny share a father. Tio Renaldo died in the psychiatric ward of a run-down hospital in the interior of Brazil ten years after attempting (and failing) to shoot his ex-wife in the back. He spent the last years of his life doped-up and far away from the rest of us. I met him once, before they locked him up, when I was just eight or nine, and I remember his eyes burning red and unfocused, his body large and slow. It was as if a smaller man was attempting to operate this fat man’s body and an air of uncertainty accompanied him wherever he stood. He couldn’t have been particularly tall, no one in my family is, but I remember him to be a towering figure. Even then, I feared him.
After his death, my grandma and Tia Mil, her sister, formed a genetic alliance. They played pretend, declaring among themselves that they were the legitimate daughters of Great-Grandfather, Adelia’s much older husband, but they only discussed the unlikely possibility of their shared lineage when they were alone. When Tia Wilma, who is taller and fairer than the two of them, visited, they assured her she is also Great-Grandfather’s daughter and that, regardless, he loved them all the same until the day he died. Together, they idolized Great-Grandfather, but no one talked about Adelia except to pardon themselves.
“I’m more like Papa,” Grandma says. “And thank God for that.”
When Tio Renaldo died, all his sisters wept and all his sisters absolved him. The man he never was in life, he became in death – honorable and sensitive, a kind, misunderstood soul. It was Vovó Adelia, by outliving him, who was left to bear the weight of his sins. She was the adulteress and the poisoned womb, and three years after the death of her only son, she died alone.
Vovó Adelia never shot anyone, but to my grandmother and her sisters she might as well have. The women in my family have been teaching each other how to forget for generations, subtly reworking the past, passing down forgiveness like cake recipes, drenched in saccharine.
* * *
Timothy Powers, the director of Oxford University’s Latin American center, once wrote that in its last years, the Brazilian Military Regime was “emasculated,” powerless to really enforce or implement any kind of policy. While many historians view this as the natural consequence of democratic transition, I believe it was due, at least partially, to a collective awakening. From grassroots Christian groups organized by the Catholic church, to local neighborhood associations, the entirety of Brazilian society railed against the dictatorship, demanding rights most never had but all believed they deserved. Young women especially could no longer accept the injustices of the dictatorship and in numbers totaling over tens of thousands, they marched the streets of all of Brazil’s major cities.
I am reminded of the pictures of the #EleNao movement that caught traction before Bolsonaro’s election, in which hundreds of thousands of women, wearing the colors of the Brazilian flag, took to the streets in protest of Bolsonaro. Not for a second did I believe this was enough. The country was too polarized, its women too divided among racial, geographic, and economic lines. Too many of us had forgotten what oppression felt like. Or perhaps we just grew accustomed to a milder version of it. Bolsonaro’s rhetoric becomes palatable to a generation of women who knew only a taste of totalitarianism but had to swallow fear every time they stepped outside their homes into their crime ridden cities. Women who remembered only the last few “emasculated” years of the dictatorship. Fascism Light. The brutality of government was lost to us in the terrors of daily life.
Arthur, a history major, tells me that Brazilians love to play the victim. We make bad decisions and when we suffer we blame everyone except ourselves. A day after the election neither of us felt sympathetic towards the minorities, especially the women and the gays, who voted for Bolsonaro.
“Self-hating idiots,” Arthur said.
“Self-hating idiots you want to dedicate your life to,” I reminded him as he filled out his graduate school applications.
When Arthur started university he had completely disavowed Brazilian history and decided to major in Classics. It wasn’t until sophomore year that he switched to history, and it wasn’t until that summer, spent doing archival research in Portugal, that he rediscovered Brazilian history. Despite his earlier convictions, he decided to dedicate his academic career to studying the country that voted against everything he is.
“Masochist,” I said.
“Exactly,” he said, snapping his fingers, as if I’d just proved his entire theory of the world.
I used to believe that Tropical Fascism was a Feminine Fascism, somehow more colorful, less regimented, than its European counterpart, perhaps even less evil. In reality, the only thing feminine about Brazilian politics is that it is born in the forgetfulness of its people, and especially of its women. Women are taught to forgive the indiscretions of their husbands, their brothers, and their sons and to accept male authority over their own intuition. A military regime is just a formalization of what it is like to be a woman in Brazil. A subjugation of the feminine. The gay. The other. Tropical Fascism is not European Fascism, nor is it Chilean or Argentinian Fascism; it is as distinctly Brazilian as the Amazon. It is nebulous, back-tracking, an aberration, at times emasculated, at times the most effective military regime in the world, but it is, most crucially, dependent on the endorsement of women. An endorsement Brazilian society has bred into its daughters.
* * *
When I was in elementary school, my mother volunteered with the school’s reading program almost every day. Back then, I loved having her there and I was so proud of how quickly she learned English. We’d moved from Brazil only two years prior and my mother was determined to be involved with my education. She was beautiful and smart and kind; the only woman with an accent at my all-white elementary school.
By the time I was in the seventh grade, however, my mother could no longer help me with my schoolwork. I had tested into a gifted and talented program and it was quite clear that when it came to academics, there was nothing left for her to teach me. Instead, she would cook my favorite foods when I was particularly stressed or fold my laundry with a kind of precision that seemed to say this, this I can still do for you. The mothers of my friends all seemed to be lawyers or doctors or engineers and not only had they read my favorite books, they talked about the intricacies of each novel, the subtleties of each play with the kind of polish that screamed money and an elite education. Clearly something my mother never had the chance to attain. Whenever mom invited any of my friend’s parents over, I would worry for days before the dinner, imagining all the ways in which things could go wrong, in which I would be found out. As if my mother’s education, or lack thereof, meant that I was somehow lesser than my classmates whose parents were all at least university graduates. For years, I felt like I was holding my breath. Though I resisted the urge to give her a crash course in They Odyssey or The Great Gatsby, I would often casually mention a few topics I thought she should avoid – classes or teachers, college admissions or careers. It wasn’t until many years later that Mom told me how often I made her cry. I never realized I was hurting her, or that I ever made her feel so small, but I know now that only daughters can wound their mothers so profoundly. It’s a reversed inheritance, a returning of something bitter that the world forced upon us when we were born little girls and not little boys.
The women in my family have, for far too long, been taught to discredit each other. It’s as if every family narrative begins with a woman failing: the grandmother who forgot how to speak, the grandmother who never learned how, the mother who never said the right things. The great-grandmother that damned us all. Eve in the garden. I have been taught to judge the shortcomings of my mother while emulating the strengths of my father. I can hardly speak of my mother without mentioning some minor flaw, some sort of social incompetence. Recently, I’ve noticed that is exactly how I speak of myself. Conversely, I’ve given my father a carte blanche – I can forgive his insensitiveness as quickly as my mother does. I learned it from her.
Though it hurts to remember, I can no longer ignore generations of learned forgetfulness, my family’s shared pain and history. My country’s past can no longer be forgotten or forgiven, covered in glitter and face paint. There is too much at stake now, too much to be lost. I’m tired of pardoning men who view me, who view so many other women like me, who view Arthur, who view my mother, as marginal. Irrelevant. There is a leviathan awakening within me, too.
* * *
In the 1980s, Brazilian women mobilized, at every socioeconomic level, to vanquish the dictatorship. Twenty years after CAMDE, and at a time of hyperinflation and extreme economic instability in the country, Brazil’s new liberal women’s movements helped tear down the military regime. Not only the upper-class wives, but women with nothing more than a fourth-grade education were writing in newspapers and marching in streets, demanding an end to the dictatorship. When Brazilian fascism turned its back on the Brazilian woman, the Brazilian woman tore down the monster she had helped create. As I scroll through the hundreds of Facebook pages dedicated to women in support of Bolsonaro, I wonder what happened to the women’s movements of the 80s. What happened to that generation of firebrands? Of women who yelled to crowds of men, of women who learned to read in their thirties just to write speeches against the dictatorship, of women who left their husbands because they believed that they could make Brazil, my country, better? Have they forgotten us? Have we forgotten them?
Gabriella Monico is a senior at Harvard College, studying Economics and English. She is originally from Northeastern Brazil, but immigrated to the US with her parents when she was four. She has studied creative nonfiction under both Professor James Wood and award-winning author, Michael Pollan. After graduating, she intends to move to San Francisco, CA and continue working on a collection of essays about her family.