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The Sights and Voices of Dispossession: The Fight for the Land and the Emerging Culture of the MST (The Movement of the Landless Rural Workers of Brazil)


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Studies, statements & references -> Essays 9 resources (Edited by Else R P Vieira. Translation © Thomas Burns.)

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José Carlos Sebe Bom Meihy
(Translated by Thomas L Burns.)


Listening to the Voices of the March

For this our country

This our flag

For love of fatherland Brazil

We march in file

For more happiness still.

In the blue-washed gaze of our sky

Green of luke-warm hope

In the flag for so long waved.

Yellow’s for the fields in flower

For faces now so rosy

Will white glow ever peaceful

If won by calloused hands?

So let this land embrace

Whoever feels its passion

Whoever sows with tenderness

The seed to feed the Nation

Order says let no one starve

Progress proclaims a people happy

Agrarian Reform returns

The workers to their roots.

Zé Pinto, ‘Order and Progress’.

© Song translated by Bernard McGuirk

CD Arte em movimento - MST, 1998.

Based on the premise that the stories of the Sem Terra workers speak for themselves without the need for additional explanations, it is worth pointing out that what follows is more of an attentive effort to listen to and understand than to explain. We reject from the start sociological diagnoses, economicist prescriptions, and recommendations supported by amoral rights. We do so because it would be wrong to suppose that the Sem Terra narrators were not capable or autonomous to portray their own lived logic. Therefore, we situate the problematics of the usual "analyses" at the level of ethics. In the same manner, we intend to value the most concrete aspect of these accounts: their capacity for expression and transformation.

We intend to acknowledge the merit of those who cry out for social and human improvement. If we ponder on this, it is in order to aid certain groups to hear the messages for which they are not prepared. To accept these stories as indicators of substantial changes and to facilitate their integration into the political order is a sign of commitments that complement each other. And it is under these conditions that some intellectuals play a role in acknowledging work done in favor of a militant culture.

This article, therefore, was prepared for the consumers of books and arguments that base their questioning in a land dug by the experiences of the poor, specifically, the case of Sem Terra workers. Above all, we stress the importance of marking off another territory: the narrative of people committed to social justice, which has not flourished in the soil of Brazilian citizenship.

A rationale for personal stories

To record life stories is more than collecting testimony. Allowing reflections on the meaning of existence and in it the struggle for essential causes to flourish requires courageous positions. To recognize the strength of someone who wants to work and fights disinterestedly for that end, often risking his family and even his life, is the role of a history of the present time. The traditional academic culture, by clear contrast, refutes positions that are a simplified form of "giving a voice to the oppressed." Eloquent exercises of alienation disturb the development of progress as a whole and cause theorizing to conspire against the progress of knowledge and social improvement. The traditional culture behaves in a way that invalidates the social meaning of academic works.

Modern oral history the area of study that deals with original documents and interprets their social meaning in a specific time does not accept the role of "qualified spokesperson". What is necessary is to show, for those interested in change, that the narrators are not treated as a "research object". Now appraised as "contributors", they are primarily the agents and we the workers who at best transform their voices into writing. We no longer accept the gap or the "reification" of themes that once implied neutrality. On the contrary, the status of "contributor" demands a dialectical position that weaves different threads into a single fabric. What is mended is a work that is able to offer new clothes to a society.

With refined positions, with rights measured and negotiated democratically, the personal stories deserve respect in their entirety and not in the fractions judged by others. This is a lot, and paradoxically it is not very much: it is a lot, if one takes into account the traditional parameter that gives the last word to the analyst, who perceives the research object as a foreign product; it is not much, if one notes the meaning of the struggle of workers who write their own history aggressively, demanding that the intellectual, academic, and cultured procedures of one group learn to see in the "other" the conditions of their own, respected knowledge as well.

We criticize, therefore, the criteria of judgment used by one part without the competition of the other, which has become an "object of research." Thus, we value justice in pursuit of a world in which equality rules, where the role of the intellectual is less one of self-protection and more of recognizing the conditions of change. It is, in fact, in this alternative that the ritualization occurs between their work and the labor of the academics who merely translate a process for the codes of power. This implies, of course, a clear social commitment. We are speaking of intellectual politics.

The position that we intend as the compass for this reflection aims at guaranteeing narrative totality and revealing the essence of contents of recorded experiences. Another step is the verification of resulting themes that are appropriate for the collective and political social debate. We take up the stories, abdicating the random parcelling of the contents, especially because this usually occurs without the participation of the witnesses and reveals an authoritarian viewpoint. The so-called specialists academics or intellectuals who mirror their own causes elide a substantial part of the narrative work of those who bear witness and themselves begin to decide which topics are to be focused on. This has been shown to be a perverse position for oral historians, insofar as it implies an appropriation of stories and causes that are not their own. Metaphorically, in an opposite manner, what one sees in this case is a practice of looting another’s territory as if it were property inherited by the proprietors of constituted knowledge.

Our commitment is to contextualize the life stories of the Sem Terra workers, admitting that for this purpose they have to exist in their fullness. Curiously, it is by means of writing that these possibilities are achieved, and this, as is known, is also a paradox, for writing in general has been a mechanism of segregation that hastens the social exclusion of the illiterate or those little recognized in the established school order.

Of course, protesting in favor of recording complete stories is not a question of defending absolute purity. No. We have clearly established that the utterances of the narrators and our own are located at different levels, but it is precisely from this premise that one can first claim the validity of the complete history in order to later suggest important aspects that are deemed relevant for the acceptance of appropriate arguments. Without this recognition, it becomes difficult to presume the dilemmas established on moral principles that continue to be claimed as social values: freedom, equality, and mainly, solidarity.

It is not a question of mere mediation. Our intention is to give some emphases that may encourage the dialogue between parties that are surely ill at ease with one another, but that are concerned and sensitive to the problem, trying to live with the difference. Is not democracy, we emphatically ask, built precisely by alignments forged among dissimilar people? And is it not necessary for one to clearly understand the elements of difference? And what responsibility can be greater than making dialogue possible? Do not their stories, as a whole and wholly, comprise the basic material for explanations? With what right may these stories be fragmented? With the same arrogance that is used to define these people as having no right to own anything?

The intellectual operation is always complicated when the question of understanding the "other" is undertaken. Not without reason, one of the most eloquent themes of the so-called contemporary human sciences is the question of "alterity." Using the qualification of another’s identity in order to discuss one’s own, what becomes obvious is individualism and its discarding of collective commitment, as if it were true that the presuppositions of postmodernity guaranteed intellectuals the right to no longer be a part of social projects. Generally speaking, it seems that we live in a glass jar where problems are always caused by the "others" and we expected not to worry about, resignedly and comfortably, what cannot be changed.

These people, relegating to history the role of a deposit for the records of the failures of the great projects of which socialism would be one take stock of the weakness of politics for future generations. Incapable of playing its part, politics would be compared to a kind of schizophrenia of generations of dreamers. And it is in fact along this line that the concept of utopia arises. And, what is worse, utopia becomes the proof of an unrealized dream of the past, as if it were useless to project utopias of the future, for the past would devour all hopes.

Curiously enough, contradicting this scenario, some movements arise with brutal force to disturb the comfortableness of proclaimed postmodernism. The driving force behind these attacks starts from basic struggle for survival in its most vital degree and provokes reactions that shake the entire social system. The collective body sees itself affected, sometimes assaulted, because, when it recognizes the other, it sees him as usurper of rights that were held sacred in a scheme of exclusion. Evidently, what is then established is a practice in which the borders between the "I"s and the "others" prescribe a selfish and dehumanizing "alterity," where the right is the rule of the one who makes it and for the one who consumes it by means of historically established power; all that remains is to recognize one’s own story and disregard other people’s. That is why it is crucial to know the personal stories, the careers, the joys and contradictions of the narrators. It was with this aim that this work was undertaken.

The voices of the march

The interviews with the participants of the March to Brasília documented a fantastic meeting between established power and the people they represent. How could this not be recorded? Perhaps it would be better to ask: how to record it? The choice made by the members of the ‘Nucleus of Studies in Oral History’ at the University of São Paulo (NEHO/USP) was to select personal histories, life stories, which have become collective in materializing a relevant social project that implies both its adherents and non-adherents.

The situation, as we well know, was special. It was a case of a time in the experience of a community and its individuals, but in no way do we accept the specificity of that circumstance as the opposite of what takes place every day. On the contrary, what we admire is the quality of that moment as the crowning of a process. In this civic "carnival," opportunities were given to refine political codes that were materialized in collective causes.

Of the life stories collected, some elements emphasize favorite themes of the narrators. It is precisely through the emphasis given by them to certain questions that we recognize that messages are contained in them. Among so many subjects, the fundamental question that arose is regarding the profile conferred on the group itself. The identity of the Movement can be thought of by the level of the treatment given to varied situations. As it is clear that the concepts of democracy and right are the path which the struggle takes, the individual questions offer themselves as collective ones.

On the March, people were present from several states of the federation and each of them surely have specific problems. How are the affinities built and how is the individual assymetry maintained? We can imagine a community of common fate when we examine, for example, the way in which the pronouns "I"and "we" are used by the interviewees.

All the interviews are emblematic in this sense, insofar as the "I" is often fused with the "we" and is transformed into an eternal "people." The "people" gathers countless meanings in the speech of these people, as it refers to the junction of "I" with the "others," that is, the collectivity. People, as a part of this collective militancy, share the same identity. Thus, they reflect the communion, the being together in an environment of solidarity, in which collective identity is celebrated and forged.

Religiousness is also a founding element of this collective identity. It is the result of work by the Comissão Pastoral da Terra [Pastoral Land Commission], or CPT, guided by the Liberation Theology, present in the daily life of the MST since its beginning. Through religion comes the justification for the struggle, as in the interviews with Marlene, Jonas, and Ojefferson, who evoke the idea of an Earth created by God for all, where His disciples fight for the land promised since biblical times.

It is also through the political position of the clergy in relation to the struggle for land whether they support it or not that we discern to what extent the supporters demand the exercise of a liberating faith. We think here of the example of Maria José, when she confronts the priest of her town and thinks of taking him out of there so that she can at least go to church. Or in the case of Dirce, when she joins a hunger strike of the clergy in support of the Movement, even wearing a wedding ring as a symbol of the pact.

This feeling of Communion is founded on the practice of mística (lit. mysticism or mystique) a celebration that they perform before and after every demonstration, every meeting, materializing the meaning of the struggles by means of a religious symbolism that becomes political. This symbolic appropriation allows people to always maintain their state of communion, convincing themselves of the need for the day-to-day struggle, for the learning of new values to become ritualized. This religious ritualization covers every type of political manifestation, as becomes evident in the Benedito’s discussion of the National March, comparing it to Moses’ pursuit of the Promised Land before the Hebrew people, and the Way of the Cross of Jesus Christ.

The practice of mística has created new heroes, different from those already made sacred by official history. These heroes are the participants themselves of the MST, as collaborators in this book, who have also re-invented history by choosing names with a past of popular struggle. Che Guevara, Chico Mendes, Antônio Conselheiro are mixed with the memory of the Indians who resisted colonization, as well as the rural workers and clergy murdered in the struggle for land.

Zumbi of Palmares is one of those most present in the narratives, which causes us to reflect on the dimension of the ethnic problem in the Movement. It would be wrong to suppose that poverty levels everyone. On the contrary, when there is a variation of types, ethnic and regional origins, the solidity of the weld that joins the members of the MST can be perceived. In this sense, the role of black people in this community may be pointed out.

Of course, the brief review is complicated. We perceive, nevertheless, that the democratic scenario of the cause of agrarian reform, built by the social movement, contains and gives voice to clear specificities. In the presence of this, we observe that the black people of the MST perhaps do not have a role so different from the others, as the social movements of the ethnic stamp propose. The manner of confronting prejudice and inequality seems to be more related to the practice of raising them to the situation of Brazilian citizens including great heroes inserting the historically qualifying causes of the problem of the blacks into the sphere of the general struggle.

Would not black people, the descendants of ex-slaves who are often connected to rural work, be attempting to join others to also promote a renewal of their role in history? Would not the re-occurrence of names like Zumbi and Ganga Zumba be a symptom of this? The examination of some stories may illuminate this question, such as the interviews with Marquinhos, Ojefferson, and Mazinho.

The women form another important group of specific demands, as they occupy fundamental positions in the Movement’s struggle. Their attitudes regarding actions merit care, as they accumulate responsibility as heads of family as well as other activities. At the same time, their situation as women is not negated. They play specific roles in the collective, but they also exercise family functions.

A great effort is not needed to imagine that women in the Movement end up being differentiated from the feminine pattern of the traditional, bourgeois family. In the course of the struggle for land, they become conscious of established relations in society, and they try to renew them in the direction of greater equality. In this sense, it is worth considering specific situations of Dirce’s life, which tell of the difficulties of feminine leadership; of Lúcia, who emphasizes the question of family; of Marlene, who is the head of a family; of Maria José, who evokes the political emancipation of Cristiane’s wife, who frees herself and gains an active voice in the Movement, with the compliance of the parents.

On the other hand, if we speak of the feminine, we cannot forget the masculine. The meaning of a masculinity infected with the characteristics of a patriarchal bourgeois society clashes with the new problems that arise from the sharing of activity with women. The best example is Ojefferson, who says he is an only child because he is the only man in the family, emphasizing the importance of being a man and the responsibilities that this carries. Contradictorily, it is his mother, a strong and courageous woman, who joins the MST and brings him into militancy. Here too the transformation that the day-to-day life within the Movement causes in people’s consciousness is clear. We can feel this in the life story of Zenir and Valdecir, in which a more responsible masculinity with greater solidarity is shown, insofar as they intend to build a family later, when they have a more stable situation in life. What remains above all is the men’s desire to share with their wives the domestic chores and take up new roles in the family structure.

The family, in turn, is everywhere present in these interviews. It is interesting to note, however, the frequency with which the conflicts between fathers, children, and brothers and sisters, arise from the entrance of one or the other into the Movement. Brothers and sisters of large families who enter the Movement and take others with them. Children who are ashamed of their parents for being members of the MST and later end up joining as well. Children who take the initiative, often pulling the family in or creating a situation of confrontation with parents who disagree. Parents, children, and siblings who struggle together but think in different ways about the paths to be followed. And parents who educate and give their children support within the Movement.

Marlene finds in her family the strength to keep fighting, and to offer them a better life she puts off her dream of continuing her studies. João speaks with pride of his daughters, who accompanied him on the March. Like him, there are many who tell of finding a companion for the struggle and for life in the Movement, comprising new families.

As a result of this, there is another point that deserves attention. Many of these families like those of Jonas, Lúcia, Rosineide, João, and Ojefferson were organized or re-organized after MST membership. That is, membership in the Movement imposes a new rhythm on the life of people and other commitments that go beyond the man-woman relation, not being restricted to the political struggle. Ideals and loyalty go together. Leaving an old patriarchal family structure is favorable, as well as its (re)construction in other forms.

Perhaps this is why the family is the basis for the development of social justice proposed by the MST. Family agriculture earns space by giving work to its members and not forgoing technological development in the co-operatives. Work preferably collective is the basis for a new social and political education, for the exercise of citizenship, and for the revaluing of country culture.

Thus, technical education and theory are allied in a methodological position that is broadly based and assiduously practiced within the Movement. It is applied from the basic education in the camps and settlements themselves to the technical instruction in schools like the Iterra, in Veranópolis, Rio Grande do Sul.

Education is one of the most relevant characteristics of the Movement. On the other hand, taking place under special circumstances, it reveals an ideological meaning of undisguisable commitment, inspired by names like Paulo Freire, Vygotsky, Emília Ferreiro, Makarenko, José Martí, Florestan Fernandes, Darcy Ribeiro, Marx and Lenin. In this sense, it is fitting that it be perceived through the stories how these schools come into being and what are their basic contents.

The Sem Terra break with a long pedagogical tradition that disassociates educational practice from political practice. They have an original project, cultivated each day, that constantly stimulates, that asks the questions in favor of whom and of what are being taught. This activity often takes place by professionals and committed people who think of democracy not as given but as something to be earned. This is the school of the dreams of Antonio, Rosineide, Dirce, Marlene, Maria José, and is in it that children like Cristiane learn the struggle.

We think that this learning brings many positive points. And yet, we are concerned with its occasionally dogmatic assimilation, for example, in the case of the teaching of history, in which only names, facts, and old mythis would be substituted in a less reflective, revolutionary way than the content taught. Perhaps the organization of the MST has still not achieved the material and human conditions to fully attain its goal. This, however, in no way makes the results already obtained invalid in terms of establishing the citizenship of people who were before completely excluded, as the various narrators we listen to attest.

Through the narratives, we discover that the Movement of the Sem Terra [Landless] Rural Workers, more than proposing new values different from those commonly established for a profound social transformation in our country, already puts them into practice. It is a practice filled with victories, but also with problems to solve. The members are aware of all this. And they struggle every day with our social problems, those that still prevail and influence our daily lives. Dialectically, the members renew themselves as well as those who are open to listen to their experiences and and learn from their lessons.

On the building of a society with new values, they have written:

The Time of Values

To all the militants who daily plant,

through hope, a new dawn.

Perhaps the phrase that most caught our attention in the year of 1997 was this one: "Two things are eternal: time and the people." We might have pursued other eternal things, but these two are enough for our reflection. Why has this phrase so caught our attention? Surely, because of the logic of continuity of life. We will live eternally through time and the people.

As this is the case, we do not belong to ourselves individually. We are the historical projection of our forefathers. We carry not only the physical features of our parents and grandparents, but also dreams and hopes that they formulated and instilled in every consciousness, for they knew that through us they would continue to live. This is why they applied themselves to molding our behavior.

It is up to us at this moment to define "in what future"our descendents will live. They are our continuation. At the end of the century of the second millenium, history has made us responsible to speak, not in our own names but in the name of an organization, the MST.

We have become strong partly because of our ability to simplify impossibilities, making them real, but also because of the virtues we have managed to develop. These virtues reach the depths of the imaginary of society. The rich are more afraid of our virtues than our organized strength, because our virtues move hearts and minds to plant utopias in the social scene. Nothing can be more dangerous than something that moves by itself, as it escapes the control and repression of the powerful.

The force of example is not only to be admired but referred to. And it materializes in virtues that are reproduced throughout the centuries. These virtues, which are shaped into values, are what we must pay attention to in the following years. They will determine what the future will be that we intend to hand over to our descendents. What are some of these values?

And they go on to say that these values are the cultivation of solidarity and of beauty as a symbol of well-being; the valuing of life; the preference for symbols as material representations of utopias; the ability to give simple answers to great problems; the respect for the feelings of people and history; the love of being a people who put forward an idea of nation; the defense of work and study, and, finally, the capacity for indignation as an educational exercising of the conscience.

For being like this, essentially revolutionary, the established powers try to isolate us, stigmatize us, distance themselves from us. They are only a caricatured part of the reality created by the media, to make us dream of the consumer society, individualist and competitive, disguising its unequal, prejudiced, disuniting, and violent face.

As an antidote, we offer liberating religion instead of that which oppresses and domesticates; the participation of men, women, and ethnic groups in the control of social rhythms on egalitarian terms, as opposed to the marginalization and oppression of groups; the constitution of the family on a more democratic basis, contrary to its destruction or its existence along patriarchal lines; social, collective work, as opposed to unemployment and capitalist competitiveness; conscious, politicized, and contextualized, as opposed to alienating or non-existent, education; in short, solidarity in the place of individualism.

Juxtaposing two conflicting projects for society in which the MST’s clearly displays a socialist tone we find in the Sem Terra the meaning of a new Brazil-Nation. Our Nation is finally re-appropriated, by those who were excluded from it, in the daily life of the encampments and especially of the marches, like the National March of 1997. On that occasion, the Sem Terra insisted on proclaiming, once more through music, that the words written on our flag be read from another point-of-view:

order is when no one goes hungry and progress is when the people are happy.


Editors Note: This contribution was published as a postface to the book Vozes da marcha pela terra [Voices from the March for Land] which gathers the life stories of 16 people who took part in the Great National March for Agrarian Reform, Employment, and Justice. On the occasion of the first anniversary of the Eldorado de Carajás massacre, on April 17, 1997, columns of landless people, marching from every corner of the country, arrived in Brasília, the capital of Brazil. This contingent of 2000 Sem Terra then camped for 15 days in front of the Grancircular, a place for public demonstrations located between the Ministries and the central bus-station in Brasilia, during which the interviews took place and were recorded.


November 2002

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