700 words on... discovering social conditions

Want to know more about social conditions? Literature and culture modules may be of interest.

This article looks at the poem 'Morte e Vida Severine' which reveals that unacceptable social conditions were omnipresent throughout Brazil.

The variety, depth and sophistication of the content modules came as a complete surprise to me when I first started university; I knew I could possibly take modules in the history and culture of Latin America (my degree is Portuguese, Spanish and European Studies) but I never imagined I would learn about the Mexican Revolution, the Zapatistas, Brazilian slavery and emancipation, the Cuban Revolution, Violence in Colombia, Guatemalan Indians and the State, Guerrilla Warfare in Peru, the Dirty War in Argentina, Chile before Pinochet and the Sandinistas of Nicaragua all in one, single module! What's more, these case studies were studied using primary and secondary sources, biographical accounts, literature and film. Referring to such material written by people from each country really made me feel like I understood their society that little bit more. For those 45 minutes every Monday and Thursday I learnt something that opened my eyes to the world in which we live and not something that was being taught solely for the purpose of writing an essay or passing an exam.

The creation of the economic modernization programme in Brazil during the 1950s led to a period of rapid industrialization of the largest cities in the southern part of the country. One of the obvious results of a change in economy from a rural economy to one that now focuses on mass manufacturing was the concurrent reduction in the social quality of people's lives, which in turn has encouraged more people to migrate from the countryside to the cities in search of work. The explosive increase in manufacturing in Brazil was not matched by an expansion in infrastructure of the type necessary to manage, or perhaps a better word would be impede, the mass migration to the cities. The poem 'Morte e Vida Severina' by Brazilian poet João Cabral de Melo Neto, profoundly conveys the stark contradictions that arose as a result of the intense economic modernization during that time.

The poem strongly protests against Brazil's economic modernization programme. The national political agenda centred itself on the idea of accelerating industrial production. The motto of the time, coined by the President Kubitschek, was '50 years in 5'. That is to say that he envisaged and planned for 50 years progression to take place in a mere 5 years. However, only a few cities were in fact undergoing this industrialisation process. In this context it would have been quite optimistic to assume that a policy of economic austerity would help the majority of the Brazilian population. It can be seen that rapid industrialization actually impacted on the concurrent increase in difficult social conditions. The average life span of those Brazilians in the northeast of the country was around 40, yet for other parts of the country the average life span was 46. Those from the northeast were clearly living under the poverty line.

The poem suggests that the Sertejanos are living in a state of extreme need. The poem's narrator retells from the beginning to the end of the auto the plight of destitute people who are fighting for daily survival. Life is portrayed as so bleak that death encompasses and determines life. One of the most noticeable points of the poem is that it confronts and criticizes the state on behalf of the illiterate people of the northeast. It is very obvious that the government did not establish an authentic social policy to help combat poverty and in fact it is probable that the government turned a blind eye to the poverty in the Sertão. As far as it is known, in this dry region the sertejanos are dependant upon agriculture as a means of living, but the economic modernization programme denied any such modernization of agriculture. They erroneously hoped that the poem would publicly embarrass the government and in turn encourage an injection of money to develop the Sertão region. But it is obvious that the government only wanted to attract the attention of foreign investment to the major cities in the southern part of the country.

João Cabral de Melo Neto wanted his poem to express and debate the complex relationship between social expressions that represented the feelings and emotions of the north eastern people together with the dire social, cultural and political problems that arose in Brazil in the middle of the 20th Century. The poem reveals that unacceptable social conditions were omnipresent throughout Brazil including in the new, modern cities. It is regrettable that the settings can change but that unfortunate social conditions are always present in Brazil.