Beloved criminals

Meneghetti desguised

Brazilians have a somewhat disturbing tenderness for certain types of criminals. Let me drop some names that will prove my point: Meneghetti, Adhemar de Barros, Lampião and your generic malandro.

Take, for instance, the figure of Gino Meneghetti. Born in Pisa, Italy, in 1870, he became a huge celebrity in São Paulo, between 1914 and the sixties. He was known as the “good thief”, “the greatest criminal of Latin America” and the “roof cat”, due to his ability of jumping from one house to another to deceive the police. The public passion for Meneghetti florished thanks to the massive media coverage of his feats and the fact that he never hurt anybody, only stole from the rich and performed spectacular escapes.

The second name in our list: coffee producer and politician Adhemar de Barros, the very popular governor that ruled over São Paulo state during part of the forties, the fifties and the sixties. One of his mottos, of striking candor, is still remembered by those who distrust politicians: “Roubo, mas faço” (I steal, but I also build). Indeed, he was very hard working and left a legacy of power dams, roads, schools and hospitals. But his government was also marked by several corruption episodes. Till today you can find elder adhemaristas that still long for those days.

Dead or alive: Bahia state offered a big award for whoever would catch Lampião

Then, Lampião, or Virgulino Ferreira da Silva, the Brazilian version of Jesse James and Billy the Kid. This mythical outlaw scared several states of the Northeast region, raiding small cities and farms with his heavily armed band of cangaceiros. Lampião had a personal feud with the police, that killed his father when he was 21. Very violent, his band murdered, took hostages for a ransom, raped and ransacked. This routine lasted for two decades, till Lampião, his wife Maria Bonita and many of his men were killed and beheaded by the police, in 1938. Now, more than 70 years later, Lampião is till everywhere. He inspires movies (such as the Glauber Rocha’s cult “Deus e o Diabo na Terra do Sol”, generally translated into “White God, Black Devil”), soap operas and cordel literature (the popular booklets illustrated with xylogravures). To many, Lampião is the archetype of the lonely guy against the law and the system. A rebel without (or maybe with) a cause.

Finally, the malandro. This popular character, particularly strong in the culture of the city of Rio de Janeiro, is a charming petty criminal, well dressed in a white suit and a nice hat,  with a wife and several girlfriends.  He gambles, he does little tricks to get a few extra coins, he sings love songs with his guitar and covers you with his disarmingly sweet lies. It is the guy who tries to sell the Corcovado (the famous Christ statue in Rio) to innocent tourists. He convinces his widow mother to give him all her savings. He is awful – in the nicest possible way. The malandro character was personified by singer and composer Moreira da Silva (aka Kid Moringueira), the creator of the so-called samba de breque, one of many samba styles. In this video, he sings with Roberto Carlos (who got his own post a few days ago).

I wonder what might be hiding behind this phenomenon (that is probably not exclusively Brazilian). Maybe a certain despise for the police, the law and conventional moral? Any thoughts about that, my friends?

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2 thoughts on “Beloved criminals”

  1. You’re right to suggest that this phenomenon is not exclusively Brazilian.

    Think of the popularity of John Gotti, the Sopranos, John Dillinger, Bonny and Clyde and Willie Sutton in this country. For that matter, think of the drug-dealing and gun-toting characters lionized in rap songs.

    When justice is uneven, charismatic outlaws will be admired for their ability to overcome the odds.

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