Maria Bonita, Better Half of
Brazil’s Riskiest Love Story
It’s easy to romanticize about outlaws who fall in love, lead a trailblazing life, and burn out like shooting stars, leaving the holes in their story to be filled with awe by future generations. As legends recede, it’s ever harder to match them with reality.
But the life of Maria Déia and Capt. Virgulino Ferreira da Silva sure packs all the heat those landmarks evoke, placing them at the rarefied pantheon of anti-hero couples whose feats and memory still transfix the living, no matter how much time has passed.
As infamous leaders of a ragtag bunch, who terrorized the hinterlands of Brazil’s Northeast and entranced the nation in the 1930s, Maria Bonita and Lampião are at par with contemporaries Bonnie and Clyde, and after them, Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate.
They all rose quickly from the anonymity of underprivileged classes to news headlines by the way of the gun, leaving a trail littered with crime and death in their wake, but also, a surprising tenderness, represented by their mutual affection.
But while Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were not lovers, and Charles may have manipulated Caril Ann to follow him, Maria Bonita (Beautiful Maria) and Virgulino (lampião means oil lamp, but his nickname is a reference to his lethal firepower) did it all together.
They were equals and in synch in both love and killing skills, although she may’ve been demonized by the Brazilian press at the time, because she was a woman. How fitting then that Sunday, March 8th, the International Women’s Day, also marks her 104th birthday.
QUEEN AND KING OF CANGAÇO
Lampião, 14 years her senior, was already a wanted bandit when he met and literally swept Maria off her feet, around 1930, in the arid Sertão of Brazil, in 1930. A kind of local Robin Hood, he’d avowed to avenge his parents’ deaths in the hands of government soldiers.
When she joined in, Maria became a de-facto co-leader of his gang, which certainly benefited from her charisma. They became folk heroes and it’s not hard to picture how the impoverished populace embraced their fight against enforcers of big landowners and corrupt politicians.
Lampião’s campaign lasted some 16 years, and even as Maria could have played Marian to his Robin exploits, the cangaceiros, as they were known, were closer, by the violence of their robberies, to brothers Frank and Jesse James of the American Old West.
Constantly on the move, despite their frugal and brutally harsh living conditions, the group enjoyed a certain notoriety in the underdeveloped rural Brazil, and their reputation spread out to the rest of the country. That may have doomed them.
BRIEF FAME & GRUESOME DEMISE
This rare 1936 set of pictures were taken by Lebanon-born Brazilian Benjamin Abrahão, and captured Lampião and his gang at their peak. Coincidentally, just two years later, both them and Abrahão were killed a few months apart by government forces.
But while the photographer was stabbed several times by an unknown attacker – presumably under orders of Getulio Vargas, Brazil’s dictator and/or his Estado Novo regime, Lampião was mercilessly hunted down through the Caatinga region and executed along his gang. Their severed heads were publicly displayed for weeks afterwards.
The irony is that, back in the 1920s, Virgulino Ferreira received the honorary Captaincy post as a license to hunt down Luis Carlos Prestes, a Communist politician and the leader of the Coluna Prestes, another sad chapter in Brazil’s politics. Look it up.
Since not much was left from Lampião’s cavalcade at the margins of law and state, more than to a credo of rebellion and fight for the oppressed, the endurance of his legacy may be credited mostly to his romance with Maria Bonita. Or at least, that’s how they’re remembered.
A PASSION SPROUTED OUT OF DRY LAND
That’s when their legend leaves the outlaw narrative and reverses back to tragic romances, real or fictional, such as Abelard and Heloise, or Tristan and Isolde, even Romeo and Juliet. Including a contemporary couple here too, such as John and Yoko, would be entirely up to you.
Their stories all share this sense of inevitability and doom, a powerful magnet that attracted them for a moment – as brief as breath and as intense as the sun – which somehow seized our imagination and split time in clearly defined before and after eras.
The world, though, is always partial to generals and warriors, loners who supposedly change history on the sheer strength of their individual drives. We don’t particularly care for any of them. Instead, we find that even romanticized love narratives distill more life and reality.
It may have something to do with the intrinsic boredom underlining winning stories, however earthshaking they may be, and how so utterly devoid of grace and heart a victor’s proclamation can be. We tend to get richer and more fulfilled with loss than with gains.
At the end of the day, Maria and the Capt.; the Capuleti and the Montecchi; Peter, the Sherwood thief, and their beloved nuns; Wagner and Mathilde; Bonnie and Barrow, Caril Ann and Chuck; even Lennon and Ono, are just flesh and blood people.
Their love affairs, however, will always outlast them all.
* Women’s Day
* The Body of Choice
* Phony Outrage