CARUARU, Brazil — A little more than 50 years ago in the desolate interior of northeast Brazil, there rode an outlaw named Lampiao, who wore a large leather hat with a broad brim turned up in front and back. Fringe and strings of beads hung from the brim. Lampiao and his comrades, vigilantes of the sertao, or back lands, ransacked farms, killed those who got in their way and seemed unstoppable until they were finally ambushed and gunned down by government troops.
Time has tamed the image of the feared bandit Lampiao and turned him into a major icon of the Festa Juninas celebration in Caruaru, a picturesque artisan town about 1,600 miles north of Rio de Janeiro. In June, Caruaru swells from a sleepy town of a quarter of a million residents to more than a million as visitors from around the world arrive for the annual Big Party. Festa Juninas dazzles with fireworks, food and forro, a type of Brazilian music that keeps partygoers dancing until dawn.
When my husband, Lewis Campbell, and I visited Caruaru last June, it was a journey to a territory I had been traversing for some time, if only in literature. I had been studying and translating literatura de cordel, or "stories on a string"--folk ballads printed in pamphlets that were strung on clotheslines across poets' stalls and sold in the open marketplaces of northeastern Brazil. Part of a fading folkloric tradition, these ballads of human folly involve simple country folk, talking animals and Catholic saints.
As a child, I lived for a time with my grandmother in Brazil. I remembered Festa Juninas and the frilly traditional costumes my grandmother made for my sister and me for the celebration. An uncle took us to see the fireworks arc across the sky. In a sense, returning to Brazil during Festa Juninas was returning home.
The better-known Carnival, held before Lent in Rio and elsewhere in Brazil, is an all-out glorification of carnal delights, a celebration of the wild id that changes dramatically into the superego come Ash Wednesday. Festa Juninas, on the other hand, celebrates the ego, the constancy of life and hard work. The festival originated in pre-Christian Europe to honor the harvest and fertility, and came to Brazil with the Portuguese.
Besides its festival, Caruaru is known for its ceramic figurines, considered a major form of Brazilian folk art, and for its twice-weekly market, one of the largest in northeastern Brazil, held Wednesdays and Saturdays. The city can be visited during a day trip from Recife, a budding resort capital 95 miles away that is known as the Brazilian Venice.
Part of our stay included Recife, Brazil's fourth largest city. The colonial section of town huddles by the coast; the rest sprawls around three rivers, connected by several brightly painted bridges. My husband and I stayed in Boa Viagem, the hotel zone, which has a beach that rivals those in Rio.
Settled by the Portuguese in the first decade of the 1500s, Recife was used as a harbor for ships transporting harvested brazilwood to Europe. Sugar mills were established in the early 1530s, and the area rapidly became one of the most important sugar-growing regions in the world.
In the interior, owners of large estates raised cattle, initially to supply sugar workers with food. These isolated estates gave rise to a unique population of flamboyant cowboys, wandering outlaws and African slaves. Some of the slaves escaped and established independent communities. They named one of these communities Kau'lu, after an herb brought from their African homeland. "Kau'lu" evolved into the name Caruaru (pronounced car-u-a-RU).
The city sits in a small valley in the heart of the Agreste, a part of Brazil that gets some of the moisture of the coast yet hints at the harsher landscape of the sertao. To get here, we took a two-hour bus ride from Recife. We passed rolling hills of sugar cane, patches of thick bromeliads and clusters of palm and banana trees. The lushness gave way to stubbier vegetation and cactus. Donkey carts shared the road with speeding cars, and goats grazed nonchalantly in empty lots that doubled as soccer fields. We watched while a man tried to harness a runaway pig, the animal clearly winning as it dragged its master through the mud.
Festa Juninas was everywhere. Rows of small flags were strung around town squares and across alleyways, attached to trees, windows and eaves. Baloes, colorful balloon-like lanterns, hung from lampposts.
The images of this harvest festival are pure matuto, which translates as "country bumpkin." During Festa Juninas, even the most ardent city dweller longs for the farm. Straw hats and fringed leather hats a la Lampiao appear on the heads of refrigerator salesmen, TV cooking show hosts and jitney drivers. Lampiao also appears on billboards advertising Burger King and rock music radio stations.