MENINO23 Stolen Childhood Documentary: Enslaved by Brazilian Nazis
Note from BW of Brazil: It’s always curious to me to see how so many Brazilians deal with the issue of race, slavery, racial inequality and Brazil’s own unofficial caste system. Regardless of how much evidence is presented on these topics, people often react as if the enslavement of millions of people and a de facto system that maintains an imagery in which the value of people is determined by color and phenotype is a natural thing.
I’ve always found what was happening in Brazil during the period of Nazi Germany to be intriguing. Not only were hundreds of thousands of Germans pouring into the country, their political leanings contributed to Brazil becoming home of the largest population of Nazis outside of Germany at the time. So, when I learned about this documentary that tells the story of a group of black boys taken away from an orphanage to work as slaves on a plantation of Brazilian Nazis in the 1930s, I knew I had to watch it. As horrific as the story portrayed in the documentary is, perhaps what’s worse, in the view of one of the professors responsible for uncovering the story, is the reaction of Brazilians to the documentary.
I’ve long noted that whenever the topic is racism, racial inequality, slavery or cruel treatment of black people, many Brazilians will automatically point the finger at countries such as the United States as the real culprits of such historical and modern atrocities, as if Brazil’s sins pale in comparison or as if this history has nothing to do with the position of Brazil’s black population to this day.
If there is still some doubt about the role race played in what happened to the young black orphan boys made to work on that plantation in 1930s Campina do Monte Alegre, an elderly white man who remembered the situation said it point blank. Asked why the plantation owner only picked black boys for enslavement, the man responded, “He only wanted black. Because he didn’t want white.” Slavery in Brazil officially ended in 1888.
For those unfamiliar with Brazil’s history of slavery, its dream of whitening its populationand experiment with eugenics, this story could actually be quite surprising. But when you’ve been digging into the nation’s history on the issue of race for as long I have, you start to wonder what other dirty little secrets the country has managed to hide from international scrutiny.
Boy 23: documentary depicts childhood stolen on a Nazi farm on the São Paulo countryside
By Cecilia Garcia
“My childhood was stolen.” – Seu Aloísio, in the movie Menino 23
The story of the movie Menino 23 – infâncias perdidas do Brasil (Boy 23 – Lost Childhoods of Brazil), which was nominated for an Oscars for best documentary, begins with the hidden bricks in the scrubland of an old farm. The choice is not casual.
In 2005, historian Sidney Aguilar Filho heard from one of his students a story about bricks marked with the Nazi swastika on the Santa Albertina farm, near Campina de Monte Alegre, in the interior of São Paulo state. The professor at the Universidade Salesiana (Unisal) became interested in the subject. At first, he thought of investigating the inheritance of nationalist movements, correlated with the fascist and interwar scenario that the world experienced in the 1940s and 1950s. He still didn’t know that during the years of writing his doctoral thesis, he would be playing with a hornet’s nest about Brazil’s marginalized childhood.
Among crumbling documents, Sidney learned the story of 50 boys aged 9 to 11 who worked on the Santa Albertina farm in the 1930s. Poor and black, they grew up in the Rio de Janeiro orphanage Romão de Mattos Duarte, until the arrival of a man with bullets in his pocket changed their destiny.
Selected because of their cunning and willingness to pick up sweets thrown on the court, the children were taken to the farm to work in a system of slavery: they grassed, took care of the cattle and horses, and served the Rocha Miranda family, who had links with the Câmara dos Quarenta of the Ação Integralista Brasileira (Brazilian Integralist Action) (see note one), a movement sympathetic to fascism. The skins of the animals raised there were marked with Nazi swastikas.
The investigation of children’s history gave rise to both the doctoral thesis “Education, authoritarianism and eugenics: labor exploitation and violence against children in Brazil (1930-1945)”, presented in 2011 at the State University of Campinas (UNICAMP), as to the documentary Menino 23, by director Belisario Franca and producer Giros.
Sidney divides the research into two distinct fronts that complement each other between paper and audiovisual. “In the thesis, 70% comes from reading documents and 30% from living memory, told.
In the documentary, the opposite happens; most of it is made of fragments of this valuable and painful memory of characters who agreed to share it with the public,” explains the researcher.
The precious and wounded memories are those of Seu Aloísio, Seu Argemiro and the family of José Alves de Almeida. Seu Aloísio – Menino 23, or Boy 23, because they gave no name to the working boys – is a body torn apart by a lack of childhood. A man who walks through the labyrinths of his revolt, having no way to blame who made him “a man with no future.”
Seu Argemiro was the only boy who managed to escape the farm. But the farm didn’t leave his life. For a long time he was homeless.
José Alves, number two, he lives in the memories of his wife and children; he was a domestic servant at the Santa Albertina farm and, although he believed in a better situation, he grew up with persistent scars and sadness.
Marks on the skin
“I can say after this experience that I consider myself a trauma historian. Memory research has been a painful process for both me and them, and I consider myself privileged to have listened to their stories and built a relationship of mutual respect,” says Sidney. “This only happened because we had the honesty to assume: our biggest concern is not your story, but the contemporary one with the future of a marginalized childhood that needs your memories to be in the public domain so that they don’t recur.”
Another intense process of the making, both of the thesis and of the film, was to be faced with a theoretical field that he describes as no less “distressing”. Because the story of the abuse of Menino 23 shows that Brazil’s chronology was not immune to the influences of outside totalitarian movements, nor to the abyss created by a slave and racist colonization.
“It was very painful to discover that what happened to the 50 boys, a contemporary slavery, was not only legally supported but also socially accepted. Finding Brazilian lawmakers advocating racist and segregationist practices was pretty heavy.” Sydney adds that this is reflected in the very repercussion of the film: many spectators came to him or were attracted not by the discussion about child labor, but by the controversial theme of the unusual Brazilian Nazism.
History without closure
Amidst expert testimony and suffering narratives of Seu Aloísio and Seu Argemiro, the film is interspersed with delicate fictional creations that show boys working between grass and cattle. What is drawn in the documentary Menino 23 is a story that has not yet found closure.
“We continue to be, like 40, 200 years ago, a country of denial. We are not racists, but we are racists. We are a country full of peaceful but very violent people. We have some of the best legislation to protect children, and as a society we have frighteningly violated our youth, especially the poor, black and peripheral,” concludes the historian. “When we realize in society this selective brutality, we have to be ashamed individually and collectively that it persists.” For the director, the importance of the film is precisely in causing reflections.
Just before dying of old age in Campina de Monte Alegre, the farm town where they stole his childhood, Aloísio was able to watch the movie and give approval for his report to be made public.
Seu Argemiro, who is 90 years old and publicizes the documentary, is proud when he sees it shown or when he talks to journalists. From the stories of these nameless boys, one message resists: that children are never just numbers, and that stories like this are no longer repeated.
Many of the viewers of the documentary Menino 23 – Lost Childhood in Brazil came to the movie attracted by the theme of Nazism, and not by the discussion of a slave heritage or child labor. For Marco Santana de Oliveira, coordinator of UneAfro Brazil, this portrays a strategic ignorance of the country’s history: if a Brazilian spectator clashes with Nazism, but sees slavery as a historical process and does not criticize it, he cannot make the association of how damaging the formative processes of Brazil as a nation was to a large part of its population, especially the black.
For this alienation to occur, school education and the media play a key role, as shown in the documentary itself in newspaper scenes and programs that reinforce racial stereotypes.
“Today Brazil doesn’t know its history because it is purposely made up in teaching. Obviously we know more about Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini than Zumbi dos Palmares and Luis Gama. Brazil has as historical date the invasion of 1500, 516 years of existence where 388 were of slavery, murder, torture, rape, but we know and study more the 12 years of Nazi Holocaust,” he says. “We have laws like 10.639/10 that require schools to teach African and indigenous history and cultures in the school curriculum, but because of religious belief, political conservatism and lack of follow-up, that doesn’t happen,” explains the historian.
Marco adds that it is important that audiovisual productions such as Menino 23 reach the widest possible audience and help create a media willing to tell the true story of Brazil.
“We consume a lot of television information from large family groups and the US film market. Any form of knowledge proliferation, especially of the effective history of Brazil, is extremely important. We have to occupy spaces. I don’t believe that we will experience an evolution of racial, social and gender equality anytime soon, but I do believe in grassroots training as the main way to combat structural racism.”
Source: Chega de Trabalho Infantil
- Ação Integralista Brasileira (Brazilian Integralist Action or AIB) was an integralist/fascist political party in Brazil. It was based upon the ideology of Brazilian Integralism as developed by its leader Plínio Salgado. Brazilian Integralism supported a revival of spirituality in Brazil in the form of Brazilian nationalism to form a shared identity between Brazilians. It denounced materialism, liberalism, and Marxism. It was violently opposed to the Brazilian Communist Party (then still called Communist Party of Brazil) and competed with the Communists for the working class vote. Source