Manduca da Praia, murderer of 27 people, hired muscle for a lot of politicians, feared by police and criminals in mid-19th century Rio. He was a Capoeirista. Besouro Manganga, got into fights with the police regularly. Usually just beat them up and did sent them back to the police station. Or went there personally to bring the weapons he took from the policemen he has beaten up. He was a Capoeirista. Maria Doze Homen, a woman who has killed 12 men until he was captured by the police. Also a Capoeirista. These names do come up when people are talking about the pre-Bimba Capoeira. The urban Capoeira which might not have much resembled today’s Capoeira, but still is the rightful ancestor of today’s forms. But most interestingly, these Capoeristas are mentioned like heroes.
Picture of Capoeiristas as drawn by Kalixo 1906, picture taken from Centro de Referencia da Capoeira Carioca
They are glorified despite or maybe because of them being criminals. Small criminals managing to keep the police on heat and managing to avoid them or beat them up.
The phenomenon of the glorification of known criminals is nothing Capoeira-specific. You have the same thing in modern Gangsta Rap, in the glorification of Robin Hood and Al Capone and most recently, in the hype which came up when Jerome K. did speculate and lose 4,8 billion Euros belonging to the French Societé Generále Bank. But does this mean that these people should still be role models for us?
The short answer I would have, and which is most instinctively, is no. We cannot compare our situations with the situation of Afro- and other Brazilians in Brazil in the 19th century. Most of us here in the blogosphere do have a moderate lifestyle, a job and a decent income. We might not hang around with the meanest guys in our hood. This does not mean that we are bad capoeiristas. Even when you might belong to social classes with…errr…’a minority problem’ or ‘a lack of education’ or practically non-existing opportunities, this does not necessarily mean that you have now the full right to become criminal, go out and kill some people. No!
Actually, I can’t believe that these few names are representative for the normal Capoeirista of the 19th and early 20th century. I can easily believe that the picture of these villains was amplified and generalized as general Capoeirista picture to justify the hard measures being taken against capoeiristas by the police. They mostly DID belong to the underprivileged parts of society and when they decided to take a not legal route through life they had all the attention of the newspapers and of the police. So there might have been only 1 thug in 10 Capoeiristas and that would have been enough to create a general image of a Capoeirista = thug.
But there are actually some qualities Mestres, teachers and scholars point out when it comes to these legendary figures of the Capoeira History. And that is the qualities of Malicia and Malandragem. Wit, cunning, street-smartness, mental flexibility. These things are still of certain value in today’s society. Of course, general society would still have the opinion that at least wit and cunning are not really favourable qualities.
But maybe they are. At least they are smart means to solve problems in life. Strategies to overcome any difficulties arising. At least having the mental ability by the hand to use wit and cunning when it is needed.
I’ll finish with a small story being told to me by my first capoeira trainer: One day he was in the cinemas having a date with a woman. After the movie had finished they ran into two guys in the cinema. These guys seemed to be…errr…very interested in his girl. So they exchanged some bad looks and some tough words and eventually my trainer and his date left. Unfortunately the guys followed him to the next underground station. So at a certain point my trainer said: “Hey, we can settle this like men. Just leave the woman out of this.” So they let her enter the underground and leave the scene. MY trainer was alone with these two guys and after a couple of seconds one of the guys asked: “And now?…” Which my trainer didn’t answer to. He ran away.
That’s a Capoeirista.