Ama de Leite
This is another amazing picture; beautiful, disturbing and revealing. The microcosm that opens up to us explains a lot about the foundations of Brazilian society.
The woman is what was called an Ama de Leite, selected among the slaves to take care of the infants and in many cases to breast feed the babies. She looks terrified and bewildered by the presence of a camera, which back then was as modern as the latest iPad in our days, something for the “Sinhos” and the “Sinhas“, not for her. She is dressed in the best clothes available to show off her owners’ wealth, but she herself only belongs to that world as a human possession.
But look at the boy! He has affection for her. He probably got more attention from his Ama de Leite than from his natural mum. Outside of that situation she must have been obedient and efficient but also fun, sung her songs to him, cared about him and made sure he enjoyed himself playing with her children, when they were not sold, and the children of other slaves. His conscience may have forgotten about it when he grew up, but the affection and the fun remained somewhere and was passed on to the following generations.
The fact that her masters even bothered to take the picture is also revealing: the lady’s grey hair shows that she must have been with them for some time and that boy was probably not the first one that she took care of. In a way she was part of the family, at least from their perspective. From hers, there was an unspeakable humiliation and the feeling of absolute rejection from the mainstream world, she would never belong to it as hard as she tried.
The lives of those people, as the ones of the modern Brazilian society, were filled with contradictions; hate and love, injustice and joy, wealth and abject poverty coexisted side by side and gelled into one unit. Currently the wounds and the social divide are still alive. House maids, favelas, intolerance and ignorance, all inherited that era are still present in daily life. Things are improving but will take generations to get to an equilibrium, and this is Brazil’s challenge.