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The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2021

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FEB 2021 Issue
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Ka’aguy Porã

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My grandmother was a midwife and her teachings had a great impact on me. They are teachings of indigenous, Guarani women, especially how they take care of children, whether boy or girl. For example, in the first menstrual cycle, girls start to look at their bodies more carefully and responsibly, even if they are not yet adults. They receive assistance and specific care from the older women in the family. 

In this period of ritual, girls are set aside in a determined space, where they are under an attentive gaze, learn lessons to be careful with their diet, are taught how to keep good hygiene, and cultivate silence. They learn how to weave tiny things, how to make necklaces out of small seeds, because this is the moment for them to take a deep look at their issues, and to come into their own being. The girls develop the patience to be in silence and this is how they take care of their own body. This is what we call tembiapo. It is the art of the gaze, of how to physically handle something. For example, to weave the adjka, which is a basket, to handle a necklace or make it, to weave strips of material for something specific. All of these activities happen in silence.

My grandmother would call it listening to the self. For her, to feel that loneliness was not something bad. This isolation makes it possible for women to know how to deal with themselves during their menstrual cycle. And every time they have their period, it is important to enter this seclusion to take care of the body. My grandmother would also say that if women did not respect this moment to take care of the body and to remain in silence, upon reaching the age of 30, they would be weakened, vulnerable, and emotionally shaken. They would suffer hair loss, forgetfulness, and feel weary. We cannot put ourselves in this extreme position. This is very important.

Taking care of boys begins when their voices deepen and thicken, what the juruás—or white men—call adolescence. My grandmother would say that boys also menstruate and that their menstruation happens every day, and that is called hot blood. In this tense period is when they will engage in specific activities, but, unlike the girls, these activities will not involve seclusion and instead movement. They will learn to build homes, to swim, to look for materials in the forest, to cut plants, clear paths, and to weed. This process of learning happens through moving the body all the time without hurting yourself.

However, this movement must also occur in silence. The boys cannot talk a lot, they cannot get nervous, they must control their emotions. They learn how to listen. In this period of hot blood, the boys must get up early before sunrise and bathe in the river, washing the body with cold water. The girls, on the other hand, cannot bathe in cold water during their menstrual cycle, they cannot wash their head in cold water, they cannot go out into strong winds, into the cold. They cannot go out under the hot sun either. If the boys do not learn to control their hot blood, they can become dangerous men, they can become impatient and aggressive. 

I do believe that this affectionate, loving, generous, and delicate care with boys teaches them to be patient and tolerant. For this reason learning how to occupy space, respect differences, and understanding the specificities of each and every thing—human and non-human—depends on the recognition of who you are, the understanding of what everyone represents, and understanding the dangers of a lack of control or lack of self-knowledge.

All of these issues are related to what I call territory-space. In other words, all of the elements of the earth from the ground to the trees, even medicinal plants. These rituals depend on the river, the forest, and all of the elements we require to produce our ancestral knowledge. They depend on the human and the non-human. Thus, these things are necessary for everyone’s well-being, not just the well-being of the Guarani people, but that of the whole society. This harmonious relationship of understanding the human and the non-human, understanding the movement of living together and respecting the space of the other is called Ka'aguy Porã. Isn’t this the main issue?

Being captured: Djepota

The idea of anthropophagy is not something we share in our Guarani belief system, since it is an idea that came from the juruás. But I can share my thoughts from a Guarani perspective.

Clearly, to be enchanted is much easier than to be disenchanted. The elders in our Guarani community complain of the difficulty our youth have in controlling their use of digital technology like the internet. Some youth are spellbound by these technologies, and once they are enchanted by technology, it is very difficult to find a healthy equilibrium in their use of it. We call this loss of control Djepota, to be enchanted and then captured. So how might we avoid being captured?

When I left the village and went to study at the university, I always tried to understand what was important to me as a woman and specifically as an indigenous woman. When I got to the university I did not seek, initially, something that I needed to learn there. That is to say, I did not seek out a space of knowledge without valuing what I brought to the place. I sought to understand what the space was about, I listened in order to establish dialogue. I sought to not be captured immediately. Instead of just receiving and listening, I would also set forth my own thoughts. That is how you are not captured. When there is an encounter between different types of knowledge and wisdom, we indigenous Guarani people call it arandu. This is when we take that which benefits us all.

When serving as a representative of city hall, for example, speaking as a professor there were moments where I had to stop being Guarani. During our menstrual cycle we are supposed to rest and remain in silence. In this time, I had to work during my menstrual cycle. This is the situation: I was hired to speak on the importance of Guarani culture and belief system, about the need for girls and women to rest when menstruating, to watch their diet, eat specific things, talk less or be silent. Against my own will, I was doing the exact opposite of what we Guarani people understand as knowledge. The system created by the juruás captured me. I was obligated to follow that system. They say that there are risks if I don’t agree to it, if we do not fulfill a project, that we have to put Guarani knowledge in the school curriculum. They do not understand the need to substitute a Guarani professor during the menstrual cycle. This is an example of how we can be captured without realizing it.

This reflection extends to my work inside the museums as a curator. It is a challenge to talk about these issues, to explain how we Guarani people organize ourselves and how this knowledge can materialize in the museum’s exhibits. And how not to be captured, or at least to create strategies of non-capture, since there is always a risk of reproducing the process of colonialism.

Contributor

Sandra Benites

Sandra Benites (1975) is of the Guarani Nhnadewa ethnic group, from the village of Porto Lindo in the state Mato Grosso do Sul. She is a professor of philosophy and history, has a master’s degree in social anthropology and is currently a PhD student in social anthropology at the National Museum at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). Since 2019, she has served as assistant curator at the Art Museum of São Paulo (MASP). She is the first indigenous curator to be hired by an art museum in Brazil.

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The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2021

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