Despite their homonymy, the statue of Iracema doesn’t sit on Iracema beach but in Mucuripe, a beautiful stretch of white sand where fishermen every morning moor their jangadas, traditional fishing boats, after a night spent off the Atlantic shores. Here they sell their daily catch to early customers who rush off no later than 6 am to make sure they find enough choice, and from here we depart to trace the heartbreaking story of Iracema, guardian of Fortaleza.
Every morning I, too, used to go to Beira Mar and Mucuripe, for a walk along their shores, from where I could see Iracema peeping out the palms that divide the beach from the related promenade.
Who was Iracema?
Sooner or later, all tourists coming to Fortaleza see, photograph or get their photo taken with this imposing sculpture, but how many of them know the story behind it? How many know the story of Iracema, the meaning of its name, beyond being the beach where locals always play beach volley?
Halfway between myth and reality, Iracema perfectly fits the metaphor of Fortaleza’s history. Through the indigenous contamination of Brazilian Portuguese language, the area’s old traditions and the following contact with the Portuguese colonizers, José de Alencar, possibly Ceara’s most popular writer, crafts a beautiful short novel that was released in 1865.
The heroine is a young indigenous girl, Iracema, a virgem dos lábios de mel, daughter of the shaman of the Tabajaras tribe. When a young “white warrior” named Martim Soares Moreno, who actually is thought by some to be a member of Pedro Coelho de Souza’s expedition, got lost in the forest near where her tribe lived, Iracema helped him and introduced him to her people, who welcomed him as a guest and friend.
When the Tabajaras tribe received the order by its chief to wage war to the Pitiguaras tribe, of which Martim was a close friend, he decided it was better for him to run away. In the meantime the two had fallen in love with each other and, to further complicate the situation, also Irapuã, the tribe’s chief, was in love with Iracema who could not get married anyway because shaman’s daughter and the only guardian of the secret of jurema, special potion obtained by a native plant and used during religious rituals that only Iracema knew how to make.
But the girl decided to go with Martim, they were followed by Irapuã, and everything ended in a battle between the two opposing tribes and the defeat of the Tabajaras.
Iracema stayed with the Pitiguaras and Martim, noticing, however, an increasing neglect from her husband, who started missing his native civilization and home country. Suffering from the continuous absence of Martim, Iracema started debilitating, refused to eat and managed to survive only to give Martim their son Moacir (literally “son of pain”) at his return from yet another battle he took part in, and ask him to bury her under a coconut tree she used to love.
Sad for Iracema’s death (a little too late, if you ask me), Martim went to his homeland, to come back to Brazil after only two years to help establish the Catholic religion and fight the Dutch. Between a battle and a conversion, Martim also visited the place where Iracema was buried letting himself be consumed by nostalgia.
It’s easy to identify the metaphors in this book, first among all being the Brazilian race (Moacir) born from the mixing of the European with the Indio.
There are many stories about Portuguese colonization of Brazil, probably as ruthless as Portuguese colonization of the coasts of the Indian Ocean in the quest for spices. This novel is such a mixing of history and myth that Martim is seen as one of the first Portuguese to land in the region of Fortaleza, and the story of Iracema a romantic and dramatic portrait of the city’s past.
As for me, I read this novel slowly, with the limits of my knowledge of Portuguese language, and wondering if Iracema would have had a happier life if she hadn’t met Martim at all.
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