Not Invincible, but Valuable: Lessons from Outside Cascavel

In the rural hills of southern Brazil, just 10 kilometers from the city of Cascavel, I encountered an everyday simplicity which is far more than ordinary. José and Gesmari Broca, married for 36 years, have built a life together that could not have been accomplished alone. Can a pilgrimage arrive at people and not just places? It seems this one has.

José and Gesmari Broca

José and Gesmari Broca

The Magis program sends pilgrims to different parts of Brazil to experience a little of the life of this diverse giant of a country. They told me I would be going to the more rural southern part of the country (and, as I have come to expect from my experience of Magis Brasil so far, they did not tell me much else!). So I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when my Brazilian companion, Denis, and I were picked up that first night in Cascavel to go to the small farm of the Brocas for a two-day homestay.

On the other hand, one fact that was becoming more and more certain with each kilometer further from the city was that Spanish and Portuguese are, in fact, two different languages. I had hoped that my Spanish skills would help me communicate while I was away from my larger group of Mexicans, French, and Americans, with whom I shared at least one language (sometimes more!). But as we drove to the farm, the stony, uncomprehending face of the Brocas’ grown son Rudinei disabused me of the notion that I could be the life of the party in any place Portuguese was spoken.

"A mountain of a man"

“A mountain of a man”

Yet, when we finally found ourselves sitting around the Brocas’ kitchen table at 10 o’clock at night, I found I could still be suitably amazed. José is the picture of what I see when I hear the phrase “mountain of a man.” Although 73 years old, he is obviously still capable of picking me up and throwing me a respectable distance (think Scottish caber toss). He and Rudinei have none of the flashy, useless muscle of a body builder or “world’s strongest man.” What they do have is the thick frame of someone who has clearly built, grown, or raised everything they have ever owned.

And as the conversation progresses, one thing I do pick up is that they haven’t owned much. José speaks with a generous joy about all aspects of his life, but there is a special pride that is evident when he tells the story of how he first arrived in the region and scraped together the funds to buy his small plot of land.1 He often uses the word for “surviving” to describe their family life together, but the cleanliness and comfort of their homestead makes clear that theirs is less a meager existence than a necessarily, but not ungraciously, simple one.

At this point, Gesmari jumps in and makes clear the depth of her commitment to their shared enterprise. I gather she is describing the lot of those other small farming families who have sold their land and moved into the cities to make a living.  “Now they have nothing,” she says, her face not communicating judgment so much as a baffled compassion. She cannot imagine choosing another life than her own.

Leiticia and her (for now) pet goat

Leiticia and her (for now) pet goat

Clearly, the house itself is her domain. She has a confident contentment when marshaling her forces to feed us all another overwhelmingly delicious meal or when doting on her button-cute granddaughter Leticia. José defers to her lead as if he were a courteous guest while in the kitchen. When I ask her whether it was a good decision to marry José 36 years ago, a mischievous look steals over her face. Smiling, she lets the question hang for a moment before giving José the vote of approval and an affectionate touch on the shoulder.

Ironically, it was only when Denis remarked to José that it seemed a happy life that José seemed to reflect on the more difficult parts of their life. Well, he said, family members die, the farm is very small, and any one of a variety of things can threaten the viability his farm and his family in a particular season.  But even this he discusses with a smile and an obvious lack of worry. What he and Gesmari have built is not invincible, they know, but it is tremendously valuable.

Editor’s note: Chris is traveling with Jesuit university students in Brazil as part of World Youth Day and the Jesuit immersion program MAGIS.  TJP has a road crew in Brazil covering the events of WYD.  You can follow them  and learn more about the experience via @TJPOnTour.

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  1. They have several acres of wheat (not many) and several pens of different types of animals. José often mentions that they do not have a particular crop or animal for commercial sale, just for their own use. About the only thing they do sell off is chickens, having a pen big enough for some 1,500 birds.