Justino Sarmento Rezende, a Salesian priest of the Tuyuka indigenous people from the Upper Rio Negro in northwest Brazil, reflects on the global coronavirus pandemic from the perspective of his people’s history. Interview conducted by Luis Miguel Modin for Instituto Humanitas Unisinos, translated into English by Glenn H. Shepard Jr.
“I was born far from the city, at ‘Jaguar-Creek.’ Whenever my father heard that a dangerous disease was coming, he took us to an even more isolated place. There, we waited until the latest news finally reached us: ‘the disease has passed.’
Every day the sages smoked their cigars and talked about what they had seen in their dreams, what protective prayers they had composed in their nighttime meditations, and each sage presented a solution.
We had no doctors or nurses to take care of us. But we were watched over constantly by our sage grandparents who performed protective ceremonies using white pitch incense to fumigate the environment, the people, and their pets. Every day the sages smoked their cigars and talked about what they had seen in their dreams, what protective prayers they had composed in their nighttime meditations, and each sage presented a solution.
Envisioning that they could transmit the disease by looking, our sages blinded the eyes of the disease-beings.
With their keen senses, they diverted the path of the illness so it did not reach us. With the power of their ceremonies, they rendered the virulence of the disease-beings impotent. Envisioning that the disease-beings had teeth, our sages would break their teeth so they couldn’t bite us and contaminate us. Envisioning that they transmitted the disease by licking us, our sages tore out their tongues. Envisioning that they could transmit the disease by looking, our sages blinded the eyes of the disease-beings.
At the same time, they transformed human beings, the environment, and the pets into resistant, incandescent, explosive, electrified bodies; they made our bodies hot, bitter, nasty, sour, and hard. They created fences with these same properties for our protection. They protected our lives within rays of sunlight, within the clouds…
This current time with its current viruses, with their own proper names, it takes me back to the past and reminds me of the wisdom of my grandparents who helped to defend life. It reminds me of our defensive technique: fleeing from the enemy, not exposing oneself, retreating to a safe place until the disease passes.”
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