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Maria Bonita

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Maria Bonita

Article available in: PT-BR

Last update: 02/04/2018

By: Semira Adler Vainsencher - N/I

Maria Gomes de Oliveira was born on 8 March 1911, on the Malhada do Caiçara farm, near the town of Santa Brígida, Bahia. Her relatives called her Maria Déia. Her parents, residents of Jeremoabo, were the farmers Maria Joaquina da Conceição and José Gomes de Oliveira.

At age 15, Maria Déia married the shoemaker José Miguel da Silva, nicknamed Zé do Neném. The couple would remain together for five years, but as José was sterile, they had no children. The quarrels between the two were very frequent, and at each quarrel, Maria would move back to the Malhada do Caiçara farm owned by her parents, which was near the Paulo Afonso Waterfall.

Through that farm passed Virgulino Ferreira da Silva, the famous and feared Lampião. Some say that without ever having seen him, Maria Déia already had a great platonic love for the cangaceiro [bandit]. Others claim that her mother had told Lampião himself about the existence of that passion. There are also those who swear it was Luis Pedro – one of the members of his band – who insisted that the king of cangaço [banditry] meet her.

Regardless of what this exchange of energies really was, the fact was that the attraction between them was immediate and reciprocal: the cangaceiro fell in love with Maria Déia and vice versa. Impressed by her beauty, he began to call her Maria Bonita [Beautiful Maria], and instead of spending the usual three days at the farm, he remained ten, experiencing a passionate romance with Zé do Neném’s wife.

At the end of ten days, Maria Bonita put her clothes into two bindles, said goodbye to her husband forever, hugged her relatives, and left with Lampião for the caatinga. She was the first woman to officially join the band, setting a hitherto unbreakable precedent. The other cangaceiros respected her a lot, referring to her as Dona Maria, Maria de Lampião or Maria do Capitão. It was 1931, and Maria Bonita was 20 years old.

From then on, other women also entered cangaço. It would be a true feminist revolution, as they emancipated themselves and imposed respect. Even though they did not participate in the fighting, they were in a direct way valuable collaborators, taking part in the most dangerous fights and/or endeavours, caring for the wounded, cooking, washing, and above all, giving love to their companions. Whether representing a safe haven or functioning as an important point of support to beg for mercy, the female representatives contributed much to calming and humanising the bandits, and increasing their level of caution and limiting the excess of their abuse. Many carried short-barrelled weapons (like Mausers), and were ready to shoot in self-defence. Apart from Lampião and Maria Bonita, the most famous cangaço couples were: Corisco and Dada; Gato and Inacinha; Moita Brava and Sebastiana; José Sereno and Cila; Labareda and Maria; José Baiano and Lídia; and Luis Pedro and Neném.

It is important to note that despite receiving the paternalistic protection of cangaceiros, the life of the women was quite difficult. Carrying pregnancies to term, for example, in the discomfort of the caatinga meant much suffering for them; and often they were forced to take long walks soon after birth to escape the volantes [paramilitary police]. If they had not possessed unusual stamina, they could not have survived that inhospitable daily life.

After going to live with Lampião, Maria Bonita became pregnant, but shortly thereafter had a miscarriage. This would not be the only child she would lose. In 1932, however, she succeeded in bringing her pregnancy to term by giving birth in the shadow of an umbuzeiro tree in the middle of the caatinga, in Porto de Folha, Sergipe. Lampião delivered the baby. The child? A girl they called Expedita.

Despite being a bandit feared by many, Lampião was an extremely handsome man, endowed with a great ability to improvise: he made their clothes, did the bandages, set the broken legs and arms, delivered the cangaceiros’ women’s babies and other tasks. Superbly gifted with intelligence, he was a guerrilla, a doctor, a pharmacist, a dentist, a cowboy, a poet, a strategist and a craftsman.

Regarding Expedita, two important points must be pointed out: first, that children were not allowed in the band. As soon as they were born, the babies were delivered to relatives who were not engaged in cangaço, or left with relatives of priests, colonels, judges, military, or farmers. Second, the life of the cangaceiros was unstable, with intense persecutions, shootings and confrontations. For these reasons, Lampião and Maria Bonita could not raise Expedita. The facts from that point on, have also become a controversial issue. Some said that Expedita was delivered to her Uncle João, Lampião’s brother, who was never part of the gang; and others testified that she was left with the cowboy Manuel Severo on Jaçoba farm. Whichever it was, Maria Bonita could not raise her own daughter: her life was already intimately linked to cangaço’s own line.

In a fight against the Pernambuco volante in the village of Serrinha, near Garanhuns (PE), the Lampião’s wife was shot. As she was losing a great deal of blood, Capitão Virgulino gave the order to end the fight immediately, took his beloved in his arms and headed towards the municipality of Buíque, where she was treated in the village of Guaribas.

On 27 July 1938, as was customary for years, the band camped at the Angicos farm, located in the sertão of Sergipe, a hiding place considered by Lampião as the most secure. It was night, pouring with rain, and everyone was sleeping in their tents. At dawn on the 28th, the volante approached so softly that even the dogs did not sense it. When one of the cangaceiros sounded the alarm, it was too late.

When the police opened fire with portable machine guns, the cangaceiros could not make any viable attempt at defence. The attack lasted about twenty minutes, and few managed to escape the siege and death. Lampião was seriously injured, and soon afterwards the same happened to Maria Bonita.

Still, she crawled to her (still breathing) partner and begged for him to be spared. But her prayers were useless. Dragged by her hair by one of the soldiers – José Panta de Godoy – the cangaceira was beheaded alive. Her head hung around her neck. Godoy himself told, at the place of the slaughter, how he proceeded to separate the head of Maria Bonita:

After cutting off her head, which I even had to hit the bone, a lot of blood came out, and I stuck my finger inside the marrow that there was, and I messed everything, which was a damn white.

That done, the body was placed in grotesque positions, for the enjoyment of the volante. Of the 34 people present in the band, 11 were killed in Angico. Quite euphoric at the victory, the soldiers still looted and mutilated the dead, robbing them of all their money, gold, and jewels. With Maria Bonita dead, so too was the most famous woman in the history of cangaço.

The soldiers put their cut heads into kerosene cans containing alcohol and lime like victory trophies. They left their bodies mutilated and bloody in the open to feed the vultures. Even in an advanced state of decomposition, the heads travelled over a part of Northeast Brazil, being exhibited to the population. They attracted crowds wherever they were exposed.

At the Institute of Legal Medicine in Maceió, the heads were measured, weighed and examined because there was a hypothesis that a normal individual would not become a bandit. In other words, there should be unique characteristics, for someone to become a cangaceiro.

After many studies, however, contrary to the thesis, the researchers concluded that the heads did not show any signs of physical degeneration, anomalies or dysplasia, and were simply classified as normal. After this, the remains went to the south of the country and from there to Salvador, where they spent six years in the Faculty of Dentistry of the Federal University of Bahia. There, not believing the previous report, researchers again measured, weighed and studied the heads. This was just another useless attempt to discover a pre-existing pathology. After this pilgrimage, these trophies of war were exposed for more than 30 years in the Nina Rodrigues Museum in Salvador.

The families of the cangaceiros fought in the courts for a long time to give a dignified burial to their relatives. This only happened after Bill No.2867, on 24 May 1965, which originated in the university circles of Brasília (in particular, at the conferences of the poet Euclides Formiga), and which was reinforced by pressure from the Brazilian people. Thus, after many years of being displayed, the heads of Lampião and Maria Bonita were buried on 6 February 1969 in the Quinta dos Lázaros cemetery in Salvador.

In the case of the memory of cangaço, banditry, violent culture (indifference and insensitivity towards blood and death), among other themes, Maria Bonita has been researched by academics and highlighted through literature, cinema, photography and arts. The Northeast popular troubadours and poets have composed many verses over the years (including songs) using her name. One of them was the following:

Acorda, acorda Maria Bonita,
Acorda, vem fazer o café,
Que o dia já vem raiando,
E a polícia já está de pé.

Wake up, wake up, Maria Bonita,
Wake up, come and make the coffee,
That the day is already dawning,
And the police are already up.

Maria Bonita and Lampião have relatives in Aracaju (SE). Expedita, the couple’s only daughter, married Manuel Messias Neto, producing four grandchildren – Djair, Gleuse, Isa and Cristina – for the mythical queen of cangaço.

Recife, 17 April 2006.
(Updated on 8 October 2008).
Translated by Peter Leamy, December 2016.

sources consulted

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MARIA BONITA [Foto neste texto]. Disponível em: <>. Acesso em: 23 fev. 2017.

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how to quote this text

Source: VAINSENCHER, Semira Adler. Maria Bonita. Pesquisa Escolar Online, Fundação Joaquim Nabuco, Recife. Disponível em: <>. Acesso em: dia  mês ano. Ex: 6 ago. 2009.