PRIMAVERA, Amazonas state, Brazil — This riverfront fishing and manioc-farming community, four hours by motor-powered canoe from the nearest major city, has two kinds of evenings: those when there is fuel for the community generator, and those when there isn’t.
Last Tuesday there was, and as soon as the motor roared into action around 7 p.m., power coursed along the jury-rigged miniature utility poles that line the row of a dozen wooden houses, bare light bulbs came to life and most of the 58 residents — who until that moment had been chatting by the side of the river, playing dominoes by gas lamp or cooking dinner — scurried to one of the four houses with a television.
If the Nielsen Company were trying to measure the ratings in Primavera, there would be no need for sampling: 100 percent of televisions were on, and 50 percent of them were dedicated to soccer, the other 50 percent to soap operas.
In a region that is very different, and far less densely populated, than most of Brazil, the exercise of nation-building that has taken place over the last half-century is in full evidence. Nothing is more stereotypically Brazilian than soccer and soap operas, and the Globo network, which provides plenty of each, is often credited (or vilified) for creating modern Brazilian tastes and obsessions.
Rice and beans now supplement the traditional diet of fish and manioc flour, even though they are not typically raised here. The only things that seem not to have made it here are beds (hammocks criss-cross in crowded bedrooms), sofas (seating varies from stools and benches to gorgeous Amazonian hardwood floors that seem out of place amid such poverty) and samba (the locals prefer accordion-based forro).
The generator, which arrived about eight years ago, was a revelation in town. “It made life better,” said Milton Astrogildo Carvalho, who at 58 has always lived in the community, since it was just his family. (It still seems that way, most households have a “Carvalho” somewhere among their multiple last names.) “Before, there was just radio. I go to my son’s house to watch.” But he is more a news man, staying away from the soaps.
There is something vaguely unsettling — even vaguely American — about stepping into the living room in the house of Nair das Gracas Carvalho and her husband Onezimo Camilo Cardoso. The hardwood floor and two wooden benches were covered with their children and grandchildren, 22 in all at one point, mesmerized by the gorgeous white faces of "Viver a Vida," a soap opera based thousands of miles away in Rio de Janeiro.
Quite soon — at 7:24, for the Nielsen folks — they would switch to the pre-game show before watching two soccer clubs, Flamengo and Barueri, battle it out at a faraway stadium in Sao Paulo state.
Nair herself stayed away from the TV, tending to the tucunare — a white-fleshed fish among the easiest to catch in the Aripuana River. She fried it in a free-standing clay stove called a fugareiro, on the back porch-turned-kitchen. Onezimo, who has a wizened face but a shockingly full head of suspiciously black hair, stepped in to watch. “Soccer and novelas, we like it all here,” he said.
A few doors down in Dona Maria’s house — all houses are in a straight line along the steep slope that dips down to the river — 10 people were still tuned to the novela.
Toward the far end of the community, the third TV had attracted a smaller audience. Ivaneti Saraiva Rodrigues was plopped on the floor watching the soap with her husband Milton, their 5-year-old son Andre and 8-year-old daughter Graziele.
Ivaneti was thoroughly enjoying the new soap more than the one that preceded it, "Caminho das Indias," which took place largely in India. “I find this one better,” she said. “The other one was really unattractive.” All were mesmerized, but there was some evidence that Andre would have liked to change the channel: He had his arm around a soccer ball.
The fourth TV had one lone viewer: Cleude Braga Paola, one of the community leaders. He had arrived a bit late (“I was over there, chatting with my buddies,” he said), and had flipped on the soccer game, as, like Milton and many of the men, he was not a fan of the soaps. “My daughters like them,” he said. “They go to another house to watch.”
They’d be home soon. In just a few hours, the generator whirred to a halt, the lights went out, and with roosters slated to start crowing at first light, it was time for bed. Make that, time for hammock.
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