Cumbered Cries: Contextual Constraints on Maternal Grief in Northeast Brazil

Journal Article
  • Marilyn Nations
  • Joseph Corlis
  • J├ęssica I. D. Feitosa
Current Anthropology
Oct. 2015; 56 (5).

In the past 30 years, debate has raged over maternal influence on infant death in Northeast Brazil. Scheper-Hughes, in two acclaimed articles and a book, sparked the controversy by alleging that nordestina mothers disinvest disfavored children of resources, thereby contributing to their deaths. We propose an interpretation of maternal investment through retrospective contextualization of a three-tiered series of factors. Between 2011 and 2013, we analyzed 316 ethnographic interviews about childhood death collected in the interior of Ceará. Our subsample comprises 58 death narratives from grieving mothers whose children died during the 12 months preceding the interview between 1979 and 1989; follow-up studies of 13 of those grieving mothers were conducted in 2011. Our sample closely resembles that of Scheper-Hughes, and from its stories we identify seven contexts—historical, political, economic, ecological, biological, social, and spiritual—that constrict how mothers grieve. Each context interrelates with the others, forming a cultural niche that regulates accepted emotionality, modes of suffering, roles of authority figures, and so on. We explore these contexts, offering alternatives to Scheper-Hughes’s theory, and conclude that a community-wide tendency to neglect never existed.

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