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It was almost 50 years ago that I first walked to the top of the Alto do Cruzeiro in Timbauba, a sugar-belt town in Pernambuco, Brazil. I was looking for the small mud hut nestled in a cliff where I was to live. Residents had thrown together huts made of straw, mud, and sticks, and lacking that, lean-tos made of tin, cardboard, and scrap materials. They threw together families in the same bowdlerized fashion, taking whatever was at hand and making do.
Households were temporary, and babies and fathers circulated among them. In a hillside shantytown without water, electricity, or sanitation and facing food scarcity, epidemics, and police violence, premature death was an everyday occurrence.
I spent several months cycling through the miserable huts on the Alto with a public health medical kit strapped on my shoulder. Its contents were pathetic: a bar of soap, scissors, antiseptics, aspirin, bandages, a glass syringe, some ampoules of vaccine, several needles, and a pumice stone to sharpen them. Those needles were used over and over again for immunizations.
Children ran away when they saw me coming, and well they might. Why did people, who I knew to have a richly endowed emotional life, not grieve their dead babies? I tucked that question away. Sixteen years elapsed before I was able to return to the Alto do Cruzeiro, this time as a medical anthropologist.
It was in — during the period known as the abertura , the beginning of the end of the military dictatorship — that I made the first of the four trips that formed the basis for my book Death Without Weeping.