| Arts & Culture
Book Outtakes How Brazil’s Madame Satã Transformed His Life and Became an Icon
By day, he protected businesses from thieves and corrupt police. By night, he changed into sequined gowns to sing and dance in Rio de Janeiro’s cabarets.
In 1907, a seven-year-old boy named João, born to descendants of slaves in remote northeast Brazil, ran away from his life as an indentured apprentice and traveled 1100 miles to Rio de Janeiro. There, João transformed from country boy to enterprising street kid, sweeping steps and delivering groceries in the infamous Lapa neighborhood. Lapa was a hotbed of creativity and transgression—home to samba composers, artists, prostitutes, gamblers, and crooks. When João was nine, he met Seven Crowns—a man considered the greatest malandro in Rio—who took João under his wing and transformed the crafty street kid into a malandro -in-training, hustling to survive and never running from a fight.
The malandro was the epitome of old-school Brazilian cool . Physically imposing and effortlessly charming, he wore tailored suits, snakeskin shoes, a Panama hat, and always kept a razor-sharp knife tucked in his waistband. A lover of drink, samba, and brawls, the malandro inspired both fear and respect. He was, as the saying goes, a man’s man. Like Zoot Suiters in the American jazz age, malandros were young men whose swagger and style made them visible within a society that otherwise ignored them. Over time, Brazilian artists included malandro characters in sambas, novels, and films, until they became popular figures in Brazil’s cultural imagination. The most popular—and most feared—began his life as that country boy, João.
1928 brought another transformation: João met an actress who liked his impressions of Carmen Miranda and other starlets. She got him a part in a musical review where he sang and danced in a red dress, his hair sweeping his shoulders. During a Carnival contest at the Teatro República, João took the stage in a black, sequined costume resembling the femme fatale’s in Cecil B. DeMille’s film, Madame Satan (or Satã, in Portuguese). He won the contest and forged a new identity—the name Madame Satã stuck, not only for his nighttime persona but his daytime one as well. (Although his stage and street name was feminine, in a 1971 interview Satã identified as a man and used the male pronoun for himself.)
With a soft voice, the plucked eyebrows of a film starlet, and a linebacker’s build, Madame Satã became the most feared malandro in Rio. By day, he protected businesses from thieves and corrupt police for a fee. By night, he changed out of his suit and into sequined gowns to sing and dance in Rio de Janeiro’s cabarets. Satã was a conundrum to the press and the people of Rio—a malandro , the ultimate symbol of masculinity and virility, and an openly gay man who performed in drag. Satã fused traditional ideas of masculine and feminine, never hiding his identity or seeing it as cause for shame. This kind of boldness in 1930s Brazil would not go unpunished.
One night after a show, as Satã ate alone at a corner bar, a policeman entered and called him a faggot. In 1930s Brazil, being gay was deemed a physical disorder that required electroshock therapy, or a vice punishable by jail time. In Lapa, gay men were police targets, routinely arrested, beaten, and forced to clean police station bathrooms. That night, the officer taunted Satã relentlessly. There was a fistfight, grappling, and then Satã shot the officer dead.
“This habit of police to . . . beat and mess with [us],” Satã said in an interview. “I stood up and told them not to do that . . . we [gay men] are human beings.”
In court, Satã said he’d fired in self-defense and served two years in prison. Rio’s newspapers eagerly chronicled the case. When Satã was released, his reputation as a cop killer cemented his role as Rio’s most feared malandro . This, however, did not make life easy.
Another layer of Satã’s identity cannot be ignored or discounted: He was a black man in a time and place that viewed blackness as inherently inferior. There was never legalized segregation in Brazil, but there remains a belief in white superiority. (A 2016 study by Instituto Ethos and the Inter-American Development Bank found that Afro-Brazilians occupy only 6.3% of management positions in Brazil’s 500 largest companies, despite comprising the majority of Brazil’s population.) In the preface to Brazil’s 1940 census, a sociologist celebrated that “Negroes and Indians are continuing to disappear . . . in the successive dilutions of white blood.” According to Brazil’s 1940s scientific elite, blackness was a flaw to be bred out over time, and Afro-Brazilians like Satã were trapped in a system intent on wiping them away under the guise of racial assimilation.
Satã’s very existence provoked anxiety in the men around him. He was a target for police and others who aimed to take him down a peg. By his own admission, during his time in Lapa, Satã amassed twenty-nine convictions and “over 3000 fights.” Newspapers made him a mythic figure. One historian recounts a local legend about Satã: Police sent five cars of officers to arrest him and, even with such manpower, they had to tie Satã to a wheelbarrow to cart him to jail.
There were no safe spaces for a man like Satã, living in a time and place that despised his blackness and his sexuality. Violence became the only way to defend his humanity. He survived by taking on the role of the malandro , but the brutality required of that role doomed him. Satã was eventually sentenced to twenty-seven years in the infamous Ilha Grande penitentiary, where he spent the majority of his life. If fists could not humble him, then jail would.
After his release from his longest stint in prison, Satã was in his late sixties and chose to live a solitary life away from Lapa. In the 1970s, a reporter found him and brought Madame Satã back into the public eye. At seventy-one years old, he was still unabashed and opinionated, insisting on being called “Satã.” He became the face of the malandro archetype. In 2002, there was even a Brazilian feature film called Madame Satã about his life. But Satã didn’t live long enough to see himself transformed into a legend. In 1976, sick with cancer, Satã checked into a public hospital under a false name, ashamed not of his identity but of being seen as weak. He died months later, buried in the white suit and Panama hat he’d made famous.
Madame Satã is from my home state of Pernambuco, Brazil. Driving to my family’s farm four hours from the coast, we pass signs for a town called Gloria do Goitá. This is where Satã was born and spent his early life. When I saw the name of this little town in Satã’s 1971 interview, I felt as if I knew him, because I knew the place from which he’d escaped.
I read his iconic 1971 interview while researching my novel, The Air You Breathe. The book is about two samba singers who escape the farmlands to end up in wild, bohemian Lapa and then Hollywood. In nearly every history of Lapa I found, Madame Satã appeared in all of his ferocity and style. I realized I had to include Satã in my novel, though a fictionalized version of him. My Satã is called Madame Lucifer, and though he isn’t the novel’s main character, he is a magnetic one, serving as both a fairy godmother and a wolf in the protagonists’ paths, showing them that the stage is a realm of freedom and illusions, and the world offstage is a place where some identities are forced upon you, rendering you powerless, while others must be conjured, and protected, in order to win your power back.