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The Enchanted World of Cordel:  
A Life’s Work Acquiring Literatura de Cordel for the Library of Congress

by Marli Gomes Soares
Library of Congress, Rio Office

Like "Cordel Encantada," the Globo telenovela which was followed intensely by viewers earlier this year, "enchanted" is the perfect word to describe the experience of collecting literatura de cordel for more than thirty years.  It was 1980 when I purchased my first cordel pamphlet on behalf of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.  I was a young librarian in Rio de Janeiro in my first job and I was excited to be working at the Library of Congress Office.  After four years working there, I was given responsibility for acquisitions in the northern and northeastern states of Brazil.  It is in these states (Pernambuco, Ceará, Alagoas, Paraíba, Piauí, and Bahia) that the tradition of cordel was first established. 

Marli Gomes Soares
Marli Gomes Soares of the Library of Congress Rio de Janeiro Office.

The secrets of cordel's success are its low price (pennies per pamphlet when I started out), its humorous tone, and its depiction of events from everyday life. The main topics that have always been portrayed in cordel include politics, drought, disputes, miracles, betrayal, outlaw life, acts of heroism, and memorials or obituaries for famous people.  Today, there is a strong focus on teaching, whether it is folk tales for children, public health issues, or biographies of famous Brazilians and foreigners.  Thus, cordel evolves, culturally adapting itself to modern times.

Due to their low cost, these pamphlets are usually sold by the authors themselves at street markets and book fairs around the country.  I have met and known many creators of cordel, or cordelistas, during my journey, including Abdias Campos, Bule-Bule, Abraão Batista, and Severino Silva.  Franklin Maxado and Expedito Silva brought copies of their works directly to me at the Library of Congress Rio Office for many years. 

I became friends with Raimundo Santa Helena and his family, as they live close to Rio de Janeiro in Rocha Miranda.  Raimundo has a special connection to the tradition: his father was killed by Lampião, a real-life outlaw whose exploits are recounted in many cordel pamphlets. Lampião is portrayed in legend as both a vicious killer and a Robin Hood. Raimundo typically begins his cordel poems by recounting the death of his father at the outlaw's hands. Raimundo founded Cordelbrás, a cordel publisher, in 1983 and studied in the United States, making it possible for him to produce bilingual pamphlets.  He was also behind the creation of the Feira de São Cristóvão in 1945. This fair is held every weekend in Rio de Janeiro to celebrate the culture of northeastern Brazil, including forro dancing and literatura de cordel.  In March 2011, Raimundo Santa Helena gave a "special edition" cordel to President Obama in honor of his visit to Rio de Janeiro. 

Cordel chapboks shown with their envleopes and manuscript box at the American Folklife Center
Literatura de Cordel chapbooks are collected and entered into a database by the Library's Rio Office, then sent to the American Folklife Center in bundles (far right) carefully wrapped in paper. When they arrive, they receive receive final processing and are placed in protective alkaline-buffered paper "slings" that fit inside individual envelopes. Some cordel chapbooks are printed on acidic paper that deteriorates over time; the archival paper buffers and protects against migration of acid, which prolongs the life of the chapbooks.

In searching for cordel materials to add to American Folklife Center's collection, I have gone to street markets, newsstands, and homes of cordelistas and suppliers.  When I visited a book fair in 2000 in the city of Caruaru no Agrete in Pernambuco, a supplier of cordel recommended that I go to the house of a cordelista to get some copies of hard-to-find titles. Arriving at his house, I learned he was not home, but I was directed to another house.  After being sent to three different addresses, I finally found him and made my purchases.  It was only later that I learned the reason for the multiple addresses – the cordelista has multiple "wives!"

When traveling, I often become a local celebrity when people learn that I am a librarian from the Library of Congress.  In 2000, I was invited for an interview on Radio Ceará in northern Brazil to report on my work with literatura de cordel.  In Teresina in 1994, I became the subject of a repentista (a composer and performer of poetry in the cordel tradition) performing at a cordel association.  He sang some verses about a librarian who came from far away, worked in a library in the United States and that she was there to honor the local culture, buying chapbooks.  I'll never forget that magic moment.

When I joined the Library of Congress Rio Office in 1976, I came to fulfill a contract only two and-a-half months' duration.  I never thought I would stay for thirty-five years.  Today, more than ever, I feel rewarded by my work at the Library of Congress Office and I am grateful to have the opportunity to express my happiness and tell a little about my work. The effort I have put into the building of American Folklife Center's world-class collection over the span of my career was much more than a job.  It was an act of pleasure, as I have a deep love for this type of literature and those who produce it.  It is a pleasure to bring to the American Folklife Center a bit of Brazilian culture from a wide variety of places in this huge country called Brazil. 

Read Marli Soares' biographical sketch.


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   September 20, 2011
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