Brazilian poet diplomat Vinícius de Moraes and ‘The Worker in Construction’
Vinícius de Moraes with the singer Maria Bethânia, July 1972 /Brazilian National Archives (public domain)

The year 2020 marked 40 years of farewell to the poet Vinícius de Moraes. He left the coexistence on July 9, 1980. Vinícius was known as the “poetinha”—the little poet—a nickname he earned from Antônio Carlos (Tom) Jobim, his frequent collaborator in the bossa nova movement. His most famous lyric was the one he wrote for “A garota de Ipanema”—The Girl from Ipanema. Born in 1913, the lyricist, essayist, and playwright, as well as poet, was also the “vagabundo”—the vagabond or tramp—whom the right wing does not like.

A vivid icon of the democratic optimism of the years before the military coup of 1964, Vinícius put his art at the service of beauty, of love, and also of love for humanity and the struggle for social progress. He is not among the favorite poets of Brazilian fascists!

“Fire this tramp.” It was in this crude way that the military dictatorship settled its accounts, in 1968, with one of Brazil’s greatest poets and writers, who was also an employee of the diplomatic service. The order was signed by General Arthur da Costa e Silva, who held the presidency of the Republic. He fired him from Itamaraty—the diplomatic corps—where he had served since 1943, becoming renowned as an enthusiastic promoter of art, music, and Brazilian literature around the world in the various posts he occupied.

Vinícius made a long trip to the Brazilian Northeast in 1942, an eye-opening excursion that turned him into a determined antifascist and over time an icon of democracy. His awareness of the country’s vast regional differences, and his literary output, helped bring about a “reunion” of Brazil with itself, with its culture and with its people.

Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva embracing the singer Miucha, with the family of Vinícius de Moraes, at a tribute to the poet at the Ministry of Culture, August 16, 2010 / Pedro França.

He was a creator and activist who did not fit the mediocre, complicit standards of the subsequent military dictatorship. The word vagabundo, under that angry order, was synonymous with “subversive.” Considering the source, the two curses actually honor its victim. The poetinha was formally recognized years later when diplomat Vinícius de Moraes was amnestied. On June 21, 2010, thirty years after his death, Law 12,265 rehabilitated him to the diplomatic corps, and he was elevated to the post of foreign minister, the highest rank in the Foreign Ministry.

Vinícius de Moraes became known as a lyrical poet, author of the most beautiful love poems written in Portuguese since Luís de Camões (1524-1580), and of lyrics so consecrated by popular taste that they are often repeated almost as if part of folklore. Is greater proof necessary that a poet expresses the soul of a people?

Vinícius stretched himself far beyond the conventional, becoming a man of all letters, employing many themes and forms of expression. If his gift was lyrical—and it was one of the greatest—it was also one of epic size. He was the author of famous verses such as “the ugly ones that forgive me / But beauty is fundamental” (from “Receita de Mulher”—A Woman’s Recipe). And “Suddenly, laughter was made to cry” (from “Soneto da Separação”—Sonnet of Separation). With the unsurpassed Camões-like tone of the “Soneto da Fidelidade”—Sonnet of Fidelity: “May it not be immortal, since it is flame / But may it be infinite while it lasts.”

These are just a few examples taken from the countless contributions that Vinícius de Moraes gave to Portuguese-speaking boys wishing to express their feelings for their beloved women.

But his poetry does not end there. He also spoke of another love, equally great and beautiful—love for humanity, for human beings, democratic trust in the people’s ability to face the evils that capitalism brings and to conquer a higher form of life.

He worked with the Popular Culture Center of the National Union of Students (UNE); he was, in fact, together with Carlos Lira, author of the anthem of the largest entity of Brazilian students.

A sculpture of Vinícius in Itapoan, Rio de Janeiro / Magafuzula (Creative Commons)

One of his best-known works is “Operário em Construção”—The Worker in Construction, originally published in 1956 in the fortnightly publication Para Todos, of the Communist Party of Brazil. His famous verses reaffirm, poetically, what workers learned long before in the writings of Karl Marx, and that workers around the world are becoming conscious of every day.

“It was he who built houses / Where before there was only ground.”

In other works the poet sees a victim of an unjust and unequal society: a child at his feet, “Dirty, squalid, tattered / Eating a clod of the earth.”

“There are millions! the rose screams. Millions starving / And you, in your vanity / Wanting to use my name!”

Vinícius de Moraes, this adorable “tramp,” sang wonders and beauties, and denounced oppression, misery, and alienation. The powerful, especially the fascists, do not like him. But the people—the people keep, in their hearts, a captive place for the “little poet!”

An almost hour-long concert recorded live in Italy features Tom Jobim, Vinícius de Moraes, Toquinho and Miucha, and can be viewed here.

Following is Los Angeles-based poet, writer, translator, and People’s World contributor Peter Lownds’s new translation (unverified, but possibly the first) of “The Worker in Construction.”

The Worker in Construction

By Vinícius de Moraes

And the Devil, taking him to a high hill, showed him in a moment of time all the world’s kingdoms. And the Devil said to him: “I will give you all this power and this glory, because it was given to me and I can give it to whomsoever I want; therefore, if you worship me, it will all be yours.

And Jesus responded, telling him, “Get thee behind me, Satan, for it is written: “Thou shall worship the Lord thy God and only Him shall thou serve.”  —Luke, Chapter V, verses 5-8.

There are men who erect houses
Where before there was only soil
Though their bosses can be louses
Workers arise along with houses
That blossom from their hands.
But other things remain unclear
And may leave them in the lurch
For instance, they have no idea
That a man’s house is his church
Albeit a church without religion
Nor do they understand that
The house they build at liberty
Will before long enslave them.

In fact, does a worker understand
A brick’s worth more than bread?
(Can he get it through his head?)
With shovel, cement, and T-square
He stacks bricks and earns his pay
As for bread, he eats it everyday
(Imagine if he had to eat bricks)
A worker’s path by duty bent
Along with sweat and cement.
Erecting a house over here
An apartment down the way
And, facing it, a church as well
As a barracks and a prison—
A prison in which he would suffer
If he were not a worker in construction.

But he is unaware of one extraordinary
Fact: that the worker makes the thing
And the thing makes the worker.
So, one day at the table, about to cut
His bread, the worker was overwhelmed
By a sudden emotion
He was bowled over, aware
That everything on that table—
Bottle, plate, big knife—
It was he who made them
He, a humble worker,
A worker in construction.
He looked around: wooden trough,
Bench, pallet, cauldron
Glass, wall, window
House, city, nation
All, all that existed
It was he who made it
He, a humble worker
A worker who knew how
To perform professionally.

People who are paid to think
Will never know how much
The humble worker intuited
At that very moment
In that empty house
Which he had raised himself
A new world was born
That he never even suspected.
Full of emotion, the worker
Stared at his own hand
The rough hand of a worker
Of a worker in construction
And looking at it steadily
He had a second impression
That there was not in the world
Anything more beautiful.

It was within the clarity
Of this solitary instant
That the worker grew
As well as his construction
He grew higher and deeper
Wider and more heartfelt
And like everything that grows
He did not grow in vain
He knew how to perform
Professionally already
Now the worker acquired
A new dimension:
The dimension of poetry.

A new fact came into focus
One so novel it glistened
When the worker spoke up
Other workers listened.

And that was how the worker
Of the building in construction
Who had always said “yes”
Began to say “no.”
And learned to notice things
He had not seen before:

That he ate from a lunch box
While the boss ate from a plate
He slurped dark beer from a mug
While the boss sipped a whiskey
Nor could worn denim overalls
Compare to the boss’s bespoke suit
The boss owned a sprawling mansion
While the worker rented a tiny shack
His worn clogs had splintered heels
The boss’s limo soft Amazon wheels
That the severity of his workday plight
Was lost on the boss in his velvet night.
And the product of his immense fatigue
Put the boss’s kids in the ivy league.

Then the worker said, “No!”
And his resolution made him strong.

As expected, denunciation came from
Mouths muttering in the boss’s ears.
But he did not wish to be bothered
“Convince him that he is wrong” was all
He said about the worker, with a smile.

Next day, as he left the construction site
He found himself suddenly surrounded
By denouncers and suffered his first
Fateful aggression: they spat in his face
They ordered that his arm be broken
But when he was asked,
The worker said, “No!”

In vain, the worker suffered
His first aggression
Many more would follow
Many more are still to come.
However, as he was indispensable
To the building under construction
He went back to work
And all his suffering
Got mixed with cement
For the ongoing construction.

Sensing that such violence
Would not make the worker bend
One day the boss attempted
To influence him another way
Took him to the building’s top
And in one moment of time
Told him, “All this could be thine
Because it was given me to do with
What I will,” pointing to a distant hill
Then at the man who stood before him,
Asked the worker to adore him and
Abandon his habit of saying “no!”
“I will grant you loads of leisure time
With a bevy of beauteous broads.”

Thus saying, the boss transfixed
The pensive worker in his beady gaze
But what the worker saw
The boss would never see:
He saw houses with things inside
Objects, manufactured products
Everything he made produced profit
Filled the boss’s pocket and each
Object bore the mark of workers’ hands
Then the worker said “No!”

The boss blew his top: “This is madness!
How can you reject all I have offered?”
“You lie,” said the worker,
You cannot give me what is mine.”

Then a great silence made
Itself at home in his heart
A tormented silence
A silence like prison
A silence peopled by
Petitions for pardon
A silence aghast with
The fear of seclusion.
A silence of solitary
Screams and curses
A silence of fractures
That drag on the ground.

And the worker heard the voices
Of all his brothers who have died
From others who will live.
A feeling of expectancy
Arose within his heart
In the midst of the mild afternoon
And loomed large in the mentality
Of this poor and forgotten man
A mentality that would make of
This reconstituted worker
The worker in construction.

Translated from Portuguese by Peter Lownds, December 9, 2020.


José Carlos Ruy
José Carlos Ruy

José Carlos Ruy is a journalist, writer, and student of Marxist thought. Member of the Portal Vermelho team, he is affiliated with the Communist Party of Brazil and lives in São Paulo. Jornalista, curioso de história, filosofia etc, filiado ao PCdoB.