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IV ISA Forum of Sociology in Porto Alegre

Narratives of an Institutionalized Childhood

The Agricultural Institute for Minors, Batatais, São Paulo State, Brazil. Credit: Veridiana Domingos Cordeiro.

February 21, 2020

During the military dictatorship (1964-1985), Brazil not only witnessed political persecution, detention, torture, censorship, and disappearances, but also coercive practices to control marginalized and abandoned children. For that, the government had created the National Foundation for Minors’ Wellbeing (FUNABEM) which was responsible for all public policies regarding infancy and youth. FUNABEM incorporated the already existent Disciplinary Institutes and intensified the internment of poor children and adolescents. A secluded childhood in a total institution followed by a stigmatized adulthood marked the life of these former inmates. After decades, some of them reunited and weaved together a relationship network via social media and annual gatherings in order to remember their past experiences of rural life, institutionalized coercion, uncertainty about the future, child labor, male socialization, and discipline.

We adopted a theoretical framework that articulates sociological theories of memory to understand the dynamics of the processual mnemonic practices established by former inmates of Disciplinary Institutes to deal with time and identity. For four years, we have collected data from their multi-domain interaction in order to investigate the processes of remembering woven in a relational way by intertwining minds, social relations, and artifacts. The data collection ranged from in-depth interviews and traditional ethnography, to netnography. We undertook hermeneutic work on this set of narratives, following the time passing to procedurally interpret how they make sense of their past experiences.

We concluded that the time passing and the changes in their interactions are determinant of the interpretation they draw on for defining who they were/are and how they understand their past. The narratives widely acknowledged among them sugarcoated their interpretation of events. The narratives usually conceal tough events and new meanings were drawn in order to integrate these events into an overarching plot driven by life’s achievements. Along with their narratives, three negative elements were interpreted as positive: parents’ abandonment as an act of altruism; institutional violence as legitimate; and forced child labor inside the Institute as an uplifting experience.

A former inmate revisiting the Institute for Minors. Credit: Veridiana Domingos Cordeiro.

 Being in a mnemonic community creates a network of validations in the sense that some interpretations tend to prevail over others. The senses made of the past become more or less convergent because outlier understandings are undermined over time, once they are not validated by others within the network. Although autobiographical narratives are based on personal remembrances, the effort of understanding them through a common lens led former inmates to adjust their accounts into an overarching, positive, and integrated life story. The numerous sufferings in this life story (family’s detachment, institutional violence, secluded childhood, and stigmatized life, just to mention some) are presented as steps towards a successful path. The Institute imprinted on them the values promoted by the dictatorship’s institutions, especially character building via discipline, which often meant following rules uncritically. Within this mnemonic community, building a common narrative provided a sense of belonging to a past that existed, and others’ acknowledgement of that.

Veridiana Domingos Cordeiro, University of São Paulo, Brazil and member of ISA Research Committee on Biography and Society (RC38) <veridiana@uchicago.edu>

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