man swimming surrounded by lily pads
Rogerio Maxacali in his village in Resplendor. His grandfather was a native trained to be part of the Guarda Rural Indígena during the Krenak Reformatory. Before being forced to become a guard, his grandfather was a powerful Maxacali shaman. Today, Rogério wants to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps. But, he says, the contemporary challenges of living seem to drain all his energy. | Photograph by Leonardo Carrato

Leonardo Carrato’s Photographs of An Indigenous “Reformatory” Remind Us Of Brazil’s Oppressive Past—and Present

These intimate and eerie images bring light to a history too often ignored, and the people who remember

DoubleBlind Mag

Article by Johnny Magdaleno
Published on

When Jair Bolsonaro was elected president of Brazil in 2018, photographer Leonardo Carrato knew his country was entering an era of nationalism. That worried him. Carrato was unable to understand why so many people backed Bolsonaro, a Donald Trump-like political figure whose iron-fist approach seemed like bad déjà vu in a country that was under a dictatorship for decades last century.

Then, he started to notice all the military statues—statues that have always been there. And the roads, bridges, and highways that don the names of leaders from a period of military rule. Carrato started investigating that dark time from his country’s past to understand the present zeitgeist, and as he did, he learned something troubling: His government ran a “reformatory” project that was part prison, part government re-education initiative from 1969 into the late 70s—and it targeted Indigenous people and their traditions.

Ruins from reformatory complexes still rise among the green flora encircling the cities of Resplendor and Carmésia, in the state of Minas Gerais. Resplendor had long been home to the Krenak, a small Indigenous community settled along the Doce River that numbers in the hundreds, and the reformatory built there is known as the Krenak Reformatory. But despite being named after them, it neither belonged to them, nor was for them. The military dictatorship sent Indigenous people from at least 11 other states to the reformatories in both cities to be “civilized,” Carrato says.

man wearing cowboy hat
Manoel Pankararu, a survivor of the Krenak Reformatory, in Resplendor. He was brought by the military from his original land, in the state of Pernambuco, where he was a community leader. His memories of that time are already fading away and he no longer remembers how long he was imprisoned. He was one of the people who went through the whole “integration” process, not only in Resplendor but also in Carmésia. Currently, Manoel raises a few heads of cattle for a living. He is not allowed to return to Pernambuco because, after so much struggle, he is considered polluted by foreign culture and not recognized as a true member of his ethnic group, Pankararu.

“The military had this idea of economic progress,” Carrato says. “They wanted to build highways, railways—they wanted to connect the country, and do hydroelectric plants and all that. And these constructions, they specifically (were) going to invade Indigenous territories, all over the country. So the Indigenous, of course, they were resistant.”

The photographer visited the cities to learn more about the descendants from that period. At first, he went to Carmésia, and he did so without a camera. He connected with a leader from another targeted people, the Pataxó, who introduced him to others. He wanted to hear their stories first. He recorded their conversations, and in the process compiled a wealth of their memories.

Carrato has now been taking photographs of the people living in Resplendor and Carmésia—some of whom reside in the ruins themselves—since 2019. He made research of the area as much a priority as the photos themselves. He sometimes spent nights in the prison-like structures to grasp their energy.

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The photos feel generally loomed over by the specter of that era. But they also capture a new generation of residents that are fortifying their Indigenous identity, resilient amidst the broken architecture of the decaying prisons and what it says about what happened in Minas Gerais.

READ: Wangechi Mutu: Between Palimpsest and Prayer

woman behind leaves
Cleonice Pankararu in her backyard, just adjacent to the Krenak Reformatory. In the 1970s, her grandfather, Antonio Vieira Pankararu, was arrested on his native land, in the state of Pernambuco, and brought by the military to the Indigenous prison. As a local leader, he was accused of instigating social resistance against Brazil’s economic progress at the time. Cleonice says that she and her family had no information about her grandfather’s whereabouts after the arrest, but decided to go searching for him anyway. They walked for more than two years, more than 1200 miles, until they finally reached Resplendor, where their grandfather was imprisoned. They decided to settle there and remain close to him, even under the strong repression of the military regime. Over the years, she has lost her Indigenous identity due to the prohibitions imposed by the army and the death of her parents and grandfather. With the deactivation of the prison, she is slowly rediscovering her essence and serves as an example for her two children, who are also rebuilding their Indigenous identities.

“I don’t know if I can say they were victims, or survivors,” he says. “They were people who experienced this period of time.”

Bolsonaro’s presidency will end in December. He was defeated in this year’s presidential election by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a Leftist politician whose narrow victory suggests the zeitgeist behind Bolsonaro wasn’t insurmountable.

But for Carrato, the meaning of his work still stands. Taking photos of people among the ruins he says, is a reminder for the present moment about how easily Brazil targeted its own in the past. “I’m not sure if this is the main reason, but maybe this is one of the reasons we still have disconnected memory,” he says. “I’m still trying to figure it out.”

READ: Native Tribes Should Have More Say In the Psychedelic Movement

man looking in mirror
A portrait of Baiano Pataxó, who manufactures Indigenous handicrafts. Handicrafts, along with agriculture, are one of the few forms of income for the inhabitants of the place where the Krenak Reformatory was located in Carmésia. Today, Baiano lives in one of the reformatory buildings, together with old religious statues, which were used as a supposed “classroom,” where the military forced Indigenous people to learn the customs of so-called modern society. The statues, in this location, represent the historical power of religion since the colonial period as well the willingness of the inhabitants to conquer their own identities and return to their cultures.
Brazilian indigenous man in traditional costume
Taylor Pataxó, dressed in traditional costume, waits for his bride, Ingrid, who is getting ready behind the curtains. They are about to get married in the Indigenous cultural center in Carmésia. Traditional costumes are worn only on special occasions by the residents of the small village. An Indigenous marriage ceremony is still one of the few original celebrations that remain after the so-called “integration,” celebrations that are gradually being revived by the new generation that seeks to establish their Indigenous identity. Taylor’s grandparents were brought to the village by the military, but due to lack of information and documents, he doesn’t know much of his family history or the events of the relocation. Being born in a former prison area has shaped his personality considerably as he wrestles with questions of identity and seeks his place in the world as an Indigenous man.
women in stream
Larissa, 15 years old, and Isabela Pataxó, 16 years old, embrace in a stream in the village where the Krenak Reformatory was located in Carmésia. Water is sacred according to their culture, the lifeblood of the community. A feeling of non-belonging affects the descendants of the reformatory who are on a quest to regain their Indigenous identity. Facing an oppressive past and an uncertain present, staying together through physical closeness is one of few options to build a sense of community.
Pataxó chief
During the celebration of a traditional wedding of the Pataxó ethnicity, the chief waits for the arrival of the women, on the left, who bring the bride, and the men, on the right, who bring the groom. The traditional event takes place in the Pataxó village in Carmesia.

*This article was originally published in DoubleBlind Issue 9, published in June 2023.

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