2. 4. 2020

English version | Freedom then: liberty, that light in the horizon

by José Couto Nogueira


Those who are less than 56 years old today - most of the Portuguese - do not know what it means to not have freedom, and therefore, they also do not understand what means to have it. It’s one of those moments where we only get what’s important when we don’t have it.


Why 56 years old? Because a person of that age was only ten years old in 1975, and cannot remember a completely different country. And it is not just about political change. Because when you talk about freedom, you generally think about citizenship rights; but there are many freedoms, some more important, others less tolerable. Now, because of the pandemic, some freedoms have been withdrawn, but others remain. Let's rewind. Living in Portugal in the 1960s was, shall we say, living in a world with very few freedoms, some of which you cannot even understand now how essential they are to a smooth life. The issue was not just the absence of political freedom, the one that is usually written with a capital F. That, in itself, was the least exhausting for those who were not interested in this matter, as the powers of the State advised. They told us: “Don't get involved in politics”, to which we should respond, obediently, “My politics is work”. So, anyone who looked the other way and didn’t mind not being able to choose our leaders, not even criticizing them, could live their lives under the radar of the political police, the police in general and the informers disseminated among the unwary. After decades (since 1933) of critical thinking repression, let alone acting against the people who decided the direction of the country for us, we had entered some kind of intellectual numbness. They had crushed the protesters of the early days, controlled the media, and people ignored what was going on in the world - even newspapers and magazines "out there" were apprehended when they had something that bothered people of power - people had no wings and wouldn’t look at the sky. Even in the streets the atmosphere was constrained, it was heavy, discrete bystanders, eyes on the ground, inhibited from any outside sign of what they thought. They became known as the "lead years", because they weighed. In an interview at the time, the American beat writer William Burroughs spoke of the Portuguese: “When I lived in Morocco, I met some. They were recognizable at a distance, by the weight they carried on their shoulders.” 

But that was only one of the limitations, the most comprehensive, because it included many of the others, which bothered us on a daily basis, even for those who only thought about work. There was another major barrier, which was morality. The Catholic Church, the state's official religion, imposed restrictive norms of behavior to which no one cares about today, provided they even know about its existence. Since 1821, the Inquisition had ended, but “morals and good manners”, considered essential elements of social peace, imposed numerous petty punishments - promotions, different advantages, probity assessment - that forced people to “behave well.” They could not date freely, kiss and hug each other in public, nor in hotels, where proof of marriage was required to rent a double room. You couldn't go out and stay too late, because the night spots closed at two in the morning, you couldn't even go out very early with someone else, because it was a sign that you had spent the night together hiding somewhere. All these prohibitions were meticulously detailed, to suppress the inventiveness of those who wanted to live (their) life. The "looks bad" philosophy had the power of a decree, in fact, there were many decrees to regulate intimate life. For example, marriage. Divorce was only possible for civil marriages (a minority) or for religious marriages before 1940 - the date of the Concordat with the Holy See, which “theocratized” civil activities. Besides, judges were instructed to make legally possible divorces as difficult as possible. The son of a married woman, even if she had not lived with her husband for years, had to be registered with her husband as a father. And women could not travel without written authorization and a recognized signature from that husband, even if separated. A strange legal figure, the "separation of people and property", decided in court, allowed the sharing between the disagreements, but none of them could marry again, not even through civil marriage. The second woman was thus a “lover”, and the couple would be looked at with a bad nature.

For young people, who were not yet thinking about weddings, there were specific limitations. Couples went out together, when they could go out together, always with a chaperon, or else in groups that diluted love relationships before strangers. At home, they were never alone without adult supervision. There were very few night clubs to dance and talk, and it was normal for parents not to allow children go to those places where they knew what might happen. At home, at small gatherings between friends, they could dance, but not too close. That's where we could meet girls - our friends' sisters and, perhaps, their friends. Because there was no other possibility of contacting the opposite gender - perhaps in neighborhood clubs, in the presence of suspicious families. At summer outings, on the beach or by the pool, you could not dance at all, except if keeping a distance... a sanitary one.

Schools were segregated, and it was only at college that boys and girls were allowed to take classes together, but the common spaces were also separate. I had a girlfriend who was one of the first women to join the Instituto Superior Técnico; the problem is that there were no women's bathrooms, nobody had ever thought of that. In any case, few women followed university studies - not that it was forbidden, but usually when they reached that age they got married and became maids and mothers. Except the hostesses and nurses, who couldn't get married. Or the teachers, who could, but the ideas and job of the future husband were investigated first, in case he was from the resistance or a trickster. Cavaleiro de Ferreia, the legislator who wrote the exception laws that regulated the political police and the plenary courts, said that a woman should not work, but, if she did, only in subordinate places: secretary, telephone operator, minor employee.

Those who went abroad, on short business trips or on vacation, brought news from different worlds. Magazines that didn't get here. A friend of mine had a contact in Paris who sent him by mail or by carrier Interview magazine and Rolling Stone, two American magazines with the latest trends. And French Vogue, with an unthinkable fashion for us. The color, the strength, of those who can create at will and exhibit what they feel like. Or discuss what's on their mind. The 20th century proceeded happily, but not here. Because there was also no freedom to dress as you liked; it was not strictly prohibited by law, but parents and teachers watched over decency. Women followed well-defined dress codes. No very short skirts, tempting cleavage, provocative gestures. Men, shorts and ankle boots, and from the age of 16 with the usual coat and tie. Jeans did not exist, only some very Americanized parents brought them to their children, to mock others. Sneakers were carried in a bag, to be worn exclusively in sports activities. Girls’ hair was cut straight by the shoulders, with or without bangs, boys should cut it short, "like a man". This was in the 1960s when, it should be remembered, the hippie movement exploded in the outside world and with it hair grew, clothes were colored and joints were smoked. Over here, an abstruse government campaign filled the streets of posters with a skull: "Drugs, madness, death". Certainly, the majority of young people did not even know what “drug” meant and the follies, scarce and repressed, were an extra few glasses of red, one night with the boys in a fado house. Deaths, only in the Colonial War that started in 1961 in Angola, and that spread quickly to the other “Overseas Provinces”.

War, in fact, distant but omnipresent, became the despair of several generations. When a “young man” (the official term) reached 21 years old, he was put in a barracks and trained to kill. Then sent with 120 more to an inhospitable place where, they said, had the mission to defend Western Civilization against communism and the ungrateful black people, who were not duly grateful to be exploited by the colonists and wanted to be independent. These principles, like all the others, were debatable; but it was a betrayal to discuss them. For the disaffected and refractory, there were disciplinary battalions, sent to the worst places, where the climate and the enemy were relentless. The boys' conversations invariably went around this equation: facing the war, fleeing the country and never coming back. Running away had to be without documents, because the passport could not be obtained from the age of 18, already in preparation for the slaughterhouse. War became an obsession that conditioned lives and careers. Stay or run? Get married, before or after? The troop was about three years old, two of them in the colonies. Anyone who escaped, for military technical reasons (good score in the recruit, for example), was called again for a second round of two years.

And the freedom to create, to write, to paint, to dance, to act? All cultural activities were controlled, and this control had been going on for such a long time that it violated the will to create. The proof: at the Writers' Congress, which took place after the Revolution, where the greatest names of literature were invited to participate, everyone recognized that they had no banned books in the drawer, because the impossibility of publishing them had prevented them from writing them in the first place. Book publishing was strictly controlled - not previously, as with the press, but after being in bookstores. When a publisher came out with a book the government didn't like, it was apprehended by the police, which represented a huge monetary loss. Which means publishers preferred not to risk it, and those who risked paid for it dearly. The story of a conversation by César Moreira Baptista, Minister of the Interior (today, Internal Administration), who controlled the Censorship is famous. He said to Snu Abcassis, owner of Dom Quixote publisher: “If you publish another book by Maria Isabel Velho da Costa, even if it is a cookbook, I will tear this place apart.” However, some writers have managed to break through the siege. They used allegories, fables, ways of saying without actually saying it. But José Cardoso Pires, honor be done to him, hid nothing. No one like him described the climate of those grey years. The Delfim, and Balada da Praia dos Cão are indispensable books to better appreciate what we have now.

It is painful to remember these times. A cloak of stupid stubbornness covered the country. The official speech that covered all areas of thought required everyone to see things in the same way. The issue was not whether or not it was right; one could not doubt, much less criticize, the constraints that conditioned daily life and the perception of the world. Was there hope for change? No, there was not much hope. The system looked trapped over us and no movement, national or international, indicated that the light on the horizon could approach. Then there is a psychological phenomenon that is difficult to explain, but very concrete. The authoritarianism of the State stimulated the authoritarianism of all institutions, from companies, to schools, to families. The bosses were bossy, teachers were unyielding, the parents were castrating. You couldn't do this, you couldn't do that. There was no dialogue on subjects that could not be talked about. Everything was decided, everything was resolved, with no room for breaking ground, thinking outside the box. Rebelliousness, madness, opprobrium. Today, we complain that young people are irreverent, artists are provocative and that people, in general, are always swimming against the tide. It’s true. But this diversity, which includes “good” and “bad” is the outcome of freedom - of all the freedoms we have. Better, much better, than living in that Dark Age.

This article was originally published in Vogue Portugal's Freedom issue, from April 2020. 
Para ler este artigo em português, veja a edição de Liberdade da Vogue Portugal