Michael Neill
November 29, 1993 12:00 PM

THE 68 TEMBÉ INDIANS WHO LIVE IN Tenetehará, in northeastern Brazil, have no love of Western civilization. Last year they expelled a Catholic missionary and shut down the village’s only nightclub. Tribal leaders wear feather bonnets and carry spears, and both men and women go naked above the waist. A traditional existence in the Amazonian rain forest does not, though, in Sonia Pinheiro’s opinion, rule out the possibility that the Tembé might be in the market for some personal grooming or skin-care products. So, Pinheiro, a zone manager for Avon, has trekked 140 miles from Belem, impeccably dressed and without a hair out of place, to try to interest the people of Tenetehará in her products—from lipstick and lingerie to moisturizer and mascara.

“This is a reconnaissance trip,” says Pinheiro, 38. “We want to see if we can offer them something. Maybe some of the women will want to become vendors. Who knows?” There are 36,000 registered Avon ladies (and gentlemen) in Amazonia.

This may seem like a long way to go to make a sale, but it is in such rural Third World areas that Avon, the huge New York City-based cosmetics company, is enjoying its greatest growth. Fanning out through the vastness of Amazonia, much of which is still frontier, the Avon reps, who accept almost anything as payment, have boosted the company’s Brazilian sales by 50 percent this year.

In Itaituba, on the Tapajos River, 900 miles from where Pinheiro is meeting the Tembé, Benedita Aguiar, 34, has just sold a pair of striped men’s bikini briefs to Jose da Silva, a barefoot fisherman. In return she gets a string of day-old mapará, a type of catfish. She would have preferred some of da Silva’s fresh-caught piranha, and he would have liked some Touch of Love deodorant and Vita Moist body lotion, but they couldn’t strike a bargain.

In Patrocino, a gold-mining boom town in the center of the Amazon basin, the Avon reps do not have to settle for payment in fish, but they have other worries. During six years of living in the town, saleswoman Antonia Conceição, 40, a divorcée with 14 children, has been stung by a scorpion (although she has thus far eluded the area’s many poisonous snakes) and has contracted hepatitis, malaria and dengue fever. Worse, Patrocino, with a population of 2,000, has 40 bars and 23 brothels, but no doctors. Still, Conceição thinks the profits—three times what she could make in a safer place—are worth the risks. “Dangerous?” she says, laughing. “Only if you gel bitten by a snake or real sick. Then you probably die.”

Half her customers are miners like Rosivaldo Silva, who weighs out 1.5 grams of gold dust to pay for two tubes of Silicon Gloves hand lotion. Then, there are the town’s many prostitutes. “The miners get all the gold,” Conceição says, “but they spend it on the women.”

Becoming an Avon lady is one of the few respectable ways for a woman in the Amazon to become financially independent—and her profit often comes at the expense of some tender male egos. “I couldn’t stand the idea of my wife leaving home and visiting all those houses,” says Rossimar Pereira, 38, whose wife, Teresinha, 33, is the most successful vendor in Itaituba (pop. 50,000). “My neighbors asked me how I could let her go out like that.” The Pereiras fought daily for weeks, but when he saw the cash Teresinha was bringing in—at least $500 a month, sometimes much more—Rossimar quit farming to become his wife’s assistant. Now, he says, “I no longer care what my neighbors say. We’re the ones leading the good life.”

Back in Tenetehará, Pinheiro is finding out that the Tembé are just not interested. She show’s some of the tribeswomen Red Temptation lipstick, but they are unimpressed. “We have that,” says one. “It’s urucu.” Urucu, it turns out, is a greenish nut with a red core—and for the Tembé it fulfills the same function as Red Temptation. Finally, Marrioca, the village chief, takes a whiff of Cool Confidence deodorant and immediately decrees it: “Nekatu! [bad].” He politely tells Pinheiro, “This may be good for you, but not for me. I like the way I smell.” Undaunted, Pinheiro shares a lunch of chicken and rice with the villagers, then one of the tribesmen rows her back upriver. There, her air-conditioned car awaits her. Somewhere out there, she knows, are jungle dwellers who need a makeover and are willing to pay for it.

MICHAEL NEILL

JOHN MAIER JR. in Amazonia

You May Like

EDIT POST