When I was a kid growing up in Winchester, there was an eccentric fellow named Ron who would wander the streets pushing a pram full of bits of junk. He was a weird guy – he often seemed to mutter to himself through his unruly beard and as he passed he would often let out a massive burp. At first the burps made you jump, but as the years passed you’d be rather disappointed if he passed without one. Like I said, he was kind of strange, but he was also pretty friendly and he certainly added some character to the town. I realised how much affection people had for him when the tributes poured in on news of his death in 2006.
For almost 30 years, Rio also had an eccentric. The true name of Rio’s unconventional character was José Datrino, but he was better known as Profeta Gentileza (Prophet Kindness).
Born in 1917 in Cafelândia, São Paulo, Datrino was unusual even as a child. By the age of 13 he was having premonitions about having a “mission on Earth” – understandably his parents worried…
Apparently Datrino’s life developed fairly normally until a terrible tragedy. Just a few days before Christmas 1961, there was a fire at a sold out circus performance in Niterói which resulted in more than 500 deaths, the majority of which were children. A few days after this shocking tragedy, Datrino heard “Astral voices” telling him to abandon the material world and dedicate himself to spiritualism.
He travelled to the location of the fire in Niterói and planted a garden in the ashes. He stayed there for four years, comforting grief-stricken relatives and spreading a message of gentileza (kindness). It was at this time that he became known as Profeta Gentileza.
After four years, the Profeta took to walking the streets of Rio, carrying a board with his messages. He would also travel on trains and buses and the ferries that travelled between Rio and Niterói. On his travels he would hand out flowers and speak of the importance of kindness, love and respect for others. He also spoke out against the evils of greed and capitalism which he said “sells and destroys everything”.
Interestingly, he also put emphasis on the words people use everyday. He told people that instead of saying “obrigado” (I’m obliged) they should say “agredecido” (I’m grateful); instead of saying “por favor” (as a favour) they should say “por gentileza” (as a kindness).
As well as passing on his message to the people of Rio and Niterói, the Profeta also left a more permanent mark – 56 murals, painted on the wide pillars of a stretch of raised motorway/freeway.
Visually, his murals were pretty amazing – a large white background, striped with green and yellow and filled with very distinctive text.
This was another way to pass on his message of peace and kindness and when you see one of these murals you start to understand how much work it must have been to create 56 of these things!
The profeta died in May 1996, aged 79. Sadly, his murals became worn with age and further messed up by graffiti – eventually they were entirely painted over in grey. After much criticism, a project called Rio com Gentileza, was started in 1999 to restore the murals. The work was completed in May 2000 and these awesome paintings can still be seen today. You can even find them on Google Maps! You can see all 56 murals here.
As well as the murals, there are many other signs of the Profeta that still remain today – probably the most noticeable are the t-shirts. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t see someone sporting the classic Gentileza gera gentileza slogan. You also hear his influence in the language – many people still use his preferred “por gentileza” when making a request. Furthermore, there is at least one charity working to continue spreading the Profeta’s message.
For the sake of balance, I should mention that his Wikipedia entry includes a section where several people who met him or knew him said that he actually wasn’t a very nice guy, being moralistic and aggressive towards women wearing short skirts and make-up. Apparently he ranted a lot and sometimes the police had to be called to calm him down. But his overwhelming legacy must surely be his central messages which seem to have been quite positive and constructive.
If you’re interested, you can see the man himself in action and hear him speaking of his work and his message here.
Did you have any eccentric characters where you live?