THIS region is one of Brazil's strongest bastions of tradition. Poor fishermen still heave primitive jangadas, flat boats with rough-hewn limbs for masts, on shore just as they did 100 years ago.
The mix of Roman Catholicism and colorful African mysticism, brought by colonists and their slaves, is still a common bond between rich and poor.
And a handful of wealthy ``colonels'' still hold plantations the size of small nations. These elite men have passed the political power of the region among themselves from generation to generation.
So that is why Brazilians are still scratching their heads over just how petite Maria Luiza Fontenele was able to vault the formidable traditions of this seaside city and land in the mayor's seat.
After all Ms. Fontenele is a twice-divorced, liberal, university professor who wears jeans -- certifiably untraditional for a woman in a region where women are best known for the delicate laces they make. Fortaleza, however, is no backwater community. It is the capital of Cear'a state, the heart of the colonel's territory, and Brazil's fifth largest city with a population of 1.5 million.
``I know there were people who voted for me just to try to show I wouldn't be able to do the job,'' says Fontenele, who took office in January.
Her opposition suggested during her campaign that a woman could not administer a large city government. Conservatives here still consider her a ``communist.'' She has already found that she won't find much cooperation from elected city and state government officials.
``Maria Luiza's win made us realize we might not have been attuned to the people's problems. We have ideological differences, but the truth is her victory was good for Fortaleza and for Brazil,'' says State Rep. Ciro G'omez of the Democratic Movement.
Fontenele left that party because it would not allow her to run on its mayoral ticket. She switched to the small, pro-socialist Workers Party. Once in office, she tackled corruption and set up new channels of communication between city hall and constituents. But fiscal problems of this region, which has some of the third world's worst poverty, are a mounting problem for her.
Despite the nation's patriarchal chauvinism, Fonten-ele has gained national popularity. She has been featured on magazine covers and on Brazilian network television. Because she employs her two former husbands in her city administration, the press dubbed her ``Dona Flor'' after Brazilian Jorge Amado's famous novel ``Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands.''
Observers say that while this tradition-bound region may have been jolted by the election of Fontenele, the new mayor is not such a surprising phenomenon in the context of recent Brazilian trends. The themes of her success are national: a growing feminist movement, the nation's new democratic process, and the power of the Roman Catholic Church.
``Maria Luiza is an example of times changing in Brazil. Her election is important for the whole country because it shows the people that it is possible to change,'' observes Agamenum Almeida, a professor at the Federal University of Cear'a who was Fontenele's first husband and is now her finance director.
Fontenele, who got her master's degree at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, had the early advantages of coming from a land-owning family.
But she is as much a product of a national feminist movement that grew strong political roots in the nation's struggle against the military oppression of the 1960s and 1970s, explains Eva Alterman Blay, president of the Sao Paulo State Women's Council.
With democracy women have been able to refocus efforts on purely feminist issues, rather than general oppression. Dr. Blay says that among the 3,950 Brazi-lian municipalities there are 81 women mayors. At the state and federal level only 37 women were elected in 1982 (Fontenele served two terms on the state legislature).
When Brazil's military government handed power over to civilian rule last year, laws were relaxed to allow for more than just a ruling party and a single opposition party. This offered Fontenele the platform she needed to run for mayor.
The new democracy, too, has allowed the poor to vote in larger numbers. And in Fortaleza the poor, many of whom were illiterates allowed to vote for the first time, supported Fontenele. The poor in the northeast are widely influenced by the liberation theology movement of the Catholic Church. This theology advocates the need for Catholics to become involved in movements for social justice, and the desirability in some cases of revolution.
In her first two months in office, Fontenele created ``popular councils,'' which consist of neighborhood representatives who advise her directly on issues concerning the sprawling city.
Further, she exposed fraud in the city payroll system. The 40,000-worker payroll, she says, includes only 30,000 real workers. ``We found 10,000 public servants are actually five or six-year-olds or people living in other cities'' receiving salaries, she says.
But, admits Fontenele, having the voters' mandate is only a foot in the door. She faces opposition from both the city council as well as the state government.
State politicians control the terms of the city's $35 million debt to the state bank, and can use this as leverage against her. Fontenele's first weeks in office were spent knocking on federal government doors, including a visit with President Jos'e Sarney, trying to scrape up enough money just to pay city employees who hadn't received checks since November.
``It is not possible for Fortaleza to be self-sufficient. And it won't be in my three year term,'' she says with no apologies. As she views it, her job is to convince the federal government it must invest in Fortaleza and the state of Cear'a, or the region's severe social problems will only multiply.
Fontenele's biggest problem is how to conciliate Workers Party ideology and the demands of urban social movements, says a political analyst in Bras'ilia.
Fontenele says the problems she most wants to deal with come from the stream of rural poor and hungry who have descended on the city because of the recent severe drought affecting nearby cotton and cashew plantations. Those migrants, sometimes dazed with hunger, are a frequent sight in Fortaleza -- near beachfront hotels or on quiet residential streets or even permanently esconced on highway median strips to beg from passing autos.
Infant mortality is high (103 per 1,000) in the region, she says. The children who do survive are malnourished -- a phenomenon so widespread that health officials say a generation of children will have lower intelligence than their parents. These problems, says Fontenele, cannot possibly be solved by Fortaleza alone.