I meet Roberto at a nearby church that is having a community event. It is held by a drug rehab program called “Saving Lives in Action". These words are printed on the back of the shirts of many there. Roberto tells me that the government doesn’t provide any of these services so it is left to the church to takes these people in. Mauro, a gentlemen next to Roberto, nods in concordance in hearing these words. There’s something about Mauro, his eyes. They’re very piercing and very strong. I don’t know what he does for the community, but I’m sure it’s something that provides a lot of stability. Actually, when I think about it, this entire community is very strong. Here’s the thing. They’re not lazy people. They are willing to work, but there is no work. They want to rally around a cause, but there is no cause. It's like there is all this strength here, but no where to direct it. It is a damn shame.
Today, it appears as if they are offering beauty services as I’m arriving at the tail end where dozens of women are sitting around giving and receiving manicures. The first thing Roberto does is ready a plate of food for me to eat: a simple meal of beans, vegetables and a big piece of chicken. We sit down and catch up.
He asks me if I remember a certain girl from last week, one he pointed out and told me that was dating a drug trafficker. I think she might have been the daughter of someone I met. I tell him that I vaguely remember her.
“She was killed yesterday,” he tells me. The news hits the pit of my stomach and I momentarily stop eating. “She was four months pregnant. She told me on Thursday that she found out it was a boy. She was trying to decide on a name.”
I have no words for the news, I just shake my head in disapproval and disappointment. It’s not like I really knew her or anything, but someone whose existence I was aware of two weeks ago was no longer there. It’s a simple logic when you say it out loud, but to feel it, that is very different. I ask if she was involved in the drug trade beyond dating someone who was in it.
“No, she wasn’t involved,” he tells me. This upsets me even more. I guess you could make the argument that her association alone made her bed, but to me she was an innocent, at least in some part of it all.
Roberto begins talking with a girl sitting near us. She has a short cut, hair above her chin, and is a bit overweight. Roberto tells me that she a fighter that trains in community project nearby and she smiles at the reference. Her name is Ana. We immediately start a banter about fighting sports and begin making the cross-cultural comparisons between our respective practices: hers - Shodan Karate, mine - American boxing and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. After a while I’m beginning to realize this is a great time to start taking photos. The moment I mention this one of Ana’s eyebrows raises.
“You’re taking pictures?” she asks me. I nod in response.
“I want a picture with you,” she tells me. “You’re exotic looking.”
At this point of my life, I’m not longer really offended by being called “exotic”, it just depends on the place it’s coming from, but I’m also well aware of where this comment is coming from and take note.
You can tell the spirit of someone in how they react when you ask them to take their photo. The entire room full of women feign in protest that they don’t look pretty enough to be photographed. Part of it is just a show, but I also wonder if part of it is related to the self-esteem that people in these communities are often subjected to, what people from the outside think about those that live in a place like this. Either way, it’s not enough to hold them back from posing, laughing, and joking in front of the camera. Some of them are wearing novelty glasses where the frames are in the shape of giant guitars, others are cheesing widely, throwing up peace signs with their fingers. This one woman comes from behind me and everyone yelps in excitement. She's sporting oversized heart-shaped sunglasses and donning a giant pair of plastic overalls, one that a clown would wear. She starts dancing around and everyone is cheering her on. Roberto points me in the direction of some small children and urges me go take photos.
I walk over the a bit nervously, but the boys are receptive. This one little boy is stone-faced the entire time I’m snapping photos, and I’m beginning to wonder if it’s a matter of self-esteem as there is this overwhelming look of sadness draped on his face. I overhear him saying something about not liking pictures and I ask him if this is true. He starts saying how he won’t dress up in a bikini and look pretty for photos. He clasps his hands together and leans them to one side of his face while making kissy lips. The boys around him are roaring with laughter and so am I. My previous assumption is totally off. This kid is animated and has plenty of attitude.
I decide that I’ve taken enough and ask Roberto to take me back inside the community. All the women yelp in disappointment and Ana says to Roberto, “Why are you taking him away?” I blush and raise my bag to hide my face, which brings plenty of laughter in itself. Roberto leans over to ask Mauro if the police have left. Earlier that day the BOPE had entered the community and chaos quickly ensued. Mauro casually says that he thinks they’re gone and decides to join us on our trip.
The first stop is the woman’s house that Roberto tried to show me last time, the one that was sleeping on the ratty couch in what I thought looked like a poorly constructed horse stable. This time she is awake and answers the door. Her name is Christina.
The first thing I notice about Christina is her figure. She is skinny, but not like skinny because that is her natural figure, more like skinny due to malnutrition. I can see it in her arms. Her handshake is a bit flimsy and unsure. She has a beautiful smile, even though she is missing most of her front teeth. When I pull out the camera, her biggest concern is also that she doesn’t look pretty enough, but like the others, this doesn’t stop her from posing for some shots.
Roberto and Mauro begin asking her some general questions regarding her health. She tells them the tuberculosis has gone away, but that she is still sick with many other things. When Mauro asks for confirmation about the tuberculosis, she says, “Gracias ao Deus” with such a relief, it is as if a desperate prayer had been answered. She says it like she really needed that to go away in order to continue, that this is all controlled by a higher power. The look in her eyes tells me that.
Her and Roberto begin talking about something I can’t quite understand. He later tells me that the one doctor in the community is now refusing to see her because she is too sick, told her that she would infect the rest of the patients. There is a slight look of disgust on Roberto’s face as he’s telling me the story. He also tells me she is losing her sight because of another sickness. I find out later it might be due to the large tumor growing on her head. She can’t even take the bus to the free clinic because she can no longer read the schedule.
I ask Roberto to ask her if she’d like any other photos taken, not like anything for this project, but family portraits or something to hang on the wall. I’m still a bit hesitant to speak to her directly and I’m not so sure why, maybe because she’s still unsure of my presence just as much as I am. After Roberto relays the message, she kind of shrugs her shoulders but says that maybe her husband would like something. He’s still sleeping on the bed in the one room next to us. I look inside and the bed is a large piece of spongy yellow foam. The pillow is a cut up rectangular piece of the same material. He gets up slowly. When I offer to take a portrait for them, he is also a little coy but eventually agrees. They step out and flash some wildly powerful smiles.
Mauro chimes in and asks her how her family is doing. She says something about her one last remaining son berating her because she continues to smoke. I see an empty packet of loose-leaf tobacco on the ground. A graphic picture of a corroded heart on the General Surgeon’s Warning is staring me in the face. Mauro tells her that she needs to stop smoking, not only for her health, but not to lose another son. I find out later that she has five children in total, but four of them have been adopted by State intervention due to their determination of her inability to care for them. Christina solemnly nods her head, agreeing with the advice, but unsure if she can follow it.
However, there is still hope in all of this, by the tone of her voice I can sense it. When Roberto tells her that we are doing a project that might result in bringing medical services, she nods her head with such conviction, and the firmness that is in her voice - one that is between desperation and determination - rings through when she says, “I support that.”
Later, we go to this food stand that’s in the middle of the community. There are people standing all around. Of course everyone knows who Roberto is. They throw me curious looks. There is a woman with a tumor on the top of her right eye. When I ask if I can take pictures, she shyly says, “Nooo…I look like a monster.” But it’s in jest so she lets me take them anyway. It’s much like everyone else I met up until this point.
The camera starts things up. People start posing with kissy lips and throwing bunny ears all over the place. I show the back of my camera to reveal the results and that results in people making fun of each other. Mauro leans over, chuckling while he speaks.
“There is a lot of poverty here in the community,” he says. “We are missing a lot of things, but there is plenty of humanity.” I smile at the catch.
There is this little boy. Later I find out his name is Daniel. He comes up and grabs my hand and start leading me through an open field. Everyone around us is smiling at the interaction. The first thing I notice is that the field is full of horse shit. I mean I don’t know if that’s supposed to be a “bad” condition, because there are horses everywhere and horses don’t necessarily mean a place is in a bad spot, but there is shit everywhere nonetheless. He doesn’t say anything to me, just walks with me, holding my hand. There is a moment where everything becomes silent, and all that I've seen thus far falls into a vacuum as we walk together through this open field.
I am walking with God when I am being led by this child. That is the only way I can describe what I am feeling. We go to this corner where there is a fallen barb-wired fence. He motions me past it. I don’t know what he wants me to see, but I step over. There are four other kids there gathered around that quickly scatter as I set foot near them. One of them remains, a little girl with a small Barbie bicycle. She asks me to help her fix the chain, so I let go of Daniel’s hand and tell him to wait. The chain is unhinged at one point and she tells me that it’s in a really tight spot. I move the pedals around and put the chain in the right place. I pick up the bicycle and realize that half the seat is missing and nearly all the plastic cover has been peeled off, revealing only tattered black foam. She thanks me and dashes off.
Daniel wanders off near the edge of a large body of water. I don’t know if that water is hazardous but it doesn’t look clean. The adults back at the food stand are yelling his name so I look at him and hold out my hand. He comes and immediately grasps it. We walk back and the residents are gossiping about me. The woman with the tumor says I look like a Jiu-Jitsu master and starts making Kung-Fu shadow moves and noises. Everyone starts laughing and I follow suit. She doesn’t mean anything by it, it just means she’s more comfortable with my presence. We stand around a bit more and then Roberto starts walking back to his car. Daniel looks at me and outstretches both arms. He wants me to pick him up. I do so then hand him off to his mother after giving him a tight hug.
Me and Roberto decide to head back to plan our next meeting. On the way a beige SUV screeches past us, driving in an erratic pattern. The back window is completely blown out and there are two rifles sticking out the back. It is a car full of drug traffickers, coming from who knows where. It shakes me a bit, but everyone around me just stands there unmoved. A look of understanding is probably the best way I could describe their faces.
We end up back at the church, in the alter of all places. Roberto says that we should make a visit to the health post and see the doctor that comes once a week to see the residents. Him and I both mention a potential issue that we saw when he was telling people who I was. Basically, he summed me up as a foreigner who was working on a project that could potentially lead to improving the health services in this community. The light in their eyes when they heard that was so bright. I still remember the look of giddiness in Christina's face in waving us off when we drove by her home. There is hope there. Roberto knows it too.
“This woman, who has HIV, a tumor on her head, had all her children taken from her, where does that hope come from?” he asks to no one in particular. “The little boy who held your hand, he can’t speak because he’s ‘special’. He has a disability. He wanted you to hold him because he lacks male affection. His father left him. What hope does he have for the future?”
It then dawns on us that we need to be careful with this hope. Hope is a tricky thing to manage. Sometimes it is the only thing that keeps a person alive, but when you are responsible for giving that hope to someone, then letting them down, the weight of that hope can crush a person as much as it can lift them. That is why you must be careful with the words you speak, be careful in the promises you make.
People think their personal struggles are mundane in comparison to what I am seeing, but that is not true, in fact, that is the problem. The reason this happened in São Gonçalo is not because someone decided to make a shit town and put people there (at least I hope not). This happened because we are afraid to face our shame, because we have lost touch with how to treat others. This is a product of a system we live in, a system that needs disposable people to thrive, and what is happening here is merely a consequence of its deeds. That doesn’t mean people who are part of this system are bad people; it is that walls have been built up high enough to where we can comfortably ignore these things, and our tendency to hate, to anger, to close ourselves off, that is what those walls are made out of.
Sometimes I honestly believe that if we were just kinder to the person next to us, if we just treated people fairly in our everyday interactions, things like this would not happen, because the root of all problems is a lack of compassion and understanding for another person’s experience. So however “mundane” the struggle may be, whether a heartbreak or a minor dispute with a friend, it all matters. Pain is pain, no matter what world or income bracket you come from. And in resolving that pain, compassion and understanding are always a choice. Creating more of that in the world speaks volumes. It makes ripples, maybe even as far as this side of the bay.