Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Lion of Latin America

“I bet you’ve been spending a lot of time on the beach at Copacabana and Ipanema, huh playboy?” my friend Roberto said to me the other day. “Why don’t you come to my comunidade this weekend? See how the other side lives.”

I know he was joking, but I took it as a challenge. Shoot, this guy didn’t know where I’ve been. I’ve been to some of the toughest hoods in Latin America. I’ve been to Olaya. I’ve been to Callao. I lived for a month in one of the shadiest red light districts in Tegucigalpa and last week I was just in Maré. I was ready. I could handle it. I found out later that I very much didn’t know what the fuck I was talking about.

Roberto lives in the favela Fazenda dos Mineiros, a neighborhood inside the Complexo do Salgueiro in São Gonçalo, a city across the water from Rio de Janeiro. If you want to get an idea of the public perception of the area, just Google image Complexo do Salgueiro and see what comes up.

My friend Stuart and I land in Niteroi, a middle class neighborhood located about a twelve-minute ferry ride from Rio. Stuart is fellow Fulbright scholar, doing some coolass research on digital media in and about the favelas. He’s also probably one of the only people I trust that wouldn’t exotify the shit out of this day, so I ask him to come along. 

Roberto pulls up in his gray Volkswagon and we hop in. We drive through the city making small talk. Niteroi is pretty nice. It has shopping centers, office buildings, it seems like a self-sustaining city with enough economy and entertainment to exist outside of Rio. As we start entering São Gonçalo, the shopping centers start to drop off, the office buildings dwindle and there is noticeably less commerce flowing through this part of the city. “This is a lower class neighborhood,” Roberto tells me. “Not as nice as Niterói, and nothing like Rio.

Soon the paved road begins to disappear. The ride becomes bumpy. We’re managing our way through dirt pot holes. Roberto tells me that before we enter the community, he has to put on the emergency blinkers to let the residents know someone familiar is entering. He flashes them momentarily as an example. 

I can’t tell when we’ve entered the community and when we’re still on the outskirts. At this point, the places all look at the same to me. Typical Latin American poverty. Small concrete boxes plastered with stucco sheltering a small store or private residence. Business names are graffitied onto white walls sprayed in the primary colors of red, yellow and blue. Roberto presses the emergency blinkers. We’re entering Fazendo do Minieros.

The second we drive in a motorbike with two passengers pulls up alongside. The passenger on the back looks into the window and flashes an approving thumbs up. Roberto returns the gesture. The bike speeds past us. There is a black machine gun strapped onto the passenger's back.

Now the road has completely disappeared. I mean this shit is barely drivable. The dirt has hardly been excavated enough where it is distinguished between a road and earth. We drive a bit longer. Now all the stores have disappeared. The buildings are no longer made of concrete. They’re quilted amalgamations of discarded wood. Some pieces are the bottom of loading crates, others are pieces of rotted 2x4s, some are just discarded political campaign ads made of thick cardboard. The faces on the campaigns have been painted with mustaches and devil horns. Out of the edge of my eye I see a kid standing around a corner store with a M-16 strapped around his shoulder. The butt of his gun touches the floor. He peers over with four other people. 

We turn the corner into Roberto’s home. The dirt road meets a cleanly paved white tile driveway. We get out and enter a miniature mansion, at least compared to the surrounding neighborhood. There are two bathrooms etched with designer tiling. He has AC units in both the living room and his master bedroom and his washing machine is bigger than my kitchen. A place like this in Copacabana would cost upwards of 8000 reis, but he pays 300, about 150 dollars. The old adage of real estate value rings true here as in anywhere else in the world: location, location, location.

We accompany Roberto to his neighbors home. She’s prepared the rice for lunch. Favelas are like that. You know all your neighbors and they help each other out. I see the kid with the M-16 around the corner. He’s staring right at me. We go back towards Roberto’s and the kid is walking in our direction, but he’s not alone. He has about 6 other people with him, all armed to the teeth. None of them can be older than 20. Now the rifle is no longer strapped around his shoulder; one hand is gripped around forearm, the other around the trigger, ready to fire. For a moment I think he’s pointing it at me, but he walks right past us. Three other people appear from behind. A motorbike whizzes by and there’s a teenage girl on the back. She’s holding a 9mm pistol and passes it onto a very small child. The bike turns around and they all walk down the dirt path. Roberto asks the neighbor what’s going on. The police have entered the favela and they’re going to meet them down the road. Roberto causally raises one eyebrow and walks inside as if this happens everyday. I guess in places like this, it does. 

We go inside and Roberto has prepared a feast. Mixed green salad tossed with tomatoes and seasoned onions. Chicken broiled in beer and cream sauce. A pot full of perfectly steamed white rice courtesy of the next door neighbor. She pokes her head in with a bottle of olive oil. Roberto tosses in the oil and she takes a plate of chicken and rice for the trouble. Like I said, in the favela, neighbors take care of one another.

We stand around the pristine kitchen making more small talk. I ask Roberto about the minimum wage in Brazil. 600 reis a month. He tells me that a trafficker earns about 800 reis a week, as if already knowing why I asked. Let’s see. Work a “legitimate” job where you’re shit on the daily by larger society, or work as a trafficker and make more than five times the money. What would you choose?

We sit down in the living room and begin to eat. The food is spectacular. My friend Stuart begins asking him about the neighborhood. There was one NGO in the neighborhood and Roberto is the one who created it. He lived on the second floor of the building for over 5 years to get the place started. Since then it has shut down due to internal politics and now operates as a daycare center. The place he lives in now was supposed to work as a place for the community to receive social services, anything from medical to education courses. He put every cent he's ever earned into that center, but since the NGO shut down, the funding ran dry, and with no more second floor to live in, he decided to move there instead. Now he works as a social worker in another community for underprivileged youth. I ask him about how all this started. 

All favelas have a different story. Some started because the poor were tired of making the multi-hour commute into the cities to work for the rich, and built communities in the unincorporated land nearby. Others are a result of the slave emancipation that left former slaves homeless and broke, so they built their own communities where they could. This one is a result of the trash.

Complexo Salgueiro is one of many places where the city’s trash is dumped. It started in the landfill Lixão de Itaóca and the overage spilled into Fazenda do Mineiros. The residents came from other cities under the pretense that there would be employment available in the cities. Decent jobs, government jobs, jobs with a steady income and some level of respectability. What was actually available was the trash. And you think they would pay someone the minimum wage for wading through trash?

So now the question is take a job literally working through shit for less than minimum wage or become a trafficker? Again, what would you choose?

And like any job, it’s not always about the money. It’s about the status, about the recognition you receive from your neighbors on how you chose to spend your working life. Roberto shows us a picture that looks like it’s taken from the 80s. It is a picture of a white teacher with her hands huddled around a group of young black students. All of them are looking in different directions as if there were multiple cameras all taking snapshots at the same time. He points to this pudgy black kid in the corner holding something in his hands. I think it’s supposed to be some kind of plush stuffed animal but it looks like a feather duster. He has the blankest expression of all the children in the picture. A look of loss, a look of complete absence. 

“This was one of my students,” Roberto tells us. “He used to always say to me, ‘Roberto, Roberto, nobody says my name in the neighborhood. Nobody knows who I am.’” The kid looks about eight in the picture. I find out later that it’s the same kid that I thought pointed the rifle at me earlier. Gilberto tells me that once a gun is placed into your hand, everything changes. You have choices. You have the power to spit death. People start saying your name. You’re the white kid from Zona Sul that goes to university. You’re the one with a respectable job. You’re the one with a future. You’re somebody.

I remember sitting in a “Drugs and Society” course back when I was an undergrad and students genuinely not understanding why people entered the drug trade when there were perfectly viable jobs available. There was a case study of a resident in a Chicago housing project who worked a 9-5 as a mailman and how despite him having a stable government job, the kids looked up to the drug dealers driving fancy cars and flashing large sums of cash instead. People really couldn’t understand it. “Why would they join something so dangerous?” they would all ask. “Why don’t they just become mailmen?” I remember sitting the back with arms crossed thinking, “the same fucking reason you didn’t choose to become a mailman.” 

Ambition doesn’t die in the ghetto, in fact it can flourish. But people expect satisfaction from dreams of contentment, as if the poor do not have the right to aspire beyond the environment they are born into. The same reason middle class kids from the burbs don’t settle for their first shit paying job at the mall is the same reason why kids aspire to be someone in the drug trade. It is the same spirit of upward mobility, the paths are just constructed differently, access to legitimate means only available to some. And no one can ever see too far down a career path, just like people who become lawyers don’t envision buttfucking a working-class family out of their homes in a foreclosure case. Same story, different channel.

We finish lunch and Roberto invites us to walk around the neighborhood. The police invasion has since passed, fortunately, without violence. All the traffickers are back at their posts, sitting on stools with high-powered assault rifles posted against the walls, like a fisherman would have a fishing pole or a musician their instrument. In Brazil, the thumbs-up gesture is like the universal tool for deescalation. We pass by some hardass dudes staring holes through our skulls, but when I give the thumbs-up, they flash the widest grin and throw a gentle salutation in return. From that point on, I’m thumbs-upping like nobody’s fucking business, handing them out like tic-tacs in a halitosis convention.

The place is straight country. Rolling hills of wild vegetation, fences made of tree branches and flimsy chicken wire. There are horses, wild dogs, and all sorts of fowl strolling through the camp ground. And pigs. There are a shit ton of pigs trotting and nosing their way through trash, rolling around in murky black water. These pigs can’t be used for meat. They’re eating too much garbage, drinking too much contaminated water. I wonder what eventually happens to these pigs. A swarm of vultures circle overhead waiting for things to die. Question answered.

It smells like shit around every corner we take. This town was never equipped to handle a dumpsite, but the garbage came anyway. The government never bothered to install a functioning sewage system so the waste just spills onto the fields. The dump has been shut down less than a year ago, ironically, due to health hazards, and now there are only remnants. I find out later that a hill behind us is not actually a natural hill. There is trash underneath it all. A company came in and compacted dirt over the garbage and the compression of waste has contaminated the earth and the water supply. That’s why it looked like the pigs were rolling in poison oil. 

Now the only viable form of employment has left town. Now there are even less jobs. People try to do their best to get employed in government jobs, like paving roads or other shit paying menial labor. Most of them revert to drug trafficking. There really isn’t much else here. There’s hardly even a store. But there is still garbage. A field of trash sits in the middle of the town where the pigs roam. They shit in all these piles. I hear a child scream “Chocolate!” There are five kids alongside the pigs picking through the garbage, looking for something to eat. It’s a fucking wasteland, and people live here.  

“Happiest place in the world”? Kiss my fucking ass Huffington Post.

A group of kids swarm Roberto as we walk through a side alley. They love him. They trust him. One kid goes up to him and hugs him, holds his hands. Then another, and another. The parents around are smiling and Roberto welcomes them with open arms and a kind heart. One of them comes up to me and clasps my hand. He looks at me with innocent eyes. He gives the purest smile I’ve ever seen. He’s maybe 6 years old. He acts like children act before they know what life has in store for them, about what pain this world can cause. I wanna say that the kid is happy, that even in these conditions, they manage to find something to smile about, but somewhere something in life breaks, it always does, and it breaks harder in certain places than it does in others. The boy grips onto my hand tightly and I squeeze back in return. He breaks away after a moment of disinterest and our connection is broken. I wonder what will happen to him in 10 years. 

We go back to Roberto’s place exhausted, both from the heat and what we’ve seen. He prepares a dish of ice cream and bananas drizzled with a caramelized glaze. It’s probably the last thing I expected to be eating at that moment, but it’s also de-fucking-licious. 

Roberto has been living in this community for over a decade, completely by choice. It’s not like he has this overbearing sense of altruism that he forces down people’s throats, he merely says he prefers the community here. “In the city you live in apartment buildings, you never see anyone,” he says. “Here you know your neighbors, you talk with each other, you share your lives. It’s more humane here.” 

I asked him if he would ever want to move. “Sure, I’d like to travel every so often, maybe live in Asia for a few months,” he starts. “But I’ll always come back. It’s like indigenous people; we might leave every so often, but we always come back to our tribe.” 

Places like Fazendo do Mineros are held together by people like Roberto, people who despite all the poverty and violence, still see the decency of human life that flourishes underneath. It’s that compassionate dedication to unearth that humanity that keeps places like this alive.

And of course the city doesn’t give a shit about people that do this work or where they live. The city turns a blind eye to these places. Brazil is touted as one of the most promising economies of the next decade. The country of progress, the land of modernization. The lion of Latin America.

The World Cup is coming. The Olympics are coming. So what does the city do? They build a giant fucking concrete wall to shield away the favelas. They push the poor into small corners in the city.  

You want to say you’re the country of the future? You want to be the country of progress? Have it so kids have more of a choice than between a broom and a gun, so that people no longer have to pick through shit to feed themselves, then come and fucking talk to me. The only glimmer of hope are the people who care, and you shit on them continuously. 

"True revolution 
comes from true revulsion; 
when things get bad enough 
the kitten will kill the lion." 

Rue this place when that day comes, that day when this lion has starved its young for too long. 


LizzethAndrea said...

So much respect for you Nick! When I was in Brazil I really did not see what you have described but I did see people looking in the garbage for food and the HUGE gap between the rich and the poor. I also understands why Brazilians are not so excited about the world cup and olympics; it is just government wasting money in stadiums but nothing for the ones who really need the help. Yes, they talked about Brazil being a strong in economy, the 6th I believe, but it is the before last in education for Latino countries. However, people from the know how to find their happiness within.

Anonymous said...

Thumbs up, Nick! ;)

In Boston I've been roommate and friend with a smart and successful guy from Brazil - who's now making a shitload of money. My impression was that the attitude is worse than "the city doesn't give a shit about people that do this work or where they live." The city (I'm generalizing) actually despises those people, it considers them beasts and hopes they just exterminate each other. Fuck the lions.

Andrea, Seattle.