A Field Trip to the Favela

Raised on the border between Brazil’s slums-poor and black and despised-and its private-school elite-white and wealthy and comfortable-Fred di Giacomo writes in Gluck of the country’s class divisions and violence against the poor.

When I was in middle school, they once took us on a field trip: we students were going to “learn about the reality and the poverty of Brazil”. After the last class of that day, we would go out and meet a needy family: a single mother who was raising and HIV-positive daughter and a son who was now in jail. We were to bring them a basket of food, and talk to them about the tough lives they led.

The nuns who ran our middle-class school in the northwest countryside of São Paulo had good intentions. They thought that the boys from my hometown of Penápolis’ elite should learn to cherish and value their easy and peaceful lives, and feel solidarity with those less fortunate. Maybe the nuns’ idea was to broaden the horizons of those who only interacted with poor and black people when they had their nannies or maids by their side. That situation bothered me; I understood the nuns’ good intentions, but that field trip made me think we were going to some sort of human zoo, a freak show where you watch the performers without really seeing them for who they are.

After the last class, the bell rang and we all ran in our red uniforms towards a Volkswagen bus, filled with good intentions and the cheerful atmosphere of a trip to a resort in Porto Seguro, Bahia.

Very soon I realized that I knew the path the bus was taking. “Wait a minute, where are we going? I know these stray dogs, those houses with low fences, those streets filled with potholes. I know those grannies sitting by their porches, those feet shod in flip flops trudging home, those kids flying kites”.

My neighborhood.

I saw that the poor-house we were to visit was my neighbors’. Literally. It was only half a block from my house, at the Vila São João neighborhood. The boy in jail was the friend of a friend. Once we got to the small and humble house with wood fences, I quickly jumped from the bus, walked twenty steps and got inside my own house. I felt a mixture of shame, rage and humiliation. I was ashamed of the fact that my neighbors could think I was just some posh kid, and that my classmates would see me as just another “poor kid” from the neighborhood, somebody they should pity, a charity case. I did not want people to pity me. I wanted to be looked at as an equal, eye to eye.

***
An emblematic event for me, for a life spent between two worlds that, in Brazil, rarely interact: the rich and the poor. The sons and daughters of a physician and the sons and daughters of a mason. Blond kids with European last names and black kids with common last names like “Silva” or “Jesus”. Those who are on the guestlist of the party and those who aren’t; those who are members of the Penápolis country club and those that aren’t.

Fate made me coexist in both worlds as an observer, but I never perfectly integrated in either of them. I grew up in a humble neighborhood of crack houses, abandoned lots, old cars and bikes, kids flying kites and men on horse carts selling cows’ innards. Behind my comfortable home there was a slum, and to the side there was a small community of farm workers. During the weekends, the workers would listen to a really loud favela funk song that said “If money were shit, the poor would have been born without assholes”. I had the best house on the block, and we were never “in need”. Both my parents had college degrees, another oddity for that place. I went to kindergarten and elementary school at the public system. The rest of my school life was spent in private schools because I had a scholarship due to the fact that my parents were themselves teachers. The change from public to private school was a shock. I suffered a lot through my first year there, and I would spend the recesses alone. But eventually I adapted. No longer would I see the doctors’ and ranchers’ sons as simply posh kids: they were now my classmates and friends.

It was emblematic that at my old school my best friend had been black and, at the new school, my best friend was, like me, white. When I was about 15 I started playing in punk rock bands and regained contact with some people from my neighborhood and from places even farther away. They were playful kids, involved in social movements, in hip hop, or in punk rock fanzines. But I never thought of them as the offspring of housemaids, woodworkers or masons; I’d think of them rather as the band that would perform after us at some backyard festival with a dreadful sound system and an audience of about 6 people. I thought of them as the guys I shared a soda with while chit-chatting on the sidewalk in front of my house. We would discuss women, bands, dreams and parties. I only realized my neighborhood was a “slum” when a classmate from private school commented on it. When I was little, it didn’t seem like a poor neighborhood; it was “just another neighborhood”. And those didn’t look like poor people; they were “just people”. And I lived in a gorgeous house: it was spacious, had a nice decor, and it had a backyard filled with fruit trees; fruits such as the mangos that the poorer kids would come and ask for when it was lunchtime.

Only years later would I understand that the mangos that fell from our trees composed the entirety of their lunch.

***
By the age of 18, I went to college at a public university [in Brazil as in much of Latin America, the elites attend public universities, while the poor and less gifted pay to attend inferior private universities.]I was one of the few from those slum punk rock bands to get there. It is jarring when you hear people say that if you “work hard” you can make your dreams come true. At my private high school, the best students went straight to a public university after graduation. Those that were average students either went to private universities or took a one-year-long crash course after graduation and eventually got into a public university. Those who were lazy took the same crash course (for two or sometimes three years) and also made it to college. Even some of the worst students managed to get doctors’ degrees at some really expensive schools. It is also jarring how many chances life throws at these people. In the neighborhood I grew up in, things were different: you were given only one single chance to get into a public university, which was by ranking well on the college entrance examinations. If you didn’t score high enough to get you into college, you were expected to get a job anywhere. If, through your job, you manage to save enough money, you ight try to get into (paying tuition, of course) a private university near you, studying at night. I do believe that people who are hard workers can be born in a slum and end up millionaires, but no one can say that the same opportunities are given to all. I’m not just repeating statistics, I’m telling what I1ve seen and lived first hand. Some of my poor friends that would read authors like Nietzsche or Augusto dos Anjos (a Brazilian poet) when they were in high school still live in my town and have no college degree, while some of the worst students at my private school today are engineers, doctors and lawyers. While I killed myself studying, their “hard work”, I swear, was playing soccer, flirting with girls at the country club and inventing new nicknames for some schoolmate’s mom. Some of them got allowances that were higher than my first paycheck as an intern.

***
An old cliché from the 70’s describes Brazil as Belindia, a mixture of Belgium and India, a country with the laws and taxes like the small and rich European country, but with the social reality and size of the Asian country. It never became the theme of any popular songs around here, but the metaphor actually makes sense. Even though we’ve seen some progress, Brazil is still one of the worst countries in the world when it comes to wealth distribution. According to the GINI index, we are the 13th most unequal country on the planet. Out of 150 countries on the list, we’re only behind nations like Haiti, Angola, Colombia and Honduras. But that doesn’t mean we’re a poor country; we’re the 7th biggest economy in the world after all. But we are still a country where many earn too little and a few earn too much. The new and prosperous Brazilian middle class comprises whole families that make ends meet with around 2,300 reais a month (roughly a 1,150 dollars), while the starting salary for an electronic engineer or a physician is around 4 thousand reais (roughly 2 thousand dollars). The new middle class is measured by their potential for consumption rather than by their quality of life. If one wishes to rub elbows with the elite, one must buy brands like Lacoste and Red Bull, while the rich look for “differentiated” options that will, sometimes literally, block the poor away. We are the country of the VIP lounge at a rock ‘n’ roll concert. Could there be anything less rock ‘n’ roll than a VIP lounge?

 

In Brazil we seem to live in a caste society where people have diverse ethnic backgrounds. And conflicts are three times more likely to occur where there is inequality among different religions, ethnic or regional groups.

***
When I passed the Abril Journalism Course and started working as an intern for the biggest magazine publisher in Latin America, I started to live side by side with São Paulo’s elite, not only at work, but also at countless meetings with ad agencies, clients, distributors etc. People who spoke fluent English, who had backpacked through Europe, and dined at the best restaurants in town according the hippest guide ever to be published. Some of them were people as decent as the delivery boys who had played with me in my punk rock band days. Others were as dishonest as some of the kids involved with crime that I had known as a teenager. All of them had good and bad qualities, and that notion was instrumental for to lose my prejudice against the posh kids. In my lifetime I’ve met poor people that would rob scarcely but violently and rich people that would steal constantly and in a peaceful manner. I don’t condone any of these behaviors; I refuse to idealize marginality, and I value honesty instead. But I still find it more comprehensible that my neighbor as a kid – who had no father and had to support his mother and sister by dealing crack – would end up committing crimes, than some executive that earns 15 thousand dollars a month would end up breaking the law for the purposes of embezzlement.

When I used to live in my humble neighborhood and my friends were people that the government statistics office classifies as “pardos” (a mixture of black and white), our fears were that we would be beaten by the police for no apparent reason and end up dying at gunpoint. When I moved to a “good” neighborhood and started sharing cabs with people that had Belgian and German last names, I started fearing small time robbers, kidnappers, thieves of all kind. I reiterate the fact that I don’t “defend criminals”. I despise violence and I know that if I bump into a robber today, he will probably judge me as “a bearded playboy” that lives on “the other side of the bridge”. He would feel as much empathy for me as the neighborhood vigilante feels for the poor child begging for money by a traffic light. There is no white flag in the social war we have plunged ourselves into.

***
Brazil fears its daily violence, and this fear only leads to more violence. Sensationalist newspapers, internet commentaries, journalists sitting comfortably in their offices write their columns asking for more guns, more armored cars, more police, more penitentiaries. Innocent mothers are dragged through the streets by police cars [Claudia da Silva Ferreira, mistakenly shot by police and then casually slung into the trunk of a police car, fell partially out and was filmed being dragged through the street before dying], black kids grow up being called “monkeys”, women from the Brazilian northeast are called apple heads (because they’re nice to eat and enjoy, but you can’t take them for a stroll in the mall: I heard that one that the first time I was in Rio de Janeiro).And, of course, all posh kids are “spoiled shallow brats”. Feeding this anger only generates more anger. We must tear down bridges in Brazil, we need more dialogue, more education and fair opportunities for those on the less well-off side of society. We must be able to look others in the eye. The kid from the ghetto and the posh kid must understand that they are both people, they’re both Brazilians with the same rights and duties. Neither of them deserves to be robbed, killed, beat up by the police, humiliated by their bosses or suffer any kind of prejudice. And when an innocent woman is killed during a police shooting in a favela and ends up having her corpse dragged through the streets once it fell out of the police car’s trunk, we cannot find this situation normal just because the woman happened to be black slum dweller. We must be as shocked by that as we were shocked when a dentist was burned alive by robbers last year. We must see the human being where we can only see “the poor”.

The slums are not the place where you lay the game “Doom” or an episode of “The Walking Dead”, where one is free to do their target practice on zombies.

While doormen and concierges are not to be looked in their eyes, while black women are still “only good in the sack”, while somebody’s choice of clothes is their death sentence, while student protesters keep idealizing “the poor” without actually getting to know people in their flesh and blood, while the middle class is still seen as “a bunch of posh people with flashy clothes, or the fool that got mugged inside his car at the rich part of town”, I’ll bet you that Brazil will still be that violent place where you go out at night unsure if you’ll be able to return alive.

Fred Di Giacomo Translated from Portuguese by International Boulevard