The spontaneous democracy of disorder. The instinctive generosity of those who have nearly nothing to give. The interior life of a skyscraper in central Sao Paulo abandoned and then reclaimed by hundreds of homeless families.
From afar, the building stands isolated among the other skyscrapers in downtown São Paulo. When seen from below, it is even more imposing. It comprises 22 cement stories riddled with cracks and dust. There are walls covered in soot from previous fires, a mosaic of glassless windows covered by wooden boards or screens. TV antennae hang from the side of the building, as well as plants that grow feeding off of the tropical springtime. An old sign carved in stone indicates the origin of the building, a textile factory in the 1960s: National Textile Company. On the same block there are a fishmonger and a tiny little bar called Big Ben. Some meters away lies the old Luz subway and train station; all this embedded into the destitute heart of Latin America’s largest metropolis.
You cannot get into the building from the main entrance because it is closed off with wooden boards and iron bars. You need to go around the block, turning through the avenues and alleys that form this unthinkable 13 million-person city, and knock on an iron gate in the back. A man who acts as custodian opens the gate and moves behind a counter that was left there from the time the factory was operating. There is little natural light because of the covered windows. The fluorescent lamps that hang from a wire on the right side of the ceiling taint the red walls with a crude hue. From the floors above come screams, laughter, the smell of food, the cheerful voices of children and the sound of a ball being kicked. The doorman asks for the name of the visitor, the name of the person they want to visit, and then checks his books, smiles and shakes the visitor’s hand. He or she is then authorized to come inside.
In this building at number 911 Prestes Maia Avenue, abandoned in the 1980s when the company went bankrupt, more than 1,500 people, 400 families, have lived for the past 6 years. Each family occupies its own little space delimited by particleboard walls, each has its story of lives ruined by misery. Prestes Maia is the second largest ‘occupied’ building in Latin America, behind only the Torre de David, in Caracas, Venezuela. Its inhabitants are governed by self-imposed laws (which are a mix of normal building regulations and other municipal laws) that transform this vertical city with fluorescent lights into a viable and autonomous 22-story Republic.
Among the building’s rules, no one here may carry weapons, drink alcohol or use drugs. Walking through the halls without a shirt on, or wearing a nightgown, is strictly forbidden. Couples may not shower together (each floor has a communal bathroom with a toilet and shower). After 9 p.m., no visitors are allowed, unless you ask for an authorization in advance. Making loud noises – or allowing kids to make loud noises – is forbidden after 10 p.m. Every day one of the tenants of each floor must clean the halls, and another one is in charge of cleaning the bathrooms. Attending the building’s monthly assemblies is mandatory. Each family must pay 105 reais (roughly 30 dollars) a month as rent, and the money goes to a common fund. But not everyone has to pay rent: the poorer among the poor don’t have to, like a single mother of five that lives there. Beggars or people who are unemployed or not looking for a job, even if it’s a job selling candy by a street crossing, are not allowed to live there.
When someone breaks the rules once, they get a warning. After the third warning, they are expelled. Each floor has a “commander” who is supposed to mediate any arguments between families. And when the commander is unable to solve the feud, the problem is taken to the ground floor, to the administration’s office, where there are more windows covered with wooden boards, old desktop computers that still work, a photocopier and a poster in support of President Dilma Roussef that hangs on the wall… Maria Silva, one of the building’s coordinators, is a happy but quiet person that has to frequently act as a judge because tenants are constantly coming up to her with domestic disputes. She tells her life story:
“I’m 46 and originally from Bahia, but I migrated to São Paulo a long time ago. I used to work as a cleaning lady, and starting in 2005 I was living in the Bela Vista neighborhood and renting a room inside a house shared with twelve other families. We used to pay the rent to a man who told us he was taking the money to the house’s owner every month. But he was swindling us, and suddenly we were all evicted. Me and the other 12 families all abruptly found ourselves in the street. We had nothing then, and I was unemployed. It was then that I heard of this movement and of Ivanete, who is now a friend of mine. Ivanete helped us. At first, we stayed in another occupied building, but then we moved here. The building pays me a salary so that I can survive, and in exchange I work here as a coordinator. I know almost every single tenant”.
It all began at midnight on October 4th 2006. At that day and at that time the future inhabitants of Prestes Maia answered a call to meet at the building’s entrance. They were all part of the social movement called “Moradia da Luta por Justiça” [“House of the Fight for Justice]. The majority of them came in rented buses from the poorest and most remote neighborhoods of São Paulo. Some of them decided to occupy the building because they couldn’t afford to pay their rent. Others, like Maria, had been evicted from their homes. Some of them had been living in the streets for quite some time. And there were others who worked as hawkers or porters who lived in very poor neighborhoods isolated very far away from downtown São Paulo; for them it was a three hour daily journey to get to their jobs and then another three hours to get back home, where they only had time to sleep. Ivanete de Araújo, one of the movement’s leaders, was giving the orders. They chose this building because it had been invaded years before, and the squatters were eventually expelled from there. Exactly at the time they’d agreed upon, hundreds of families carrying baby strollers, mattresses, flashlights, and food gathered outside the building. A man armed with a club opened a hole on the brick wall that was blocking the main entrance.
Through that hole passed more than 1,500 people who spread in silence through the groundfloor. For a whole day they had to hide inside like rats, not making any noise or using electricity.
According to Brazilian law, the police can evict squatters from a building without a court order within the first 24 hours of an occupation. After that period of time, when they felt more free, the occupation army fixed a giant sign on the building’s façade and started cleaning things, chasing rats, moving furniture, dividing the industrial spaces into rooms, throwing away tons of debris, and covering the glassless windows with wooden boards. They bribed a man with connections to the power company so they could get illegal electricity in the building. They did the same with the water. Rooms and chores were divided. And they’ve made Prestes Maia into their home and an instrument with which they can pressure authorities for more dignified and cheaper living conditions.
The building’s owner, Jorge Hamuche – a businessman that bought the factory and planned to turn it into an office building – reported the invasion and asked that the people be evicted immediately from his skyscraper. The police have tried to evict the 13 times over the years. But the evictions were never carried out either because the police didn’t have the correct court order, or because authorities feared that the eviction agents would be massacred by the tenants if they set foot in the building. Little by little, therefore, Prestes Maia became a symbol for all the Brazilian social movements that fight for better living conditions. According to many different studies, the city of São Paulo and its metropolitan area need over 670,000 new houses in order for all of its current inhabitants to have a home.
Prestes Maia’s ground floor is dark and damp due to water infiltration. In some areas, the ground is as pasty as mud. The higher floors are better lit and more sanitary, but to get to them there’s the extreme inconvenience of climbing endless flights of stairs, since there are no elevators there. Some people have to climb over 20 stories 4 or 5 times a day, and many times carrying a burden. Everita, a nice little old lady of 82 with mental problems, lives on the 22nd floor. The building administration has offered her another room on a lower floor. But she refuses to move, saying only Jesus himself would be able to take her away from the floor she has shared with neighbors for so many years.
There are around 300 hundred children from babies to age 12 living there. They are nearly omnipresent in the building: wearing shorts and flip flops, they play soccer on the stairs or on the halls; some of them slide down the stairs using wooden boards as if they were sleds; and some of them play hide and seek, constantly entering and leaving the rooms, or they play tag among the clothes that are hung to dry and the puddles formed on the floor after a storm.
Among the tenants there are numerous impoverished Bolivian immigrants who share the same fate as their Brazilian colleagues. And one Nigerian man whose life has brought him to this place, occupying a room on the 8th floor. “They say there’s another African guy living here, but I’ve never seen him: the building is just so huge…”, he says. One of the tenants works in the building as a hairdresser; another one makes a living by taking care of his neighbors’ children while they are at work. There’s also a masseuse, a manicurist, and one of the tenants owns a clothing store where articles can be paid off in up to three installments.
On every floor there are “general stores” that provide the community with chips, milk, sodas, small ready-made meals, tampons, diapers and numerous other sundries. Tania Regina is the owner of the store located on the 1st floor: “I arrived in São Paulo when I was 20. Now I’m 39. Back in my hometown of Barreirinhas, in the state of Maranhão, I used to work as a peddler, but I thought I would make more money here selling cookies in the street. As soon as I arrived a got a job cleaning a home, but I didn’t like it there because there I was mistreated and humiliated; they forced me to wash cars and things of the sort, so I decided to leave the job and share a rented apartment with a male friend to whom I ended up getting married. We had a daughter, but he liked partying too much, and eventually left me to take care of the child by myself. I’ve worked at a restaurant, first cleaning, and then in the kitchen, but it closed and I went to work as a maid for a woman that let me take my daughter to work with me. Then, my mom moved in with us. We were three people sharing a room, and the rent was over half my salary. I had heard of Prestes Maia before, but I didn’t want to move here initially. I was afraid of the movement, of being involved in occupations. I had no idea of what to expect if I moved, but my mom finally managed to convince me: we couldn’t keep living in that room and paying so much rent… So I made up my mind, and I’ve been living here for 5 years now”.
Last August, the City of São Paulo, governed by the Worker’s Party (PT, leftist), the same party as President Dilma Roussef and [former president]Lula, bought the building from Hamuche for 24 million reais (roughly 6 million dollars). The intention is to renovate the building so that the people there can live in better conditions. Those that do not wish to remain there after the renovations will be relocated to other homes in good conditions. But before any of that happens, the City must find temporary homes for all of the tenants during the renovation work. The problem is that the federal government, due to Brazil’s economic crises, is about to cut funding for social programs such as “Minha Casa, Minha Vida” (“My Home, My Life”), that offers affordable housing for those in need, and the tenants of Prestes Maia are included in it.
For these reasons, the date for the building’s renovation is unsettled.
One of their leaders, Ivanete de Araújo, a 42 year old tall, dark, gorgeous and decisive woman is well aware of all of that. She is the one heading their negotiations with the City and the federal government. Among her other duties, she administers the building’s funds, buys the gifts for the raffles that are held during their assemblies, and serves as mediator for the inevitable feuds between neighbors. She has the last word over who should be expelled and who should be allowed to move into the building. She is the mayor, the president of this peculiar republic that extends outside the iron gates. She has taken part in numerous building occupations previously. She has been evicted from some of them tear gas canisters thrown by police; she says she replied in kind, throwing coconuts out the window at the police. She has lived many lives. Married twice, mother of three, she has adopted one child and plans on adopting another. At the age of 8 she would gather nuts and work sugar cane or cotton fields in Guariba, a small town some 200 kilometers away from São Paulo. Years after that, by a stroke of bad luck, she found herself sleeping with her recently unemployed husband and their three children in a tent under a bridge in São Paulo. Her husband convinced her to join the Homeless People’s Movement and participate on the invasion of an abandoned hospital along with other families. She didn’t like the idea at first, because she thought that the empty hospital would be riddled with disease. But she eventually gave in.
Little by little, she became more involved with the movement. And there came a point where she decided to free herself from all burdens in her life: “I divorced my husband because I couldn’t take the beatings any longer. I became brave, good and bad at the same time. I was part of other occupations, and eventually I got a house. But I gave that house away to my daughter and I keep on fighting. I fight even if it’s not for me, because the world doesn’t stop once you find what you were looking for. We are all one family, and we must find homes for those people. It is great that the City has bought the building, but many things must change in this country. New politicians will be elected who might try to evict us, or send the police to do that job. We still have no guarantees. Sometimes people say I should become a politician. I think about that sometimes, and I’m a member of the PT already, but we’ll see. I enjoyed this life, even though it is not an easy one. You know, sometimes I even dream that I moved back to my hometown…”.
She laughs and then chases after Adrián, a livid-faced 5 year old boy who suffers from a bone disease. He is incapable of walking. Abandoned by his parents at birth, he lives inside one of the rooms and is cared for by a woman whom the building’s administration pays to look after him. The boy tries to smile when he recognizes Ivanete. She grabs him with the sudden intention of introducing him to her husband, who lives in another invaded building close by, to try to convince him that they should adopt the child. She gives out the last instructions for next Saturday’s assembly, then leaves for the street through the iron gates. She starts walking while holding the child in her arms. The child glances at her once more, grabs her by the neck and closes his eyes.
Antonio Jiménez Barca Translated from Portuguese by International Boulevard.
18 Mar 2016