What it feels like to be brazilian in 2011- a view from São Paulo

Here I am. The “studio like” heavy rain hits the window of my apartment, in São Paulo, from where I can see one of the golden towers of Paulista Avenue. I love to watch the rain.

São Paulo is the big financial Center of Brazil, and suffers from a double  trouble: it  accumulates the paradoxes of the country, but in many aspects can be closer to New York than to Bahia. São Paulo is like an island.

Surrounded by two extremely important Rivers, Tietê and Pinheiros, the city suffers with terrible floods. A total of 1500 km of rivers, streams and fountains where covered with the worst asphalt you´ll find in the whole world to form this huge traffic jammed city. Of course the rain water flows with some violence around here. Nature was buried in São Paulo.

But what brings so many people here? What makes it possible for apartments to have had an appreciation of more than 300% in 10 years? Why are so many Brazilians and foreigners interested in this mess?

In the city center, Bolivians where found to be working in slavery. The contradictions of the world are right here right now, but are mostly invisible. The periphery of the city is far away, and although there are poor neighborhoods close to luxurious apartment buildings, the situation is radically different from Rio. In Rio, the hills are so close do the shore (and to the more noble areas of the city) that is looks like the shanty houses are going to fall into the sea any minute. In São Paulo the situation is different.

According to IBGE Institute, in 2010 there were 20.309.647 million people living in the extended area of the city. A Photographer friend of mine, Iatan Canabrava, who has for a long time taken the periphery as the theme, told me of his sensation on a helicopter ride. As he got further away from the city center, the buildings were substituted by a brownish colored neighborhood of houses. Most of them are left unfinished and are not painted at all (although they have TV sets and now an amazingly great amount of web connected computers). As the landscape turns brown, police turns away and transportation becomes scarce. Ferraz de Vasconcelos, Capão Redondo and Itaim Paulista are places most of the medium class people like me have never visited.

In São Paulo, it can take a regular worker 1 or 2 hours to arrive at his destination in the morning or in the afternoon. And that applies to the rich as well as to the poor, except for those rich enough to fly helicopters to work, and believe me, there are lots of helicopters in this city, 420 to be precise. Traffic jams are literally in the air.

So, after building enough walls around houses and apartment buildings as to make them look like prisons, finally, under the heavy rain and in the traffic, we all are trapped together. Be rich or poor, we are part of the same fear and immobility.

At the same time, Sâo Paulo is one of the most interesting cities in the world. In his movie Blindness (2008), Fernando Meirelles pictures one of the most chaotic, and therefore spectacular views of the city, a viaduct nicknamed “Minhocão” (that could be translated as big worm). And so it is: nasty, crawling, fetid, but brutally vital for the city traffic. It is almost a metaphor of what São Paulo is for Brazil as a whole: a brutally vital ugly mirror.

But last month I finally went to Brasilia: an amazing experience. Incredibly blue sky, Niemeyer buildings vanishing in real estate speculation, a mixture pot of races, especially of people from the northern country. Brasilia is beautiful in many ways.

It was Thursday. Huge abandoned corridors and empty meeting rooms illustrated what the “loneliness of Power” means in the Congress building.  Power itself was alone in the building, with a couple of public servants and an army of waiters serving coffee from a huge “coffee factory” in the basemen that looked like a sweat shop.

Yes, there was a session going on. In the silence of the corridors, so much happens. But that is how it feels to be Brazilian. Even if all of us were to shout in those corridors, there would be no guarantee that we would be heard, except by deaf waiters who serve the people that are supposed to serve us. We have democracy, but not a democratic system. Everything is designed for the perpetuation of a system that does not help anyone taking a 2 hour ride to work for a salary of U$250 to have a better journey, a better life or pay lower taxes embedded on products.

Being Brazilian is not knowing how to change things and yet, smiling. It´s to have the desire to fight, but being too busy for it, it is to dance the dances of time while the Japanese sleep (or die). It is being Italian, Portuguese, African, Chinese and Dutch. It´s to dance a Gilberto Gill song that used to call everyone to embark the Express 2222, which in the seventies announced the year we would finally be important. Being Brazilian is suddenly being interesting to the world, and yet being so late for that. Our problems as are as ancient as they can be in the New World.

So we are late to get ready for the World Cup, late for the Olympics, late to be ashamed or lazy. Every Carnival tells us we are capable and ready.

Being Brazilian is also to know that, in the division of archetypes among countries, it is our job to be the big mixture pot of ethnics and ethics, the place where people run to when they are desperate for love or in need of a hiding place. It is being hope, and also a huge picture of frustration, it´s being the strange exotic brother of the tall blue eyed guy. It´s being more Dionysos than Apollo.

In a Matisse like dance, we are seen in the picture for the first time.May we know what to do next.



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One comment

  1. I live in Fortaleza-CE, brazil’s 4th biggest city, and the feeling I get here is the same you got there in São Paulo, as far as we get from the “center” area, skyscrapers dissapear and give place to miserable areas, where people have computers and I-phones, but basic human needs are disrespected.

    The only difference is that my perspective is in the poor side of the city and we (the “favelados”), as much as you, have learned how to think. Weather the elite likes it or not!

    After all, we (brazilians) continue to be the Country of Contrasts of the history books of our childhood. Reality changes in a very slow rhythm. A life time is not enough to catch it…

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