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Where danger dwells

Studies show how violence conditions the day to day life in slum tenements and in the peripheral districts of Sao Paulo

Theorists sustain the idea that Brazil invented a democracy with a broken foot, at the same time as the advances in political rights, with regular elections and competition between political parties, there is the castration of social and civil rights, as can be attested to by the unemployment rates and precarious working conditions, the specter of violence and the lack of housing. With this thesis on the horizon, students from the Social Sciences Department of the University of São Paulo left their campus to get to know and collect testimony concerning the Brazilians who live below the line of citizenship. They visited the urban concentrations of the Jardim Angela district, the inflamed frontier to the south of the city of São Paulo.

They talked to the inhabitants from the slum tenements in the central region of São Paulo. Coordinated by Lúcio Kowarick, a full professor at the Political Science Department, the research Living at risk: housing, employment and urban violence in Greater Sao Paulo did not just corroborate its initial idea, but proposed other hypotheses. For example, that of violence turning itself into a contingency with a force that will also structure the lives of the inhabitants on the city peripheries.

The fear of violence restricts the time at which people will venture out into the streets and imposes a code of behavior in which silence is a rule for survival (it’s better to say that you saw nothing). And it even brings about a change in the traditional logic of migrationary flow within the urban space. “One can put forward the idea that before people migrated to improve their conditions of life and work. Although this process is still fundamental, there has also begun a migration to escape from violence”, says professor Kowarick, who coordinated and guided eight graduate and post-graduate students, all of them with grants through the scientific initiation or master’s degree program.

Perhaps the most expressive contribution of the research might be the crystal clear registration of the voices from the outskirts, the revelation of its inhabitants’ dreams and fears within a precarious and vulnerable environment. Examples came up such as that of the cleaning woman Marli, 42 years of age, from Itabuna in the State of Bahia, who lives in an unfinished house on the land plot known as Três Marias, Jardim Ângela, with her three adolescent daughters and two small grandsons. The house has a stair leading to an upper floor that was never built and probably never will be. The construction work was completed little by little by Marli’s husband, a bricklayer named José, and her son, Paulo. Both were killed by gunfire on the 31st of December 1997, at a party to celebrate the New Year in a neighbor’s house. Two men came into the party and began provoking the guests. The father and son reacted and were killed.

Despair and fear of violence led the family, now without their masculine anchor, to flee from there. They moved first to a house in the neighboring district of Capão Redondo, afterwards tried their luck in the town of Formiga, in the State of Minas Gerais. During 2000 they returned to the soil that belonged to them. The family lives off Marli’s salary of R$ 275.00, since the daughters are unemployed. Marli wakes up at half past four in the morning and at five has a twenty minute uphill walk until the bus stop. She takes two hours by bus to reach her employment. She leaves at five in the afternoon and only manages to get home at eight in the evening. “What kills me is not so much the work but the journey”, she says. Her dream is to finish her house but she thinks she’s never going to manage it. “This is a dream because reality is something else”, she explains. “José’s salary was much more than mine and he didn’t have to pay for anybody to build as he himself did it. But at least I have managed to livein a house and not a slum. For the house it’s worth it. For the rest… no”, she sums up.

In spite of its irregular origin, since it is situated in a protected area of natural springs that feed the Guarapiranga reservoir, the land plot named Três Marias is today supplied with water, light and paved roads, carried out through the cooperation of the inhabitants themselves. With the advent of the cell telephone, there is now a home delivery service available that goes from pizza to feijoada (a national dish made with pork and beans), and from bottled butane gas to medicines. The inhabitants have erected a wall around their houses in the hope that it might contain the violence. Although there are no recent reports of assassinations, robberies are commonplace.

The location was chosen for the research because it represents a type of periphery that is already consolidated and occupied by self-constructions – the mechanism responsible for the expansion of the frontiers of the metropolis since the decade of the 40’s, in which the inhabitants purchase a plot of land through long-term monthly payments and erect, using their own hands, their own house. Close to this location, Jardim Silvano, more recently under way, demonstrated a crueler reality to the researchers. The location, equally taken over by recently constructed houses, received the protection of a narco trafficker, known as Boy, who sold drugs at the door of its bakery.

A type of local hero, Boy was respected by the inhabitants because he scared awayother criminals, and supposedly, avoided the recruitment of the youth of the region into organized crime, although they had accepted the adhesion of those who insisted. Boy made a speech on the local football field: “I’m not going to influence anybody’s son. If I can influence anyone against coming in, I shall. Only those who want will join”. Boy ended up being expelled from his drug selling location by a rival narco trafficker, named Bronx, from the neighboring district of Jardim Nakamura. A gang from this very district made use of some free land and went on to use the streets of the place for breaking up stolen vehicles in the open air. As in the land plot Três Marias, close to it occurs a “dumping of bodies”. It is against this backdrop that the police normally only show up to remove these bodies, which show the emergence of some of the strongest ethnographic relationships in the research.

Such a one is that of 33-year old Antonio from the state of Paraiba, the owner of a bar, who stated that he had confidence on everybody, but, after his establishment was robbed, now only goes out onto the street with an armed guard. “I got smart”, he says. Antonio was taken over by a commonplace paranoia of the periphery – and its as macabre as the violence itself. Suspecting the author of the crime, he began to fear that the robbers had noticed his suspicion and would return to kill him. The case of the 29-year old doorman Ronaldo, father of two children, is also an example. He arrived in the district having fled from violence in the slum named Pantanal, in the town of Diadema, where he had lost a brother, and today is making plans to move to the country, since his two young boys cannot venture out at night. “There was a gun battle in Boy’s bakery and a youngster who was just about to become ten died”, he says.

Fear and vulnerability run through the stories and produce situations such as that of the 40-year old electrician Zaqueu, who used his own phone to anonymously denounce a gang that was breaking up stolen cars in front of his house – but he was sorry to have “transgressed” the law of silence when he discovered that the police had registered the origin of the phone call. His story: I called the police and said: there’s a car in the road in front of my establishment, the guys are dismounting it. I was proud of myself, a citizen denouncing, when suddenly the phone rang and it was the police captain: “Hi, Mister Zaqueu? I sent my policemen and they haven’t found the car”. Then I thought: how could they have discovered my phone? And if the bandits also recorded my conversation? And if the bad guy had seen my face at the window? And if the police are in with the baddies? Am I not lost? Then I thought, well from now on I’m not going to have this phone and I sold the line. I spoke with my wife: when another phone comes on the market I’ll buy it, and I’m not going to do this again. I’m in a jam, I’m going to make it look like I don’t see anything.

The researchers were instructed to take care during their field work. They always went about in twosomes and in daylight and only switched on their recording machine after they had captured the essence of the perception and of the violent dealings. “The result is a narrative thread that shows the perseverance of those who, in a situation of vulnerability, look towards dignity as a form of existence”, says professor Lúcio Kowarick. “The most evident expression of the disappearance of civil rights lies in the number of killings carried out by the police and by bandits in all of the large conglomerates of the country. This, without mentioning the humiliations, extortions, beatings and robberies that do not make up part of the official statistics, since people stop telling their stories as they have doubts about the institutions and fear reprisals.”

In the chapter within the slum tenements, the vulnerability has other faces, such as promiscuity, life in a claustrophobic and degrading environment, the lack of security. But it offers the advantage, highlighted by those who inhabit them, of being downtown, close to the opportunities of work and with leisure options. “In the downtown, everything is much easier: movies, transportation to work is better. Clearly it’s more expensive but if you live far away you have transport costs and you always have to have lunch out”, says 36-year-old Almi, who has lived at thirteen different addresses in downtown Center, among them slum tenements and miniscule apartments.

Today he lives in a house on João Teodoro street, in the district of Pari, in company with dozens of families. Black, abandoned by his parents in the state of Paraná, he was brought up in an orphanage until he was sixteen. At twenty he moved to São Paulo in an attempt to locate his parents. He worked in a department store and was a book seller. During 1993 he opened up a store in the town of Guarulhos. “I rented a small house and began to do business in the back yard. I had the unfortunate situation of thieves coming in.” In order to escape from the violence, he chose to return to the Center and to be a “vagabond in the workplace and a wanderer with the rent”, as is described in the research.

Since 2000 he has been living at the Dolores’s flophouse on João Teodoro street. He pays R$ 135 to occupy a cubicle of 4.5 square meters, with an annex used as a kitchen but without a sink. “I visited various places and thought that here was the best. I sealed up the leaks and mended the electrical cables”, he adds. Denise, a widow for six years from the state of Bahia, lives with her four children and niece in the same slum tenement on João Teodoro street. She has been there for twelve years. She added up the pros and cons. “We have rats here.

They live in the cellar. When it begins to rain heavily that’s when lots of them come. When it rains the drains block up”, she says. She also complained about the robberies and invasions. “Since two years ago this place has become a roughhouse. I think they have come from the police station, prison, and from the young offenders institute called Febem. Previously there was no way that they could get in here.” In compensation, downtown has a school, the slum tenements do not demand a warrantor and her daughters’ work places are near at hand. “If the work’s here, it’s better to stay here.”

The research retread various tangled trails that had been woven earlier during the career and the academic production of professor Lúcio Kowarick. In 1975 he published Capitalismo e marginalidade na América Latina [Capitalism and Marginality in Latin America], his doctorate thesis, and five years later the book A espoliação urbana [Urban Plunder], which at that time established the relations between work exploitation and the levels of exclusion in the metropolis.

Previously, during 1976, he coordinated, along with Vinícius Caldeira Brant, the book named São Paulo, crescimento e pobreza [Sao Paulo, growth and poverty], a collective production of researchers from the Brazilian Center of Analysis and Planning (Cebrap), carried out at the request of the Archdiocese of Sao Paulo. The central theme of the book, according to which economic growth was not incompatible with the increase in social inequalities, but previously was capable of widening them, converted the work into a classic of the 70’s and created political problems – Cebrap’s headquarters suffered a criminal attack attributed to paramilitary groups.

The history of the slum tenements and boarding houses, he had already detailed out in the article “Cem anos de promiscuidade: o cortiço na cidade de São Paulo” [One Hundred Years of Promiscuity: slum dwellings in the city of Sao Paulo], in partnership with Clara Ant. His substitute professor thesis, which was transformed into the book Trabalho e vadiagem [Work and Vagrancy], covered the formation of the labor market in Sao Paulo between 1880 and 1920.

The interviews carried out for the research Viver em risco ( Living in Risk) served as support for the documentary film Três Marias (Three Marys), by Tomás Resende. The work added new elements to the kaleidoscope by suggesting that not only the quality of life but life itself on the city periphery continues to be extremely jeopardized by poverty and urban despoliation, although the problem is no longer the lack of water, of light, paving and the collection of garbage. The needs reside in the distance from the work place, the lack of security, in an urbanization marked by uncertainty, by unemployment or unstable working conditions. “The symbol of destitution of civil and social rights is violence, which places in check, at every moment, the physical and mental integrity of thousands of Brazilians”, the researcher warns.

The project
Living at risk: housing, unemployment and urban violence in Greater Sao Paulo (nº 00/14519-8); Modality Regular Line of Research Assistance; Coordinator Lúcio Kowarick – Philosophy, Letters and Human Sciences Faculty of USP; Investment R$ 28,285.12 (FAPESP)