Roses from the Ashes; Women of the Favella
We heard the sirens long before we saw the lights. We looked down the five-lane highway that twisted away from the town and disappeared into the green hills. I had no idea what the sirens meant. As a nineteen-year-old boy, raised in the mountains of Northern Utah, I could not imagine what the shrill wailing foretold. But the people of Perus knew. They knew what was coming, they knew it was pointless to resist, and they knew they had no time. The Policia Militar, the Brazilian Military Police, were coming to burn the favela.
We were not in the favela that day. A fellow missionary and I were working across the railroad tracks, on the hill above the Brazilian slum, in the legitimate part of Perus. Still, from our vantage point we saw everything. We saw the SUV’s tear around the last green hill and into view. They were big and white, with Policia Militar, glaring on their sides, in large black letters. Men with machine guns (machine guns!) hung out of their windows.
Most of the people scattered like roaches, fleeing toward the river or back into the town. Others did not run. They huddled in small groups, just waiting.
The police reached the edge of town, and swarmed across the open field, toward the slum. It didn’t take long. The groups of slanting shacks, huddled together like their frightened owners, fell easily into dead heaps and the police torched them. In explosions of blue sparks, the police cut the wires that piped stolen energy across the river. Like reapers at harvest, they cleared the ground.
The Policia did not chase the people who ran. They brandished machine guns but no one fired a shot. No reason to, the people did not resist. Why should they? They had, after all, so little to lose and the next favela would be exactly like this one.
A hot wind whipped across the burning field, lifting ashes across the river, and up into the rich neighborhood. We tasted the soot in the air. Flakes, like black snow, dusted the houses and smudged our white dress shirts. I was just a boy. An American teenager dropped as a missionary into one of the poorest places on earth. In the year and a half I’d spent in Brazil I’d learned the language, learned to talk and live with the people and, certainly, I’d grown to love them. Yet on that day, as I sat helpless on the curb, watching their houses burn, I was oblivious. I could not understand what had happened, much less why. I knew people who lived in the favela. I’d eaten with them, laughed with them, worshipped with them. Was I not one of them? Was this not my neighborhood burning?
As we sat on the curb in the drifting soot, my missionary companion and I, we were too afraid, too awestruck, to go down and cross the river. The sun set orange and red against the black smoke. Intense and focused, the sunset was a violent, beautiful sequel to the day’s burning destruction. We waited until the last SUV disappeared down the road. Then, in the coming darkness, we ran to the church house.
Lights shone in every window. Organ music, a slow gentle hymn, floated out into the darkness.
Maria was there. Her son and daughter-in-law were helping her husband Claudio up the steps. His heavy, swollen legs oozed an opaque mucus, a late stage of elephantiasis. Josette comforted her grandmother who slumped in a pew. Where was Luã, Josette’s little brother? Ah, he was playing in the hall with the twin girls, Aliane and Eliane. Where was their father? Not here. Ann rushed forward to help Claudio up the steps; none of the orphans were with her. Good. That meant the orphanage was safe. The fire hadn’t crossed the river.
Where was Rose Angela? Of course, she would come last. She would be the last to leave the favela, the last to retreat. Rose Angela would be counting all the children, helping all the elderly; she would be caring for the entire town. Soon her daughter Jakaline appeared out of the night cradling her little brother. Only eleven years old, Jakaline, carried her brother like a mother would. She walked as a woman would walk. She set Arnaldo down gently, calmly, her eyes glistened wet and heavy. “Mom told me to come here,” she said glancing backward into the night. “She’s still down in the Recanto.”
O Recanto dos Humildes, that’s what the locals called the favela. It means the “Refuge of the Humble,” not the only favela in the town, but the only one built on land with an owner whose political connections could have it cleared.
Only ten families in our congregation lost their homes in the fire, but everyone came down to the church house. As I expected, Rose Angela arrived last, her white smile shining out of her round face, smudged with dirt and ash.
I trembled with sadness, or anger, or perhaps fear, some intense emotion I was too young to be familiar with. Everyone else seemed calm, lounging about on the floor or in the pews, as if on their own porches. They talked, told stories, even laughed.
Until that night I thought I’d grown accustomed to life in the favela. I’d seen hardship, sickness, poverty, even death. I thought I understood life there. I thought I could share in anything they’d have to face. But I was from another world. Two places couldn’t be more different than Perus and Layton, Utah.
Rose Angela gathered the women together before the pulpit to sing, and as I looked from woman to woman, from face to face, I felt more like a foreigner than the day I stepped off the train.
Photo: View from above Perus. Edited by DBC www.connerstudio.blogspot.com