The first day I saw the Recanto I wasn’t scared at all. The old electric train wound its way through green hills. Shantytowns lined the tracks. Shacks clumped together in the low valleys. Despite the crowded train, the incessant heat, the unfamiliar Portuguese babble all around me, I burned with excited. My first assignment in the city, just what I’d been praying for. The Recanto dos Humildes clings to the edge of Perus, a town fifty miles or so north of São Paulo. It would be wrong to call Perus a suburb, though it may have started that way. Rather, Perus is a microcosm of the city, a mini São Paulo, facing all of the major challenges of the metropolis, only on a smaller scale.
At the train station I met my new companion. (Our missionaries always work in pairs.) He came from California and had been in Perus for six weeks. He helped carry my bags and led me into the town. I followed close behind him as we tunneled through the crowed alleyways. People pushed passed us. Chickens squawked in cages and vendors shouted over each other. Above our heads, clotheslines crisscrossed from window to window. Murky, pungent water trickled over the uneven asphalt.
“We’re going to Maria’s house for lunch,” my companion told me, looking back over his shoulder. “She’s a good cook but after, we’ll have to help her husband Claudio wash his legs. Try not to stare.”
“Stare at what?” I asked but he didn’t answer. We stopped in front of a large gate. It was solid metal, ten feet tall, with spikes on top, not at all inviting. My companion clapped loudly and called,
“Maria! It’s the missionaries.”
Maria and Claudio have been members of our congregation since they trekked down from Piauí, a state in Northern Brazil. When she met me she cried. I was surprised and sorry, not knowing what I’d done. But my companion laughed, and then Maria laughed.
“Don’t worry about it Elder, (all the missionaries are called Elder) I always cry.”
“It’s true,” my companion agreed, “Everyone calls her Irmã Chorona, (Sister Cryer).”
“Yes, Irmã Chorona,” she smiled, “I always cry, but never because I’m sad.”
She told me she didn’t cry the day they left the North with all their possessions on their backs, but she cried the day they arrived in their new home. She said she didn’t cry when her husband couldn’t find work, but she cried when he bought a wheelbarrow, filled it with wildflowers to sell, and returned home with his first day’s earnings. She said she didn’t cry when her husband’s legs started to swell and crack, and he could no longer push his wheelbarrow, but she cried the day he gave up drinking and started going to church. She didn’t cry at funerals, or at hospitals, but she cried every time a new missionary came to visit.
Slowly, over black beans and rice, interrupted many times by tears, Maria told me the history of their own little metropolis.
Perus is one of many favela-towns surrounding São Paulo and provides a textbook example of the country’s social stratification. The World Bank rates Latin America as, “the most (economically) unequal region in the world, and Brazil is the most unequal country in the region.”
In most areas the slums flood over the wealthy neighborhoods. The shacks fill every open space, built up against skyscrapers, in parks, or freeway medians. But Perus provides such an interesting example because the areas of rich, poor, poorer and poorest are clearly defined and divided. The highway, the river, and the train tracks, run together for twenty miles or so, out of São Paulo. At Perus they part, dividing the town into four distinct sections. Panning the town from East to West you pass through the entire spectrum, from rich multi-storied brick houses on the hill, to tiny slanted plywood shacks on the muddy riverbank.
The rich, legitimate part of town covers the hillside east of the highway. A poorer neighborhood fills the area between the highway and the railroad tracks. From the tracks to the river the town tumbles into the old favela, a jumbled conglomerate of houses, shops, narrow alleyways and twisted roads. Beyond the river sits the Recanto.
According to Maria, the legitimate Perus was built in the 1970’s. Businessmen came, looking to get out of the city, and the highway was built to give them a speedy commute. Poor workers came as domestic servants or shopkeepers, and the government built them the railroad.
“No one built on this side of the tracks until the nineties. We were some of the first. When we got here it was a dump.”
“Literally,” my companion smiled and Maria nodded.
In fact all the land west of the tracks and east of the river was government owned and designated as a landfill. The land beyond the river belonged to an absent, and essentially faceless owner who, everyone assumed, lived in the city.
In the early nineties, slum populations in São Paulo exploded, overflowing into areas like Perus. The people carved a neighborhood right out of the landfill, building their homes with anything they could find.
“You’d be surprised what those richies throw away,” Maria says gesturing to the corrugated steel roof. “We dug this out of a mound down by the river. I insisted on real clay brick for the walls, but the Oliveiras down the alley, they built that house out of blue water barrels. Every month they cover up one or two with concrete. Whenever they can afford the cement. ”
Originally lines and pipes crossed over the tracks bringing pirated water and electricity. The Favela itself was graded from poor to poorer, with the poorest families living closest to the river.
“The river became an open sewer,” Maria said shaking her head, “drugs, violence, disease and death, they were everywhere.”
Government officials in every major city in the South faced the same dilemma. They could barely estimate how many people lived in the favelas, let alone provide for them. By 1995, Perus’ actual population was at least ten times the official head count. Half the town stole electricity and water. Children flooded the schools, and there was absolutely nowhere to send the people.
“What about the government housing?” I asked. On train rides through the city I’d seen the massive concrete apartment complexes, lined one after another like wasps nests. Called COHAB’s (co-habitation units), they must have been a massive undertaking.
“The COHAB’s,” Maria snorted. “They’re so much worse than the favelas.”
Despite the scale of the COHAB project, it fell desperately short of its goal.
“I’ve been to see them,” she went on. “My cousin lived in a COHAB for three years. Horrible, Elder, just horrible.”
She told us how large families from the North are crammed into one-room apartments. How the housing complexes breed organized crime, and are often the most dangerous parts of the city.
“People only move to the COHAB’s if they have to, if they get in trouble with the government or something. They move in, get in debt to the drug lords and the cops, and can’t leave.” She told us that many of the people in the Perus had fled the COHAB’s, often leaving behind all their possessions and bolting in the middle of the night.
“It’s true,” my companion added. “There were COHAB’s in my last area and we weren’t allowed anywhere near them after dark.”
When the COHAB’s began to fail the government tried to entice people to move back to the countryside. Brazil built a new capitol city, Brasilia, built in 1960, as an early effort to draw people into the country and away from the urban coast. In the 1990’s the government granted enormous subsidies to Northern ranchers in hopes of bolstering the agricultural economy. Today Brazil has one of the largest beef industries in the world with over190 million cattle. But cattle tycoons and foreign investors dominate the industry. The grants helped Americans get 39-cent hamburgers but gave few opportunities to farm workers. With no schools, no hospitals, no infrastructure of any kind, for families like Maria’s there was no going back North.
In the mid 1990’s, the government tried land reform; giving the favelas to their inhabitants. In Perus, they paved a few roads, built power lines, basic sewage systems, and even a primary school. The neighborhood was laid out poorly, and hastily built, but it was a neighborhood.
These land reforms, meant to ease the favela problem, only exacerbated it, causing a new major internal migration.
“At first the flow of newcomers was steady,” Maria told us, “but word reached the North that the government was giving away land. For a sharecropper or a plantation worker that’s like saying they discovered a gateway straight to heaven. The people flooded down.
“ But the government could hardly be surprised,” Maria, laughed. “The promise of free land always brings waves of people.”
These people came in the same way Europeans flooded through Ellis Island, or American pioneers pushed through the west. Many Northerners actually came to São Paulo in wagons, trailing livestock.
Maria and Claudio were both born from a long line of sharecroppers and plantation workers. São Paulo was going to be their ticket out, their “better life for their children.” For fifteen years they dug a living out of the old garbage dump. They raised their son Paulo and built a life, all on the money Claudio brought in from selling flowers. Every day for fifteen years he wheeled his barrow down to the train station, and every night he brought back beans and rice to his wife.
They succeeded. Paulo went to school, got a job in the city, married, had a daughter, and built a small brick home in the Recanto, just west of the river. But not every emigrant would succeed and as the years went by it became more and more difficult for newcomers.