Saturday, December 4, 2010

Women of the Favela Part 6; Rose Angela

Rose Angela's daughter Jackaline and her son Arnaldo
          The women of Perus spend everyday fighting for a living. Maria has a son and a Grandson, Josette cares for her bother, Ann has four kids and twenty-seven orphans, Eliane and Aliane look after themselves, but Rose Angela…Rose Angela is mother to the whole town.
            She moved with her husband Rico from the Amazon basin in 1990.  They built a home on the outer rim of the legitimate neighborhood and for several years lived well.  Rico worked in the city and Rose Angela sold homemade goods.  They had a daughter, Jakaline, and then a son Arnaldo.  As the Favela expanded, many of their neighbors fought against it, calling in political favors, making threats.  But Rose Angela decided to become a community advocate, fighting for the people in the favela, not against them. 
            As the head of our congregation’s Relief Society, she became a prominent figure in the community.  She organized aid for children suffering from malnutrition, parasites, or other treatable diseases.  She led vaccination drives, blanket drives, brick drives, and blood drives.  When a mudslide buried the western edge of the Recanto she was the first on the scene, with a shovel in her hand and a hymn on her lips. She was an ideal, the kind of person I had always imagined working in the favelas. As her name implied, Rose Angela was an angel. 
            One day in the Recanto, we were preaching door to door. We banged on a particularly large gate and a woman answered.  She was young, made up, and scantly dressed.  When we told her who we were, she cocked her head sideways and asked, “You from Rose Angela’s Church?”
            “Yeah,” we answered excited that she knew of us. 
            “She works with my husband.”
            “Yeah, who’s your husband?”
            We stood eyes wide, mouths open.  Neither of us had ever met the man nicknamed Buchexa, but we knew who he was. He was the local drug lord. This woman must have been one of his several “wives.”
            “Buchexa? Your husband is Buchexa? And he works with Rose Angela, the woman who does all the community work?”
            “I think you must be confused. The Rose Angela from our church does charity work she…”
            “I know who she is.  She feeds the poor, tends to the sick and all that. Yeah, who do you think gets her the medicine?  Who do you think gets the concrete for building, the money for school uniforms?  No one does anything in Perus without my husband.”
            I didn’t say anything.  I just stood there with my pale blank face.
            She smiled.
            “Buchexa likes Rose Angela, and he doesn’t mind you guys working the Recanto, but he better not see you talking to me.  Give me one of your pamphlets and I’ll stop by your church sometime.”
     Later, at church, Rose Angela just laughed.  “Of course I work with Buchexa.  How could I not?” 
            “But he sells drugs, and extorts, and he feeds off the suffering of the people.”
            “No more than the police do, or the government officials.  He extorts money for protection but so do the police.  I’ll bet government workers make at least half of Buchexa’s clientele.   Elder, who would I work with if I refused to talk to criminals? I work with corrupt people and good people on both sides of the system.” 
            “Look, Buchexa is a bad man.  He only helps me in order to buy the people’s loyalty, their protection, their silence. But someday he’ll be killed.  An underling, or a wife, will murder him. Or maybe he’ll finally lose influence with the police and they’ll take him down.  But the good we do, the children we save or educate, the mothers we help, the homes we build, they’ll be here long after.”
            I shook my head.  She touched my arm.
            “I like you,” she smiled, her constant motherly smile, “but you are still very much a child.”
            Rose Angela’s greatest efforts were to improve public health care, a difficult cause. The government had built Postos de Saude (Health Outposts) and they were open twenty-four hours a day, but the clinics are not locally controlled.  They were built and supplied based on the town’s official population.  No one in the Recanto counted. Rose Angela told us she had sympathizers in the government but it was impossible to convince them that Perus’s problems were more pressing than any other slum’s.  
            Rose Angela herself was waiting for a kidney operation, and when her son fell off a bridge crossing the river and cut his head, the system was not there to help her.   The ambulance could not navigate over the Recanto’s muddy, unpaved roads.  My companion and I took turns carrying the boy over the tracks to the outpost. The nurse called us to the front of the line, because Arnaldo’s head was still bleeding.  They had run out of bandages, so we tied a cloth to his head, securing it with my companion’s necktie.  He needed stitches but not badly enough. A doctor could not be spared.  
            Rose Angela held her son, and sang to him.  An old woman at the front of the line was being turned away.
            “But my body hurts, I can’t sleep at night, I…”
            “I’m sorry but we’ve been through this before.  The doctor says you’re not sick.  It’s just old age, all in your head.”
            “Please there are other people in line.”
            “Mrs. Gonzales,” Rose Angela called, motioning to the old woman.
            “Oh, Rose Angela they won’t…”
            “It’s okay, I’ll come by tomorrow morning and we’ll work it out…”

            The night after the raid, when Rose Angela arrived at the church covered in dirt and soot, and gathered the women together to sing, she picked an interesting Hymn. I had heard it several times as a child but never expected to hear it in Perus.  The hymn is called “Come, Come Ye Saints.”  Mormon pioneers, a century earlier, and a world away, sang this song as they pressed across the plains toward their new home in the wilderness. I sat quietly, listening to the women sing.
            I was from another world, a boy, a dumbstruck American teenager, yet the hymn connected us.  The toil, the pain, the love, the charity, it was all part of the human story, the human experience. The hymn calls to pioneers both ancient and modern, to those who travel physically or spiritually, to Brazilian mothers and American teenagers:
            Come, come ye saints, no toil nor labor fear;
            But with joy wend your way.
            Though hard to you this journey may appear,
            grace shall be as your day. 
            ‘Tis better far for us to strive,
            our useless cares from us to drive;
            Do this and joy your hearts will swell—All is well! All is well!
            Why should we mourn or think our lot is hard?
            ‘Tis not so; all is right. 
            Why should we think to earn a great reward,
            if we now shun the fight?
            Gird up your loins, fresh courage take. 
            Our God will never us forsake;
            And soon we’ll have this tale to tell—All is well! All is well!”            
            Two weeks after the raid, I was transferred to the country and soon returned to Utah.  Our house seemed massive and luxurious.  So many rooms filled with so much stuff.  It made me feel sick to my stomach.  I had trouble going to the supermarket, so much food, so much excess. I still can’t set foot in a shopping mall without feeling woozy. 
            The world in Utah was so different from São Paulo that, at times, my memories of Brazil seemed unreal.  As if they are part of a book I had read or a movie I had seen. But when the speaker in my church asked our congregation, “Can you imagine what our pioneer ancestors must have gone through? What they must have endured to lay the foundation for our happiness today?”
            I shake my head and whisper.  “Yes, yes I can.”
            I returned to Perus four years ago. I had been home from the mission field for three years and I was returning to attend school at a university in Rio de Janeiro.  One Friday, I took the ten-hour bus ride down to São Paulo.  I could only stay a few hours in Perus and I wanted to spend them visiting Rose Angela.  I stopped on my way up the hill in front of the church.  It was fenced off, under construction. As I stood back, just remembering, a man walked by.  I didn’t know him but he recognized me.  He stopped and asked if I were a missionary. I told him I had been. He introduced himself as Pedro, Eliane and Aliane’s father. 
            He told me his daughters had moved to a neighboring town to live with their aunt. He had given up drinking and was going to church.  In fact, he was the youth-group leader and saw Luã almost every day.  He could tell me about all the members of the congregation.  Maria still lived in the old Favela. Claudio had lost his legs to the elephantiasis, but he still sold flowers. Their son had bought them a shop near the train station. Josette was going to school to be an English teacher. Ann still worked at the orphanage. He didn’t know anything specific about the orphans. His daughters were doing well. They didn’t wash clothes anymore; they were too focused on school and boys.
After the Policia cleared the Recanto, the government stepped in to improve conditions in the old favela.  They were covering up the river. Soon it would be a proper sewer.  And they were expanding the school. 
            “Rose Angela will be glad about the river,” I smiled.  “She always said it bred disease. Do you think she’d be at home? I’d like to see if…”
            “Elder,” he interrupted.
            “My name’s not Elder anymore you can call me…”
            “Elder,” he shook his head. “The surgery didn’t go right.”
            After almost a year and a half of waiting for kidney surgery Rose Angela, the champion of the people, the angel to the sick and downtrodden, died on the operating table.
            Later on the train, as it twisted through the green hills back towards the city, I sat quietly looking out the window. I thought of the favela. I was trying to press the image into my mind, trying to make it real, to keep it with me.
            “I like you,” Rose Angela told me, “but you are still very much a child.”
To the humming of the electric train I whispered the last verse of Rose Angela’s favorite hymn:

This is the only photo I have of Rose Angela

            And should we die before our journey’s through 
            Happy day! All is well!
            We then are free from toil and sorrow, too;
            With the just we shall dwell!
            But if our lives are spared again
            To see the saints their rest obtain,
           Oh, how we’ll make this chorus swell—All is well!       

            All is well.

No comments: