The Rio-Recife Blog

Michael Jerome Wolff, Political scientist and photographer: on drugs, crime, and police and other matters of interest in Rio de Janeiro and Recife

The Brazilian Favela: A Pithy Diatribe on the Continuity of Things

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The Twentieth Century was so many things, so please forgive my simplicity when I say that, in that highly varied mass of countries that constitute the so-called developing world, it was the Century of the Slum.  

Slums, of course, have been around in some form or another since the dawn of urbanity, but here in Brazil, it was not until well into the early 1900s that the effects of things like agrarian restructuring, the abolition of slavery, and the growth of manufacturing centers had driven the poor and destitute en masse from the countryside and into cities ill-prepared to receive them.  And they came in droves, looking for work, for survival, for adventure, for the pursuit of dreams.  They came looking to trade the dreary social immobility of rural life for a dubious lottery of anonymity in exploding metropolises like Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo and Recife.  They came, and having nowhere to rest their weary bones, they began to squat in abandoned lots, on mountainsides, or in swamplands filled in with dirt one bucket at a time.  In Brazil, these squatter settlements have been called favelas, the simple naming of which has had its own peculiar impact on their development. 

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Favelas grew even more rapidly in the post-World War II era, thanks to a collapse in agricultural export markets, a series of droughts in the hinterlands, increased demand for urban labor, and the simple fact that Penicillin saved a buttload of people who in previous eras were destined to quicker demise.   It was during this time that urban landscapes began to change radically in Brazil.  The wealthy built white temples reaching skyward to catch the cooler air hovering above the putrid stench of development below, while the poor huddled in ever-expanding seas of wooden shacks that encircled those temples like floodwaters.  So buildings grew taller, their walls higher, their security tighter.  And when none of that was quite enough to breathe at ease above the rising tides of poverty, the wealthy lobbied their politicians to bring out the bulldozers, and preserve the sanctity of that regime we call private property.   image

But state-led favela removal efforts were rarely effective, and much to the contrary, they were perhaps as responsible for securing the permanence of the favela as a sort of national heritage as any other driver of social organization.  This is because bulldozers—or coercive force, if you will—is like Newton’s third law of motion: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.  That is, attempts by successive governments to forcefully remove entire populations from their homes compelled these populations to unite, organize, and resist.  In doing so, favela communities attracted alliances with disempowered political elites who, in exchange for votes and militancy, were able to threaten the power of precisely those who intended to destroy their homes.  The Catholic Church, the Communists, Liberals, Conservatives.  Everyone was game.  Any elite excluded from power became a defender of the poor, and together they would they would make things right.  Political power would continue to change hands, and the poor would keep their homes in the slums.  

Today some eighty-five percent of Brazil’s population now lives in urban centers, well under the standard for developed countries (95-98 percent), but well over the world average (50 percent).   Since the majority of the county’s rural inhabitants constitute the poorest of the poor, and are still subject to the same social and economic pressures that have led their brethren to the cities in earlier decades, it is to assume that rural-to-urban migration will continue for some time to come.  But does this mean that favelas will continue to grow or sprout in new areas?  image

Probably so, although it certainly does not have to be like this.  There is a general assumption here in Brazil and elsewhere that slums blew up in the developing world because the rapid pace of urbanization in the post-war years simply overwhelmed the state’s capacity to absorb the rural exodus, and the favela was simply a natural and spontaneous overflow channel for the floods of impoverished newcomers.  The problem with this assumption, however, is that the favela model of urbanization already existed long before the largest of the migratory tides came in.  It was, rather, for the embedded economic and political interests associated with favelas that they would continue as the dominant model well past the twentieth century. image

It is not free to live in a favela.  To move to an established favela is, like in almost any other community in the Western world, to submit to a regime of private property.   You save or borrow money to buy a plot of land, and you build, buy, or rent a structure you can call home.   The difference is only that the state is not there to sanction or protect your right of ownership.  This function is instead left to informal authority structures, if they have developed, or otherwise it is left to the winds.  Favelas, then, are simply the black market of private property, and like most black markets, they serve as a lubricant to ease the friction of a normatively biased legal system that contradicts social reality on the ground. 

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The Brazilian constitution, for example, is a glorious monument to the principles of democracy.  It is extraordinarily progressive.  All citizens have a legal right to a whole lot of wonderful things, independently of their class, race, or whatever.  A right to express oneself.  A right to earn a decent living and to have fair housing.  A right to not be exploited.  A right to live, and live in peace.  A million rights to a million lovely things.  But Brazilian society, or at least a large part of it (like any large country, there are many cultures within), is no such paradise of egalitarian values.  Much to the contrary, a slave-era model of social organization, today adapted ineloquently to a “middle class”-driven mode of economic development, continues to be dominant in much of the country.   The problem is that slaves don’t have rights, yet all Brazilians, by law, do. 

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This means that a lot of people, in order to continue being slaves, must live outside the law, which otherwise would be compelled to protect them from things like corruption, theft, exploitation, racism, repression, poverty, and unemployment.   Only outside the law can they continue to have poor healthcare, live in squalor, and attend inadequate schools.  Only outside the law can they remain faithful to a time-tested system of social values that guarantees their destitution today and for many generations to come.   And it is outside the law where we find the favela, an alternative living arrangement for so many millions of people ill-prepared to live as equals among their more privileged countrymen.  Society demands just such a loophole in the framework of a progressive democratic constitution.

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Of, course, I don’t mean to portray the favela as a place of misery and human suffering.  It is, unto itself, a magnificent feat of human social organization replete with its own set of qualities good and bad.  True, there tends to a be greater degree of instability in that world unshielded by the protective apparatus of the state, but there are also perks.  The privations associated with poverty and close-quarters living, for example, allow for much more sociable modes of human interaction.  Neighborhoods feel more like neighborhoods.  Communities are tighter, collective identities stronger, and the pull towards psychic isolation and social alienation collateral to the growth of the middle class less persistent.  Hence the common assumption that the poor are happier, what with all their smiley faces and all that singing and dancing.

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So what will this next century be for Brazil?  On one hand, social realities have changed dramatically over the last twenty or thirty years.  Thanks, in part, to government programs to reduce abject poverty and reach its protective hand deeper into previously excluded sectors of the population, a lot more people have access to the more basic rights outlined in the constitution.  Economic development has also created numerous new opportunities for social mobility, creating real citizens out of the millions of people that otherwise would continue to live in virtual slavery.  

But the favela, I wager, will continue to exist as the dominant model of urbanization in Brazil for quite some time.   While the progressive democratic constitution denies it, society still needs it.  Indeed, for sometime now, society—rich and poor—has embraced it.  

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The Deep Blue Sea

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I had never been to sea.  I had not even seen the ocean with my own eyes until well into my nineteenth year on this planet.  It has, for this reason, always been to me something of a great and terrifying mystery, an unforgiving immensity of force full from crest to its depths with peril and spook.  But there is a first time for almost everything.  And so here in Recife, in the docklands of the Capabaribe River, I stopped off during an afternoon bike ride to chat with some local fishermen.  I asked.  They said, sure, come along.  It would be eight days out on the high seas.  Could I handle it?  Sure, why not. 

When one approaches an unknown group of men unannounced, there is typically one among them who takes the lead in either receiving or deceiving the newcomer, and the others usually follow suit, whichever way the directed attitude flows.  This man was Rocam, a mousey looking fellow about five feet tall and skinny as they come.  He was my age, thirty-five, but thanks to twenty-five years in the sun and persistent crack and alcohol addictions, he looked to be much older.  His gift to me was immediate and unquestioning reception.  The next day he introduced me to the boss, a plump and kind figure named Biu, who gave me the green light for the boat trip.  We would leave the next morning at sunrise. 

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 I asked what I should bring, food, clothing, or otherwise.  Biu assured me that food had already been stored on the boat, and there would be more fresh fish than I could ever dream to stuff my face with during a lifetime.  They found me a foam mattress to sleep on, and that was it, I would need nothing else.  Following my own good advice, however, I made sure to stop at a pharmacy before departure to buy some sun screen for my pale white skin and some Dramin for what they call sea sickness, just in case.   These extra things turned out to be life saving.  

 At sunrise the next morning I met the rest of the crew.  Claudimir was to be captain and pilot.  He was a beauty of a man.  Also my age, his bulk and muscle made me look puny and helpless beside him, which is how I felt before all of these men, eventually.   His indifference convinced me that he might not like me very much, but later he saved my life, and I no longer cared about whether or not he liked me.  I was thankful for him. 

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 Antonio was what they call the “talheiro,” who is in charge of reeling in the multitudes of plastic web bound wooden cages the men drop into the sea to catch fish and other strange sea creatures.   My first impression was that he was going to be a problem, for my first interaction with him consisted of him opening a can of pure cachaça and smoking a rock of crack rolled tightly into a cigarette.  I have come to distrust crack addicts and alcoholics, always falling back on the old heuristic that says that the drug is stronger than the man.  Indeed, it is, but that doesn’t take the man away completely, and in the following days I would be thanking him for saving my life, too.  

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Ericson was the oldest member of the crew, perhaps in his fifties but fit as a young buck.  He spoke little, and when he did, his voice sounded like that of a small child.  He didn’t drink or smoke or use drugs.  He just fished.  His duty was that of “meio campo,” or mid-fielder, the job of whom is to take the cages from the talheiro, empty the fish in buckets according to their species, and then pass the empty cages back to the “baudeiro,” who stacks them in tightly roped columns ten high and six wide.  The baudeiro was Rocam, chosen for this position for his small stature, light weight, and agility, for his was a job of extraordinary balance in high places.   

 Rocam also smoked one last crack rock wrapped in cigarette paper with a pinch of tobacco just before debarking.  He curled into fetal position as he sucked in the smoke.  Between puffs he told me that he hates himself every time he does this, that he knows it has ruined his life and has broken apart his family, and that despite all of this, the urge to do it again, and do it more and more, will never let him free.  I thought of the tobacco cigarettes in my own pocket.  Despite years of being smoke-free, I had still come back to this nasty habit, and like him, I had come back out of spite for a world turned cold and cruel.  I would quit again soon, but like Rocam, I will always be a smoker, whether I smoke or not.  Such is addiction. 

 As we pulled away from shore, Claudimir suggested I take a Dramin tablet so that I would be ready when we hit the real waves.  I followed his advice, thank God.  As soon as we made it out of the bay of Recife, passing the old city on the way, the real waves did hit us.  And they hit hard.  Claudimir smiled and said, you’re lucky, boy, the sea is calm today!  I looked at him, feeling my brain turning to jell-o, and told him he must be crazy.  He laughed and said it again.  The sea was indeed calm that day, as things go. 

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 Twenty miles out the coastal waters turned from emerald green to a dark navy blue.  Forty miles out there was no longer a trace of shoreline anywhere.  We were in the middle of absolutely nowhere, I thought.  And there was no turning back, no taking a break, no room for anything but a determined effort to get used to this bizarre adventure I had gotten myself into.   If I got sick or hurt, I would have to be sick or hurt for a week.  If I didn’t get along with any of the men, I would have to just deal with it.  If I tried to swim back…let’s just say that I’m not a very strong swimmer.  Not strong like the sea.  Who is?

 That first day was party day.  No work.  It was a cachaça fest to the tune of romantic “brega” (look it up on Youtube, it’s awesome) music at full blast.   The men all drank about three tall cans of pure cane liquor each, all except for Ericson, who seemed to be quite accustomed to ignoring the obscene behavior of his compatriots.   Claudimir drank some, but held it together.  Rocam and Antonio, for their part, scared me with their drunkenness, for their eyes had glazed over like jelly fish, concealing their souls and shielding them from reason.  They pranced around the violently rocking boat like maniacal children on a sugar high, laughing and singing off key, off beat, off kilter.  After a while, Rocam became obsessed with telling me I was his best friend, and that best friends—those few people in life who you can really trust—only come around a handful of times in one’s life.  He kept promising me that I could come live in his house for free, no rent, because I was like a brother to him.  I thought you lived on the boat, I asked.  He does.  He hasn’t been back to his house on land for several months, ever since one of the local drug dealers put out a hit on him for not paying his debts.  Thanks, I told him.  I’d give it some thought.  

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 By the time we arrived on site, out in the middle of nowhere, locatable only by GPS or by traditional nautical calculations that to me are just meaningless words and numbers, the men had tired from their three-hour binge, and fell like logs onto the open deck to sleep.  I slept, too, feeling a rumbling vomit surging in my throat.  And while I slept, the boat kept rocking back and forth, up and down.  It filled me with a sense of terror, if you will, that I would not be able to make it through the week like this.  And yet I had no choice. 

 I had brought three packs of cigarettes, thinking that would be plenty to make it through the week.  But in the haze of their crack highs—what Rocam called  The Agony—the only other two smokers on ship had forgotten to bring their own cigarettes, and so I declared mine public.  By noon the next day all three packs had been smoked away, mostly by Rocam and Antonio, who treat any addiction like a binge.  If the drug is there, they will drink it, snort it, or smoke it non-stop until it is gone.  No matter what.  And when it is gone, well, they manage.  They don’t even seem to suffer, which leads one to think that they might not be so addicted after all.  And yet they will always go back to it as soon as it is available, and the binge begins again. 

 That is why, were it not for their profession, which keeps them out at sea twenty-five days out of each month, they would probably have succumbed to complete destitution, prison, or death long ago.   There are no drug dealers, liquor stores, or money to purchase anything with way out there in the high seas. 

 And that is where they are happiest and most productive.  Onshore they are outcasts, hoodlums, wastes of human capacity, persecuted by the police and laughed at by society.  Out at sea they are well tuned machines working day in and day out like clockwork, casting out cages and reeling them in, cooking, cleaning, eating heartily and sleeping like logs.  Out at sea they are proud men.  On shore they don’t even eat.  They live off of cachaça and hard drugs, and they spend what little money they make in a matter of days. 

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 How much money do they make?  The men are compensated according to the weight of the fish load they bring back.  Each of the crewmen makes about 10 cents (USD) per kilo of fish brought to shore.  Claudimir, the captain, earns about twice that.  A month’s work earns each man an average of one thousand dollars, depending on the catch.   That can easily be spent in two or three days of a crack binge.  The situation is more stable for those who don’t smoke crack, of course.  Claudimir, for example, has been able to buy a home, a motorcycle, and support a wife and three children.  

 All of the men dream of having their own boat one day, for they know full well that they, as paid laborers, get the worst end of the deal.  While one four-man team will bring in an average of fifteen thousand dollars worth of exportable fish each month, their pay collectively constitutes only twenty percent of the gross profits.  After gas, food, taxes, and other expenses are taken into account, the legal owner of the boat pockets about eight thousand by himself, without lifting a finger.   But a boat like this one, the Qualipesca I, a thirty-foot long, fifteen-foot wide beast driven by a six cylinder diesel engine, costs about seventy-five thousand dollars to buy, and banks simply don’t give loans like that to poor people.  And so boat ownership remains a dream.  A pipe dream, as they say.  

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 By sunrise on the second day the men were already hard at work, packing Styrofoam coolers with ice and preparing the boat to reel in four hundred and fifty cages, a job that would require almost non-stop labor until well into the dark of evening.   Watching them work, I soon realized to my dismay that I could not realistically do anything to help out.  I was still clutching my stomach and holding down fits of vomit, expending what little energy I had on simply preventing myself from falling over as the boat rocked at 45 degree angles in the ocean waves.  Even if I could learn to secure my balance, it would have taken me weeks of practice to perform their duties, which although relatively simple, required a knowledge and dexterity far beyond my natural capabilities.  And to do these jobs safely, ay, that would require months, if not years.   All of the men had numerous scars that spoke of such dangers. 

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 Balance.  I could barely secure myself to take a piss off the side of the deck.  In the afternoon of the third day I figured that out the hard way.  A ten-foot wave smacked into the port bow and sent me arms flailing over the starboard side and into the dark blue water.  Since I had already seen the men dive in and climb aboard again with relative ease, I though it was funny, at first. 

 But water was never my world, especially not ocean water, and the boat suddenly seemed enormous once I was below it.  And I could feel my energy slipping away from me second by second as the current pulled me away.  Just treading water left my arms weak as a sick child’s.  When I was finally able swim my way back to the boat and grab the railing on the starboard side, I no longer had any strength left to lift myself up.  Then another wave crashed over me.  My mouth open and gasping for air, I swallowed a good pint of it.  My hands slipped from the wooden railing, and I fell back into the water.  I realized then, with some panic, that my life was not my own anymore.  So quickly things had changed.  So quickly the sea could swallow me.

 Fortunately, Antonio had seen me fall overboard, and after my failed attempt to climb up again, he tossed me a rope.  I was still too weak to climb up with it, but at least the current wouldn’t carry me away.  At least as long as my aching hands could grasp hold of the rope.  Noticing my panic, Antonio called out to Claudimir, and the two strong men then reeled me in.  I could feel myself sinking.  But they reached down, grabbed hold of my limp wrists, and hoisted all of my one hundred-ninety pounds of flesh and bone out of the water and onto the deck.  I lay there panting like a dog.  Man, you’re heavy, Claudimir said.  Cast iron bones, I told him, like an anchor.  

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 The men retrieved several buckets of fresh water from the cistern and splashed me clean.  My arms were burning from the strain.  My entire back burned, too.  Rocam saw why.  A jelly fish had clamped itself to the back of my shoulder.  He peeled it off and chucked it into the ocean.  The men offered to piss on my back to get rid of the burn, but I declined the good deed.  It was just a small jelly fish, after all.

 As Biu had assured me, food on the boat was plentiful, and it was delicious.  Each morning before sunrise one of the men prepared coffee while I lay sleeping in my bunk, and we drank it down loaded with sugar and accompanied by crackers.  Two hours later the men would break for brunch, usually salted pork or beef with corn based couscous.  By one or two o’clock in the afternoon another meal.  This time something fancy.  Fresh fish, octopus, lobster, or shark, with an abundant base of rise and beans and mandioca powder.  In the evening, fish soup and a cup of coffee.  Then the men would labor well into the night before collapsing to sleep in their bunks or on the floor. 

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 I did almost nothing to help, although I often tried.  But even cleaning dishes was a challenge, for each time I shifted my focus to anything other than maintaining my balance, I fell over.  And yet no one seemed bothered by what felt to me like inexcusable laziness.  Much to the contrary, the men all seemed more than happy to do everything for me.  Cook my food, serve me coffee, clean my dishes.  Everything but shit and piss for me, for those things grown men simply must learn to do on their own, no matter the circumstances.

 But, of course, even that was difficult, particularly in light of my unexpected overboard experience.  Shitting was even more difficult than pissing, however, not so much for the problem of balance—I could secure myself with two hands while I sat my ass over the stern—but for the constant swinging and rocking of the boat in the ocean’s waves.  No matter how much food I stuffed inside my gut, none of it passed through.  My intestines were frozen.  The result: I didn’t shit for four days.  On the fifth day, when I finally did, it was a small triumph, if anything.  From then on I resolved to eat as little as possible, certain as I was that in any moment my entrails would rupture. 

 Meanwhile, the men ate huge bowlfuls of food at each sitting, and they looked at my tiny portions with incomprehension.  You gringos don’t like to eat much, do you?   Oh, I assured them, we like to eat plenty, just look at our obesity statistics sometime, you’ll see.  Ah yes, they nodded their heads.  The obesity of Americans is well known the world over.

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 For me the passing days were an ever increasing tedium.  Although I had grown accustomed to the incessant rocking of the boat, I found little to do but read, sleep, or sit on a water bucket and contemplate.  It was peaceful in its own right, so far away from the distractions of modern life, cellular phones, internet, traffic, walks in the park, freedom of movement.  But I read my only two books in just two days, and I could not brace myself still enough to write down my thoughts in a notebook.  And the spatial confines were limited to just a few square feet as the men worked, stacking cages, casting lines, and sorting fish.   There was, furthermore, a language barrier between us, for fishermen of any nationality speak their own language, have their own codes and references and modes of communication.  Add that to the constant din of a roaring diesel engine and the relentless winds of the high seas, and what became of our conversations was often limited to the most simple of matters.  More coffee? More food?  Who am I rooting for in the World Cup?

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 On the fourth day Brazil defeated Colombia in the World Cup games, which the men had been listening to over AM radio waves.  It was a brief explosion of joy.  Off on the distant horizon, Rocam pointed out to me, were nearly imperceptible flashes of white light.  Hundreds of tiny explosions.  On shore, forty miles away in Recife and Olinda, jubilant crowds of soccer fans were firing rockets into the sky in celebration of the host country’s path towards victory in the world’s second largest sporting event, second only to the Olympics.  Two billion people worldwide, more than twenty percent of the planet’s human population, were tuned in. Just a few days later Brazil would be annihilated by Germany in the semi-finals, but I was to suffer that from the comfort of a fourteenth floor apartment.  

 On the morning of the fifth day a storm rolled in westward over the Atlantic ocean.  The waves hit before the rain.  During the previous evening I awoke numerous times to nightmares as the boat lurched to and fro, straining the binds of the wooden hull, which creaked and groaned in its effort to keep together amid the onslaught.  The men couldn’t sleep either, and so they went out to the deck to drop more lines hooked with chunks of dead fish in hopes to lure larger beasts than those that could fit into the entrapment chambers of their cages.   I laid still in my bunk, shivering under my only blanket, a long-sleeve shirt wrapped around my torso, praying that the hull wouldn’t burst asunder. 

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 Rain came with the winds.  Sweet cool water from the sky.  A natural shower to clean the sea water from our pores.  It was beautiful, but frightening.  I had already become afraid of the dark blue waters around me, but the rain and the visibility it eliminated had heightened this fear many fold.  If I were to fall in the water now, I thought, I really might not make it back aboard for.  Paralyzed, I kept myself tightly braced to my quarters in the middle of the boat, holding my bladder hours longer than I’d rather in order to avoid the dangerous expedition ten feet over to the starboard pisser space. 

The men, for their part, never stopped working.  They feared nothing.  No wind, no rain, no flashes of lighting, no violent swinging and rocking of the boat.  Nor did they fear any of the vile creatures of the sea that frequently came aboard, trapped in cages or clung from hooks.  Small sharks, poisonous fish, and the most diabolic demon of them all, the “cobra fish”—some sort of eel—which writhed in infernal agony as they clubbed it on the head repeatedly with a long steel pipe. 

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By the time the skies cleared, in the morning of the sixth day, I noticed another small yellow boat rocking on the horizon.  It was the Qualipesca III, one of five boats in the company’s fleet.  Claudimir told me it was heading back to shore that same day.  Could I go with them? I asked.  Already? Claudimir seemed surprised.  But he understood.  The high seas are not easy on newcomers.  He remembered well his own beginnings at the age of thirteen.  He had vomited for eight days straight his first time around.  He didn’t have the luxury of Dramin in those days, of course.  Okay, he said, and he radioed over to the distant boat, and asked them to come pick me up on their way to shore.  It would be just a matter of hours.  

 The news quickly spread to the rest of the men.  Ericson, who rarely spoke at all, said nothing.  Antonio just shook my hand and smiled.  It was Rocam’s reaction, however, that made me feel regretful.  He pleaded with me to stay, that there was still so much adventure to be had.  He told me that I had given him hope that he might be able to break his crack habit, because when he was around me he didn’t feel the urge to smoke.  Sure, he didn’t have any more crack to smoke out at sea anyway, but he still saw me as a friend and as a point of reference for a better life.  And you’re just going to go back and smoke cigarettes if you leave now, he said.  I know, I said.  I don’t know what to do, Rocam, but I think it’s better that I leave now while I can.  I will miss you.  I will miss you, too, friend. 

image But there was one last terrifying step I would have to take in order to return that day.  Because of the intensity of the waves, the boats cannot be positioned side by side, for they would slam into one another and potentially break apart.  That meant that I would have to jump in the water again, and swim some thirty feet over to the other boat, which continued to swing up and down in the ten-foot waves.  Jumping in and swimming was the easy part.  But I feared the other ship would lift up and slam its hull down upon me, crushing my skull.  And I feared that in such big waves I would never be able to pull myself aboard again, that my energy would seep out of my arms in seconds, and that I could be left paralyzed and floating away in the current.  

 When the Qualipesca III approached within its thirty-foot limits, the neighboring crew tossed over a rope, which Antonio used to string up my backpack and zip it over to them.  He yelled out for them to be careful, for I had an expensive camera in the bag. 

 And then, from the cockpit, Claudimir, yelled out to me.  Jump in! Now! Jump!

I felt like a baby on my first outing to a public swimming pool.  Everyone yelling for me to jump in, knowing full well I was not really in so much danger, and yet I felt that my life was about to end.  But there was no time for hesitation, for the two boats could only maintain their position in these high waves for a matter of minutes at most.  And so I jumped.  And I swam.  The two yellow monsters buoying like mighty gods above me.  I heard yelling from all sides.  Grab the rope! Grab the rope!  I didn’t see the rope, though.  It was black and hidden under the water.   So with all my effort I swam to the starboard side of the neighboring boat until I found where the rope pierced the water’s surface.  I grabbed it with two hands, and the men reeled me in.  And then, the part I feared most, the pulling my one hundred and ninety pounds of flesh and bone up the side and over the railing.  I sucked in one last breath of fresh air, and lurched upward, grabbing the wooden railing with both hands.

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 There was a moment in which I felt my strength begin to vanish again.  It was the halfway point, and if I were alone, I would not have made it.  But before I could worry further, four dark hands reached down, grabbed me under the armpits and by the wrists, and hoisted me quickly up and over onto the deck.  When I stood up, there were cheers all around.  Rocam, Antonio, and Claudimir all swung their arms in the air and hooted like Brazil had won another round in the World Cup games.  The men who had hoisted me up also cheered.  And then they sat me down in the middle of the deck, and without letting me lift a finger, brought several buckets of mineral water and dumped them over me from head to toe, cleansing me of the salt of the sea.  

 The four-man crew of my new boat, my ticket back to solid ground, was the spit and image of the old crew.  Such good hearted souls.  So simple, so humble, so giving of themselves, asking nothing in return.  Francisco, Ragiane, Chico, and Eduardo.  Their faces aged beyond their years by decades under the tropical sun.  Their teeth the rotten remains of what they once were.  Their bodies, dark, sinewy, and strong, human physical capacity at its purest.  Ragiane cooked up two octopi in a beaten metal pot on a tiny stovetop in the boat’s cabin while the other men continued to reel in and cast out cages.  Francisco, the captain, told me of his twenty-five years at sea.  It’s the only life I can imagine for myself, he said. 

image Chewing up and swallowing rubbery chunks of octopus, Eduardo asked if I had a special lady waiting for me on land, perhaps some beautiful Brazilian girl I might have met.  He said the octopus would make her a satisfied woman, and all the men laughed.  Why’s that?  I asked.  Boom boom! They said, laughing.  It makes a man strong!  Ah, right, I replied.  But no, there is no one, I told them.

 I asked if they had any special ladies waiting for them.  No, they didn’t have anyone, either, except for Francisco, who has been married for twenty years.  Everyone else had children, but had long been separated.  The cheating bitches, they spit.  But that is the life of a deep sea fisherman.  When you spend twenty-five days of each month out at sea, it is hard to keep a woman satisfied.  Frustration turns to fits of jealousy, and jealousy corrodes the initial magic that marked the early months or years of sweet passion.  Distrust consumes every interaction, and the sea once again becomes a refuge from the inevitable conflict and pain of life on land.  Love disintegrates, families are broken, and a new generation of young boys and girls grow up without their fathers, who now belong to the sea and only to the sea.  Such is life.

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 The waters calmed again as soon as we exited the open sea and entered into the reef shielded bay area of Recife.   Passing by Francisco Brennand’s giant phallus sculpture to our left, and the old port of Recife on our right, I felt a strange delight, as if I were returning home to a long lost friend.  Hordes of tourists looked on at us from the plaza of Marco Zero, waving their hands as our big yellow boat chugged slowly by.  It was a magical homecoming. 

 Fifteen minutes later Eduardo and Ragiane were roping in the boat at a small dock in Brasilia Teimosa, a slum founded by fishermen nearly seventy years ago.  When I set foot on the dock, I nearly fell over.  The deck was stable, but I was no longer.  In fact, I could feel and see the earth everywhere wobble and rock under my feet for a full two days before my senses came to. 

 After saying thanks and goodbye to the men, I walked the twenty yards or so up the plank of the dock, but just as I reached the street, Francisco called out to me.  You didn’t take any fish!  No, I hadn’t thought about it.  Come back! Okay, I came back down to the boat.  Eduardo had stuffed a three-kilogram bag full of a variety of freshly caught and iced fish, and he handed it to me.  This will make for a good party, he smiled.  I was delighted.  Indeed, it would make for an excellent party. 

 And it did make for an excellent party, or so I was told by Ismael, the doorman who works the nightshift at the condominium where I have been living, thanks to the generous hospitality of old friends.  I gave the entire bag of fish to him, for there was no room left in the storage freezers in my friends’ apartment.  Abundance ruled the day, at least for some.   For many millions of others, well, their’s is the Kingdom of Heaven, as they say. 

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1) Luana and her baby girl after 24 hours of labor; 2) Maria Vitoria dos Santos Silva, 18 hours old; 3) Sisters on any day; 4) A sub-pastor at the Universal Church blesses Luana during a cult service; 5) Old photographs linger in the ghosted home where Edivan was shot dead just weeks before; 6) Edivan’s resting place for the next two years, after which his remains will be cremated, and this space lent to another soul.  (photos by Michael Wolff)

Luana

                                                                          Born

 Luana looked as if she had been tumble dried after her twenty-four hours of labor.  Her hair a ragged black mop and her eyelids fluttering out of sync, utter exhaustion flattened her frail body to her bed in the maternity ward.  Six other fatigued women raised disinterested eyes when I walked through the door, but Luana’s faint smile to me was one of profound alleviation and delicate triumph.  My own smile was merely the external flare of an intense electrical current pulsating from head to toe: the impulsive, convulsive joy of fatherhood, temporary and at once measured, for I am not the nor a father.  I only said I was to get past security. 

 And as no one seemed to doubt my claim to fatherhood when I first stared through the incubator window at the little light-skinned baby, I lived this lie for two days, constantly jolted by a bizarre sensation akin to sense of pride and purpose.  A pleasant, if fleeting, illusion.

 Maria Vitoria was born at 4:16 p.m. on July 10, 2012.  Her real father, 16-year old Edivan de Freitas Alves, was killed two and a half weeks earlier (see previous posts).   

 In his stead, Edivan’s diabetic father struggled into the ward on his peg leg to insist on naming the child Edivania, but his middle-aged bitterness was no match for Luana’s adolescent stubbornness.  During labor Luana had made a promise to God to name the baby after the Virgin if all went well.  Edivania is an ugly name, anyway,” she grumbled at the severe man before her.  After unsuccessfully attempting to force a mother-daughter pose for a photograph, he grunted angrily and left the ward without saying goodbye. 

 “He’s an asshole,” she spit as the door closed.  “He used to beat Edivan all the time, and now he thinks this baby is his.” 

 A few minutes later Maria Vitoria started to cry, as babies do, and Luana lifted its tiny head to her breast, just as natural as the rain that fell lazily outside the ward window.  Something then happened.  Something changed.  A light hit her, went through her, radiated from her and flushed back out into the world and unto me.  She smiled to the sky.  My shutter clicked.  Something greater than light was captured.

 I am human. I am moved by the meaning we invent for symbols and stories to shelter so that these may in turn distract us from the despair of emptiness. I photographed your husband in his mortal pose, and felt my soul eclipse into death. I now photograph your smile over the child he left you, and my soul shutters speedily back to life. I invent this meaning and feel it. Luana, I am human.

                                                                    Family of Femmes

Back at her home in Santo Amaro favela, twelve women spanning four generations await Luana’s arrival with a surprise: neighbors and friends all chipped in to buy a magnificently pink crib set, aglitter with all the adornments a newborn’s family could dream of. 

Life goes on.

 There are no men left in the Dos Santos family.  Zuleide and Maria are great grandmothers in their mid-40s.  One husband died of liver failure, the other shot dead in his home.  Their daughters Patricia and Isabel are both in their early thirties, and each have several children, ranging in age from little Marisa of two years to Luana who will turn sixteen this October.   One of Patricia’s ex-husbands pays a pension that supports most of the family, while Bolsa Familia covers the rest.  Isabel, Luana’s mother, lost two of her husbands to violence.  Luana’s father was murdered when she was five years old. Branca, her 13-year old sister, lost her father shortly after she was born.  The other three fathers of Isabel’s children have legitimate families to feed, and so chose not to be bothered with more fatherly tasks.

 While it is genetically rare to produce all female offspring, the lack of fathers and father figures is normal in Recife’s favelas.  A recent survey indicated that 73% of households in the city’s favelas are headed by women. 

 The Dos Santos women had lived in two adjacent homes in Santo Amaro favela until the night Luana’s fiancé Edivan was shot to death in the front corridor of one.  Since then they huddle together in the two bedrooms of the second house, sleeping on mattresses leaned to the walls during the day to make space.  Luana refuses to step foot in the other house, and meanwhile the Dos Santos are looking for a renter for both.  They want to escape the memories.  “It does no good to remember,” they recite again and again the recipe for muddling through. 

 School is out, and the days are spent in and around their home watching novelas, painting finger nails, cooking, cleaning, waiting, receiving visitors, chatting endless nothings, entertaining pipe dreams, and acquiescing to much lesser fates.  There is spunk and perk in the skip and jump of little girls, and there is fire and flare in the loins of pubescent teens.  Mothers dream of being thin and desirable again to men, and grandmothers in bikini tops smile the grin of those who know they never lost it.  Day in, day out.  Time drags the willing and the unwilling alike across the fields of aging, and lends no ear to their giggles and cries.  Necessity mettles with dreams and doings, diverting paths and forcing others to repeat themselves.  A 13-year old brings in cash from a man of sixty suffering from impotence.  A 15-year old widow declares her love for an American man whose frigid hands she warmed in hers during a theatrical cult of the Universal Church.  Tragedy and joy weave constantly in and out of the monotonous fabric of existence.  These are not the infernal pits of les miserables, nor is it the carefree paradise of poverty.  It is only the maddening complexity of humanness.

                                                           A Delicate Balance

Today I hoped to interview Edivan’s parents in their home, but I was advised not to go there.  Rumors were spreading in the neighborhood that Luana had already found a new man, a wealthy white American who might marry her and take her away from poverty forever.  Edivan’s father let it be known that he had no love for this pompous foreigner, and nothing good in these bloodstained alleys awaited the man if he were to stick around. 

 I felt a strange tension in the air.  People in the streets had stopped making eye contact.  Clouds shifted restlessly as if trying to speak something out of breath. It would not matter that I am innocent.  Cultures were clashing.  Reason is a luxury, and luxury is scarce.  In an instant I packed my rucksack and departed. 

 Twenty minutes later an old digger kindly walks me towards the shady far north end of the Santo Amaro cemetery to Block A/23 C-05, where a sand placard washed half away by the rain exposes illegible scribblings of Edivan’s name, his date of birth, and his date of death.   And then we are left alone again.

I did not know him while he was alive. 

My lens descends over the boy as I adjust my shutter speed and flash bulb. He looks calm.  Asleep.  Click.  Morgue workers politely ask me if they can remove the body.  Women and children wailing outside, I nod. The gray bag swallows him so quickly.   

I only knew him as my brother.  That is the reason for everything I have done in all my life.  

1) The stepfather and brother of Bibita wait for forensics specialists to examine and remove his 3-day old corpse.  ”He never listened to his mother,” they lament.  2) It rained for nearly 24 hours on July 1-2, 2012.  3) Fireman assist morgue workers in the removal of a 250-pound corpse from a flooded river.  Several news crews had driven the hundred miles to film the event, as in this case, the victim was a upper middle class physician with political ties. (photos by Michael Wolff).

The 24-hour Hangover

If the weekend is murder’s drunken orgy, Sunday is its hangover.  At 8:00 a.m. a brief birth of sun glistens on a caravan of media trucks speeding off from the homicide department towards downtown, where a group of churchgoers stumbled upon a body dumped roadside the night before.  Meanwhile, everything is closed but the Houses of God, and it is hard to find a cup of coffee.  An hour later another corpse is found dumped on the north side, as cold as the tropics will allow, and the sun is gone for twenty-four more hours.  The sky falls like lazy anger.  The Earth is one massive puddle waiting to be splashed. 

 Brunch at Leide’s Restaurant has a discount for cops, and so the tables are soon packed with uniforms of various colors representing the various specialty units of the Military and Civil Police.  GATI was created to combat a surge in carjackings that haunted the mid-1990s.  CIOE was formed to rescue kidnap victims back when ransom was all the rage.  CIPC, the canine unit, still sniffs for anything smelling of weed or explosives, and CORE guards hospitalized prisoners while waiting for something more exciting to happen.  But violent crime in Recife is not like war.  It is, rather, an attritional conflict threatening no more and no less than the general health and happiness of a society, and exciting operations tantamount to the boyish urban combat of Rio de Janeiro are rare.  And so a lot of guns sit together to each lunch over conversations about other things, like sports and salaries.  Conversations transcend unit, rank, and unlike Rio, even police institution. 

 At 2:00 p.m. a call comes in.  The body of 21-year old male was found floating in drainage ditch outside the town of Chã de Alegria.  After a dubious trek through the flooded muddy roads of a sugar cane countryside, and a temporary breakdown, the VK Gol squad car rolls into a grassy valley where a group of people wait blank-faced under variously colored umbrellas.  Morgue workers wait with them, standing in the light rain, mud splattering their white rubber boots.  Someone had roped the cadaver’s legs and dragged it onto the grass just out of smell reach on this windless day. 

 “Bibita” was last seen leaving a São Pedro party in town on Thursday night.  His brother, straining to be what they call a man, says with nascent tears that the boy had no enemies…per se…but he was just like his father, who died of liver failure a few years back.  Bibita was a cachaça drinker, and when liquored up, he rarely made any friends. 

“He never listened to his mother,” his stepfather laments over his corpse, which, covered in gold and green flies, is bloated to twice its normal size and grotesquely deformed. 

 Forensics specialists arrive after a half hour, and determine that death was caused by a blunt object smashed against the victim’s cranium.  Outside of Recife, in the impoverished countryside, the percentage of firearm-related homicides diminishes substantially.  Here it is sticks, stones, and machetes.

 Learning of three more homicides in the area over the last month, I ask a detective why people here in these beautiful green hills are killing each other?  “Lack of education.  Lack of prospects,” he says, looking disheartened for the first time since brunch. 

Bibita was one of fourteen siblings, none of whom finished high school or had any hope of doing so.  They were all agricultural laborers, the socially immobilized legacy of slavery.  Where human dignity is so precarious, the symbolic bases of one’s manhood become extremely fragile, and actions in defense of these bases therefore become dangerously extreme.  Bibita may have done no more than offend someone at the Sao Pedro party.  This is good for the homicide department, as they fully expect the mystery to unravel itself quickly as the culprits go about informing the world that their dignity as men may have been bruised, but was certainly not broken.  If the process is slow, however, a serious danger arises.  The Brazilian northeast is land of family feuds, and whoever killed Bibita is now the enemy of thirteen brothers and sisters.  So much for these picturesque green hills, sweet land of sugar. 

 Two hours later the chief of the civil police personally calls the homicide department, whose operational jurisdiction is restricted to the metropolitan area of Recife and nearby towns, and makes a special request to cover a high-profile murder near the town of Palmares, one hundred miles away.  The body of a physician, the son of a state legislator and brother of a city councilman, was found in his underwear in a river bed after having been tossed from a bridge some thirty feet high.  Whispers spread rumors that the victim was gay, and automatic conjecture points to young male hooker bandits as culprits.  A steady rain holds for hours as we wait for fireman and morgue workers to assist in the complicated removal of the 250-pound corpse, which having been dead for nearly two days, is smelling of rot.  As the men lift the massive thing, fresh blood leaks from numerous perforations scattered across its torso and back. 

 The physician had been knifed to death in his own bedroom, wrapped in a blanket, transported out of town, and tossed off the bridge along with a bottle of whiskey, Coca-cola, two drinking glasses, and the 20-inch knife used to kill him.  The killer(s) then attempted to clean the crime scene, but ask any forensics specialist, and they will say this is a near impossible task when blood is involved.  In this case, signs of blood and physical struggle remain on the walls after being scrubbed with detergent.  All doubt dies when the bed is removed, and underneath, a drying puddle of blood. 

 It is 7:00 a.m. and sky alight when we arrive again at the homicide department.  The rain has finally stopped, and Recife is half under water.  Because it is now Monday, the vender is outside again, and I slam two cups of coffee and a cold chicken coxinha.  I have slept less than three hours in the last forty-eight.  Fighting exhaustion with caffeine and deep fried smooshings of thickly breaded shredded chicken clump, just to stoke courage enough to drive my motorcycle back home, I begin to understand the growth and form of policemen bellies.   

Post script:

Death.  So much senseless death.  Someone asked me today if I thought it would ever get better.  I said, yes, and I believed it when the words slipped off my tongue and fell into the dead space between us, ill-retrievable and demanding an explanation that I do not yet have.  It is merely a belief like that which so many have in such things as God or Luck.  Inexplicable and pointless to defend, a softer light it is to wake up to and rise to the forever mumbling callings of life.

                                                               Death and Life

1) 15-year old Luana is due to give birth to a baby girl next weekend.  The child will be named Edivania Vitoria, in honor of her 16-year old father, Edivan, who was shot dead last Saturday night (see previous posts).  In the wake of his murder, and on the eve of her motherhood, Luana grasps tightly to memories of her beloved.  “They were the most loving couple I’ve seen,” Luana’s mother cries.   2)  Luana poses with her family in front of their home.  The young girl on the left, seven-year old Priscila, witnessed Edivan’s murder.  One of the three bullets discharged lightly grazed her right arm on its way to its target.  Luana’s mother, Isabel, says she feels so grateful that her little girl was not killed.  She has already lost two husbands to gunfire, including Luana’s father. 

 Post Script: 

Convinced by a good friend that a murder retained little meaning if left just at that, I decided to pursue the story of a family in the aftermath of tragedy, well aware that my exploitative intrusion at this most delicate time might not be well received.  I felt, too, that if I were to be stoned by a crowd of revolted loved ones, I probably deserved it. 

 But as things turned out, Luana’s family took me into their home with the warmest of arms.  All of these women (and only women), from grandchildren to grandmothers, sat in a circle with me to talk about Edivan, his short but blessed life, and the fateful night of his departure.  He worked as a mechanic in the mornings, earning $50 Reais ($25 USD) per week.  He studied in the afternoons, and spent the evenings with Luana, kissing her big round belly and promising to love her forever.  And then came the night of Sao Joao, the night of gleeful festivities across all of northeastern Brazil, and so many dreams came crashing down. 

 Yet the faith and emotional strength of people at times completely defies me, as well as the magic carried in a simple camera.  Tears suddenly turned to laughter as I passed my camera to one of Luana’s little sisters, who started snapping pictures of everyone, provoking one and all to run and change clothes, put on jewelry and makeup, and pose in a most proper and goofy fashion.  Luana’s mother uttered, “God must have sent you to bring us a little joy today.”  Shaken to my core, I responded sincerely, “I was afraid you might stone me.”   

 Some twenty minutes later this precarious laughter collapsed as quickly as it had risen.  A team of detectives from the homicide department had shown up, like me, unannounced.  They came to take Luana and her little sisters in to record their testimonies as witnesses to murder.  That was my cue to move on, too, but not without an invitation to photograph the birth of baby Edivania Vitoria, whose life means far more than she will be capable of understanding for a long long time.  

                                                                  Too Much Violence

1)  A road builder on a temporary contract far from home attempted to protect himself from the gunmen who cornered him.  At point blank range, the barrel’s discharge burned his skin and its projectiles easily pierced his hand.  No one in the area knew the man.  2) A sixteen-year old boy lost his life for no good reason in the favela of Santo Amaro.  3) The boy’s little sister cries as police question her wailing mother.  4) Police inspect the remains of the lone road builder for whom no one cried.  5) A female swat officer comforts a local resident after a a murder took place in front of her home.  6)   My thoughts go out to the men and women of the homicide department of Recife, who are paid a mere $50 USD for each 24-hour crime scene shift.  And of course, to the family and loved ones of all those whose lives are so tragically cut short by criminal violence. (photos by Michael Wolff)

Festas Juninas

The month of June in Brazil is one of popular festivities in celebration of São João (Saint John), whose June 23rd day of praise brings the masses to the streets from sundown to sun up.  Families and friends gather all dressed in hillbilly flannel tops and jeans, straw hats, and freckles painted on their cheeks to dance to forró and brega music around campfires stacked on the streets.  Children toss and launch booming fireworks, while young teens roam about in search of first loves and other related encounters. The iconic tunes of Luiz Gonzaga move the most arthritic of hips to sensual motion, while the more modern tunes of Sorriso Maroto bring all the young girls’ bottoms to the floor.  These festas juninas, in essence a harvest party juxtaposing a variety of traditions from all of Brazil’s cultural bases, are an explosive abundance of corn products and alcohol.  A celebration for one and all.  A time to eat, drink, and be merry.  A time to feel happy and free. 

 Unable to keep a rhythm, my hips sat alone while the firework bursts sent my manic nerves jumping in every which painful way.  So I decided to leave the party at midnight to visit my friends in the homicide department.

 If I had waited until midnight to catch a scene investigation, there was no need to.  Bodies were being called in as early as the detectives’ shift begun at 8:00 am.  Over a dozen people were murdered in Recife throughout the day, including a woman whose husband meticulously sawed off her limbs, stuffed her remains in a trash bag, and carried them by city bus across town to his own mother’s house for her to open, look at, and faint.

 The seventy-year old woman was still at the police station when I arrived, sitting blank faced in front of a television along with several officers who were cheering on a live middleweight UFC fight.  Her son was upstairs in handcuffs explaining how he killed his wife in “legitimate self defense.”  He had made no attempt to evade capture.   His was a murder for fame, the least important and yet most reported kind of all. 

 A new shooting had been called in just moments before I arrived, such that I was able to accompany a team right away.  We sped off through the campfire-lined streets at breakneck speed—with no seatbelts because the police are more concerned about surprise armed confrontations than car accidents—to the very familiar favela of Santo Amaro (see May posts for area description). 

 Crawling through the broken narrow streets of one of Recife’s oldest favelas in a Volkswagen goal weighed down with four men is difficult, especially when dodging campfires and dancing drunks who lost either the ear or the care for distinguishing a firework from a pistol shot.  The porch parties continued almost door to door up to the point of young Edivan’s last stand.  Sorriso Maroto kept ringing “Ay ay ay ay ay ay ay ay, assim voce matou papai” from across the way as the investigative team edged through a wall of swat police and into the narrow concrete alley where the sixteen-year old boy lay cold, a single bullet lodged in his chest. 

 His mother, his grandmother, and his little sisters hung on each other in front of their home nextdoor and wailed.  “My son, not my son! He did nothing to deserve this!” Her voice was deafening.  Where she aimed it the music died in respect for her loss. 

 In most cases of murder in Santo Amaro, no one speaks to the police at a crime scene for fear of retaliation by the fugitive criminal responsible for whatever the mayhem at hand.  But sometimes, like on this night, people are so revolted that they spill the beans if front of the world.  “The murderer’s nickname is ‘Junino,’” the victim’s mother proclaimed to the police.  “He’s a known killer here.  He ran across the main avenue after he shot my son.”   But twenty minutes later she panicked.  Tears ran down her shivering face as she screamed, “He is going to come back and kill us all!”

 Typical of crime scene investigations, versions reported of what happened varied wildly and evolved quickly.  Initially it was explained that the Edivan, the victim, did not know Junino, his attacker, and that he was summarily executed by the intoxicated boy who exploded in anger over a misfired bottle rocket.  But later the family broke, and uttered that Edivan did use drugs—sometimes—and that he did know his aggressor.  In fact, the day before he had gotten into an argument with him about something allegedly unknown.  Whatever the motive, a number of dry tightened faces must have looked on and thought, like I did, that it was surely a stupid one.  A completely unnecessary waste of a young life. 

 Shortly afterwards I found myself with another team speeding through the dark streets to another crime scene.  A man in his mid-twenties lay in a massive puddle of blood in the town of São Lourenço, on the outskirts of Recife.  He was a brick layer from Natal on temporary contract for road construction.  No one witnessed the shooting.  No one knew anything about him or his family.  No one cried.  He had been renting a tiny square house with two other men nearby for the duration of his work contract.  We busted in to speak with the two men, who drunk on cachaça and exhausted from a week’s work had no words or emotions to share about the man who just left this world.  Luiz Gonzaga never stopped blasting from the neighbor’s home.  The festas juninas went undisturbed.

 And such are the downsides of otherwise magnificent popular celebrations.  Everyone is drunk and in the streets.  The police are understaffed and spread thin.  Emotions run wild.  Scores are settled.  This Saturday night, June 23, 2012, the rainclouds parted and left all free to their glee and gore.  As Sunday sets, this report still awaits the discomfiting tally of homicides in the State of Pernambuco.  It is unlikely to look pretty.  

                                                                      The Pits

A marshy hollow near downtown Recife is gingerly called “Chupa-chupa” (sucky-sucky) by the crack addicts who find refuge there.  Another nearby gathering hole for the chemically dependent is called “Bucetão” (Big Cunt).  The names still spark a good laugh among the addicts, who were, in any case, just making humor of their reality when the names were invented.  Every woman with a makeshift crack pipe has sex for money to fill it, and a number of the young men do, too.   Condoms, trash, human feces, and blackened aluminum cans litter the muddy ground.  This is home to those who have surrendered to the drug. 

 A… started sniffing glue when she was seven years old, after she ran away from her abusive father and lived temporarily on the streets.  A year later she was back at home with her alcoholic mother, but kept up the habit.  By thirteen she was smoking crack.  Today, at twenty-six, she has one 3-year old daughter living in a municipal children’s home, and a 4-month old fetus in her womb.  She lives on the streets and in the marsh.  She charges $10 Reais for head, and $20 for coitus.  She doesn’t remember how many times she’s been beaten and raped. 

 B… once had a German boyfriend who bought her nice clothes and paid for fancy hotels by the beach, but she lost it all to her addiction.  She more recently lost her sister, who died of tuberculosis one humid morning in the marsh, where others recently lost their lives to bullets or stones.  B… also prostitutes herself to support her habit, but she is more selective with her clientele.  Last weekend she injured her arms and legs while fleeing from a man who attempted to force her down.

 C…has a smile as pretty and tragic as 2pac.  Ahh…it is that she looks just like 2pac…kind of…but as a 29-year old woman prematurely aged to fifty like rugged peasantry.  Six years after the birth of her daughter, who also lives in a municipal care center, she carries with her at all times a photograph taken at the angel’s baptism.  In the photograph her eyes are glossy and red.  “I was so high,” she laughs of sad and sigh.  Today her belly is full and round again, but she does not think she is pregnant.  She has not had a period in years.  

C…carried a small plastic crucifix with her for protection.  Until today.  She gave it to me.