Reflections about the contradictions in Brazil’s capital, Brasilia — and exposing the latent inequality
“…poverty is not a vice, that’s a true saying. Yet I know that drunkenness too is not a virtue and that’s even truer. But destitution, dear sir, destitution is a vice. In poverty you may still retain your innate nobility of soul , but in destitution, no one ever did. “ Fyodor Dostoevsky”
I’ve been living in “colina”, the residential buildings reserved for professors of the University of Brasília, the capital city of my country, for three years now. When the sky is clear, I like to go for a jog on the “Olhos D’água park”, that is a bit short of a mile away from my home. There are two ways that I can get there by foot, the first one is a straight line following a bicycle path right from the University onto the Park, the other is cutting through the residential buildings in Asa-norte, which is longer and more time consuming. So, why would anyone decide not to go through the cycling road? Well, except for a handful of people, everyone takes the “long-cut”, because there is a permanent camp of garbage collectors living right on the cycling road. Today I caught myself in the middle of taking the longer route to the park, but facing the sheer hypocrisy of my actions, I forced myself to go through the, in other times, regular route, at least on my way back. The ugly, stinky, filthy road. The road of extreme poverty, the crooked road of destitution.
Before I start talking about myself, I will talk about my city, Brasiíla. The beloved, hypocritical capitol city of Brazil. Brasilia’s modernist architecture is inspired in one of a soviet commune, but one built inside a terribly capitalistic society ( poor, and with extreme inequality ). It is a city in which the contradiction exists since before its conception. In Rio de Janeiro, the poor and rich live and use about the same spaces, daily. Even if without blending with each other, just like water and oil. They share spaces like the beaches. The Favelas are one of the first things that catches the eyes of a tourist, still high aboard their planes, right beside the “Cristo Redentor” and the “Corcovado” , famous tourist attractions, are the “morros” (Its our word for “Hills” but culturally with a negative connotation, where the favelas reside ). Right at the highest points of the city, poverty and destitution, impossible to be ignored. But in Brasilia, poverty is systematically isolated, omitted and pragmatically hidden.
Over all buildings in Brasilia, which I have lived for over twenty years, all of them follow the same rule : Residential buildings must not be more than 6 stories high. This causes an impressive and unique aesthetic effect, where you are living in a metropolitan center with millions of people, but don’t feel like it. In Brasilia there are also a whole bunch of exquisite trees blooming with flowers of all colors, releasing the aroma of fresh fruits… Some trees are even older than the city itself. Here children are stil accustomed with coexisting with nature, with the cries of the “cigarras” (cicadas), the taste of fresh fruit. At any rate, more than any other of our cities with more than a million people living in them. But this blossoming city is also rotting ,too.
The size of the house market bubble that the limited sized building causes is insane. Back in the commune project, every building should be similar and, high government officials should live in the same buildings as the people that clean the government buildings. But obviously, that didn’t happen at all. Even if janitors, cleaners and candangos (constructors) did receive some of the condos, they would be, inevitably, over the time, be sold to people with more money. After 60 years of the construction, speaking behold my own socioeconomic class, the high end middle class,. Our young adults, even some highly privileged ones, are now graduating in a economy during a recession, they have zero perspective about ever buying their own homes in Brasilia. At the very best, a “Kitnet” (25–30m² condo) for 250.000 reais (about 65k USD, the minimum wage is 250 USD a MONTH and half the population juggle their expenses under it)
But lets get the attention back to the “Olhos D’água” park. A marvelous park with a multitude of plants exclusive from the cerrado (semi-arid climate of Brasilia with some particularities). It contains trails in the middle of the woods, a fountain, an academy a lagoon and a running track, all that right in the middle of the city. It really is a stunning park for all it is worth it, but it is, in a way, similar to a shopping mall. A two bedroom condo right next to it wont be sold for less than a whooping million, and like I said, in Brasilia, it seems that where the riches come, poverty hides itself. I did my routine of two 2.5km laps, after taking the longer route to the park, escaping poverty. One lap walking, taking my time to experience the park with all my senses, and the other running, trying to spend all my remaining energy. 9 AM, at a Monday morning, the park was pretty crowded with children and the elderly, the school age youth, retired people, unemployed, people with flexible work and the socially useless rich man that supports himself with their investments but the fact he doesn’t actually work is socially accepted. After I finish my routine, drenched in sweat, I head back home through the route of destitution.
A dozen of shacks made out of wet cardboard and plastic. The place which they call home is pretty much made of the only thing that they have in abundance. Garbage dump. Trash. Before you get to sight-see their camp, it ravages your nose thrills. The sweet aroma cacophony of mud, sodden trash, horse shit, chicken and a fire that seems to never go out where the fuel is garbage itself. There are always happy filthy children, running around, playing with dogs, with chicken, with each other. Its honestly a difference piece of reality than I am accustomed to. Walking through this mess I greet the curious out lookers. It is rare that someone trespass their home in such a casual way. One of them ask me if I have a spare blanket, I say I have already given it away. I see a wooden board written something I need to take time to understand, like “We mu’st need all donation”. Deciphering I realize how it is that, even if right next to each other, my reality shall never meet the reality of destitution. What is left is to denounce the pulsating contradiction.
This is why we should not look away from destitution. There are things we do not want to see. Listen. Smell. Feel. But we ought to. Because hiding destitution we also hide the quiet suffering of millions of Brasilians, invisible.
I also want to make a short note about privilege. I will tel the story of an extremely privileged man, that is me. When I was seven, back in 2001, I lived in Boston for a bit more than a year. My mother, a single mother, went to do part of her research in Harvard and took me with her. When I got back, I was bilingual. In 2008, when I was 14, depression hit me like a brick and never really left me even after 10 years. A year later, at 15, I started smoking tobacco and drinking. When I was 16, I dropped high school. Already fucked up in the head. I did lots of therapy, did some tests to get a high school diploma and was admitted to the best university of my city, UNB, when I was 19.
If I was poor, depression would hit me when I was 14, 15 I would start drinking and doing drugs, 16, dropping school. Now at 17 I would be lucky if I was arrested so I would learn my lesson before I was 18. At 18, my second child would be born and finally, at 19, escaping from child support, I would try to find a job, but even if I did, my instability probably would lead me into crack.
But that didn’t happen, my family always supported myself and my doctors, psychologists, I even spent 2 months in a mental health hospital last year during a crisis. I am far from healed. I even dropped college after 4 years, before graduating. But because I am sheltered, privileged, I spent six months studying for the CPE ( Cambridge Proficiency English) and, as a translator, I can have a reasonable job that supports myself, at my own pace. Never had I to spend any money on books, my mother has a full room of them. I live inside the university because my step father is a physics teacher here. I get to use the university library daily and he even gets me some books or articles blocked by a paywall.
Even with my terribly unstable head, without building anything for myself at 24 years old, without owning a home, I have everything, always had, and shall never forget all of my privilege. It tires me the amount of people that have everything and don’t seem to have a clue,