Favela Children

Ute Craemer


Chapter 4

Londrina, June 1966

This is a time of intense activity in the kindergarten. The school vacation period has begun and the children come in droves to do needlework, even the boys. So, with barely a pause for breath, I am busy teaching them how to manipulate the needles, stitch and undo the stitches again, unravel thread. Some also learn to knit.

After my vacation in July, I might start an arithmetic class. Mental arithmetic or, for example, how to construct a cube with certain dimensions, is not taught in the marginal schools. They don't know how to draw a three-inch line with a ruler. Very few vendors know how to multiply. In secondary school, however, they learn more mathematics than in Germany.'

God protect us from missionaries. A missionary has been in the favela since yesterday scaring people into church with loud, croaking music. No method is too dumb to lure the people to church: German and American military music, Mozart's "A Little Night Music", "The River Kwai March" "The Bells ring out Sweetly" pour over the huts in ear-splitting waves from loud-speakers. No sooner is mass over than canvassing for the next event begins: meetings with married women and widows, then for single girls, then come the fathers and widowers. (They shouldn't beget so many children, the priest tells them - but how?!) Marriages and baptisms are diligently performed, but in heaven's name not for illegitimate children, who were conceived in sin. The church considers such details un-Christian. But it seems to be Christian when a Catholic priest says that we should only distribute medicine in our favela, and send the other sick people home.

Sometimes the children can make me quite angry. I noticed just in time that Darcy was throwing away his leftover sugar after the milk-break. "Nao 'tou fome mais nao." He's full, he says. "And tomorrow?" "I don't know about tomorrow."

No one would guess that this child comes from a slum, that his parents emigrated from the hunger-stricken north to find work on the coffee plantations in Paraná. The same children who are wasteful with sugar in the morning scramble crying for a few grains of rice that have fallen from a donkey-cart in the afternoon; or share one sweet amongst five of them.

The favela children, despite knowing hunger, have as little concept of the value of things as the rich. How often do they say: my father lost his job and we have nothing to eat. In spite of this, neither the children nor their parents have a concept of saving or provision and planning for the future. Se Deus quiser, if God wills, everything will be all right. Is this fatalism and living only for today an unchangeable basic characteristic, or a mental attitude developed over the centuries which can be changed through education, by awakening their slumbering capacities by means of training in thinking? Education by experience is apparently not sufficient.

But nothing will be achieved if the schools stay the way they are: schools for parrots who are bored to death memorizing the names of rivers and mountain ranges which aren't even shown to them on a map; of kings and explorers whose origins and aims remain unknown. Instead of motivating the children, they suffocate their desire to learn, their natural curiosity and joy of discovery through monotonous boredom.

It would be good if they could work together in groups: crafts, reading fairy tales and myths, exploration trips; sports to learn fairness; to learn to differentiate between beauty and kitsch by means of art appreciation. The children should be given problems to solve and objectives to be attained, so they will realize that in later life objectives must be set and that thinking precedes acting.

But who will give the favela children such schools of thinking? The politicians and the rich have no wish to stimulate the spirit of criticism and reflection, for this criticism would eventually be directed against them. And the poor do not possess the means. It's beyond their strength. And it would result in the "revolution from below".


Today I received a letter from Brigitte, a school friend, in which she writes about the affluence ecstasy in Germany. I wonder why we are trying to elevate the favelas to the middle-class when the members of the latter are so desolate, mediocre, satiated, limited in interest to their stomachs, beds, automobiles and television.

Probably I have no right to ask this, coming as I do from the middle-class, because I don't know, don't really know what it's like to live in a leaking, wind-bent hut, and to have a stomach which contains more worms than food. And the ascent of the favelados to the middle-class - apart from the fact that it may be inevitable, the question being when and how - would probably be good if only because of the few people who aren't satisfied with a full stomach, but who use their heads and seek a real meaning in life.

Londrina, August 1966

The knitting bug has invaded the favela. The children teach their sisters and brothers and their mothers. Often you see them with their knitting on street corners and in the playground teaching each other. I didn't know where to get enough wool. Luckily, I am now able to buy leftovers cheaply at Fuganti's department store.

I want to see if I can arrange an exhibition of the children's work, perhaps even a bazaar to sell it. It's about time for the rich of the city to realize that the favela children can also accomplish something, if only given the chance. A few girls have begun to knit for this purpose, but it is still somewhat difficult. I tremble with every fallen stitch. Also the risk that I may be stuck until an advanced old age with Christmas ornaments, baby clothes, table-cloths, baskets, etc., gives pause for thought. Maybe their childish enthusiasm will fizzle out as suddenly as it came, for this present eagerness can hardly long endure. Last week I started to knit bigger things with some of the children and thought they would be kept busy for the next two weeks. But the caps were ready in two days and I had to think of something else.

Virginia's father just appeared, drunk again. The kitchen door opened and a brown hand laid a pair of socks on the dresser. I went onto the kitchen porch and saw him washing our towels and hang them carefully out to dry. He only said boa tarde, good afternoon, and carried on, as though it were the most natural thing in the world for him to be washing our towels on Sunday. When he could find nothing else to wash he thanked me and left. Surely this was his way of thanking me for the sweater I gave his daughter. He probably had to sell his horse, on which he always galloped past our dining-room window. To compensate he came today in a fire-red shirt. He lives in the very last hut of the favela, which is almost invisible because of the cacti climbing over it. His six year old daughter was burned with boiling water when she was three. The wound is still open.

Londrina, August 1966

It is uncomfortably cold. The Brazilians, especially the blacks, are quite hardened to it and freeze less than we. Recently I saw a black man sitting in front of his hut naked to the waist when the temperature was just below freezing. I shivered just looking at him. I woke up today and looked out the window: everything white! hoarfrost. It froze overnight. You can imagine the panic of the coffee planters. The first coffee buds are dead, the leaves hang black and limp on the trees; a pitiful sight. Conversation-piece number 1: the burnt coffee. Strangely enough they say burnt instead of frozen. Probably because it is not the frost itself that causes the damage, but the morning sun shining on the iced-over leaves. This year's harvest has just been brought in. The damage is therefore to next year's crop, 50-60% loss, according to the newspapers.

If it weren't for the workers, many of whom are being laid off and therefore must bear the brunt of the loss, it would be the best and cheapest way to get rid of the coffee. Instead of burning it after years of storage, it is burned already on the tree, so it doesn't have to be picked, cleaned, transported or stored. Over thirty thousand sacks are stored, while at the most fourteen thousand sacks are exported yearly. The fazendeiros, ringing their hands, wait for rain, so that the second buds may appear. Coffee blossoms three times. Therefore black (over-ripe), red (ripe) and green (unripe) beans hang simultaneously on the same plant. Ripe and unripe beans are "picked" at the same time, that is, knocked from the tree with a stick and gleaned from the ground. That's the reason for the poor quality of Brazilian coffee. We wonder why the planters haven't yet realized that there are more important crops than coffee so they could pull out at least the unproductive trees in order to plant rice, beans and wheat. Beans are imported from Mexico in exchange for valuable hard currency. The state now gives subsidies for every plucked out unproductive coffee tree and only gives credit for so-called "white agriculture" (rice, wheat, soy beans, etc. and cattle), which causes the coffee aristocracy to cry like stuck pigs. What they must put up with, and how unthankful is the state, especially since they bring in the hard currency in the first place.

Although the planters claim that their workers are protected, they are laid off en masse and stream into the city. The prefecture courtyard looks like a refugee camp. The empty coffee warehouses on the periphery of the city serve as emergency shelters. Now and then beggars come to the favela looking for something to eat. In their eyes the people in the favela are lucky, because they at least have a roof over their heads.

Yesterday I was at a German fazenda (farm) and spoke with the workers. A Russian woman works there who had been carried off by German soldiers in 1943, met a Pole in a concentration camp whom she eventually married, but had to emigrate as a displaced person after the war and arrived here with nothing. She has been working for the German fazenda owners, mostly in the kitchen, for twelve years. Her husband, who earns $150 per month, is the administrator of the farm. When he is ill he earns nothing. His son earns 30 cents an hour. With a ten-hour workday, he just about earns the salario minimo. He is always on duty, even when the senhor calls for him at night. I asked him if they are helped in case of sickness, if anyone cares for the workers' children, if the young girls are given the opportunity to learn something. Nothing! But many fazenda owners of German descent preach to us about humanity and sacrifice: "One must really do something for the poor, who after all are so adept and willing to work." I asked the Russian lady if this doesn't make her furious. "No, they are quite human, at least they speak to us."

The same fazendeiros who do nothing for their own workers jump on the aid for development band-wagon as soon as they smell an advantage for their social prestige. Why is it that the same person who deducts the cost of rent, firewood and the use of the football field from his workers' meager wages is the same person who builds a clinic for the poor in the city? The reason: one happens in silence, the other in public view accompanied by the applause of the press and the acclaim of sociedade. It almost seems as if money for development is made available in order to enhance the prestige of a rich minority. How sensible!

Londrina, October, 1966

During the past few weeks we have done a lot of work on the kindergarten with the boys of the favela, whitewashed the building, painted the chairs and tables, put in window-panes, planted flowers and dug a pit for high and long-jumping. When the kindergarten, together with surroundings, stood ready in its new splendor, self-made, so to speak, we were all very proud. It is quite different if a kindergarten is placed ready-made into its surroundings, or if it is just a shell which the children beautify by their own efforts and make their own. It is infuriating how German technicians from the GDS are used to nails boards together to make wooden houses and to excavate ditches, instead of having them teach the masses of unemployed youths in the favela to do their own work. It's really a pity! They are cooperative, adroit, interested, not lazy; but at an age when they should be preparing themselves for a trade, they do absolutely nothing. They no longer go to school, they have outgrown the work they did as ten-year-olds (shoe-shine boys, scrap paper collectors) and they don't find other work. After the coffee froze almost all minors were laid off to make room for the unemployed agricultural workers, so they accustom themselves to sweet idleness. They aren't bored, because there is always a group hanging around for fun.

Training courses or trade schools which would take the young people off the streets -- that would be true development and would really benefit the poor. There are very few such GDS projects however. It makes no sense for Adolf and Kaspar to be making small houses when any Brazilian carpenter could do it just as well. Could...if the GDS people weren't around to take the work away from them. Strangest of all is that the GDS doesn't understand the absurdity. Cabeca dura demais - pigheaded. (The GDS have since learned from such experiences.)

With respect to my exhibition, I waver hourly between great enthusiasm and thinking that it will be completely impossible. We have made tablecloths with matching napkins using hem and cross-stitches. The abstract patterns and stitch counting are very difficult for some children; the boys usually do it better than the girls, which makes them very proud. Weaving with bast is easier because the work process is clearer. They also now understand that you cannot just select any color, that colors often clash. It is certainly good for them not to see only manufactured junk around them, but also pretty things which they can make. Native crafts which exist in countries that have ancient cultures don't exist here, except for the bone-lace of Bahia. The handicrafts of the original Indian inhabitants disappeared along with their culture as a result of the collision with European culture. The Portuguese masters, plantation owners, didn't respect handicrafts, so an artisan class never developed. The lack of this tradition is making itself felt now during the industrialization process. A factory in a country in which the carpenter's trade, with apprentice and master carpenters, didn't exist in pre-industrial times results -- at least at the present stage -- in work of inferior quality. Our sloppily joined closets and beds that fall apart are prime examples.

* * * * * * *

Chapter 5

Londrina, November 1966

In general, life in the favela is peaceful and calm. But now and then this smooth surface cracks under the pressure of poverty or passion. Recently a woman lay in wait on a street corner for a girl from our favela and killed her with a kitchen-knife because she was living with the woman's husband. Then she went directly to the police and said, "Lock me up, I want a rest from life." Now both she and her husband are in jail and their five children have been distributed among relatives. People help each other because state welfare is ineffective. At best the state would put the children in jail with their parents. Several children twelve to thirteen years old have been interned in Londrina's jail for years because they were once caught stealing.

Or recently: the father of Irany, one of my kindergarten children, took his revolver out of its box and wanted to kill his wife and twelve children. Irany had the presence of mind to run out of the house with his bullets -- to the kindergarten! The father was fed up with being a night-watchman and a laborer during the day, all to barely feed his family. The next day he left them.

The Londrina jail isn't a pleasant place to pass the time. Twenty to thirty prisoners are jammed into tiny cells where they all sleep on a few thin mattresses, with a single bucket serving as the toilet. The walls are covered with graffiti depicting their wishful thinking. A rich person wouldn't last a day there. I can only imagine that the rich buy their freedom, or that there are also first-class jails. Many criminals are released so they can care for their families; they must report weekly to the police.

There are fewer drunks than one would expect, considering how cheap pinga (sugarcane liquor) is. But when they do get drunk they go all out. A few day ago we were playing, about forty children and adults, on the street in the fresh evening air, when a group of boys being chased by a drunk armed with a brick came running toward us. Screaming, everyone tried to get into the nearest house, with the drunk after them. There was total panic. Forty people trying to get through a tiny doorway at the same time. I grabbed a two-year old and stood in the shade of a tree waiting for them to come out. The woman of the house dropped the egg she was about to fry. Men in this condition are so dangerous because they are almost always carrying a knife. The police were called.

In Brazil crime is elementary and spontaneous, conceived in a passionate, uncontrolled instant and, above all, perpetrated against a certain individual. A murder is committed for a specific motive (jealousy, insult, etc.) and involves a certain person and no other. Murderer and victim are related by personal contact. Not like in Germany and other civilized countries where unknown people are murdered, where lack of social contact engenders anonymous aggression which is directed against defenseless people as revenge against society in general. Murder in Brazil is (except for political murder committed by professional assassins, "capanzas"), strange at it sounds, more "human". As long as you have no personal enemies you are safer in a favela than in a European metropolis (1).

The longer I live together with the favela people, the clearer it becomes to me that the Brazilian people, especially the poorer classes, are uprooted, and at many levels. Even outwardly, in respect of origins. Brazil was discovered, explored and colonized by the Portuguese. Later immigrants arrived from Germany, Italy, Poland, Russia, Syria and, increasingly, Japan. And, of course, the involuntary immigrants. Thousands of blacks were abducted to work on the sugar plantations, were torn from their homes like weeds from the earth. From Africa they brought with them their Gods, their Macumba-cult, their ritual songs. So Brazil's roots are in Europe on one hand and Africa on the other. Until the First World War the center of gravity was the northeast, Bahia and Minas Gerais. With the decline of the sugar monoculture and the economic center's shift to the south (Sao Paulo, Paraná), many lost their homes for the second time. Thousands migrated south seeking work on the sugar plantations and the newly developing industries. Most landed in favelas. They aren't driven from their homes for political reasons, but by hunger, drought, unemployment and the government's reluctance to energetically tackle the problems of the northeast. It is difficult to imagine the mobility of the poor. In times of drought, vague rumors that work is available in other parts of the country are sufficient to mobilize vast armies of people, on foot, or by train or truck. Industrial centers such as Sao Paulo, Belo Horizonte and Recife attract them like magnets. This is also why nostalgia for minha terra, minha namorada (my land, my loved-one) is the theme of so many folk-songs and pop hits.

This mobility leads to a second uprooting. Despite their lack of freedom and their poverty, the slaves lived in relative security because of the land-owners' patriarchal attitude, at least in the 18/19 centuries. After the freeing of the slaves the poverty remained, but the security was gone. The ex-slaves became the industrial and agricultural proletariat, to be fired at any time, continually seeking employment. Industrialization and mechanization have a negative effect on the poor. It is true that new jobs are created -- but at what of wage level? Profits are for the rich. And isn't it true that capital influx from the "first world" only serves to intensify this tendency?

Theocratic thinking and patriarchal attitudes and their related agrarian system were replaced by industrialization, accompanied by its way of thinking and its social order. People no longer live in the stabile framework of a tribe or clan which dictates the laws of life. They no longer find support in myths, art, folk-songs and dances. They have forgotten their intuitive knowledge and natural healing methods. There are only vestiges of these to be seen. The Macumba cult, mixed with Catholicism and the worship of saints, is only partially understood. Due to the invasion of technology in their lives, the traditional commitment to their Gods has been lost, their ancient culture has become unintelligible to them, without a substitute existing for what has been lost. The knowledge which is passed on from generation to generation about, for instance, education or work methods, is lost or ignored, but there are too few schools to replace that knowledge with another which corresponds to the necessities of the times. Another example: Macumba is decadent, but there is no church which gives the poor a new religious understanding. Religious instruction is limited to memorizing prayers and church hymns.

Thus the poor oscillate between two worlds, separated from one and not yet accepted in the other. They suffer spiritual as well as physical hunger.

Londrina, December 1966

We are preparing for Christmas. We intend to have a big celebration for all the favela children. A meeting takes place every Saturday and there is an abundance of things to fix and to make -- hundreds of paper stars for a sky-tent, a small fence to separate the audience from the "actors", a wardrobe to change in, etc. Otalino is "chief artisan", Cido is "Maitre de Plaisir", he rehearses verses, dances and songs. It is a true trial of patience. Someone is always absent from rehearsals. They don't feel like it, or have to help their mothers, or they just sit apathetically in the corner (which is understandable, as the kindergarten is like an oven in the afternoon), and after a half-hour most of them want to dance and sing according to their own fantasy. Then I think as, dripping with sweat I cry silencio at children who lose all control when music is playing, that I am ripe for the GDS medal. But it is well known that for that you have to be where the medals are awarded, not where they are earned.

As I was thinking about how to make a Christmas crib scene, your (Ute's mother - trans. note) "Weg zur Krippe" (The Way to the Crib) arrived. We found it so beautiful that we started cutting out with great enthusiasm, till late in the afternoon and with growling stomachs, for the children decided it would be a waste to break for lunch. We also have a Christmas tree, a small araukery, the symbol of Paraná. Costumes for the Queen of the celebration, the kings, Indians, dancers, doormen, curtain-openers, waitresses as well as the Christmas tree decorations are all finished. Now we are baking a mountain of cornmeal cookies for us and the audience; the only thing lacking is cold and snow. It's 90 degrees outside and the red earth reflects back the shimmering heat.

Londrina, January 1967

The parcel with the work material is here. I rushed to the post office and found a half-shredded parcel. With the worst presentiment I ran down the hill to the favela, feeling it all over. In my mind I could see the customs official's wife with the pearls around her neck, but - gracas a Deus - my fears were unfounded: everything has arrived. Opening it was pure joy, together with Tereza, Cido, Otalino and other children. They all experienced the arrival and opening of a parcel for the first time. Solemnly they handed each little package to me, which I opened, and they stood around watching in amazement, oh oh-ing. They were all thrilled with the pearls and wanted to start stringing them immediately.

We began the day before yesterday and today there are hardly any pearls left. The first night we sat working until one o'clock in the morning in my room and at eight we were at work again. About 30 strings of pearls are now ready, some of them really ripe for display. The time has come to have the bazaar, but where?

We have begun weaving. But our minds are mainly on corn

(maiz). We used the corn harvest for a corn festival. Together with Zeca, Otalino, and Cido, I went to a fazenda to pick up three large sacks. We met at 6 a.m., when it was still dark, in order to arrive there early. Lunch consisted exclusively of corn, roasted in a fire. In the afternoon we really got going though. We tried out various Brazilian (or rather Indian) specialties: one husked the corn, another ground it fine, still another pressed it through a cloth -- it sprayed in all directions and the dark faces were sprinkled white. Another formed bags from the corn husks in which the corn meal was placed and then cooked in hot water. The result is called pamonha, a kind of corn cake. For dessert me made curral, corn pudding. The only thing lacking was corn whiskey, but even without it we were intoxicated by corn. Soon we will be walking around in corn slippers and will lay the fruit in corn bowls, then the remaining husks will be dried out and used for handicrafts.

A characteristic of the kindergarten day is the children's unrestrained chatter. Listening, I learn quite a bit about their way of life and their feelings. Dalva came running to me today: "I am so ugly, feia mesmo (really ugly). Why was I born so black, I'll have to marry someone just as black and then my children will be just as ugly and black as me." She is 16 years old, absolutely not ugly, very clean and correctly dressed and works as an empregada (maid) in the city. To her great regret, her skin is dark brown, her hair is frizzled and her nose is somewhat wide. Her efforts to bleach her skin with a thick layer of rice powder and to straighten her hair are touching, but unsuccessful.

"In Germany the people lie in the sun to become brown," I tell them. The children are skeptical. "You seem to think that black and ugly are one and the same. Whites can be just as ugly as blacks can be beautiful."

Zeca, thirteen years old, a lot of black with some Indian and Portuguese blood, says: "I would much prefer to have straight hair. When I am collecting old paper and find a nylon stocking, I put it over my head to control the frizzles." Twelve year old Maria Jos says she would never marry a black, because "my mother says that life is hard enough as it is and the only thing we have left is our light skin."

In Brazil white seems to be the ideal of beauty. Advertising models, beauty queens, movie stars are all white. At official functions, in the clubs and universities, on the fazendas and in the government: all pale-faces. The reigning color in the favelas, however, is brown-black.

The average Brazilian associates white with such words as pretty, rich, clever, initiative. The word "black" indicates characteristics such as lazy, ugly and childish. These crass value comparisons lead directly to Brazil's racial prejudices and latent social confrontations.

You often hear that Brazil is the land of racial equality. It is true that you can see white, brown and black children playing together in the slums and going together to school; a young black dates a light-brown girl. Blacks and whites squeeze into the same bus and sit on the same park bench. Upon closer examination however, this harmonious surface is shot through with cracks. There is no racial hatred like in the United States and South Africa, but that doesn't mean you can deny the political and social racial discrimination. It would not occur to a Brazilian to feel physically disgusted by blacks, but the white ruling class would certainly oppose any black who tried to enter their exclusive clubs or have an important position in a bank, university or in the government. They would consider it infiltration and a great faux pas because it would amount to the entrance of a socially unfit person into a realm in which, according to the unspoken social code, he did not belong. If the black keeps to the place assigned to him by the rich since the times of slavery, that is, in the miserable huts of the plantations and the favelas; if he works is "his" professions - laborer, street-sweeper, etc. or, at the most, mechanic or chauffeur; if he goes to the assigned schools (elementary schools, there are no blacks to speak of in the universities), he is treated kindly and with true Brazilian courtesy. The danger that he will work his way up from the serving to the ruling class is next to non-existent, for it is terribly difficult in Brazil to go from low to high, even for the light-skinned.

But if some energetic and talented person tries to overcome the social barriers, obstacles are put in his way, especially if he is black. It is relatively easy for a white who eventually rises to a position in administration or in a bank to become integrated; you can't see his favela origins in his skin color. For a black, however, all defenses are well prepared. When a personnel manager must choose between a white, brown and black employee, the white comes first, then the brown and last of all the black. Once I spoke with Antonio about the race problem. He works at the prefecture, his mother is black, his father white. He believes that as a black he is judged more critically at work than his white colleagues.

This example of Antonio indicates the possible solution to the racial question in Brazil: Blacks and whites intermix. The blacks become lighter, the whites darker; both find themselves to be "moreno", brown-skinned. Thus the problem would be resolved -- on the surface. But the question really lies deeply embedded in Brazil's great social problem: the difference between rich and poor. Os problemas sao inumerais!

© 2000 Ute Craemer
[email protected]

Translation from the German: FTS

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