All God’s Children : Narrating class and Popular Politics in Urban Brazil



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John A. GUIDRY, Lusotopie 1997, pp. 125-170


All God’s Children : Narrating class and Popular Politics in Urban Brazil

Marisa, 60, retired factory worker : The time when I had more contact [with rich people] was when I worked there in the factory. What we see is that they want God all to themselves. And worse for us. It seems like they want to kill us! They take our money. Do they pay us well, in accord with our rights ? No. [They take] a décimo from us – the only thing they don’t do is torture us. I’m offended, myself. Sad. Because we do that work with pleasure, with complete honor1.

The literature on popular politics in Latin America leaves us with a partial picture of what political life is like for the majority of the citizenry – those who fall into the populous and popular classes and who aren’t consistently participating in social movement organizations, neighborhood associations or political movements2. These people, whom I shall call, for

lack of any better term, « ordinary people », fall between the cracks of social inquiry, and the resulting problem is that any attempt to theorize, discuss or analyze the relationship of class to politics must be made on presumptions about class behavior that may have little to do with how these actors experience politics or class. Recent work on everyday life has advanced understanding of the complex relationships between class, daily life and social organization3, but the presumed nature of class relationships is consistently presumed to be one of domination/subordination. Within this framework, scholars focus on resistance, and the evolution of this literature is well known (Ortner 1995). The absence of resistance in either an overt or « everyday » sense is taken by scholars as a problem to be investigated and explained, and in the end any ideological or cultural agreement among the poor and upper-classes may be read only as some form of domination through cultural or more direct forms of class hegemony. Even when an author, such as Susan Stokes (1995, p. 128) for example, states that popular acceptance of clientelist norms of political behavior may be « authentic » – in this sense meaning constructed at least in part by members of the subordinate class – Stokes’s overriding concern is that those values must change in order for poor people to better their lives or expand agency in any appreciable way.
In this paper, I turn to the words of « ordinary people » from Belém, Brazil, in order to examine how class is experienced on a day-to-day level. I look at different narratives about class, its causes and its consequences. My objective is both theoretical and empirical : to consider how the experience of class and what it entails in Brazil may inform approaches to politics in that country and more generally. Rather than presuming how class relations ought to be interpreted and experienced by ordinary people, I step back from the domination/subordination framework to consider what class and different ways of interpreting it mean to people in the popular classes in Brazil. I show that respondents tend to combine resources from a variety of class narratives in order to evaluate situations – everyday, social, and political. Because no one story of class experience can be always and everywhere the « master narrative », people may assume different dispositions toward class politics in different situations. Some narratives of class tend to be more reactive, while others appear to inform what ordinary Brazilians see as a just world. The multiplicity of approaches people may take when considering their class experience allows them to inject their political aspirations and choices with moral concerns – in particular, the belief that class shouldn’t matter to differentiate among people.

« Popular politics » is staked on ameliorating social inequity, but it is not only a politics of class struggle. It is also a politics of everyday moral discourse that seeks less to eliminate class than to affirm the essential dignity of all human beings regardless of their economic and social status.



Consider Marisa’s statement above. It is a dialogue rife with the imagery of struggle. The wealthy want to kill the workers, to exploit them. She is angry, but to what end and for what reason? The answer lies with the statement
that the rich « want God all to themselves ». This phrase is not about religion; it is rather a rhetorical move to express something fundamentally wrong with class relations in her experience. « God » is not always invoked, even by the most pious of poor people, to mean devotion and supplication to the institutions of the Church. « God » and other forms of religious imagery, in so far as they represent idealized forms of human behavior and obligation (e.g. « we should all be honest as Jesus »), are also narrative elements people can use to express values about human relations. In this instance, Marisa is angry because the wealthy do not want to share anything of theirs. They want everything for themselves, even God, who should be for everyone regardless of differences among people. This situation stands in stark contrast to a belief in the equality of human dignity – all God’s children – regardless of material possessions and social status, that Brazilians of all classes profess to share. The problem for Marisa is not how wealthy others are or the fact that she must work for them in order to make ends meet, but that her work – done with pleasure and honor – is not justly remunerated. The desire that animates her struggle is one for equality of dignity, a leveling narrative that speaks to values about justice and respect for one’s fellows.
In what follows, I examine how social discourse provides agents, however limited and constrained, with resources to frame, represent and imagine human action in the world; these stories provide a basis upon which to rationalize and conceive of alternative behaviors. To begin with, the dialogues demonstrate a class identity of subordination, in which struggle is a daily affair. But rather than pointing simply and « objectively » to class resistance, solidarity and organized – if not revolutionary – struggle, this identity is embedded in other conceptions of social relations that sometimes have little to do with the nature of social domination in contemporary Brazilian society. Speakers may find themselves poor and inexcusably excluded from the prosperity the wealthy seem to enjoy, but they do not wish to deny anyone their wealth simply on the basis that class inequity exists. They judge people on an individual basis, and they imagine a world in which we are all equal in some transcendent way, by virtue of the simple dignity owed to all human beings.
Stories like Marisa’s support James Scott’s (1985, p. 317) finding that subordinate discourse « penetrates and demystifies » dominant ideologies, and generally much of the dialogue examined herein fits with Scott’s conclusions about the inadequacy of simple theories of hegemony. But it would be a mistake, however, to call these class narratives « everyday resistance ». These narratives are attempts to represent the world rather than specific acts of resistance to – or compliance with – behavioral norms or the structures of social relationships. They are linked to action in so far as they appoint the moral context of real and potential action, making up much of the « normative filter » (ibid., p. 306) through which actions pass – a belief in the equality of human dignity may at some point provide a reason for questioning the actions of the wealthy and then acting in some appropriate form, whether by voting a certain way, quitting one’s job, stealing from a stingy grocer, or joining a picket line.

As such, the stories of Marisa and other respondents are demonstrative of Margaret Somers and Gloria Gibson’s (1994, p. 38) notion « that social life is itself storied and that narrative is an ontological condition of social life [emphasis in original] ». Somers and Gibson use this formulation to argue that the stories people tell are part of the way in which people construct identities that have concrete expression through human action. Identities are not the epiphenomenal results of some structured condition or past set of actions; they are inextricably linked to action, such that « people are guided to act in certain ways, and not others, on the basis of the projections, expectations, and memories derived from a multiplicity but ultimately limited repertoire of available social, public and cultural narratives » (ibid., pp. 38-39).


But the « sociological story » we can derive from social narratives is not as simple as Somers and Gibson put it. We must ask to what actions these stories have led, and the picture is muddy indeed. The class identity narrated by the respondents is multiple and not singular – Marisa’s life and words are complex, and she is surrounded by a variety of alternatives for the political expression of her grievances. The factories where she worked were unionized while she worked there. Her children are labor activists and militants in the Workers’Party – PT, Partido dos trabalhadores –, Brazil’s most potent force on the left. Marisa chose to stay out of union activity for fear of losing her job : this is surely an example of her subordination, an experience that lies behind the anger of her statement above. Her anger at the rich notwithstanding, she favored Fernando Collor, a wealthy business person and legacy of a prominent and conservative political family, in the 1989 presidential election. Near election time, however, her son asked her for a personal favor – to vote for Luís Inácio « Lula » da Silva, leader of the PT,

Marisa : I voted for Lula, but I really liked Collor more. [laughing] My older son from Bahia was visiting me and asked, « Mom, who are you going to vote for? » I said, « Look, for me it’s Collor. » [He said], « No, mom. Don’t vote for Collor. Vote for Lula. It’s my request. » [laughing] Okay. I voted for him, but really loving Collor [laughing] It seems so silly! [laughing]. [JU05/19B-20B]
Tangled up in Marisa’s statements about class, everyday life and politics, are multiple and overlapping values and identities – motherhood at work in the above case – that complicate the way she might translate her class stories of grievance into political action4. Her apparently casual attitude toward voting at her son’s request in contrast to her own preference raises questions about the way she values voting or other forms of participation as means to express her beliefs. What follows is an attempt to understand the apparent contradictions and inconsistencies between the statements and actions of people like Marisa by looking at five specific class narratives – experience, struggle, inversion, leveling and mobility – that cut across the ways that

working Brazilians speak about their experiences. Analytically – the « sociological story » –, identifying these narratives is a method of gaining some purchase on the way that people move from experience, through discourse, toward action. My focus on these narratives and the experiences


behind them brackets for the time being the question of how popular ideologies may be, at least in part, produced by hegemonic actors or classes. More important here is demonstrating that popular class discourse provides ordinary people with ways to resist – or at least picture resisting – class domination while imagining a world of their own making that may appear quite different from that appointed by theories of what class identity should and shouldn’t lead to. There is considerable basis in popular experience alone for class discourses that, while they may appear as co-opted or influenced by dominant ideologies, are in fact authentic expressions of political beliefs tied to other values that animate everyday social relations. These narratives demonstrate both the contestation of hegemonic discourse from within (Scott 1985, pp. 335-340) as well as a discourse apart, a popular discourse, rooted in the experiences of speakers.
Desire is an important part of any social discourse. Desire is the first step toward altering the reality the speakers live with, an imagined project that is very important to the way poor people construct their stories of life. Images of a more leveled world, for example, however far from present reality, become part of the common stock of social desire upon which action may be based at some point in the future5. In sum, class narratives reveal a « popular culture » – a common stock of knowledge about a class identity –, what it means to be popular, i.e. of the populous classes, the shared nature of personal experiences, understood solutions to common problems, and desired images of a different world. And for contemporary concerns, these images of a world in which class may not matter provide speakers with the reasons for actions, such as supporting elite or conservative politicians, that seem inconsistent with their class identity as subordinate actors – actions that are ambiguous at best, incoherent and self-defeating at worst. As the narratives question issues and sites of domination, they point to a popular political culture, « a configuration of representations and practices that exists as a contentious structural social phenomenon in its own right » (Somers 1995, p. 134).


Method and Research Site

My method is interpretive and based on the kinds of long interviews and analysis of social discourse found in the work of Gamson (1992), Degregori, Blondet & Lynch (1986), Hochschild (1983) and Lane (1962). Of critical importance to the interpretive work done here is allowing the words and stories of respondents to tell of their experiences of different kinds of social relationships, connecting their opinions and beliefs to concrete events and


relationships. Relating opinions, values and beliefs to personal experience provides a hedge against psychologizing culture, values and opinion – and a glimpse into the nature of communicative action and moral discourse as


social phenomena available for critical inquiry. Ideas, discourse and social narrative may be treated as « social facts » in Durkheim’s sense of the term. They may exist in individual minds, but they are also communicated to others and once communicated reveal shared patterns of belief that form the basis of social discourse. The interpretive task at hand is to understand the social elements that inform one person’s dialogue, and then to explore the relationship of that social discourse to broader patterns of behavior and belief. The data are seventy oral interviews with people of all classes in Belém (Brazil) a metropolitan area of about 1.6 million inhabitants. Of the seventy interviews, sixty were conducted with one respondent alone, ten with a pair of respondents – eight with conjugal pairs, one with a mother and daughter, and one with two boys from the same street gang –, so that the total number of respondents is eighty6. The interviews range from one and a half to two and a half hours in length and were structured by eight subject items : an important event in the respondent’s life, family, neighborhood, work, religion, violence, local politics, and national politics. Of the eighty respondents, fifty-four were lower-class people whose neighborhoods reflect the variety of social organization and associational life to be had in Belém (see Table I)7. This paper draws principally on the

interviews from the neighborhoods of Igarapé Esperança, Linda Vida and Jurunas. Igarapé Esperança and Linda Vida were squatter invasions founded during the 1990 gubernatorial campaign of Jader Barbalho – Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) –, who pledged to legalize invasions if elected. Jurunas, on the other hand, is Belém’s oldest working class neighborhood, first settled in the 1920s. It is a typical working-class neighborhood composed of lower-class housing, some squatter invasions, and commercial and industrial areas8.


These three neighborhoods were chosen as research sites for a parallel study of neighborhood politics that allowed me to triangulate open-ended interview data with different socio-political contexts of everyday life. In Igarapé Esperança, home to about 5,000 people on the outskirts of Belém, a very highly mobilized neighborhood movement had in two-years’time (1991-1992) founded a community school with an enrollment of about 600 children. The leaders of the movement used the school as an institution around which to organize the community, and press local government officials and private sector actors – notably the transit companies – into providing a number of basic services to the area during my research period of 1992-1993, including bus service, electricity, street lighting, and a new bridge over a nearby creek. Returning to the field in 1995, I found the movement still strong and led by the same group of residents, who in June of 1995 were able to pressure the municipal government into providing regular garbage collection for the neighborhood.

Linda Vida, home to about 8,000 people, is located in the midst of Belém’s urban sprawl, closer to the city than Igarapé Esperança. Linda Vida, however, is not nearly so well organized and in the main fits well the picture of an « unorganized » neighborhood where residents can rely on neither local leaders nor politicians to address their needs. A nascent youth organization affiliated with the nationwide Young Catholic Workers movement and the local Catholic parish attempted to provide such leadership in the community, but it never took hold.

Finally, Jurunas, a large neighborhood with about 100,000 residents, is close to the city center, in the first areas of urban expansion dating back to the 1920s. Jurunas presents a long history of community organization that has gone through periods of highly cohesive mobilization (late 1970s – mid-1980s) and is currently fragmented into a large number of highly localized, competing neighborhood associations that have differing levels of success. Some sections of Jurunas look much like Igarapé Esperança, while others resemble the kinds of organization found in Linda Vida.

In terms of the respondents’levels of associational participation and political life – their level of « ordinariness » by my characterization of the respondents –, Table II shows that those from the popular classes tended to have some experience of involvement in one or two local organizations at the time of the research, usually neighborhood associations. About a third

had no experience of involvement in organizations, and about a sixth were active in three or more organizations. All but two of the respondents voted on a regular basis. This data represents only a raw, numerical measure of participation, and it doesn’t capture its intensity. In general, however, the level of participation among those who had been active in one or two associations was at a low level of intensity. These people were members of their neighborhood associations or local mothers’clubs, but their participation rarely exceeded attending a meeting every few weeks or months. Those active in three or more organizations tended to be more highly involved in at least one of those organizations, either holding some leadership position or counting themselves among the group’s more militant and active members.


Belém sits at the mouth of the Amazon River and is the capital of the State of Pará, which straddles the lower regions of the river. Compared with other Brazilian cities, it is poor and somewhat marginal to the national economy9. It nonetheless makes an excellent case for research on class. Politics in Belém was, at the time of research dominated by Pará’s governor, Jader Barbalho, a highly successful populist who is frequently characterized by the phrase, « he robs but he does »10. The pervasiveness of populist practice along with the generalized poverty of the city might affirm national and scholarly images of popular masses complacently co-opted by powerful machines and, at the everyday level, subject to the hegemony of dominant class discourse11. Margaret Keck (1992, p. 4) notes that scholars and social commentators make a distinction between « organized » and « unorganized » Brazil, that is, between people who are mobilized into popular movements seeking redress of class grievances and those who lack the local, organizational capacity to resist the manipulation of populist and clientelist politicians. Poverty and poor education are frequently presented as factors explaining the political manipulation and the behavior of « unorganized » masses, and the implications of this paper’s analysis are strengthened if, in Belém, it can be shown that popular discourse provides a structured set of alternatives for class behavior that moves beyond explaining the actions of ordinary people – outside of progressive social movements and organizations – as little more than a class manifestation of elite control or hegemony.



Class Narratives : Experience, Struggle, Inversion, Leveling and Mobility
When people talk about politics, they do more than state opinions. They tell stories of events and experiences, whether their own or others’, that underscore their beliefs. They often give reasons for feeling the way they do about some political figure or happening. Sometimes they specify their experiences quite clearly; at other times, their stories and reasons appear vague, ad hoc and uncertain. In Brazil’s popular classes, however, tales of
politics and political opinion are always linked to class narratives that interpret and invest with meaning two glaring material facts of Brazilian life : endemic poverty in a land of plenty and the experience that things are getting worse (see Tables 3 and 4).

These stories explore the politics of social frontiers that divide poor from rich, periferia from centro. Periferia refers to the « periphery » of working class neighborhoods and squatter neighborhoods – the « popular neighborhoods » – that ring the cities and are home to the vast majority of the population. The centro is the traditional downtown – « up there », as most respondents say invoking a hierarchical picture of class geography. The centro is a world of walled, exclusive neighborhoods, mansions, and glistening, modern apartment and office buildings, all swept and tidied daily by people who live on the periferia.



The basic pattern in common experience that underlies the connections between stories of politics, daily life and class among respondents can be boiled down to the following : the everyday experience of living with and crossing these barriers to find oneself not only excluded from the « good life » but, moreover, forced to endure growing scarcity and poverty in lower-class neighborhoods is a political problem. Someone must be preventing the poor from getting ahead. Someone must responsible for the lack of schools and services in poor neighborhoods. Respondents cannot always place names and faces on those responsible for poverty, but these same speakers have little difficulty in appointing class culprits for their conditions. The stories take complex and unanticipated turns as respondents tie their representations of class to personal experience and values they hold. They identify the « rich » and « politicians » – interchangeable terms for most speakers – as responsible for many problems, but they do not stop there. In many cases, they also identify patterns of behavior and belief among poor people like themselves as contributing to problems of social inequity in Brazil.
Felipe, from Linda Vida, began his interview with a lengthy (14 pages, in transcript) statement of class ire that speaks both to his experience of poverty and middle and upper-class fears of poor people.

Felipe, 35, cobrador [bus fare collector] : So, here’s what my interview means : I, a Brazilian, live on the periferia. In other words, I suffer a bitterly sad life because we don’t have the means to survive in the face of the need here in Brazil. Because nobody, but nobody, helps us to find a happier way. All the government leaders want is to get ahead, become bigger using us, poor people, because we poor people can’t get free of this need we’re living in. Because a poor person can’t have a television in his house, he can’t have a stove, a gas tank. He can’t have [these things] for the following reason : He can’t buy them. If he’s living, above it all, on a miserable minimum salary, it barely provides enough to eat. It’s not enough even to buy clothes for the children. And so, in the truth, what this means is that the Brazilian people suffer because a husband doesn’t have enough money to buy things. Then what can he think? He comes home to see his child with torn clothes, nose running with sickness – Why? Now, you take a [squatter] invasion like this one; we don’t have any representative. It’s every one for himself. It’s a democratic country : They say it’s a democratic country. But where’s the democracy in our country? Democracy is in the hands of « barons ». This here – the money taken from our check for union dues, no one knows where this goes. All this stuff for the nation [taxes, social security contributions] – no one knows where this is going. And because of this, the Brazilian people suffer. Why doesn’t anyone get together, unite to start a revolution in Brazil? Because it would be a revolution; something like 500 people might die. But it would end all this crap. [BF04/1-4]

Felipe’s list of problems is organized around the way that poverty makes it impossible to be a pai de família (father, breadwinner) : A man cannot provide for his family. It’s not even possible to assume the one status role open to men like himself, and as a result children are sick and hungry. He blames politicians and the wealthy. I asked him if he could think of any kind of government that could set things right.



Felipe : I’d say a socialist government. I think a socialist government, if it were serious, wouldn’t look after only the poor, only the rich, only those getting by. It would stay in the middle [ficasse na coluna do meio]. Because, in socialism, let’s say you’ve got two cars. So we’ll sell this one here, and divide up the money among the poor people. This way I think we’d change the country completely, get rid of this slavery. They say slavery doesn’t exist in Brazil, but it still does, because the « barons » turn a guy into a slave. A guy can’t even appeal to the legal system, because he’s in slavery and will lose his job. He suffers humiliation at lunch time. The patrão [boss, owner] doesn’t give him his lunch – I mean, if the patrão pays, at the end of the week it’s already deducted from salary. They want to know all about the work a person does for them, but they don’t look after their workers’health. [BF04/9-10]
Here, Felipe’s dialogue takes a complicated turn. His words are a mish-mash of class narratives that at first picture a struggle between « barons » and the « poor ». When he begins to discuss « revolution », however, his words take on a more ambiguous tone. Although « people would die », Felipe’s revolution does not eliminate the wealthy as the class enemy. Rather than class struggle, his revolution and « socialist government » are indifferent to class : instead of eliminating class the socialist governor would « stay in the middle », looking after all people, regardless of material difference. In a manner consistent with other values about human obligation, there would be some distribution of possessions to the benefit of all, but no class would be wiped out altogether.
Values and beliefs about human obligation are constructed from commonplace, everyday experiences. Stories of crime, family, neighborhood life and politics all repeat the same story about how people become obligated to help each other through their knowledge of another’s difficulty and in accord with their ability to do so (Guidry 1995; 1996, chap. 4) and the violation of these norms is in part at the root of Felipe’s ire. Taken together, values about obligation, work and honor constitute a popular theory of distributive justice that results in a downward distribution of material wealth that actually re-presents and reaffirms class boundaries rather than eliminating them. Key to one’s obligation to help another person is knowledge of that person’s problem and the ability to address that problem. Politicians, as office holders or heads of State agencies, are presumed to have this ability, and an important factor in campaign and voting behavior is a competition between politicians to convince voters that their problems are known and « on the screen », so to speak, politically. Both popular discourse and campaign rhetoric are filled with references to « knowing » the problems of others – through experience, sight, looking at, looking after, seeing – that constitute an elementary vocabulary of obligation.

The contrast of Felipe’s revolution with his affection for the conservative mayor of Belém, Hélio Gueiros, offers a glimpse into the ambiguity, or discursive dissonance, of class experience. Gueiros is from the Liberal Front Party – PFL, Partido da frente liberal –, which is a center-right party that emerged when a group of politicians who had supported the military broke away to support the transition to civilian rule in 198512. Felipe is clearly


conscious of his class – the poor, workers –, his class position – exploited by the wealthy –, of the relationship of class exploitation to politics – the rich = politicians = barons = patrão. In some elections he translates this
consciousness into a political act that would place him in « organized » Brazil : voting for Lula and the PT in 1989. But he doesn’t see the PT as his only political alternative or representative. Not all the rich are bad people, nor are all politicians. Politicians can cheat the people, but some of them do good things as well, as Felipe claims elsewhere when he praises Hélio Gueiros.
Felipe : He is a very dedicated person, looks after the poor. So these days, he’s the ideal person, a serious person who lives and gets along with the poor, looks after the poor. [BF04/11]

At this point, Felipe’s affinity for Gueiros places him amid « unorganized » Brazil, subject to the manipulation of populists like Gueiros. I asked him for some example of how Gueiros « looks after the poor ».


Felipe : The benefits [of Hélio Gueiros’s government] were that he got land and gave it to the poor. Lots of things have come from him. He ordered invasions of many areas, lots of area to give to the poor people, impoverished people who needed [it]. [BF04/12]

Is Felipe simply confused? Perhaps one might reconcile his voting for Lula at the presidential level and Gueiros at the local level by presuming Felipe to cast his lot with any politician, regardless of ideology, whose statements and actions appear to address his principal material grievances-- Felipe the rational actor. An argument stressing class relations and hegemony might cast Felipe as one whose political consciousness is stunted by economic duress, or as Scott (1985, p. 247) puts it, « the duress of the quotidian. » But Felipe’s dialogue suggests a broader consistency in line with the interpretation of Marisa’s emphasis on human dignity. Consider the contrast between the « barons » and Gueiros. Hélio Gueiros, as Felipe and everyone else knows, is from Belém’s elite class, but Gueiros is « dedicated », « gets along with the poor », « looks after the poor », and addresses the problems (as Felipe sees it) of « impoverished people » who needed help. Put simply, Felipe believes that Gueiros treats the poor with dignity and lives up to human obligations that should obtain regardless of one’s class background.

It might be argued that Felipe’s belief in Gueiros is mistaken. And perhaps it is a matter of an elite class using the authentic beliefs of poor people to hoodwink them. But in considering whether Felipe’s vote for Gueiros was the product hegemonic class relations, the question should be posed : Where did Felipe’s belief in helping the poor and treating them with dignity come from? This belief, even if it plays into the hands of a politician such as Gueiros, is part of a larger, shared culture that stresses human obligations on the basis of need and generalized equality by, as Felipe put it, taking the « middle ground ». Were class relations in Brazil to change, Felipe would still believe these things. And these beliefs, even if they cut against Felipe’s picture of class struggle, have no necessary disposition to one or another kind of political action. The belief in equality of dignity regardless of class may be used by left wing militants such as the neighborhood leaders in Igarapé Esperança to mobilize poor people, or it may be used by populists such as Jader Barbalho and Hélio Gueiros. The key to mobilizing ordinary people in the popular classes on a class basis lies only partly with struggle and very much with mobilizing already existing beliefs instead of trying to change them.
Poor people aren’t all the same, either. Shared poverty does not necessarily result in bonds of solidarity and mutual concern. As poor people speak about themselves and others like them, they tell of poor people who want power and wealth, to be the dono (« owner ») of Brazil and other poor folks. These poor people are the same as rich people, because in popular discourse how one acts is more important than what one has. Some poor people are lazy and seem to deserve their misfortune. Class narratives of social mobility and individual accountability take the experience of class out of the domination framework reflected in struggle dialogues : All people, regardless of class, are human beings and should be respected as equals and as such accountable for their actions on an individual basis. In some formulations, leveling narratives may be inflected with religious imagery – we are all « the children of God » – but closer examination reveals the use of

religious imagery to be more rhetorical than evidence that religious tradition or indoctrination has blinded people to class difference.


At an abstract level, we can extract from dialogues such as Felipe’s and Marisa’s five distinct narratives of class experience : experience, struggle, inversion, leveling and mobility. At times these stories are complementary; at times they are cross-cutting and contradictory. I discuss each narrative separately, but as with Felipe’s example above, most speakers put together different narratives to build complex pictures of class relationships. No one class narrative tells the whole truth or the only truth of class experience. They are rather an assortment of narrative tools people can use to explain why some rich people are good and others bad. The stories are built of stereotypes, exceptions that prove the rule, and other situations that seem to fit no mold.
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