Experience : An Epistemology of Obligation
Jeremias, 37, unemployed industrial worker : I don’t know. Everything involving Collor de Mello – if the man is there, coming into office from such a high position in life and ready to take account of the people – what are we to think? I don’t think there’s any way to make this country better, you understand? So, all of the government leaders ought to take a posture more in favor of the people.
Researcher : Who could it be? What would they have to do to take up the people’s side?
Jeremias : I don’t know. Don’t know. Imagine Collor de Mello’s case. He’s from a rich family in Maceió [capital of the State of Alagoas], business people, very powerful. He doesn’t know what it is to get up in the morning to take a crowded train to work, people hanging from the doors. He doesn’t know what it is to come home at lunch and not have a plate of beans and rice to eat. And he doesn’t know what it means to be a child, feel the cold and have no shelter. What I mean is that he hasn’t had that experience. Thus, it’s difficult for a person to analyze the problems of those who’ve lived that drama. He [the politician in favor of the people] would be someone from the people, a person who has passed through that kind of experience, in order to have some idea of it. I don’t know if I’m expressing myself well; it’s my opinion. It would be more or less this. [AZ07/12]
Jeremias was speaking about the demise of Fernando Collor de Mello, president of Brazil from 1990 to 1992, whom scandal forced from office in disgrace. Collor’s troubles escalated in mid-1992, with revelations of a widespread extortion scheme in which businesses and individuals were asked to pay Collor’s former campaign treasurer, P. C. Farías, for access to presidential policy-making13. Public sentiment against Collor grew as hundreds of thousands of youths poured into the streets to demonstrate against him. Throughout the country, these caras pintadas (« painted faces ») displayed their opposition to Collor by painting their faces either black, in disgust, or green and gold, out of pride for the national colors. Public opinion forced the Congress into openly discussing impeachment, and as the months passed, it became apparent that voting against impeachment could be political suicide. On 29 September 1992, Collor stepped aside and his vice-president, Itamar Franco, took the reigns of government until Collor could be either exonerated or impeached. On 31 December 1992, Collor was impeached by the Congress and resigned, the only Brazilian president to leave office in this manner.
Jeremias is dumbfounded at the outcome of Collor’s presidency. He mentions Collor’s « high position in life » as a way of referring to his social background from an elite political family with the best education and upbringing. For most Brazilians, Collor had appeared the picture of capable,
efficient modernity. He was highly educated, spoke several languages and portrayed a reasonable track-record as governor of Alagoas in the mid 1980s14. Collor’s campaign rhetoric was a mixture of neo-liberal modernization and old fashioned populist promises to « clothe the naked and put shoes on the shoeless ». This rhetoric steeped in religious imagery common to humble monks and missionaries is the basis of Jeremias’s statement that Collor was « ready to take account of the people ».
The conundrum for Jeremias and people like him is as follows : Who can we trust? If anyone had the personal ability to run the government smoothly, surely Fernando Collor did; moreover, he promised to take care of « the people ». But he left office in scandal, a naked emperor who had promised to clothe the people but instead presided over soaring inflation, unemployment and the demise of public confidence in democracy.
Jeremias throws up his hands in exhaustion and offers a vague solution indicative of one who is frustrated with politics – all the government leaders should take « a posture more in favor of the people ». I asked Jeremias what the politicians would have to do to meet his challenge, and he told a story about the daily experience of poverty and hardship. This is commonplace class analysis, argued in terms of crowded trains, work, hunger and children exposed to the elements without shelter. It is an epistemological claim about experience that draws lines of class difference in ways that make sense in everyday terms.
One woman from Igarapé Esperança who had worked as a maid for upper class families in the past stated,
Denise, 29, housewife : There are lucky people, already born in a « golden cradle ». They’re born and never know what poverty is. They’re born and raised without ever knowing what poverty is. I know a lot of them, and when they’re about 20 years old, 20 and then some, they’re finished with school and they get married. And so the father gives them part of his wealth. And from here on, they’re already going to live a peaceful life. They’ll never know what suffering is. [AA06/87-88]15.
I asked another woman from Igarapé Esperança what she thought of an assertion common among upper class Brazilians – that people in the lower classes are poor because they don’t want to work,
Nilma, 38, housewife, small comerciante : These upper-class people say this without knowing the poor person’s situation. Look, I’m out of cooking gas. I’m using charcoal, because my gas got used up. I buy the charcoal; I make
my little fire. I make my food. They don’t understand any of this, but I’m here fighting for that. So, like I’m telling you, they don’t know what sacrifice is. They don’t know anything. [AA10/80]16.
Experiential class narratives contribute to moral discourses about human obligation in which a person knows the suffering and needs of others by virtue of experience. Stronger than knowledge through sight or hearsay, experience teaches hunger, for example, by the physical sensations that overtake the body when one needs to eat-- stomach pangs, aching muscles, headaches and fatigue. The experience of poverty may teach sympathy and compassion, but it also results in obligation, for experience is a form of knowledge. In the most simple terms, norms of human obligation among the popular classes hold that simply knowing of another’s suffering incurs an obligation to do what is possible to relieve that suffering. This is why Jeremias believes that a politician « from the people » would do something to address poverty in Brazil. Experiential class narratives provide a powerful mobilizing frame for Lula (a metalworker turned union leader17) and other working class politicians : They know by experience what it’s like to be poor, so they can be trusted to do what is right and address the suffering of poor people.
As with Felipe’s dialogue, Jeremias’s is also complex and must be contextualized. His statement of crowded trains and the like contains a great deal of ire and shows a narrative of class struggle embedded within his story about experience and politics. But Jeremias is speaking in 1993, well after the election, and when we discussed the election itself he said he didn’t vote; he was working away from home and unable to vote at his registered polling station18. In other parts of his interview he mentions that he does not like the
PT, and it can be inferred he would very likely have voted for Collor, other things being equal. Jeremias’s sentiments are not unique-- in spite of her struggle dialogue, Marisa would have voted for Collor had her son not asked her to vote for Lula. As a whole, the results of the 1989 election show that Collor was much more popular among poorer and working people than Lula : In the run-off, Lula received his greatest support from the educated middle class, while Collor won the election and the majority of the vote among working and poorer people19.
Experiential narratives are commonly held. Within a few moments’conversation most people from the popular class – and the middle classes, for that matter – are likely to make such a statement. Experiential narratives are frequently embellished with stories of class struggle, as Jeremias, Nilma and Denise have shown. Why then did Lula lose the election? The first observation to be made is not that Lula lost, but that he came from nowhere and almost won; even if Collor received a majority vote among the poor, he didn’t receive all those votes. Many poor people who did vote for Lula discuss the candidate’s experiences as a worker when explaining why they voted for him. Second, however, class narratives do not stand alone; even the most poorly educated people arrive at a decision by recourse to a variety of experiences and reasons.
For example, experience is not the only way a politician might gain the « knowledge » sufficient to render credible his or her campaign promises to help the poor. In a long dialogue about politicians and class, the husband and wife speaking below20 use similar explanations to express their support for Lula and Cipriano Sabino, a locally popular state assembly person for the right-wing PPR (Progressive Reform Party), successor to ARENA (Alliance for National Renovation), the military regime’s party in the 1970s and 80s. I begin with Arnaldo’s vote for Lula,
Researcher : Why’d you vote for [Lula]?
Arnaldo, 39, mechanic : Ah – because the guy’s from our class, the working class, isn’t he? Even though he’s got [laughing] some twisted ideas.
Researcher : But when you said, « He’s from our class », why’s this important?
Arnaldo : I think that for the guy who’s poor that [Lula] was a worker, right? A mechanic. So I think he knows the difficulties of people here, the difficulties of the worker, right? And then there’s one guy [Collor], who was born, like they say, in a « golden cradle », right? He hasn’t experienced such need. But the worker does, doesn’t he? [JU02/17A-B]
When asked about Lula’s « twisted ideas », he explains,
Arnaldo : After I voted for him I was kind of regretting that I voted for him. Because you work to get things. You’ve got two cars. His idea is the following : Whoever has two cars has to give one to whoever doesn’t have a car. I don’t think it can be like this, you know? [JU02/18A]
Like all the respondents discussed so far, Arnaldo’s loyalties and class consciousness are divided. There is no question that he is conscious of his class position, and there is no question that he can appoint solutions, however tentative, to the problems of social inequity. But his reasoning does not resemble – in fact it rejects – the ideology of the left as Arnaldo has experienced it. Is he misinformed about socialism? To a degree, he is; but the expropriation of property forms part of the socialist experience in many countries. Has Arnaldo been tricked by elites into thinking that socialists would come after him? That question misses Arnaldo’s point about the value of honest work, whether performed by a wealthy or poor person. Instead of seeing Arnaldo as tricked or misled, it would be more truthful to his own experience to regard his statement above as an expression of the value he places in work, in general, apart from any consideration of class21.
He is concerned with the principle that hard work ought to be remunerated, as was Marisa, and most people share a belief that a person – of whatever class – has a right to keep what they rightfully earn. Though most poor people know that their work will probably not enrich them, they hold out the hope of social mobility. Arnaldo has no car, but it’s important for him to know that what he might gain from his work will be honored22.
As we continued, Arnaldo began to complain about corrupt politicians who didn’t take their political role seriously, and I asked him if he knew of any politicians who were doing a good job. He brought up Cipriano Sabino, whose PPR (Partido progressista reformista, the Maluf’s party) sees Lula and the PT as their arch-enemies in Brazilian politics. Arnaldo and Rosana, his wife, see it differently,
Arnaldo : A guy like this [Sabino] is intelligent. He knows how to speak.
Researcher : When you say, « He knows how to speak », what do you mean?
Arnaldo : When it means that people know the government’s plan
Rosana [respondent’s spouse], 36, housewife : No. [Sabino] is a person who knows how to deal with everybody here. You go to him; you speak with him. He’s always coming by in the street; you can talk to him.
Researcher : He comes around here to these neighborhoods?
Rosana : Now, no. But during the « political time » [elections] he comes. He lives [nearby]. He’s the owner of this factory here, this firm right here on this side.
Arnaldo : His father’s the owner of this one here.
Researcher : So you both like him?
Arnaldo : I think he’s an all right guy, don’t you?
Rosana : He has simpatia. Really, simpatia. [JU02/19A]
Lula is the couple’s candidate of choice nationally, but like Felipe in matters close to home they opt for a politician who appears to have some linkages to their neighborhood. Sabino might be a factory owner, but he’s not the kind of vicious rich person the couple speak of at other times. Something makes Sabino different from other rich people; it is knowledge, and as a result Sabino has simpatia. Simpatia is a difficult concept to translate. It means that a person is « likable » because he or she connects with others on an emotional level, understands them and feels for their situation, a meaning similar to but in some ways different from that of simpatia’s English cognate, sympathy. Both Lula and Sabino are expected to know something about the condition of the people in Jurunas – perhaps for different reasons and from different sides of human experience. All the same, though, both of these politicians know what ordinary working people have experienced and what they need. The expectation – reasonable or not – is that they will act on that knowledge.
What makes Rosana’s statement above even more provocative, in terms of this essay’s principal argument, is that she is surrounded by left-wing militancy, especially from activists linked to the PT. Many of her best friends are among the organizers of local food-processing unions (see Iracema’s story below); her sister-in-law is a militant, university educated activist in the Women’s Movement of the City and Countryside (MMCC), a grassroots organization led by local PT activists and headquartered next door to Rosana’s house. Rosana sits on the board of directors of her neighborhood association, COBAJUR – Jurunas Neighborhood Community –, which was Belém’s leading neighborhood movement during the heyday of community organization in the 1970s and 1980s. And in other parts of her interview, she expresses a well-developed set of arguments about capital accumulation that no doubt are related to her association with so many people on the left. Nonetheless, Sabino’s simpatia can win her vote.
Struggle : When the Wealthy Break the Rules
The most obvious popular representation of class is struggle; certainly it is the most commonly examined class discourse in both social commentary and scholarly writing. As a narrative, struggle is based in a shared experience of work that even people with relatively good jobs have had at some point in their lives : the rich use others for their labor and care little about the dignity and living conditions of workers. When working people speak about the wealthy and what it means to be poor, they use images that focus on the visceral, bodily experience of poverty. More than simply « humiliate », the wealthy want to « step all over » the poor. A wealthy politician, « if he sees you on a street filled with mud, he throws it all over you. It’s mud, covered with mud from head to toes ». They want to « eat up » the poor, to « kill the poor », to « massacre » the poor23. Dialogues of
class struggle are rendered even more concrete by constant references to food and disease. The political counterpart of class struggle is the « struggle to be seen », which is grounded in values about human charity and distributive justice. Class anger and political discontent share a fundamental likeness in the way the poor are seen : only at the workplace or during elections, those places and times when they are most useful to the wealthy. At the workplace they are underpaid and subject to harsh, arbitrary treatment; in politics they are only « raw material for elections » and the « stairs » on which the politicians ascend to power24.
Descriptions of factory work reveal a great deal of anger over the way managers and owners drive workers to perform in « sweat shop » conditions. Belém’s castanha-do-Pará (Brazilnut) processing industry, located mostly in the riverside neighborhoods of Jurunas and Guamá, offers some of the worst conditions in the city. Line workers are all women who work ten or more hours a day to extract the nuts from their woody shells and turn in fifteen to eighteen kilos of cleaned product, the daily amount necessary to collect one minimum salary at month’s end. Many women bring their smaller children to the factory and put them under the work-tables, where the children crack the shells in order to speed up their mothers’production rate. Children must be hidden so that managers and owners can claim no knowledge of child labor – in legal terms, a form of child abuse – in their factories25. As with Felipe’s words above, speakers make frequent reference to slavery. Marisa, whose comment opened this paper, worked for twenty years in various castanha factories, some of her nine children along with her,
Marisa, 60, retired factory worker : They want to exploit us very, very, very much. With each passing day they exploit us more. I used to think that we’d never have anything to do with slavery. But look, at some point we came to be the slaves of others. We’re working in order to become slaves. [JU06/11B-12A]
Her last phrase, « working in order to become slaves », is the complete opposite of what work ought to bring a person : « pleasure » and « honor » as I cited at the outset of the essay. Instead of honor and the dignity of providing for one’s children, a freedom born of self-reliance, work transforms people into slaves. For another castanheira with fifteen years in
the factories, Iracema, the factory transformed people into dogs. She tells the story of how a woman collapsed and died one day in the factory; the incident provoked a massive strike for better ventilation, potable drinking water, medical attention in the factory, and five-day-work weeks. The workers won their demands, but most of the strike leaders were not rehired for the next harvest.
Iracema, 53, union leader and factory worker : As always, they’re always massacring us. Our companheira got there and brought the first box [of nuts]. She spilled the second when she got there. She tried to pick up the box, but she fell down on top of the pile of castanhas. And she didn’t move. Some guys went to see if she was okay, to take her downstairs and see if she’d be all right. People are always fainting in there; they recover and go back to
working. But on that day it was different. What happened was they took her downstairs, but neither the owner himself nor the manager had the backbone to put her in a car and take her to the hospital. He didn’t permit it, and she ended up dying there. We called everyone downstairs, because she was a companheira and she was dead. We were able to close the street and stop traffic, begging for the love of God that this man would take her to the hospital in his car, and he did. But when they got there, she was dead. And so we all went [on strike], because in the end it was a worker who died; it wasn’t a dog that died. [JU03/14A-15B]
Poverty is many things, but overall it is a bodily experience of hunger, sickness and fatigue. Poverty results in physical distortions : the poor know well that they are shorter than the wealthy. Their bodies bear scars that tell of workplace injuries or past sickness. They know they die younger; often they watch their own children perish with little sense or feeling of power to change the situation26. Compare the story of the fallen castanheira with that of a woman from Igarapé Esperança who has worked in other local factories for much of her life, though at the time of the interview she was working as a cook for the Escola Esperança, the community school run by the progressive neighborhood association there,
Luisa, 52, community school worker : We don’t have our rights like others do, the rich who are up there on top. There, the rich go around only in cars. They only go around accompanied by police, security guards. They go around with security guards. They don’t even step on the ground – the car leaves them right at the door, and they go in with security guards behind them. And us, no. We’ve only got one security guard, God, who takes care of us. We’re trying to avoid certain problems. We’re falling down, and we’re always subordinated to them, those who have money, rich people like the president. At times, my child gets sick with fever, diarrhea. Sometimes I don’t even have the means to take him to the hospital, and when I go they give me a bill this
big [holds up hands to demonstrate size]. Where’s the money? My son could suddenly die because I don’t have the means. The rich, no they only die because they have to die, but not for lack of money. [AA03/29]
The bodily experience of being wealthy is never having to « step on the ground », as opposed to the speaker’s daily experience walking in open sandals through the dust and mud of unpaved roads. For the wealthy, bodies die healthy, of old age; for the poor it is another story.
As people talk about class and daily experience, they characterize the upper-class as villains whose malicious treatment of the poor appears with each passing glance part of a larger conspiracy. The following passage comes at the end of a discussion in which Rosana spoke at length of problems of poor sanitation and health services in poor neighborhoods.
Researcher : Are there people involved in politics who could take care of these problems?
Rosana, 36, housewife : If they would really devote themselves to working with poverty, if they had some kind of project – I’m imagining some kind of project directed toward poor people. There was [Sarney’s] « milk program », that saw to the needs of children, you know. A lot of times these days there’s no money to buy milk, and they don’t drink it. A can of milk is 108 thousand cruzeiros, 110, 108 thousand. For this week at least, my son isn’t drinking milk, because I
didn’t have money this week. Back when they had this « milk program » all the children could survive. Mothers had to go and get that sack – a little sack, really – they gave them. They had to go there themselves [to get the milk]. Now they took this away, you know, another thing they took away from the poor people. They claimed the money was missing – it was the milk that was missing, wasn’t it! They took food away from poor people. [JU01/23B-24A]
Note again how Rosana, despite her ideological affinity for the PT, values the populist milk program of Sarney’s conservative government. In popular belief, the State has the capacity to help people; political will, rather than money, is the real problem. It is, as Jorge from Linda Vida puts it below, a « struggle for good habits ».
Jorge, 22, unemployed : The struggle that we’re engaged in here [in Brazil] is a struggle for good habits – you know why? The corruption that depraves the good politicians in Brazil, Pará and Belém blinds them to [social and economic] problems. They do what they can to avoid discovering [these problems]. The upper-classes keep accumulating all this money, and they don’t invest in new jobs. And because of this they cause poverty, you know? [BF01/7]
So in Rosana’s eyes, the milk was missing, because a government that can afford to build superhighways in Rio de Janeiro and the world’s largest hydroelectric project in Pará must be able to afford a milk program for children. As Jorge puts it, what causes poverty is not that the wealthy have so much, but rather that they do not live up to simple norms of social life, that those with more should help those in need. The rich « break the rules », and this is why there is a class struggle – for « good habits ». Contrast Rosana’s picture of politicians taking food away from poor people with the usual alternatives involved in human charity : to give or not to give. To take away is not an option. And to take food from the hungry is even more reprehensible.
One common explanation for why the wealthy refuse to do anything about poverty relies partly on circumstance and not only the malicious intent of the upper-classes. According to many respondents, the problem is the distance between politicians and the poor. Struggle narratives often turn to experiential discourses – the rich create circumstances by which they can deny they knew the problem existed. Politicians are « up there on top inside their offices ». They « don’t feel » or understand the experience of being poor.
Rosana, 36, housewife : Because it’s rare to see a politician here who’s come from a poor background. The only politicians who are there [in power] are those who’ve got money. If a politician, for example, had come from poverty, maybe he’d understand these things. But rich politicians! [laughing]
Researcher : And the majority of politicians are –
Rosana : From the middle and upper-classes. You don’t see poor politicians. Lula’s trying, isn’t he? You’ve heard of Lula, haven’t you? They say he was a poor guy, you know. He struggles. [JU01/24A-B]
For the most part, however, the wealthy and politicians in particular have no way to plausibly deny the poverty that exists around them. In political terms, class struggle is also narrated as a relationship designed at preserving positions of dominance and subordination. Democracy is in the « hands of barons » who use the electoral system as a stage for political advance. The popular classes have no doubt they are the « raw material of elections », for they are the majority, and as one woman put it, « The only really sacred vote is that of the poor, because the poor are the stairs [politicians] use to go up »27. The linkage of poverty and electoral politics
offers a strikingly ironic picture of politicians turning lower-class afflictions into political commodities used for the exchange of votes and information.
Ana, 38, housewife and community leader : The government is a function of business and visa-versa. They don’t have any love for the pátria. They have no respect for people from their own land. The government isn’t interested in ending poverty, illiteracy, miséria, malnourished children, because it’s really in the midst of necessity that government leaders promote themselves and candidates get elected – be they candidates for city council, State assembly, governor, federal positions. [People], being completely illiterate and needing everything, vote for the first one who comes along with a promise or gives them a can of sardines, a hammock, a cart of sand, an artesian well in the backyard. The kind of scenes [politicians] most look for are really those of emaciated and malnourished children, neighborhoods on palafitas, impoverished houses, mistreated old folks. This is the mirror they need; they win elections on the backs of these people. They win because whoever sees these programs [on television] feels sorry for these people and thinks that [the politicians] will change it. But nothing ever really changes. [BF11/38-43]
When I asked who these politicians are, who might be better or worse, she said, « They’re all the same in Brazil today. We can’t even tell them apart ». Still, she had enough confidence to vote, in spite of her apparent dislike for rich politicians, for a string of wealthy and conservative candidates – Hélio Gueiros for Fovernor (1986), Fernando Collor for President (1989), Carlos Xerfán (note Iracema’s statement below) as Governor of Pará (1990), and Cipriano Sabino for mayor of Belém (1992).
In campaigns politicians pretend to see, understand and care for the poor. After the campaigns, lower-class people feel used, discarded and forgotten by politicians.
Iracema, 53, union leader and factory worker : In the past there was [Carlos] Xerfán [mayor of Belém, 1989-90], who walked around the baixadas [poor neighborhoods] fooling the people. Walking around in boots, you know, fooling the people with boots. When he got home, he made his wife give him a bath because he stunk of old black women and all that stuff in the baixada, you know. We heard this from his very maid who told us; we heard her say that he did this. He was false, in other words. He was maintaining an image in order to get elected mayor. He went out there in the streets every day; when he won, he disappeared. [JU03/24A-B]
Where ordinary people walk in sandals or barefoot, mud between their toes, the candidate wore boots and complained of the stench of « old black women » – words that describe the speaker herself. According to some, it is useless to pursue a politician after the election, demanding that he or she fulfill a promise – the politician « just respects people when he wants their vote. After he wins, he’ll even have arrested a person who comes around to follow up on something that he promised »28.
Inversion : In the Mirror of Power
Conversations about class also invert everyday patterns of virtue, domination and subordination. Inversion is a discursive practice seen in a variety of cultures29. When the wealthy say they are the hard-working, industrious engine driving Brazilian development, the poor counter with the question : why don’t we ever see the wealthy working? The rich are usually seen eating in restaurants where poor people work as waiters and cooks. Upper-class managers appear to fritter away hours drinking coffee and chatting with colleagues in their air-conditioned offices while on the factory floor workers turn out the products that maintain the lives of the middle and upper-classes. The apparent contradiction – that those who work have no
money and those who loaf accumulate the profits – is linked to popular ideas about how money and power corrupt people. The inversion stresses the virtue of the lower-classes. Not only do they work hard and maintain the
rules of human relationships and status, they do this in the face of the upper-class’s conspicuous and ostentatious flaunting of wealth, a temptation to break the rules if ever there was one.
The following passage works the inversion around questions of thought and reason by examining the presumption of many in the middle and upper-classes that the poor are ignorant, uneducated and lazy.
Rosana, 36, housewife : [The rich] have things pretty easy. The rich have these jobs. They have good jobs, don’t they? The poor, no. The poor go to battle in the morning, getting poorer all the time. He’s got no defined profession, does he? It’s hard to find a poor person with a defined profession. He’s got to arrange a way to survive. Today he does one thing, tomorrow he’ll do another. There are rich guys who never think [laughing]. I think poor people think more, reason more than the rich. A rich guy doesn’t have any reason to think, because he gets up in the morning and his table is full, isn’t it? Today he’s got his ham, his cheese, his mozzarella, you know. [JU01/35A]
This dialogue also reveals the way people string together narrative elements that overlap. She begins with struggle, « battle in the morning », and she uses this as a platform to invert the positions of rich and poor. One must be intelligent, crafty and ingenious to do battle every day. The ironic exaggeration, « rich guys who never think », serves several purposes. First, this contradictory picture of the world has some truth to it : there are some rich guys who never think, strange as is may seem. Second, hard work, strange as it may seem, does not allow one to get ahead. Third, the absurdity of the claim that « a rich guy doesn’t have any reason to think » also exposes, by way of contrast, the absurdity of claims that all poor people are lazy, dishonest and stupid.
As with struggle discourses, bodily imagery is also a persistent feature of inversion dialogues, especially in regard to blood and sex. With reference to bodies, the representation of class difference slides into discussions of race, for the two are intricately linked in Brazil30. Popular representations of class
and race in Brazil draw upon a similar cultural and narrative vocabulary in order to express experiences of subordination. Class and race also mix in the Brazilian context because the two phenomena overlap to the point at which many Brazilians can only speak of racism by recourse to class arguments : Blacks, people tend to say, are discriminated against because they’re poor. Such arguments provide some fiber for Brazil’s myth of racial democracy, and it is common for both rich and poor people to engage in denials of racial discrimination, the difference being that poor people who are black are more willing to discuss racial discrimination than poor people who are lighter or moreno [dark skin but not black].
Consider a conversation at a neighborhood association meeting in the working class neighborhood of Sacramenta one Saturday in July, 199331. The leader of the group, Dona Letícia, is a morena in her mid-thirties who has been involved in community organization for many years. The centro is part of network of local organizations tied to Catholic CEBs (Christian Base Communities, see Levine 1992) in the neighborhood, this largely the work of one Father Gregório, an immigrant priest who lives in the area and has affected local life to the extent that many residents refer to the immediate area as « Father Gregório’s neighborhood ». Six people attended the meeting, its conversational tone underscoring the informal bonds of affection necessary for neighborhood associations to flourish. At one point, Dona Letícia claims that she has noticed that most people who have « light eyes » (blue or green) seem to need glasses, while « our black eyes » can see much better. One by one the others agree, including a very fair-skinned woman who nonetheless had dark brown eyes. As the conversation on the superiority of brown and black eyes continued, another woman at the meeting added that white people are weaker in general. White people get sick a lot; they have all kinds of health problems and have to go to expensive hospitals. Morenos, on the other hand, can work hard all their life. They are stronger32.
To speak of the bodily superiority of poor people is not the same as denying the facts everyone sees in the newspapers or on television : poor people have a lower life expectancy than the wealthy or middle classes. Poor people are shorter; they suffer daily from infectious diseases that could be avoided with proper sanitation and clean drinking water. Brazil’s cholera victims have been by and large poor favelados (residents of squatter neighborhoods). No one doubts these facts, but inversion discourses laugh in the face of ordinary facts that are contradicted by personal experience : we work our bodies into the ground and suffer all sorts of diseases, and even if we do not live as long as you, we still dance, laugh, have children and become grandparents.
The common metaphor of « strong blood/weak blood » draws upon vitalist traditions in popular beliefs about health and medicine. A person who is animated and energetic must have strong blood, and sex and children are fundamental markers of one’s vitality and força (lit. « force »)33. One popular interpretation of differences in fertility rates between light and darker skinned people holds that Blacks (and poor people) have stronger blood than Whites (and rich people) – this is why dark-skinned people have large families and whites have small families. It’s why it often takes three, four or five years before a white couple has children and why there are so many more dark-skinned people in the first place.
A related set of beliefs involves sex and the cultural imagery of the morena. Besides meaning « dark-skinned woman » in a generic sense, morena is also shorthand for a standard of beauty based in Afro-Brazilian culture – that of a large, plump, dark-skinned woman who, above all, has a large behind. Popular songs often revolve around affection for an anonymous morena. It is a stereotype of beauty held by people of all races and classes in Brazil, though it is most commonly associated with Northeastern women and carnival,
« Dona Nininha isn’t what she used to be », Eurides said. « She was the most sensational woman Mangueira ever saw. That lady was big; not just tall, but built. And she had this enormous savings, so when she did her special step, the one you saw, the Xoxoba, that savings would shake like anything ». Savings? « You know; her behind. She doesn’t have much left now, but when she was young, men sighed over her, they really did »34.
For Brazilians of all races, the morena’s African and carnivalesque attributes invest their bodies with an exotic and alluring sexual power. In contrast to the morena stand more modest, European (white and upper-class) models of behavior and appearance in light of which the morena’s allure is somewhat threatening. In particular, the allure of the morena is an inverted racial narrative that exposes the constructed nature of racial power cleavages and helps explain why racial discourse in Brazil clings to class as a way of interpreting a simple pair of facts : with rare exception, the wealthy are white; and with rare exception, Blacks are poor. To be sure, there are some Blacks who are wealthy, but even they face harassment at times. Black men in dark suits, for example, are often mistaken for servants, waiters or valets. Also, the poor are not exclusively black or dark-skinned. Nonetheless, race and class so overlap that it is not possible to discuss being black without discussing poverty.
Standards of beauty and their associated racial discourses are changing. The white/European standard of beauty is increasingly associated with North-American images of tall, thin « supermodels », and for many middle and upper-class Brazilians, the morena is of a piece with other distasteful and non-productive popular cultural patterns such as laziness, ignorance and
drinking cachaça (cane liquor). Together these characteristics comprise the popular « culture » and « mentality » that middle and upper-class people use to explain why poor people cannot seem to improve their lot35. The
supermodel look is one that stresses affluence and modernity; one sees women of this type on television, in movies and chic clubs, never in favelas or baixadas.
Inversion discourses are problematic. They have, as Scott (1990, pp. 166-172) points out, long been held in a variety of cultures as part of the tactical repertoire of everyday resistance. Scott notes also that they may have little import apart from an imaginary function that ameliorates some of the rougher edges of subordinate experience. Taking the point further, inversion also appears to romanticize experiences of suffering and exaggerate the virtue, goodwill and magnanimity of the « people ». The morena, for example, may be read either as a challenge to or constitutive of white domination. In the latter sense, the morena and the myth of racial democracy both serve as legitimating discourses for the class domination into which racial subordination has been subsumed. Racial democracy and the morena-as-national-image offer non-Whites a co-optive illusion of racial power without threatening patterns of economic exclusion and mobility. Along the same lines, one sees in scholarly writing and popular media – consumed by the popular classes, produced by the upper-classes – platitudes about the popular classes as the « backbone of the nation », the « real » Brazil. The poor as « backbone » is a particularly patronizing way to romanticize domination when it is linked in middle or upper-class discourse to social mobility. What emerges from conversations with middle and upper-class people is a picture of three kinds of poor : a) the « deserving » poor, hard-working but incapable of advancement; b) the lazy, criminal and otherwise « undeserving » poor, and c) those few who have the wits and drive to take advantage of the system, get an education and move up in class status.
Whether inversion discourses legitimate or resist patterns of class domination is a problem that cannot be addressed, much less resolved, without considering the simultaneous existence of other class discourses – struggle, leveling and mobility. No discourse can change poverty or subordination, and the poor do not deny that. Ultimately, discourse interprets experience and offers people the ability to create shared meanings that might be used to justify an action, belief or judgment. In the end,
inversion is linked to a desire that the playing field be leveled, in the same way that the final outcome of millenarian visions of conflagration tends to be a renewed world characterized by classlessness, peace and equality36.
In the following passage, Iza answers to the question, « Are there race problems in Brazil » ? She is a black woman, and her dialogue begins with the idea that race should not matter as a manner of evaluating people, the same preference expressed by Felipe when he called for a socialist governor « indifferent » to class. Iza acknowledges the linkages between race and
class, but in a way that moves back and forth between inversion and leveling discourses,
Iza, 37, housewife : In my experience I see it this way – I’m this color and you’re that. I’m black and you’re white; it doesn’t mean that you’re better than me because you’re white. This doesn’t mean anything, because our blood – my blood – is stronger than yours. You could have nice houses, farms, planes. You could have a lot of things I don’t have, and on this point I’m not equal to you. But this doesn’t have anything to do with the other thing [race]. I think this is really absurd because we’re all human beings, no matter if we’re black, others white, but it doesn’t have anything to do with the other thing – because I’m black but I share my life with others giving up my own blood, giving life so [another] will survive. Generally, I never give blood to Blacks. Generally, the people I’ve given blood to are white. So naturally my blood isn’t worse than others’blood, is it? I don’t think that being white or black makes you better than him [the blood recipient] but he needed me and maybe at some point I won’t need him, because my blood is very strong.
Researcher : Do you think that Whites here treat people of other colors well?
Iza : Look – this depends on how the person is, because there are people here who aren’t prejudiced, aren’t there? And there are people – Blacks themselves are prejudiced against other Blacks, and there are Whites who are prejudiced toward other Whites. I’m married for the second time; my first husband was the same color as me, only his hair was quite blond, his eyes blue. Today he’s married again, to a woman the same color as me. He’s had a lot of white girlfriends but he never goes for them. He always says he doesn’t like white women. Now, I’m certain [my current husband] wasn’t color conscious, since he was from a family that wasn’t too bad off, they even had things. But he wasn’t prejudiced, because instead of choosing someone of his own color, he didn’t want to. [AA05/103-07]
Iza’s dialogue begins with images of struggle and then turns to inversion, but her purpose is to express desire for a leveled world. First, she highlights the class difference between Blacks and White, as well as white claims to superiority, but she drops that line of reasoning – « this doesn’t mean anything ». Note how she freely switches from race to class, since these
categories appear to signify the same things – her husband « wasn’t color conscious, since he was from a family that wasn’t bad off ». Second, she lays the ground for an inversion by pointing out that her blood is apparently stronger than the blood of some Whites, but by not overstating the case she underscores her original sentiment – « this doesn’t mean anything ». Third, asked specifically how whites act, she still refuses to exaggerate images of inversion; her current husband is not black but is married to a black woman. For many this would be an opportunity to sing the praises of the morena or discuss how white women cannot satisfy their men, yet for Iza her husband’s preference represents the kind of « indifference », to use Felipe’s word, she wishes really existed in Brazil. Finally, an important part of Iza’s story here is the way she contrasts herself to Whites by using the second person, addressing me, a White, North American researcher. I provide a
counterpoint and foil for her to argue quite forcefully that she and I, differences notwithstanding, are the same.
Leveling : When Class Shouldn’t Matter
Iza’s personal experiences seem to conflict with social stereotypes of bigoted Whites and suffering Blacks. Her words cast an alternative vision of human difference, one based in a kind of spiritual equality that stands above and beyond physical or material difference. In narrative terms, Iza’s inversion dialogue serves as a rhetorical device upon which she constructs another story about the equality of all people, regardless of race or class. The inversion tells a leveling story – that her blood and her love are as good as that of any White, from any class. It is a tale of her personal experience that sometimes equality of dignity can overcome material and social difference, as repeated in the following story by a boy from Igarapé Esperança.
Edmar, 17, comerciante : There are a lot of people who don’t socialize with poor people. Poor – I mean people [of a] lower [class]. My cousins are higher class. We’re a bit lower. But they always visit us here, they don’t have any problem with that. They have more things than we do. Sometimes we don’t have these things – let’s say, a car. And we’re ashamed to go there because they have a big house, pretty, a rich person’s house. And our poor little house with a dirt floor, even. But here, [my cousin] is totally different [from other rich people]. He comes here, eats on the same plate as we do, drinks our water, everything. And so for us he’s a person just the same as we are, even though he’s more or less from the upper middle class. [AA07/88-89]
In that passage, Edmar speaks of exclusion – « There are a lot of people who don’t socialize with poor people ». The rich refuse to come into popular neighborhoods. They will not drink the water or eat the food offered them in popular neighborhoods. They refuse to see the poor and acknowledge them as fellow citizens : but this notwithstanding, the boy qualifies his representation with a story of his « rich » cousins who visit him in the squatter invasion, eat his food, and treat him and his family as equals to the point at which the boy says, « and so for us he’s just the same as we are, even though he’s more-or-less from the upper-middle class ».
In popular experience, class is as much a matter of what one does as of what one has, and leveling narratives often present solutions to social inequity that involve changing the behavior of the wealthy – in search of the « good habits » of which Jorge spoke. The following passage, for example, is part of a conversation on the death penalty. I asked the respondent, a young man from Linda Vida, if he favored capital punishment, and he said he did. His reasoning is based on the idea that the death penalty should be applied to rich and poor alike, forcing the rich to change their behavior toward the poor and acknowledge a common, equal citizenship before the law.
Benedito, 27, student : A lot of rich people wouldn’t humiliate the poor, because they’d know they’d be punished, that they’d be put away just like the poor. They’d treat everyone equal. Now, the rich think that because they have money they’re superior to the poor. They go to the justice system, [where] there’s a lot of money running around. And they have a way out – they pay. They’ve got the money to pay for a lawyer, this, that and the other. And the poor don’t have this. [The rich] know they’re stepping all over the poor, and in the case of the death penalty they’d know that, if they pushed a poor person into a hole, they’d go into that same hole, too. So, they’d treat people equally, they wouldn’t humiliate the poor. [BF03/60]
His desire for equality contrasts with his vision of the world as it is – a place where the wealthy buy justice and humiliate the poor. The probability of achieving equality is secondary to the expressed desire that the current unequal state of class relations ought to change and might if some harsh penalty were applied with equal force to rich and poor alike.
In other parts of his interview, Benedito speaks of other forms of difference that are usually linked to class and social position in Brazil. Like Iza, he blends class and race, and paints equality as a matter of « adequate » or dignified treatment rather than classlessness,
Benedito, 27 student : There’s a lot of racism here in Brazil. A lot of people are racist toward blacks. A Black person has racism against a white. A rich person is racist toward a poor person – this, that and the other thing. I think it’s ridiculous. I think we could make things equal, because racism isn’t something we should be doing. If we’re all human beings, then let’s treat one another as equals, adequately – be they black, white, rich or poor. At least I treat everyone equally. [BF03/8]37.
Leveling strives to make sense of two contradictory but co-existent situations or experiences : 1) Yes, there are rich and poor, and the poor suffer greatly; but 2) on a spiritual level people are all the same, and in many ways one can see this spiritual equality manifest on earth. Experiences of rich relatives who don’t act like snobs is one kind of experience that supports leveling discourses while accepting material inequality. Speakers frequently
ground discourse about transcendent equality in religious terms, as Iza does in a long passage that knits together a narrative of struggle and a millenarian conflagration, for the reason that wealthy people and politicians do not respect the fundamental equality of human dignity, expressed by the metaphor that we are all God’s children. I had asked her what she thought of Itamar Franco, successor to Fernando Collor and President at the time of our interview.
Iza : It’s all the same thing to me. Nothing got better. Do think anything changed?
Researcher : I don’t know.
Iza : Things [prices] are going up every day : fuel, gas. Look – I’m going to tell you something. From my point of view, there’s only one man who could fix Brazil, who could fix the world, moreover : God.
Researcher : Only God could fix it?
Iza : Yep. Because He doesn’t steal from anyone. God doesn’t lie. He’s not fake. Here on earth, everyone who becomes senator, president is all the same to me : from bad to worse. They want to finish off the people, and God doesn’t want this. God wants to see all his children well because we’re all children of God, as much as we might not want to be brothers. But we are, because we’re all children of God. Those in power, up on top, don’t think so. Their only brothers are the ones their mothers had.
Researcher : So why does God let this situation keep on existing?
Iza : It’s because God’s tired of dealing with stubborn people.
Researcher : And how do you know this?
Iza : Because even though I’m illiterate, I hear a lot of people talking, including my grandmother. She tells us the words Padre Cícero said, that there will come a time of nation against nation, sons against fathers and fathers against sons. And here fathers would prostitute their daughters, brothers prostituting sisters, father killing son, son killing father. And it’s true – don’t you see it today? [AA05/54-58]
Statements such as these are often held up as examples of how poor and poorly educated people in Latin America – and elsewhere – mystify politics with a religiosity that can appoint only ineffectual millenarian visions instead of painting more realistic paths to political action. But that interpretation takes Iza’s words out of context. In the same way that Felipe casually includes socialist and revolutionary imagery – a secular millenarian vision – into his struggle narrative, so Iza invokes the well-known legends of Padre Cícero as a rhetorical device to make a point about the world today : something is wrong with class relations, and it’s so bad that… At the same time, she goes about her daily business and participates in politics in a number of standard and ordinary ways – as a member of a local mothers’club, voting, going to an occasional neighborhood meeting, and discussing politics with friends and neighbors38.
Other experiences of the difference between centro and periferia point to a certain ironic equality of condition. In the following, Nilma, a woman who had worked as a live-in maid in central Belém for almost ten years before marrying speaks of a religiously-based equality and its consequences on earth. Nilma had begun her interview with a story of how one of her children almost died of hepatitis while waiting to be attended at a public hospital; this and other stories of her life in Igarapé Esperança were the basis of a livid, half-hour exposition on the indignity of poverty in Brazil39. Later
in the interview, as we discussed religion, she said that all people suffered for their sins because all are children of God. As I recalled the anger that animated the first part of our conversation, I asked how she thought the rich suffered.
Nilma, 38, housewife and small comerciante : I think they have a different kind of suffering. For example – look – I’ve seen rich people, not all of them, but each has his own cross. They’re rich, but we don’t know about their cross, because not all of them are happy, no. They have money, [but] I think the very wealthy who don’t have any other kind of problem have a cross – that fatigue of being worried all the time if he’ll lose money, if he’ll make money. He doesn’t sleep at night, worried if a thief will rob him, if some employee of his will go behind his back. Or his business partners – his worry is continual. He sleeps thinking of his business, not free from care. I think that’s a kind of suffering, that he never sleeps peacefully. [AA10/48-49]
This picture of upper-class suffering is based on her experiences of wealthy people for whom she worked as a maid. Nilma’s stories of them moved back and forth between anger about some of their actions – the way the husband treated the wife, the way the wife treated the respondent – and her sympathy for their concerns and worries. The « burden of wealth » symbolism to which the above passage refers is a common narrative element (inversion) in popular discourse that stands in contrast to other elements, such as bodily imagery of the rich « eating » or « walking all over » the poor. But the fatigue of worrying over wealth is how it must appear when one’s
employer arrives at the breakfast table every other day saying what one respondent, a middle-class entrepreneur, said when asked to describe his daily life.
Eduardo, 33, businessperson : I live stressed-out, constantly stressed. Since business is going poorly, I don’t sleep well. At least I’m like this – I worry about my bills. My wife complains about my turning on the television, and I even put tapes in [the video recorder] to record. Sometimes I wake up in the early morning worried. I have to turn on the television to distract myself. [C301/25-26]
Mobility : The Value of Honest Work
Pictures of class struggle tend to vilify the rich; pictures that invert or level patterns of class subordination can idealize the poor. Other popular representations of class examine differences among poor people. In these kinds of discourse people turn to themselves and their families in order to say how and why they are different, why they are honorable, or why they are doing well while others are not. At times, these dialogues bleed over into gossip – « We may be poor, but we’re honorable. Now my neighbors… ». People talk about refrigerators and television sets and why they deserve things while others do not.
These statements are not simply gossip; nor are they indications of false consciousness or class co-optation manifest in banal consumerism. These attempts to differentiate kinds of poor people are rooted in notions of work, honor, and the material payoffs of diligence and perseverance. They are about status : status is fundamentally a differentiation, and what people are saying by calling their poorer neighbors « lazy » is that hard work brings with it honor and higher status rendered visible in material terms – a brick house instead of wood, a new stereo system, and so forth. This sort of class discourse is not peculiar to the lower-classes. From the middle or upper-classes perspective, discourses of social mobility blame the poor for their poverty; among the lower-classes, however, mobility affirms the importance of honor and expresses the desire that one’s situation can get better. The poor do not romanticize poverty; they wish to escape it – but with dignity. And sometimes dignity is a color television set and the latest North American movies dubbed in Portuguese.
Consider how Francesca, an elderly woman from Jurunas, began her interview.
Francesca, 79, retired : You mean I can tell the story of my life?
Researcher : Yes, you can.
Francesca : Why, I was never married. I was with a man for four years, but it didn’t work out. I was the one who left; he didn’t leave me. From what I saw, it wasn’t working out and I got out. I raised four children without a father : three men and one woman. These days, for quite a while now, I’m a creente [congregational Protestant]. I transformed my life – God transformed my life. I live with my daughter. From 18 years old, we live on our own. No one asks for anything from anyone. As we say – we’re poor, but honorable. Do you understand ? [JU06/1A]40
In a short statement, Francesca begins to indicate how honor is constructed from everyday activities such as raising children and taking care of one’s own life (« we live on our own »). As she continues her « life story », she launches into detail on the kinds of work she has done – sewing, making straw hats, making charcoal, selling goods brought from Belém to São
Sebastião de Boa Vista (a town on the island of Marajó, about 200 km northwest of Belém), and, in Belém, selling grocery items from her house. At the time of this interview, she supplemented her meager social security check by making and selling pastéis, fried pie-crust-like dough stuffed with shrimp and vegetables. On mornings when she felt up to it, she left the house around six to sell the snacks on the streets of her neighborhood. « I never come back home with any pastéis », she proudly said.
Francesca : I was never ashamed to work. Look, when I was living in Cocal, in the town of Boa Vista, I had my sewing machine. I made pastéis, I made sweets. In that time, I wasn’t a creente. I put out a liter of cachaça [cane liquor] – look, it was a bottle! People came from the other side [of the Amazon River], from Cametá to there, all those people. I sold it right in front of my door. People arrived – « Do you have a pastel, ma’am? Do you have sweets around here » ? « Yes I have », [I said]. « I have sweets. I have a lot – "jaguar-milk" [cachaça] ». I did everything. Look, I sold everything, thank God. I would sew, converse – my hands working, my mouth talking. I didn’t lose any time.
Researcher : There are people mainly the upper-class, who say that poor folks here really don’t work very much.
Francesca : They don’t work very much?
Researcher : Yeah, there are people who say this.
Francesca : That they don’t work? Well, me – no. I always worked, and I did everything in my house. Here, I’m a housewife, [but] it’s not the only thing I do. If I’ve got a mountain of dishes to wash, I wash the clothes, I wash the dishes, and I still do other things. I put the pan on the stove, cook it up. I do everything at once. I’m not the kind of person who does one thing and then another. Me, no. In the house where I lived [in Cocal] it was like this, and because of this I know how to survive, don’t you think so? And here my daughter doesn’t force me [to do anything]. Look, there were days when I
was younger – I got up at two in the morning. I went from here to the Feira de Açaí [a large open market in downtown Belém] to sell pastéis. By 7 : 30, I had my money. I’ve done all of this in my life. It’s no lie – you can ask my neighbors. [JU06/35A-B]41
Her work allowed her to avoid asking others for help and enabled her to raise her four children – all of this without the aid of a husband. This is a point of honor for her, and she cannot understand how some people say the poor are lazy or don’t work very much. The father of her children, with whom she lived for four years, spent his time drinking, dancing and chasing other women, and she threw him out and assumed the entire burden of raising her children. As she put it, « I was mother and father to these children », using the terminology of the nuclear family to contest the irresponsible but very common behavior of her husband. In so doing, she
underscores her own struggles. She has worked hard, owes nothing to anyone, and has achieved a degree of honor that overcomes the material poverty of living in a two-room shack made of weathered, old wood subject to all sorts of health hazards from the surrounding swampy area. Poor, yes, but honorable.
At an earlier point in the interview, Francesca had mentioned that there seems to be more poverty today than in the past. I asked her why, and her answer takes her in the direction of individual accountability for one’s actions, a part of the larger mobility story. She has used her own life as an example that blanket stereotypes of the lazy poor are not true, but here she notes that in individual cases there are lazy people among the poor.
Francesca, 79, retired : But there are people who’re poorer than I am There are people who don’t work diligently, you know. Because a poor person, as poor as he is, if he gets something he’s going to go off and sell it. Because these days it all ends up being money. Yeah. And there are people who’d rather sleep all day than work. And that’s why I’m saying there’s more poverty. [JU06/24A]
Her concern is that people are becoming more lazy, hoping to make some easy money instead of working hard for a small but sufficient and regular salary. In other words, Francesca believes that some poverty is caused by poor people who refuse to work honestly as she has. This is a belief grounded in her experience that honest work can pay off in this world. Even when work does not dramatically transform one’s material well-being, it at least gives one a measure of honor and dignity. In the end, mobility dialogues among the poor stress this sort of equality, that rich and poor people who work honestly all share the same kind of honor in each other’s eyes, a belief that also underscores the dialogues of Marisa and Arnaldo examined above.
The idea that « it all ends up being money » is related to a belief, shared by rich and poor alike, that money corrupts the mind and morals and that poor people are particularly susceptible to this vice because they have so little experience with wealth and power. The corrupting influence of money and the temptation to break the norms of decent behavior in order to get it are quite evident in dialogue about thievery and honor. Ordinary people differentiate between the honorable poor and criminals, saying that criminals are people who do not like to work and want « easy money ».
Benedito, 27, student : [Thieves] are simply people who don’t like to work. They want everything to come easy. So they don’t work, and they don’t have money to buy things – and so they go off robbing others, inflicting violence on the people. [BF03/55]42
In a statement echoing those of Francesca and Benedito, Rosana discussed different explanations for crime, including the justification that poverty causes crime.
Rosana, 36, housewife : People blame the government. For example, « Ah, it’s the government’s fault – since mothers don’t have anything to give their children, their children will steal ». As far as I’m concerned, this is the wrong idea. Okay – the government bears some of the blame because it doesn’t have
the ability to help people lead a dignified life. But poverty doesn’t justify stealing or becoming a delinquent. Because I think – or I imagine – that no one was poorer than us. And mama, thank God she had 13 children and not one of them a delinquent. [JU01/19B]
Contrast Rosana’s here to her earlier statement about the injustice of ending the milk program that existed during the Sarney administration. There is no contradiction here. She has simply identified two kinds of action that she believes are both wrong : It’s wrong for the government not to help the poor, and it’s also wrong for the poor to use that as an excuse to break the law.
In the end, this picture of poor people creating some of their own problems through vice or laziness extends to representations of politics and poverty. Consider Miguel’s take on the issue.
Miguel, 20, student : Look, seriously, I think there are workers who are really great, I do. But I think that once they have money in their hands, just like that I think they’ll want to steal. No one can just sit there with money like that
Researcher : Even you?
Miguel : No – I don’t know. I don’t know what it’s like. As I’m saying : « Money controls a man’s mind ». [JU08/17A-B]
During the 1989 presidential race, Fernando Collor took advantage of these beliefs in order to counter Lula’s claims that only a worker would be able to serve the working class. Collor’s campaign workers in impoverished rural areas explained that Lula would rob the country because he was poor and would be overwhelmed by power and wealth. Collor’s campaign propaganda portrayed him as a wealthy business person who was accustomed to wealth and wouldn’t rob the nation because he had no need to43. Among the poor, Collor out-polled Lula by a significant margin in 198944. One community leader explained this by saying that many poor people do not recognize themselves as leaders, because,
Roberto, 39, government employee : There’s a poor folks’culture [that says] that when a poor guy gets in power he’s going to steal.
Researcher : A poor person?
Roberto : Yeah. He’ll take power and he’ll steal. The rich already have money, so this one won’t steal. It’s an issue that you come across. [CL01/51]45
The problems of an unwillingness to engage in the hard work necessary to live an honorable life extends beyond pictures of how working class politicians might act if elected to high office. It is an explanation of popular political inaction that many, especially working-class people active in politics, use to characterize the apathy or alienation they see among others like themselves. In these stories, one sees a detailed vocabulary of failure associated with the political impotence of the popular classes, who are
characterized by rich and poor alike as comodistas (« self-indulgent »), acomodados (« compliant ») and frouxas (« feeble »). When Nilma, who is active in the neighborhood movement of Igarapé Esperança, was complaining about how politicians do not attend to the needs of those who voted for them, I asked her why.
Nilma, 38, housewife and small comerciante : I don’t know. Maybe because the people are acomodado, comodista, keeping quiet. They don’t go inquire why the government can’t do anything always being afraid their families will go hungry. If they’ve got a job that pays very little, they’re still afraid of losing that little bit, and they don’t join the fight. I don’t know. I guess it could be this. The Brazilian people are very comodista. They don’t want to fight for their own rights. [AA10/40]
Carolina, a prominent neighborhood leader in Jurunas with ties to politicians from populist, clientelist and left-wing backgrounds, states the case even more explicitly, appointing the representative mechanisms of electoral politics as fruitful avenues of political action.
Carolina, 32, secretary and community leader : For me, these people are so feeble and timid; they don’t join the struggle. Look, if Bira Barbosa [a State assembly person linked to Jader Barbalho] came to my area promising to pave my street, promising the world, he’s going to have to take responsibility. I’ll be there under his feet – « Look, congressman, you promised this, that and the other thing If you don’t do it, no one will vote for you in the next election. I’ll create problems for you ». [JU07/30A]