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



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1. Interview [JU06/21A-B]. Interview codes signify the following : letters and numbers to the left of the slash indicate neighborhood and sequence in the series of interviews there ; the number to the right of the slash is the page from the interview transcript where quoted material may be found. All interviews were conducted and translated from Portuguese by the author. In citing interviews, I use pseudonyms, along with the respondent’s age and occupation. Other pertinent information necessary to explain the respondent’s situation and status will be given in the text or footnotes. This respondent worked for 20 years in food-processing factories that prepared castanha-do-Pará (Brazilnut) for export. The décimo refers directly to the Protestant practice of donating ten percent of one’s salary to the Church as one of the obligations for membership in the congregation. Here, her use of décimo refers generally to salary deductions.

2. The « Popular classes » refers to a varied mix of « lower » classes that may be characterized as « lower-middle » in the upper reaches and utterly indigent at the bottom. The main characteristic of the popular classes is, as Daniel Levine (1986, p. 2) notes, that they are populous – hence the term « popular » deriving from the Latin for people, « populus. » The popular classes are – at least as one would believe reading scholarly and commonplace literature from Latin America, watching television programs there or casually engaging conversation in a sidewalk bar – constitutive of the nation. As Levine notes, the notion of popular classes has embedded within it a distinction from dominant classes grounded in the experience of exclusion from « official » dogmas of modernization and the evolution toward European forms of social relations. To speak of the « popular » is to speak of resistance, in some form, however hazy and inchoate.

3. Scott 1985, Stokes 1995, Degregori ; Blondet & Lynch 1986, Foley 1993.

4. On the political and other implications of maternal identity, see Bayard de Volo 1996. The formulation, « translate grievance into action », is drawn from Lane’s work on political ideology among working class Americans, where he poses the question, « What is it that will translate some grievous experience into a political protest… ? » (1962, p. 457).

5. Schutz & Luckman (1973) discuss at length the idea that people conceive situations and actions on the basis of a repertoire of available behaviors and ideas that they call a « stock of knowledge », which may be either personal or social (i.e. common).

6. Care was taken to avoid having interviews interrupted or conducted in the presence of others, but this was not always possible. Long, oral interviews take a great deal of time to arrange and execute, and an interviewer must learn to respond to circumstance as much as arrange it. In comparison to the interviews taken with one respondent, the subset of ten with pairs proved a valuable resource for understanding how people work their self-presentation in the presence of others, as Gamson (1992, pp. 13-21, 189-194) discusses with reference to the focus group methodology he used (see also Eliasoph 1990 on public discourse in the context of interviewing).

7. The research design also included other sources of data used to verify and interpret the material contained in the taped interviews. Apart from those, I also conducted hand-noted interviews with 60 informants including politicians, activists, community leaders, Church activists and clergy, social workers and journalists. Field research in different neighborhoods also included systematic observation of community events and meetings.

8. Igarapé Esperança (meaning « Hope Creek ») and Linda Vida (meaning « Good Life ») are pseudonyms designed to maintain the anonymity of the participants in this study, given the two neighborhoods » overall level of internal conflict. A pseudonym was not necessary for Jurunas, a much larger neighborhood of over 100,000 residents.

90. A. Rocha Penteado (1968) offers the definitive historical geography of Belém, which has not been updated, however, since the mid-1960s. Studies by A. Gomes Abelém (1989) and T. Mitschein, H. Miranda & M. Paraense (1989) are good sources for changes in class and community politics during the 1980s. Pasquale di Paolo (1988) shows how family, education and class are related in political mediation in Belém, and an edited volume published the by the State government (Pará 1992) places the city in regional context. For the nature of poverty and its impact on women and children, see Jatene et al. (1993).

10. Jader Barbalho began his career as a student leader during the revival of student organizations in the « opening » of the late 1970s. He was elected to Congress in 1978, Governor in both 1982 and 1990, and senator in 1994. In the Senate, he is the leader of the PMDB (Brazilian Democratic Movement Party), the largest party in the Brazilian Congress. Out of elected office from 1987 to 1990, he served as a federal minister in the government of president José Sarney (1985-1990).

11. Von Mettenheim (1990), and Rochon & Mitchell (1989) show how middle and upper-class people place a higher value on the institutions of liberal democracy than poor people, but at the same time the middle and upper-classes reject universal suffrage at much higher rates than the poor. This is due to the general belief that poor people do not « know » how to vote, that they are merely bought off by populist politicians. Left activists also display equivocal attitudes about popular political practice, as A. Sives (1993) shows in her discussion of how the poor are, by virtue of ignorance, manipulated and co-opted by populist politicians.

12. Gueiros had held office before the military took office in 1964 and was stripped of his office and political rights by the regime. During the period of democratization, Gueiros was a support of Barbalho’s PMDB in Pará, but a conflict between the two politicians resulted in Gueiros’s switching to the PFL. As mayor of Belém, Gueiros is the second most powerful political leader in the State, after Barbalho.

13. See Collor (1993) and Silva (1993) for personalized accounts of Fernando Collor’s early years and the demise of his presidency. For scholarly accounts of Collor’s rise and fall, see Oliveira (1992) and Weyland (1993). Mische (1995) provides a consideration of how conceptions of citizenship were important to the youth in the caras pintadas movement.

14. By « reasonable track record » I refer to Collor’s own campaign rhetoric as a persecutor of corrupt government officials ; this is not necessarily an accurate reflection of Collor’s governorship, which according to his brother, Pedro, was itself fraught with corruption encouraged by Fernando (Collor 1993). The media that supported Collor ran stories of a capable, efficient and honest Collor administration in Alagoas, and those images were widely believed and helped Collor put together the 34 million votes that won him the election.

15. Many poor women I interviewed stated « housewife » (dona de casa) as their primary occupation. These women usually lived in a household where someone else – whether a husband, lover, daughter, etc. – was the main income-earner. Taking care of the children and household is regarded among Brazilians in the popular classes as a job, with a whole set of responsibilities – the informal and unremunerated work necessary for life to go on. In Belém, most women who are housewives also work out of their homes to supplement family income – sewing piece work, selling soda and small food stuffs, making snacks for their children or others to sell on the streets. This is a pattern of household organization and income generation that – save for the practice of sending one’s children out into the street to sell snacks –, is repeated with great consistency from the very poor through middle classes.

16. A comerciante is anyone involved in retailing goods, and it can refer to both formal-sector business people and small-scale merchants who sell groceries out of their homes. In poor neighborhoods, comerciante tends to refer to the latter. This woman sells a few items – soda pop, candy, bread, and popsicles – from her house, but she’s doesn’t have a store in her house ; she is quite small-scale and doesn’t make much money with it. She also has a small stand in front of the community school, where she sells candy and soda pop to the children.

17. For Lula’s personal history, see Keck (1992), pp. 73-77, and Branford & Kucinski (1995), p. 34-43.

18. In Brazil, citizens are legally obligated to vote. At the polling station, they have their voting title stamped by an official, which they must then present to obtain other government documents such as working papers or pensions. When people cannot make it to their registered station, they may receive a stamp noting they were in transit and could note vote, which is what Jeremias did.

19. It was a close election. Collor received about 34 million votes (53 %), Lula, a little over 30 million (47 %). For analysis of the vote, see Oliveira (1992), Moíses (1993) and Weyland (1993).

20. This interview, coded JU03, was taken with Arnaldo alone on the front porch of their house. His wife, Rosana, was working inside and happened to pass through the room during this segment of our discussion, for which she paused to add her own view. Her presence during the interview lasted only for a few minutes, after which she returned to her work inside. Theirs was a busy household, composed of three connected houses on a lot measuring about 3 x 20m. Together, some 17 people lived in the three houses. Along with her mother, Rosana was the subject of an earlier interview in the series, JU01 (one of the interviews with a pair of respondents).

21. Work, in other words, may be conceived in different ways, depending on one’s focal point. In the Marxist view, work must be understood in relation to the means of production. But it may also be thought of in relation to the construction of honor, which is clearly what is uppermost in the minds of most respondents I interviewed, as the subsection of this paper on social mobility will present in more detail.

22. On the subject of consumer values and relationships of social and economic exclusion among Brazilian workers, see Despres 1992.

23. These quotes are drawn from interviews BF03/60 (man, 27, student), AA05/88 (woman, 37, housewife) and JU05/21A (woman, 60, retired factory worker).

24. The references are from interviews C702/50 (man, 74, political official and socialite) and AA11/46 (woman, 41, small comerciante).

25. Estatuto da criança e do adolescente (Lei n° 8. 069, 13 de Julho de 1990), art. 60, 61 and 67.

26. Scheper-Hughes (1992) offers the finest and most vivid ethnography of poverty and bodily experience of everyday violence in Brazil.

27. Interview AA11/46 (woman, 41, small comerciante).

28. Interview AZ08/59 (man, 21, garimpeiro [independent gold miner]).

29. See Certeau 1984, Scott 1990, Eckstein 1989 and Caldeira (1984) offers several examples of how poor people invert categories related to wealth and poverty in Brazil.

30. See Coronil & Skurski 1991 for a treatment of bodies and resistance, Ortner 1995 for a critique of resistance and « subaltern studies » literatures.

31. Three respondents in this study lived in Sacramenta, a working-class neighborhood with a profile quite close to that of Jurunas.

32. Dona Letícia and Father Gregório are pseudonyms. Noted in Black Field Notebook, pp. 35-38. The irony of the fact that the group had just been introduced to a white, light-eyed, bespectacled researcher who sat quietly taking notes during their conversation should not be lost on the reader. On the importance of informal affective bonds to mobilization, see McAdam’s 1988 discussion of « micromobilization contexts ».

33. Consider Scheper-Hughes’s (1992, pp. 167-215) discussion of nervos and traditional, popular discourses of health, class and race. Her book is relevant in passim as well, because of the way demonstrates how poverty is a profoundly bodily experience of need, deprivation and subordination.

34. Guillermoprieto 1990, pp. 44-45, emphasis in original. « Xoxoba » is Dona Nininha’s name, the dance step being named for her. Mangueira is a favela (a neighborhood originally settled by invasion and squatting) in Rio de Janeiro which is famous for its carnival clubs and Afro-Brazilian culture.

35. Metcalf (1992) challenges the myth of racial democracy derived from Freyre (1936). Metcalf holds that Brazilian history, in racial terms, has rather been characterized by progressive and intentional attempts at « whitening » as a response to the initial miscegenation of the early colonial period. On the history behind Brazilian middle and upper-class standards of female behavior in Bahia, see Borges 1992. With regard to associations of sexuality, carnival and poverty, see Scheper-Hughes 1992.

36. Inversion dialogues are particularly important elements in apocalyptic and millenarian discourse. In general, millenarian visions stress a world in which virtues and righteousness are completely inverted, upside-down with respect to what ought to be the given human order. The predicted conflagration is God’s action to set things right once again, to level the playing field and render all equal as was the State before some began to break the rules and abuse power. Apocalyptic symbolic vocabulary is not unique to Brazil. Ileto (1979) provides an overview of millenarianism both as a general phenomenon common to most cultures as well as its specific twentieth century manifestation in the Philippines. See also R. Levine 1992, Slater 1986, and Tai 1983.

37. It is common to hear people speak of « racism » as a generic word for any kind of discrimination or dislike based on one’s membership in a particular group.

38. Elsewhere (Guidry 1996, chap. 5), I treat the way people use hyperbole, apocalypse and millenarian visions as narrative elements to construct stories about politics. Rather than seeing these as literal statements of belief, it is better to consider how they compose part of a social vocabulary of metaphor that can be used to embellish stories to emphasize particular points. That is the usage behind Marisa’s and Iza’s invoking of God in their dialogue, Felipe’s revolution, and again, Iza’s reference to Padre Cícero, a legendary and prophetic figure from Brazil’s northeastern region (see Slater 1986).

39. The « sick person dying in line at the hospital » is a basic narrative of poverty that has the status of « urban legend » in Brazil. Nearly everybody cites it as an example of the harshness of poverty, even if they have had no such experience. The strength of the legend, however, is based on the fact that from time to time people do die in hospital lines, and, as in the case of this respondent, a very real fear that one’s child could die at any moment. In such circumstances, every moment waiting for help weighs heavy.

40. This woman is « retired, » meaning she collects a pension available to the aged. For most of her life, she has worked (and continues to) in a variety of informal sector occupations. As a creente she has been part of the Assembly of God Church since the mid-1980s. « We’re poor, but honorable » is a translation of « Somos pobres, mas pobres honrados ».

41. By « housewife, » she refers to her role of taking care of the house for her daughter. In situations that do not replicate the nuclear family ideal, people still use the gendered terminology of the ideal. This respondent at one point referred to her daughter, who owns the house and works away from home for the household income, as the « husband » (marido) and to herself as « wife » (esposa).

42. At the time of the interview, this man was enrolled in high school and hoped to finish his secondary education. For most of his adult life in Belém, however, he worked in factories. In May 1995, as I revisited interview sites, I learned that he had left school to return to work.

43. This version of Collor’s campaign strategies applies to the rural northeast, the most impoverished area of Brazil. From Interview CL02, FN15/90-91 (man, 55, unskilled laborer and watchman).

44. See Oliveira 1992, especially pp. 15-53, and Moíses 1993, p. 583.

45. This man was employed by the State government in return for his support of the governor’s 1990 campaign and has been a neighborhood leader for over 20 years. At the time of this interview, he had just been elected president of FECAMPA, the Federation of centros comunitários and Residents Associations of the State of Pará.

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