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Brazzil - Poverty - June 2004

Brazil: The Survival of the Poorest

They came to São Paulo, Brazil, with hopes of improving their
lives, of earning good wages, and supporting their families
above a mere subsistence level. But, except for a lucky few,
São Paulo's poor are finding life in this megalopolis a constant
struggle and many are no better off than when they first arrived.

Frank Braun and Eduardo Gentil


Picture In June 1979 when I co-wrote the story below, "São Paulo's Poor Survive on Savvy" (along with another young reporter, Eduardo Gentil), Brazil was still under a military dictatorship, although undergoing an abertura (opening) and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was a young union leader, struggling to stay out of jail and keep his embryonic workers' movement alive. The story was published in the English language newspaper, The Latin America Daily Post on June 15. 1979.

Today, a quarter of a century later, The Latin America Daily Post no longer exists, Eduardo Gentil is currently the President of VISA do Brasil, I write about Brazil's space program, and, of course, Lula is the first working-class President of Brazil.

But, even under a populist President, Brazil's working poor appear to fair no better in their struggle to survive. A recent notice in the Brazilian press caught my eye; it stated that Lula's government had reluctantly agreed to increase the minimum wage to US$ 87 a month.

In my story below, one will notice that in 1979, the minimum wage was US$ 90 a month and the working class poor we interviewed were struggling just to keep their heads above water.

I wonder what has happened to those folks we interviewed all those many years ago; whether, in fact, they did survive; and if today's workers in Brazil harbor the same feelings of frustration and anger with their plight.

Frank Dirceu Braun

São Paulo's Poor Survive on Savvy

Survival for many of the millions of working class poor people in São Paulo depends upon a creative combination of family cooperation, a steady diet of rice and beans, and a healthy dose of ingenuity.

Immigrants from other, poorer parts of Brazil form a high percentage of the low wage earners in this teeming city of 8 million, ironically the country's booming financial and industrial center.

Greater São Paulo, according to researchers, until recently attracted nearly 500,000 immigrants annually, the majority coming from the rural zones of the north, northeast, and central regions of Brazil. Many of these immigrants are illiterate. Most, simply, are unprepared for big city life, lacking the skills necessary for getting high paying jobs.

They came to São Paulo with hopes of improving their lives, of earning good wages, and supporting their families above a mere subsistence level.

But, except for a lucky few, São Paulo's poor are finding life in this megalopolis a constant struggle and many are no better off than when they first arrived.


It is easy for a man like José Santos Carapia to be overlooked in the sprawling, concrete labyrinth of São Paulo.

He stands in front of the gleaming glass doors throughout almost every night, a solitary figure dressed in a blue uniform with a blue cap, unnoticed beside the massive concrete building which juts 19 stories up into the sky. He is hardly a pivotal figure in this complex city's scheme of things.

Like many of São Paulo's eight million people, José migrated to São Paulo from the northeastern state of Bahia in hopes of finding gainful employment.

After discovering that there weren't any high paying jobs awaiting him, he became a porteiro or doorman, earning US$ 80 a month. That was eight and half years ago.

Today, still at the same building, José has progressed to the position of night watchman with a US$ 120 salary. The cost of living increase over the past years has far outdistanced whatever improvement José might otherwise have attained in living standard.

José Carapia was one of a number of São Paulo workers interviewed by the Daily Post who had incomes ranging from U$ 90 to US$ 300 a month. His salary is slightly higher than the minimum wage in São Paulo, which was recently readjusted to US$ 90 (Cr$ 2.260) a month.

About 63 percent of the Brazilian population earns the minimum wage or less, according to statistics prepared by the respected labor research organization, the Inter-union Economic, Social, and Statistical Studies Department (DIEESE).

Bare Minimum

DIEESE says that the monthly "bare minimum" living cost per person in São Paulo is on the order of US$ 120. And, the research unit adds, food expenses alone for a typical working class family of four in an urban area run to at least $100 a monthly.

The situation for the low income has deteriorated over the last five years, according to several Brazilian economists. They blame the cost of living, which has gone up faster than the increase in wages.

While the cost of living rose and his salary stagnated, the size of his family kept increasing. When he arrived he had only three children; today has seven, ranging from eight months to fourteen years.

In response to the obvious question of why he hasn't tried birth control, José affirms that "operations to avoid having children are too expensive. The pill ruins the woman's health. But I am going to stop at seven, no doubt about that."

Carapia is proud in saying that his wife does not have to work at an outside job. The wife of José Pereira da Silva, 35 year old shoe salesman in one of the many shops jammed into the city's Campos Elíseos business district, also does not work outside of her home.

But Pereira's children have been employed since early ages to help the family survive. Pereira earns an average of US$ 200 a month, working six days a week, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Toil Long Hours

Like their father, José's two sons, ages 14 and 15, work as salesman in small shops nearby. Both toil from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. and together they earn a total of US$ 100 a month. In the evening they go to school.

José must support his family of six on US$ 300 a month. Of this, US$ 100 goes for rent; US$ 25 goes for transportation, to and from work for the father and two sons; and US$ 100 goes to feed the family on a daily diet of mostly rice and beans.

"Meat is only for the rich," José says. "So is milk, but I buy a liter of milk a day because it is important for the children."

José makes a point of holding on to "at least Cr$ 30 to Cr$ 40 (US$ 1.50 to US$ 2.00) at the end of the month in case of an emergency," in which his children might need medication. The amount is just enough to buy one small bottle of cough spray at a pharmacy.

The plight of having to survive on a low income in a city like São Paulo is only increased when one is old. Just ask Amélio Pontes, 76, who stands on a street selling,—or trying to sell religious posters. He wears a well preserved navy blue beret and an old, though clean and sharply dressed jacket. Pontes has to take good care of his clothes because he had not been able to buy a suit "in three years".

He earns US$ 50 a month if he is "lucky" hawking his posters thirteen hours a day, every day of the week.

When asked how he manages to survive, Pontes hesitates before replying: "It's not worth dirtying your paper with my story. The only one who can help us is Him, anyway," Amélio says in resignation, pointing to the figure of Christ with arms outstretched on one of the posters he sells.

Bachelors More Confident

Young bachelors like Henrique do Nascimento can afford to look at life more confidently. At 32, Henrique, a sturdy caboclo from the Northeast of Brazil, has already worked 17 years as a gas attendant in São Paulo.

In another seven years, he will be eligible for retirement benefits from the Federal Government Social Security Fund (INPS). While he waits, Henrique marvels at the girls who happen by the Shell station located in the classy shopping area of Rua Augusta.

Henrique has an explosive personality and gripes loudly, but with a touch of humor.

"What saves us are the tips!" he exclaims. Indeed, the tips amount to almost the equivalent of his salary, set at US$ 130 a month. Including tips, Henrique's total earnings for manning the gas pumps from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., six days a week, is approximately US$ 275. By the end of a day's work Henrique is exhausted.

Henrique never plans ahead or budgets his earnings. Asked about how he spent his money, he seemed surprised and scratched his head to remember the sums.

"All I know is that at the end of the month, I'm always broke. Penniless," he laments.

But for Henrique, whatever his means, there will always be a sum reserved for women and pleasure. Every weekend, religiously, he measures out US$ 10 for "girlfriends".

Quiet Maid

Henrique's loud manner contrasts sharply with the quite demeanor of Geralda Pereira, 40, a day maid in a residential high-rise near Paulista Avenue. Geralda is uncomfortable sitting alone in the huge living room of the family's apartment where she works, and she talks hesitantly.

As a day maid, Geralda earns US$ 150 a month, a good salary for a maid. While many maids still live at the home of the patroa (housewife), there are those who are married or have dependents, like Geralda and must live on their own. When she first came to São Paulo, Geralda worked as a live-in maid in one of the high-income residential apartments with maid's quarters.

Geralda now lives with her mother in a one-room brick house built on a piece of land she bought many years ago by methodically saving small amounts of money for the seemingly endless installments.

"I just finished paying the last one a few months ago," she sighs.

Apart from a stove, two beds, and some chairs in the house, there is a black and white television that entertains her ailing mother.

"I must pay another Cr$ 1.0000 (US$ 50) for the medicine and doctor's visits for mother's heart treatment," she explains.

Geralda's expenses go beyond her earnings. Her sister, Maria, a live-in maid, helps out with part of her salary. On Sundays, the only day of the week she has off, Geralda works cleaning her house and preparing lunch for the usual family reunion with her brothers and sisters. She also separates time to go to church.

Like most Paulistas, Geralda shops for food at the feira, the open-air stands set up along the streets of São Paulo where fresh fruits, vegetables, and fish are sold. One of the largest is the Friday feira in front of the Pacaembu Municipal Stadium. There, Victor Carvinelli, 40, and his brother, set up their fruit stand every week.

It is a tiring job, requiring hours of heavy loading and unloading. Victor is up at 3 a.m. so that can get to the central market before 5 a.m. in order to be assured of his supply of peaches, papayas, apples, oranges, and grapes, the main fruits in season.

By 7 a.m., the time when the earliest housewives come for their shopping, Victor is ready to start selling, with various fruits in full display. By 2 p.m. the feira is over, the stands are closed and packed away. This routine is repeated six days a week from Tuesday to Sunday. "On Monday's, I collapse at home," says Victor.

Victor and his brother might make a net profit of US$ 20 on a good day. Their monthly earnings of US$ 350 to US$ 400 are divided evenly between them.

"Nowadays, the feira is not a profitable business," says Victor. "But I've been in it over ten years, and there is nothing else I can do." Ten years ago there was less competition in the feira and a hard worker could reap significant profits, according to Victor.

The early good years allowed Victor to buy his land and build his own house. Now Victor feels bitter that his business as a feirante is deteriorating.

"I just hope my children will have the means and sense to go to college," Victor says, as he begins to wrap papayas with newspaper so they won't spoil on the long trip home.

São Paulo's working class poor who, like Henrique and Amelio Pontes, lack education or political consciousness, rely on various ways of coming to terms with their situations.

Keeping Alive

Henrique ponders little on the larger question of proper income distribution, seeking instead to manage with what he has and to reap as much enjoyment along the way.

Others, like Amélio Pontes and José Pereira seem stoically resigned to their fate, receiving from religion or family the spiritual sustenance that the material world denies.

But José Barreto, a taxi driver, is hardly a man who is resigned to his position. For the last eleven years he has worked at three jobs a day, eighteen hours a day for twenty-eight days a month. Working as a taxi-driver during the day and at two different fireman jobs at night, José managed to save and borrow enough money to buy a plot of land upon which he built his own house by hand.

And José plans to continue working at his present pace until he can save up enough money to buy another house and rent out the rooms for revenue.

José is angry, and though this anger has been expressed in the past mainly through a ferocious pace of work, his words flow quickly if he is asked to comment upon the dilemma of the working class.

"In Brazil the honest worker must be embarrassed to admit it. The ones who succeed, those who fill their pockets, are those who are good at sweet talking their way through and end up with high paying jobs, whether they are competent or not. This country is still corrupt. We need somebody in here to straighten things out." José says intently, his eyes blood-shot.

Frank Dirceu Braun is an award-winning writer and producer, with over 25 years of experience in both print and broadcast journalism. Braun has worked as an Associate Producer for 60 Minutes, and as an Investigative Producer for the C.B.S. affiliated stations. Born in Brazil, and raised in the U.S., Braun is a graduate of UCLA. After graduation, he returned to Brazil to help launch The Latin America Daily Post, an English language daily newspaper patterned after Europe's International Herald Tribune.
As a journalist, Braun has specialized in covering the space programs of the United States and other nations, for over a decade. Your comments are welcome at frankbraun11@hotmail.com
Copyright © 2004 by Braun Communications.

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