Thursday, July 22, 2010

Democracy Roars

It's election time... sometime in October Bahians will select their governor and Brazilians will elect a new president. Both posts are currently held by members of the PT (Lula, current president, completing his 8 year term) and Wagner (up for re-election), completing 4 years as governor. The PT is the "Partido Trabalhador" or Workers' Party - a left leaning party... as usual, a party that use to have more radical ideas and now seems to have moved to a more moderate stance on most political issues, but, also as usual, is the lesser of 2 (or it this case, many more) evils.

I recently was discussing this with my good friend Razack (who wrote his dissertation on Brazil's Landless Peasant Movement (MST) - the "largest" social movement in the world with more than a million members fighting for rural - and urban - land rights). We debated the use of traditional, patronage politics, in which the State consolidates power for decades at a time, under the auspice of "democracy." This one guy - known here as "ACM" (the M is Magalhaes - practically every street, government building the airport etc carry this name) ruled in Bahia under the dictatorship, and then founded his own post-dictatorship age-of-democracy political party (actually, multiple parties, kept changing the name). He was in power for 4 decades until he finally kicked the bucket, but left his rein to sons and family members. What is so incredulous is how the people of Bahia can continue to vote him and his party into power year after year.

It was a relief when the PT won in Bahia 4 years ago, and have since implemented some really progressive reforms: concentrating improvements in the interior of the state rather than the capitol, bringing water to villages, increasing education etc... but this leftist party also reverted to some of the reactionary reforms of their opponants - increasing security (there are more police in Eder's neighborhood than I've ever seen - riding around four armed military-looking guys at a time in each SUV holding semi-automatics at bay. ya, sure, i feel more secure!), or subsidizing the creation of a massive "free-trade zone" type industrial park outside of Salvador where Ford is the big hustler - and thus environmental polluter. The government uses propaganda to advertise all their improvements with really cheesy and patronizing tv commercials and ads on billboards on about how great the state of Bahia is now, featuring an old guy with missing teeth and a huge smile who talks about how he's the happiest man alive for finally having a job (doesn't matter that it's minimum wage, barely covers the bills and comes with little opportunity for promotion) or an old lady who is practically hugging a water tank and going on and on and on about how great it is to have water.

Anyway, so I wanted to try and describe to you all what a Brazilian election look like? Well, with 3 months to go, I wanted to jot down my initial observations. The parties were legally "allowed" to start advertising their candidates on city walls about 2 weeks ago, and literally, within 48 hours, the walls of the city were covered with block letters advertising the name of the candidate, the party and some number that goes along with their candidacy. (see photos).

This is where my graffiti research comes in because these guys will cover anything and everything that gets in the way of painting another ad for their party. The graffiti artists I recently interviewed called the politicians the real "taggers" (pichadores) because just like a young guy with a can of spray in his backpack hitting the streets in the middle of the night to put up his name all over, these politicians are doing the same thing - blanketing the city with their name all over. They even engage in covering each others' ads! The difference is that they don't have unique, creative, funky tags that pichadores spend hours working on to perfection in their notebooks to put it up on walls. These guys just do big block letters, using the same colors - red, blue, white, black (a little bit of yellow appeared this season too).
Ironically, the political parties know that the best people to paint the walls are the city's graffiti artists themselves, and incredulously, they indulge at 5 reais (around 3 dollars) a letter, to make money so they can buy spray. Not all graffiti artists are engaging in this debauchery. Anyway, as a Fulbrighter studying Salvador's street art and hoping to write a book about it with Eder, I'm a bit disappointed by how the city has turned into one big political party advertisement. Which gets me thinking...

What IS democracy all about? Is it the voting in of ideas by the masses of people? Is it popular participation in political affairs? Is it the system of governance meant to empower individuals to shape their lives, communities and society as they see fit? While observing what democracy looks like down here in Brazil, as a foreigner, the concept appears quite contaminated. Please, let me make clear, no more
contaminated than U.S.-style democracy, it's just that I'm
not blogging about the U.S. I see all these fair-skinned politicians - the large majority men - scrambling to win the support of a city and state filled with mixed-race people who look nothing like these representatives. It's so obviously blatant to me, why isn't it to others? My sense, and again, we'll have to point out the correlation to the U.S. here, is that folks just don't believe in the government's ability to really represent them. They see these candidates as one and the same, and have lost faith in their ability to really make changes in people's lives.

Faith, that's a whole other topic. The faith lost in the democratic process gets diverted into the one million (i'd guess) store-front evangelical churches that litter every favela commercial strip of this city and attract nightly, worshipers putting THEIR faith in the candidate that really matters - "jesus christ is the MAN" (Jesus Cristo e o Senhor! as the universal church of christ proclaims on all their massive daunting churches (see photo). I'm terribly off subject. Let me blog about Brazil, religion and Christianity at another time.

One aspect of Brazilian democracy I think would be a great idea for the U.S. is that everyone is mandated to vote (it would never fly up north, there's too much talk of freedom! freedom to not participate in demcracy! bah! humbug!). If you're over 18, you must vote. Eder was suppose to vote even when he lived in the U.S., and was fined like everyone else who doesn't show up (around $12 i think). You do have the option, after showing up, waiting in line and getting up to caste your ballot, to leave it blank and not vote for anyone.

I asked about whether there will be any political ads on TV.. Eder said that the parties buy one-hour time slots that air in between the novelas (soap operas), but that isn't allowed until closer to the election. I think I like this system better than the U.S. too - having been bombarded and I think numbed - by so many ads for more than a year prior to our presidential election.

not sure how to end this so i'll end it here. I will keep updating this blog with new observations and will go out and take some more photos to add to the mix so you have some better visuals.

ps: another thought - i have overheard very very little about these elections from Eder's family - there is very little discussion about them. Maybe that will change? To me it illustrates a bit of estrangement from the electoral/democratic process.

pps: the pieces that eder did today below

ppps: (added on July 31) one week after i publish this blog, some of the images of eder's art were covered up... i have added a few photos to the blog to illustrate the sequence ... the piece Eder did with a man's long hand reaching for his heart was covered up by a politician... we had taken a picture of it when 2 politicians put up ads on either side and left the art up, but then this week someone came and put it right over that piece and a few others near it. So this morning Eder went and wrote "respeite a arte" (respect art) covering their ads. We'll see what happens next!??

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Old Wives Tales: child-rearing "advice" from the in-laws

* no kissing Zaya too much (as in the photo above) or it will harm her skin

* blowing air on her stomach (you know, like we do to make kids laugh) will cause gas

* drinking lots of milk while breastfeeding makes for healthier nursing (while in truth, most babies react adversely to lactose in their mothers' diet)

* give babies a creamy/pasty corn or wheat-based porridge (milk, sugar) from the time they're born (called mingau - it's actually better to exclusively breastfeed for first 6 months)

* my milk is not sustaining her. I am not producing enough/its bad quality. i should eat more red meat. beans. give her food, formula. etc.

* when she is coughing or choking on air, blow on her forehead to make it better

* when she has hiccups, stick a red dot (like a piece of string or thread balled up) to her forehead to stop the hiccups (this actually does work!!)

* don't carry her too much - she'll get use to it and won't go down on her own (IMPOSIBLE!)

* piercing her ears now is better than later because it doesn't hurt (ya right)

Saturday, July 3, 2010

favela blues

Tonight, I've lost my patience for favela living. I try and turn the anger and frustration I'm feeling into empathy for folks who know no other way of life, or, who still live in conditions more precarious than our own. It's 3:30 a.m. and Zaya has us awake for her 1st night feeding and can't back to sleep. Eder's working his charm to get her asleep (an impressive ritual). She actually held out 6 hours sleeping before she woke (woke up starving), so I'm not complaining about her.

I'm complaining about an alarm that has been going off at the old factory located across the valley from Eder's house. It sounds like a police siren, and it's so loud it sounds like it could be in front of our home. It has been going on and off for 24 hours now. It is unbelievable to me that no one has come to resolve the problem, and I'm imagining how many hundreds of people who inhabit this neighborhood are effected. We actually did call the police during the day yesterday, but still nothing is resolved.

On top of the non-stop alarm, there's been no water for a day and a half. Our dirty dishes have piled up and there are few clean ones left to use. We had to go next door to Eder's Aunt's house (they have a reserve water tank they use in times like this) to take our showers. Our laundry and dirty cloth diapers are also accumulating. And, (not fun) the septic system stinks.

Despite not having running water inside, there is plenty of it outside. Salvador is in rainy season and the rain started about 10 days. Every day there are rains, but for the last 24 hours, it's been basically pouring on and off. When there's this much rain all at once, the streets get flooded making it hard for cars to circulate in the city, so most activities get canceled and most people stay home. It's probably best to stay home, since Eder and I are both sick with colds. But I'm on my 6th day in a row stuck at home and for those of you who know me, can imagine how stir-crazy I'm getting.

The last time it rained like this here there was a landslide in our back yard and a wall crumbled on top of the neighbor below's roof. That happened mid-april, when I was 9 months pregnant. Their house was finally fixed and the family just moved back in this week. I look down at the two layers of concrete walls that Eder's family put in and pray that this time it's stronger than the last and won't give under the weight of this house with all this rain (now heavier since the addition was put on).

Constant rain also means none of our clothes are drying that have been hanging out for over 2
days. Another un-foreseen irritant of the rain is that there's a leak in our roof. Turns out Eder's father, in his haste to complete the apartment for us to move into, hired someone he didn't know to do the roof and the guy didn't seal it properly. In the middle of the night last night Eder noticed the ceiling in Zaya's room leaking. When he punctured a hole in it, sure enough, a ton of water had been accumulating between the ceiling and the roof. We have a bucket collecting the dripping water (which, conveniently, is what we've been using the flush the toilet!). These are the joys of home-ownership everyone talks about! We'll add this repair job to the list of other things that still need to get finished in our home - attaching the kitchen sink faucet to the pipe (we have been using a hose from the wash area outside to wash dishes), door handles on the doors... etc.

While we're on the subject, I'll take the time to complain about the city's solution for sanitation removal in the favelas. Unlike the wealthy neighborhoods closer to the city center where garbage is removed at least 3 times a week from the front of the residence, those who live in the periphery only receive garbage removal once a week. Residents have to dispose of their trash up on the commercial strips that border the hills they live on. There are no dumpsters or containers for the trash to go in, so huge piles accumulate right in the middle of the hub of the neighborhood. It's disgusting, unhealthy, ugly as hell. I don't understand how Brazil can be so obsessed with people's health - priding itself on the National System of Healthcare and sponsoring national vaccine campaigns to reduce infectious disease on the one hand, and let garbage fester for a week at a time in such close proximity to residents.

I'll end with some photos that illustrate the miraculous transformation of our apartment - in February it was just the roof of the house where they hung laundry. (Note the state of Zaya's room - the photo with the little girl - Eder's goddaughter Camille - was taken when I was 8 months pregnant!) Now it's our beautiful home that I love, despite all the little irritants I am venting about in this blog. The final photos are the latest in Eder's artwork (the last image is a piece he did on a vacant house across the valley from us. Something to brighten up our 'hood . Til next time..