Tag Archives: Brazil

‘Freeing’ a modern-day slave (part two)

breaking chainsAs I wrote in part one, I like to think that I freed a slave – a young girl who was being forced to work as a maid for no pay in Brazil – but looking back, I realised that she was, in her own way, a free agent…

Although this story could have taken place today, it happened nearly twenty years ago. I was helping organise the first PercPan percussion festival in Salvador’s Castro Alves Theatre, and had to spend a few nights at the nearby Hotel da Bahia (now the Sheraton). Whilst there, I invited my daughters and Bela over to the hotel to enjoy the pool. I noticed (or was told) that Bela spent most of her time talking to the hotel manager’s son, who was about her age. I thought nothing of it. The next day, I rang home to see if anyone wanted to stay at the hotel whilst I was working (I usually got back at about 2 am). Bela answered the phone and pipped my daughters at the post, eagerly accepting the invitation. Again, I thought nothing of it. When I got back from work at the usual time, I knocked on the hotel room door and no one answered. I thought Bela must be asleep so I went down to the lobby and rang the room (I only had one key and had left it with her). No answer. Unable to get into my room and not knowing where Bela was or what she was doing, I decided to take the lift to the penthouse and say good night to my boss, thought better of it when I reached the 10th floor, and went back down the staircase. There, in the stairwell, I found Bela canoodling with the hotel manager’s son!

As a result of that and other indications, I began to worry that Bela was trying to use her youthful sexual charms to get a leg up in life. I feared that if she stayed in the ‘big city’ she would finish up as a prostitute, so I purchased a bus ticket to her home town and sent her back to her mother with a small amount of cash to tide her over. She rang me when she arrived to say she had ‘lost’ the money and I expressed my commiseration but didn’t offer any more.

It turns out that I was right about Bela’s use of her sexuality, but she did so within the legal smokescreen of marriage. She accepted a much older suitor who had been pursuing her before she moved to Salvador (yes, she was still underage) and eventually came to own a chain of beauty parlours. Either divorced or widowed, she went on to marry a doctor who was closer to her age, and as far as I know, she is still happily married and a successful businesswoman to boot.

Did I ‘rescue’ Bela or was I merely a pawn in her gambit for freedom? I don’t believe I would have done anything differently, either way. Also, I can’t help wondering how many other young women are still enduring a similar situation but cannot find a ‘saviour’ – or save themselves.

 

 

Looking back on 2015: A disturbing trend in Brazil

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Graffiti artists’ protest against the Cabula massacre, seen in that district in 2015. Photo by Sabrina Gledhill (all rights reserved)

On 6 February, 2015, policemen shot and killed 12 robbery suspects in the Cabula district of Salvador, Bahia. An internal investigation by state’s Public Prosecutor’s office found that the victims – all of them young black men – had been executed. The black movement calls it genocide, a disturbing trend in a country where racism has traditionally been veiled and racially motivated lynching almost unheard of. That being said, exterminating street children (the best-known incident being the Candelaria massacre in Rio in 1993) and known or suspected criminals as if they were vermin is nothing new in Brazil. Ironically, there is no official death penalty in that country.

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The graffiti art in the photo illustrating this post was not the only response to the Cabula massacre by the Bahian arts community. From May to August 2015, the Museu Afro-Brasileiro (MAFRO) held an exhibition curated by the museum’s director, Graça Teixeira that displayed thought-provoking installations and artworks protesting the genocide of black youth in Brazil.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Coup-driven change?

juraci e agildo barata em 1930

Ernesto Geisel (far right) with Juracy Magalhaes, Agildo Barata and other prominent figures of the ‘1930 Revolution’

I am increasingly concerned by the upsurge in demands for a military or political coup to overthrow the Dilma Rousseff/PT administration. I arrived in Brazil shortly after the end of the 1964 coup – which its perpetrators and sympathisers called a ‘revolution’. It lasted 21 years and left deep scars (physical and metaphorical) on the Brazilian people. History shows that coups have been a standard form of regime change in Brazil since the early nineteenth century. It’s time for a fresh start and a different approach

Years ago, when I was working on a biographical project about political figures in Bahia for the late Brazilian historian Consuelo Novais, I noticed that at least one of the generals who took part in the 1964 coup had also played an important role in the so-called Revolution of 1930 that overthrew the First Republic and brought Getulio Vargas to power.

That got me thinking. Brazil negotiated the independence of the south, but had to fight to free the northeast and north from Portuguese rule (with the help of Lord Cochrane, but that is another story for another post). The first Brazilian emperor, Pedro I, was the son of the ousted Portuguese king, Joao (John) VI. Pedro was forced to abdicate in favour of his son, Pedro II, who was ousted by the 1889 coup that established the First Republic. Are you sensing a pattern here?

When I suggested to Consuelo Novais that the 1964 coup was just another link in a chain of ‘regime-change revolutions’, she interrupted me vehemently and said that, no, it was the Americans who engineered it. Admittedly, the CIA played a key role, but a seed has to fall on fertile soil…

That is why I am extremely concerned about the current machinations to remove Dilma from office (Brazil is a first-name culture). Although the PT (Workers’ Party) has been in office far too long and may well have rigged the last elections as its opponents claim, it would be salutary for Brazil to see her mandate through and elect an anti-corruption candidate from another party. However, as I have written elsewhere, all of Brazil’s political parties are alike in that respect. None is less venal than any other, and all of them have (or would, given an opportunity) looted the public coffers. Eliminating corruption in politics requires a cultural sea change.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Divorce, Brazilian Style

Never throw the key away!

Never throw the key away!

In my recent post “Playing by the Rules and Rueing It,” I mentioned that I got married to stay in Brazil as a legal resident. I was in a committed relationship, but marriage was against my philosophy. And, as it turned out, it was entirely unnecessary. If I had only known how hard it would be to get a contested (non-consensual) divorce…

When my marriage was no longer bearable; when I finally managed to overcome the inertia, gain momentum and break free, I found myself in a legal maze that would have made Kafka laugh.

First, under Brazilian law, I had to say that I left my husband because I was in fear of my life to avoid being charged with “abandoning the home” (abandono do lar) and losing custody of my daughter. Luckily (?) he actually had threatened to kill me – when I told him I’d slap him if he ever belted our daughter again. That remark was the death knell of our marriage. When we sat before the police officer who was taking our statements, he countered that I had threatened him too, as I’d told him that if he ever hit me, I’d pour boiling water in his ear when he was sleeping. All true, though it was mentioned as an anecdote (advice my mother gave me), not uttered as a threat. The female police officer looked knowingly at the female clerk and I realised that he had merely confirmed that I was under threat of physical violence, if not death. First step towards freedom – check.

Then I had to hire a lawyer. I turned to the foster mother of a friend of my adopted daughter and paid her R$1,000 up front (a considerable sum in those days). After a while – was it years? – the process stalled, and eventually the lawyer moved to another state, handing my case over to a colleague, and…nothing happened. I was separated but nowhere near divorced – languishing in marital limbo.

Finally, I came across another lawyer, who told me that my divorce proceedings had probably been “filed in a drawer” at the request of my husband’s uncle/attorney – the unscrupulous jailhouse kind. Fortunately, my new acquaintance knew someone at the notary’s office that had “filed” the proceedings and got them “unfiled.” On both sides, it was all about whom you knew. So far so good – what a relief! Months later, I received word that the divorce had gone through. Free at last…or was I?

One or two years down the line, when I wanted to travel abroad with my daughter, I needed her father’s authorisation, as she was still a minor. We both had to be present, and the official asked us if we had a divorce certificate. A what?? My elder daughter checked into it and found that I would have to go to several notary’s offices – all housed in the same courthouse by that time – to get the right stamps and signatures. Finally, my marriage certificate had a big stamp on the back saying the divorce had been finalised.

Oh by the way, I don’t think my ex ever knew that I managed to push the divorce through. I don’t believe he’ll read this, since he never learned English, but if anyone wants to tell him, feel free…

‘Freeing’ a modern-day slave (part one)

breaking chains I like to think that I freed a slave – a young girl who was being forced to work as a maid for no pay in Brazil – but looking back, I realised that she was, in her own way, a free agent…

The regulations governing domestic service in Brazil have changed dramatically in recent years, giving maids and nannies nearly all the rights provided to officially employed workers under the country’s draconian labour laws. Their most recent achievement is the right to the Length-of-Service Guarantee Fund (FGTS). Unfortunately, as householders find themselves having to pay their servants the minimum salary plus benefits, and the tax burden rises, many are no longer able to afford full-time, live-in help and are adopting a system more common in the ‘First World’ – having cleaners come by twice a week at most, to avoid the risk of being sued for failing to sign their work papers.

One way of getting around this is bringing in a young girl from the countryside to work as a maid in exchange for an education. Sometimes the bargain is honoured. In many cases, she becomes a modern-day slave.

My elder daughter befriended one such domestic worker, a fourteen-year-old girl I’ll call Bela. She worked for a couple that lived in the flat above ours. Through my daughter, I would hear that, although Bela was allowed to study, her activities were being increasingly curtailed. After a while, she was only allowed to leave the flat to go to the bakery, and made to work every day of the week, including Sunday, when she did the ironing.

Another sad fact about Brazilian maids is that they are often subjected to sexual harassment. I gathered from the news that filtered through my daughter that this underage girl was being sexually stalked by the man of the house. His jealousy might be the reason for her virtual house arrest, as she was even accused of flirting with the baker!

Even worse – again, according to Bela – she did not receive any money directly. The couple claimed to be depositing her wages in a savings account in Bela’s home town, but there was no proof that this was actually the case.

One weekend, I was taking my family with me on a scouting mission to organise a tour of the region for architects who would be planning a resort on the North Coast of Bahia, and invited Bela to go along. My daughter wanted her to go with us to keep her company, and I felt sorry for her, as she was rarely allowed to cross the street, let alone go on a day trip into the countryside. Bela agreed with alacrity, and we all had a good time visiting the colonial landmarks and resorts I selected for the architects’ itinerary.

When we got back, I was startled to hear Bela say that she could not return to her home/workplace because she had left without permission. She seemed fearful of the consequences. I immediately offered to let her stay with us, and she accepted. My daughter was pleased and I thought I had done a good deed. Then things got complicated…

 

 

Driving Dr Gledhill: Taxi drivers I have known (part two)

On a more serious note, the worst experience I ever had with a taxi driver was very recent. It was fortunately just a short way from the Historic District to the Historical and Geographic Institute. Somewhere en route, the driver and I got to talking about crime (always a meaty subject with taxi drivers, as they are unusually exposed to it) and he revealed that he was a police officer. Then he regaled me with the story of how he was jogging along Dique do Tororo in his expensive trainers, wearing an even more expensive watch, when a mugger pointed a knife at him and demanded that he hand them over.

He did, but as the mugger was walking away, the cop/cabbie pulled out his concealed gun and aimed it at his assailant. When the mugger pleaded for his life, the former victim, now executioner, said he was going to send him somewhere no lawyer could get him out of and riddled him with bullets. Then he rang up his friends on the force and had forensics clean up the crime scene!

I was chilled. And terrified. There I was in the same vehicle with a confessed cold-blooded killer who was clearly proud of his exploits. We were close to the institute, so instead of asking him to go around Piedade Square and leave me at the front gate as I would normally have done, I asked him to pull over at the other side of the square, hopped out, paid my fare, and breathed untainted air again. I was reminded of my first impression of Brazil when I arrived in December 1986 – people seemed to be more afraid of the cops than of the robbers. In nearly 30 years, nothing seems to have changed…

Driving Dr Gledhill: Taxi drivers I have known (part one)

One thing I will miss about Bahia is the taxi drivers. They range from friendly, reliable and helpful – particularly Henrique (henriquetaxi@gmail.com), who was recommended to me by the Sacatar Institute – to the downright psychotic. Since the friendly, reliable and helpful taxi drivers don’t make for a good story, I will focus on the psychos.

The worst was the guy I call ‘rabid road runner meets The Shining’. I was going home in the company of an American friend – which meant that although we were speaking Portuguese in the taxi, his accent betrayed the fact that he was a ‘gringo’ – and hailed a cab near the Afro-Asian Studies Centre. Half-way along, the driver started speeding and I asked him to slow down. Using paggro with which I was all too familiar, he slowed to a crawl until he thought we’d had enough (I said nary a word) and started speeding again. Both my friend and I protested, but to no avail.

When we were finally nearing our destination, I told the driver to turn left into the cul-de-sac where I lived. Instead  he revved and tore up the hill to the right. My friend and I both shouted at him to stop, so he pulled over, turned around, and grinned at us with a manic expression that made me think he’d pull out a butcher knife and growl “Here’s Johnny!” We paid and jumped out of the car as fast as we could while he did a 180, burned rubber and vanished around a corner.  Just another taxi ride in Bahia…not!