The Other Rio — Jaquelline: God, If You Exist, Look At Me

The second of a three-part series of oral histories from the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, so close and yet so far away from the Olympic spotlight.

Jaquelline in her nail salon in Rio
Jaquelline in her nail salon in Rio
Sascha Bercovitch

The following is part of a series of first-person narratives from residents of Complexo da Maré, a low-income favela in Rio de Janeiro, as told to Sascha Bercovitch, a Harvard University graduate working on a fellowship on life inside Brazilian low-income neighborhoods. The stories stand in contrast to the glamour and billion-dollar investment in the Olympics taking place just across town.

RIO DE JANEIRO â€" I was a child who dreamed of watching TV. I’m from the northeast, from the interior of Ceará state, and I was raised on a farm by a family that was very very poor. I didn’t starve, because we planted food to be able to feed ourselves, but we lacked many basic necessities: no light, no electricity, no TV. In my head I idealized Woody Woodpecker. As much as my childhood was one of suffering, of real precariousness, I remember good points, where I played a lot with my friends, climbing trees and those types of things. I hurt myself a lot but that’s part of childhood, no? laughs.

I came to Rio by bus. My mom put me on a bus and told me, “one of my sisters lives there and you’re going to go live with her.” I had never met my aunt, but when I arrived in Rio I recognized her face, because she has the same face as my mom. When I got to Maré â€" imagine! That girl from the countryside, that country bumpkin laughs, not knowing anything. For me everything was new, but I adapted in a year. I didn’t end up living with my aunt very long. When I was 17 she expelled me from her house. That was when I discovered how to be independent, and it was during that time when I abandoned my studies.

In order to survive I worked at various places, first at a restaurant, then at a snack shop in Copacabana. At one point, when all doors closed for me, I lived for a period on the street, and to survive I entered the world of prostitution. After that I went to work in the home of a family. Since I was little I always did nails for fun, and along the way an interest awakened in that being my work. When I opened this salon here in my home I already had some clients, though not too many. I gained clients mainly through word of mouth, and something else that helped me and that still helps me is Facebook, social media. I have a little over a year working here, and I’m grateful to God because in little time I already have a good clientele. It’s enough for me to support myself well.

Photo: Sascha Bercovitch

I had my first encounter with God when I was a little over 20 years old. My daughter was nine months old â€" she was a premature baby and she was really sick â€" and I had just had my latest sentimental tragedy, my relationship with her father. Imagine: My family in the northeast, my aunt had abandoned me and I was alone, literally, here in Nova Holanda. That was when I received an invitation from my aunt, who said, “come to church with me.”

I was very Catholic during my childhood, and I thought evangelicals were really weird: They screamed too much. I would think, “these people are all crazy” laughs. But when I entered this time there was a different atmosphere. I felt uneasy the whole time and I didn’t want to stay, but deep down I knew that it was the solution to my problems. Deep down, inside my heart, I felt at peace. I returned home with my sick daughter and I said, “the next service, I’m going to be there.”

The second time I went alone. I remember that I felt uncomfortable with the sermon the pastor was preaching, and I heard the music at the end of the service, and from my heart I said, “God, I believe in your existence. But why did you allow for me to suffer so much?” If I told you in detail what I’ve been through you’re going to think that there’s no way I went through all that. I don’t know how I survived all the beatings that life gave me.

I remember I said, “God, if you really exist, look at me today, look at me now, because I can’t bear to suffer any longer.” And that was when I had a vision. It was as if my day, my hour had arrived. I can’t explain it exactly, but it was something really striking â€" a light, a lightning bolt â€" and I remember that it touched my very structure. I fell to my knees weeping. After that vision, I radically changed my life. I changed how I dressed. I stopped drinking from one hour to the next. I began to read the Bible to be able to know who Jesus was, and that was when my love for him grew. I know that with reason you would think that I imagined it all, but out of reason you’re never going to understand. It’s out of faith.

Eye on me

I met my husband in Church. It’s a small church, and he always says that he had his eye on me for a year â€" but I had never seen him! When I first met him, I had gone through a lot of traumas sentimentally, and I had decided that I didn’t want anyone else in my life. I kept telling him, “Get out of my life! You’re ugly, you’re horrific, you’re black and I don’t like black people, I only date white guys.” Poor thing! laughs.

He kept saying, “I’m going to win your heart, I’m going to win your heart.” After all the rejections I gave him he didn’t give up, and with his insistence he showed me that I was special. That was when I resolved to finally say yes to him.

It was nine months of relationship, engagement, and marriage. I was certain that he was the right man for me even though I wasn’t in love with him. I thought, “he’s a man of character, from a good family, and he’s going to be a good husband and a good father for my daughter.” And I don’t regret my choice: the love, the passion came afterward, out of gratitude for him. Seeing the way he took on caring for my daughter as if she were his real daughter, it was very easy to love him. I can’t love him more than I love God, but it’s as if God gave him to me as a response to all that I had wanted my whole life. That’s how I see him, as someone on Earth who came to supply the family that I never had, mother and father and everything else.

Photo: Sascha Bercovitch

And today I have a family, and that’s why I value it so much. As much as the child will say, “Oh my dad is so annoying, he won’t stop getting in my hair,” everything that he wants is for the good of his child. Because during my whole upbringing, I wanted to have an annoying dad, an annoying mom who would tell me, “stop doing this.” When I did those wrong things growing up, deep down within me I was clamoring for someone.

There was one day when I was 18 and I said to myself, “do you think there’s anyone who would want to adopt me?” I saw the other adolescents who had a mom, who had a dad, who had someone protecting them, and I longed for that. And so today I transfer that discipline to my daughter. Because I know that a child without discipline becomes lost: I went through that myself.

It’s in Ephesians, I think in chapter five that it asks for children to honor their father and mother for their days to be prolonged on Earth. It’s an order, a commandment of God. And for me to not have had that, it’s harmed my life immeasurably. That’s why today I do everything so that my family follows the standards for being a family. It’s not a perfect family. I have problems with my stepson. But they’re problems that I’m able to overcome.

Ten years from now, if Jesus Christ hasn’t returned â€" ahhh! laughing I have to say that, we’re faithful and we hope for his return â€" I really want to go back to school, to leave an example for my children so that they see the value of their studies. I want to go to college, and I have a dream to have a franchise of salons.

But the main thing I want is for my children to be a woman and a man of character. That they don’t contaminate themselves with the eases that life brings. That they have professional success, that they marry well, that they be people who are happy. And I’m going to do whatever I can so that they avoid the traumas that I went through. That’s why I want them to be a man and a woman of character, and above all a man and a woman of God, full of the holy spirit.

Sascha Bercovitch studied Latin American history at Harvard University. He has spent the past year living in Complexo da Maré, the largest group of favelas in Rio de Janeiro, on a Trustman Postgraduate Fellowship.

This is Worldcrunch"s international collection of essays, both original pieces written in English and others translated from the world's best writers in any language. The name for this collection, Rue Amelot, is a nod to the humble address in eastern Paris we call home. Send ideas and suggestions at

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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