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.
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 — 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 — 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 — she was a premature baby and she was really sick — 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 — a light, a lightning bolt — 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 — 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 — ahhh! laughing I have to say that, we're faithful and we hope for his return — 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 email@example.com.