More From Brazil: Beneath Appearances

IMG_0616The water problem has been solved to the extent that we have water coming into the first floor. Cold water, but no one is complaining. The bar lowers.
We go to the beach. A young boy comes along selling cheese on skewers. He carries a small metal container on a chain which has burning coals in it. We buy three skewers, which he roasts over the coals. The cheese is delicious. T. says, “This is what Luke was doing when I met him twenty-five years ago. He was nine years old, supporting his entire family by selling things on the beach.”
T. has an extraordinary ability to identify, and support, the potential in others.
Now, at 34, Luke runs a business employing people to make high-end purses and bags out of the tabs from pop and beer cans. He was recently featured in Vogue Magazine. He’s gay, part of the candomblé religion and entirely charming. Luke was one of the people T. helped when she ran the charitable organization to assist women and children to get housing and schooling; she’s still in contact with many of the people she helped; they are her friends.
One of them is Lisa. She comes every day to cook and clean for us. She is twenty-five years old, with three children. She is always stylishly dressed, generally with dangling earrings, and pearl jewelry around her neck. We have a small lap pool at our casa; one day she brings her older son to swim. Like his mother, he is well dressed, sparklingly clean, and loving.
T. asked if I would like to walk Lisa home, to see where she lives.
We make our way through the narrowing streets of the barrio. We stop for a short visit with Mike and Anna. They’ve just finished building their house. Mike is a writer, originally from New York, and Anna is a social worker from Brazil. Mike says pleasantly, without any complaint in his voice, “We have five phones. Most of them don’t work. I think we’re down to one now. Because of the salt. And sometimes the phone doesn’t work if it rains.”
When we arrive at Lisa’s, her drunken mother, now physically deformed from being beaten so often, is just stepping into the street. T. told me that the mother goes to the beach and trades sex for food from the fishermen.
Lisa unlocks the door. Across the barred gate there appears a small barking dog. A man comes out, Lisa’s partner; he’ll take the dog for a walk, because otherwise there won’t be room for all of us. Still there isn’t enough room.
How and where Lisa lives with her partner and her three children is burned into my brain. It’s a room no larger than the bedroom I have in the rented house: maybe 8’ x 12’, with a bathroom behind a curtain. In the room there’s a stove, fridge, bunkbed, and a dresser with a television set on it.
It’s hard not to avoid the thought that whatever they have, including their poverty, is somehow, through no fault of their own, contagion.

Mural in the barrio

Mural in the barrio

When Lisa isn’t there, or her sister isn’t babysitting, the children are locked in that room, otherwise Lisa is afraid they’ll be abused or killed. In the afternoons, after school, and sometimes all day long, they sit in the semi-dark, hunched over because to see the television they crouch on the bottom bunk, and the cross bar is low and hits their heads. Gradually they will diminish, in one way or another.
I had no idea. I saw Lisa every day, always well-dressed like a fashionable 25 year old, with her pearl jewelry. The oldest child spent the day with us. I had no idea they came from this place.