Seeing the pen hover millimetres above my notebook in anticipation, Dona Vilma holds up her hand. ‘Ask me anything you like’, she says to me with a smile. ‘But you can chop some potatoes while we speak’. I switch on my tape recorder instead.
On a tiny scrap of land on the eastern outskirts of São Paulo, off an unpaved path leading to the favela beyond, stands a small squat building made of poured concrete and chipboard. A banner outside reads ‘Cozinha Solidária. Almoço Grátis’. Solidarity Kitchen. Free Lunch. It is a modest affair, but for many residents of Jardim Iguatemi the facility had become a second home.
Six days a week Vilma and Rose arrive at 8am and get to work cooking for never less than 100 people. When I first visit in 2021 to interview them, at the peak of the Brazilian summer, the ground dried to a cake of dust, the menu is beef and potato stew served with filling manioca and rice. Vilma, a retired school cook, is in charge. Dona is a prefix of respect. Her silvery hair is tidied away by a white scarf cheered up with a teddy bear motif; her leopard print blouse is protected by a red apron. She navigates bumper packets of beans and sacks of flour piled high, hauling heavy cooking pots of steaming food on and off the small gas stove. Later a colleague arrives with black plastic sacks splitting under the weight of sturdy carrots and leathery spinach, bulbous spring onions and big bunches of deep purple beetroot, all grown and donated by a nearby community garden.
I still think about the kitchen a lot, as Brazil nears the end of Jair Bolsonaro’s gruelling four-year presidential term: it represents the cruelty of this country, one that welcomed a far-right leader with a mix of social fury and misjudged financial self-interest; but the kitchen says something too of Brazil’s perseverance and generosity.
I first came to Brazil in 2012. Three years previous The Economist had used its cover to hail the country as an economic miracle: the headline ‘Brazil Takes Off’ illustrated with Rio’s Christ the Redeemer statue launching itself off the ground like a rocket. The country had Dilma Rousseff in charge, who lacked the charisma of Luiz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva, the previous president, but had the backstory of having been a guerilla fighter against the country’s military dictatorship, tortured for 22 days after being arrested in 1970. The early 2010s were boom times, with a growing middle class spurred by an expanding commodities market, and the art magazine I worked for was eyeing up, presumably, the advertising potential of a new generation of ambitious internationally focused galleries. In any case the editor dispatched me to write about the place. This week-long trip became an annual affair, each time gradually extended until I was maxing out the 90-day limit of a tourist visa: time to move and get temporary residency. Except by the time I did arrive on something more like a permanent basis, things had changed. Dilma had been impeached: her own crusade against corruption flipped against her. She was alleged to have hidden Brazil’s deficit problem in her 2014 presidential run, but her former position on the board of Petrobras, the state-owned petroleum company which became engulfed in one of biggest corruption scandals in history, was the issue that turned public opinion (though there was no evidence of personal wrongdoing). At the congressional ballot to remove her, one deputy, regarded by most as an obscure crackpot, dedicated his vote to the army officer who oversaw her mistreatment all those years ago. For the moment, however, Bolsonaro was far from the top office. Michel Temer, the charmless Vice President, came to power, and culture proved a fertile battleground for the frustrations of both poor and the rich to play out their fears and prejudices. The economy dipped. The stars aligned for the ascension of a firebrand even further to the right.
In 1955, Carolina Maria de Jesus, whose diaries of her life raising three children in a favela have posthumously been lauded as one of the great records of Brazilian social history, wrote ‘Democracy is losing its followers. In our country everything is weakening. The money is weak. Democracy is weak and the politicians are very weak. Everything that is weak dies one day’. Within a decade of Maria de Jesus’s prediction, in 1964, Brazil fell to its military dictatorship. From 2017, once again, the drums of rightwing populism grew loud. Conservative social movements of various hues developed, for whom environmentalists, indigenous rights activists and LGBT advocates became interchangeable targets. Teachers, in the country of Paulo Freire (whose 1970 book Pedagogy of the Oppressed was published while the educator was in exile), were caricatured as liberal perverts intent on corrupting children by opportunistic congressmen and an on-the-make commentariat. Fears of left-wing bogeymen were amplified by the pulpits of the evangelical churches and in squalid corners of YouTube. Hairbrained conspiracies flowed through the vast sprawling WhatsApp groups that are a factor of daily life here. Stories of artists who had been attacked, exhibitions that had been forced to close as social media-incited mobs picketed them, became my depressing bread and butter as a journalist. In September 2017 an exhibition titled Queermuseu was picketed and closed in Porto Alegre: one right-wing activist decried its supposed promotion of ‘bestiality, paedophilia and offences to the Christian faith’. ‘Big-time artists’, as Bolsonaro spat during his campaign rallies, were cast as vampires sucking the public money dry while the poor got poorer. How to write about these incidents without feeding the culture war? A Judith Butler lecture was interrupted, the American theorist followed and threatened by a mob at the airport. A performance artist, whose work involved nudity, was sent a bullet in the post. Theatres cancelled plays. The tapeworm is never satisfied. I spoke with many who left the country, recalling the flight of the intelligentsia after the darkest days of Brazil’s post-1967 military dictatorship. Like Caetano Veloso and Oscar Niemeyer before them, an atmosphere of fear justified at least temporary exile. Even worse was to come: in March 2018 the Rio de Janeiro councillor Marielle Franco, Black, feminist, gay and from a favela, was assassinated.
Without going into the telenovela twists of the country’s politics, with Lula imprisoned and barred from standing late into the campaign (following a corruption trial that was itself ruled corrupt, with the presiding judge later awarded a position in Bolsonaro’s cabinet), just over 55 percent of the country decided that the alternative candidate was a good fit. Bolsonaro romanticised the illegal mining of the Amazon, spoke fondly of the dictatorship, promoted censorship, rallied against minorities and brought back Brazil’s unreckoned past. On the night of the election, the streets of São Paulo, where I live, filled with the president-elect’s supporters in Brazilian football shirts, celebrating not a win for the national team (though many of those sports stars had leant him their support), but the vanquishing of ‘communists’. A sound system was set up beside the pillars of the Museum of Art São Paulo and a party grew. I wrote at the time that it looked like the building, designed by Lina Bo Bardi with democratic idealism, was under siege. That the opposition that night was so stunned was an omen for what was to come. My social media was filled with a Bertolt Brecht quote clipped into a neat anti-aspirational black square: In the dark times. Will there also be singing? Yes, there will also be singing. About the dark times. (During the first, ‘more liberal’, phase of the 1960s dictatorship, the German’s plays were the most frequently performed works in Brazil.) It was of dull comfort. A few days later I spoke to a contact who runs a small social space on the top floor of a residential block close to my own apartment downtown: that night he had thrown open its doors to anyone fearful to be on their own. He told me how trans friends especially, and friends of friends, began to hasten through. He didn’t mention any dancing.
If the time of Bolsonaro’s ascent was marked by militant action, then a strange melancholia settled after he was bestowed the yellow and green sash. The cacophonous weekly panelaços – loud pot-banging protests, wooden spoon against metal saucepan, echoing against the high-rise blocks, from neighbourhood to neighbourhood – at first died down to a whimper, and then fell silent. The anti-Bolsonaro street protests also dried up, fury fizzling to gritted-teeth exhaustion. One night, referring to the erstwhile rallying call against the would-be autocrat, a friend, four drinks in, muttered ‘Fora Bolsonaro is dead. Now we wait’. What, after all, was there to protest? Democracy had been served, albeit serv ing up a leader whose sympathies are anti-democratic. Protests in Brazil, of whatever political persuasion, are strange affairs at the best of times anyway: demonstrations happen on the street, and the street means a party. There’s singing over chanting; the speeches are invariably made on moving floats. The beer hawkers and hot snack sellers – those who make a couple of months income during carnival week – do brisk business. I covered a couple of pro-Bolsonaro marches too: in Rio de Janeiro families, gym bros and older couples filled a huge stretch of the Copacabana beach. Ice cold Brahma and margarine-soaked bowls of sweetcorn: who cares whether they’re sold to a Bolsonarista or socialista. As the protests lulled, FUNAI, the government agency tasked with protecting Brazil’s estimated 235 indigenous groups, was financially gutted; the PCC, the country’s major drugs gang, extended its reach to the Amazon and embarked on international ties with the Italian mafia and Lebanon’s Hezbollah; dozens upon dozens of activists were killed by emboldened, and often desperate, illegal loggers, fishermen and miners. In June the murders of sertanista (a type of modern explorer) Bruno Pereira and British journalist Dom Phillips were the highest profile in a long line: Pereira has been head of the isolated peoples division of FUNAI, but removed from his job two years ago. It didn’t stop him campaigning for the rights of indigenous people in the north west of the country, and along the way he made enemies in this remote and increasingly lawless area.
The pandemic was at least part of the reason protest was paralysed. One of the first people to contract the virus that would eventually kill 667,000 Brazilians was a housekeeper from Rio de Janeiro. Cleonice Gonçalves’s employers suspected that they had caught the new coronavirus even before they returned from their Italian skiing holiday but did not tell her, allowing Gonçalves to clean and to take the infection a couple of hours home to the city’s periphery. She died the same night. The disease was always going to disproportionately affect those who had no choice but to leave their homes to work. Forty-seven percent of the country make their money in the informal economy. As she directs my attention to carrots, Vilma tells me the pandemic has had a dramatic effect on the numbers relying on the kitchen. The city’s lockdowns have been hard, she says, however essential they became. Yet without a nationally coordinated strategy the fatalities never let up. At one point last year I went to Vila Formosa, the largest cemetery in South America, in São Paulo’s east zone. The photographer I was with flew a drone over the 780,000 square metre site; what had been a green and leafy terrain was now almost completely stained brown with freshly dug earth. At twilight powerful floodlights were switched on allowing the gravediggers to continue their grizzly task throughout the night. It was, one told me with a grimace, one of the few growth professions. And yet São Paulo state, the richest in the country, was doing better than most. In Manaus they ran out of oxygen. People were forced to queue for tanks of air if they wanted their relatives to survive.
Of course for many, especially the privileged, the lockdowns were as long and dull as anywhere else in the world. I snatched moments of the old Brazil every now and then sat with my partner on a sunny curb. There would be music: there is always music. There would be beer: there’s always beer. The Sunday vegetable market in the square near my apartment became a much-anticipated weekly event. Chilli sauce was sold from the top of packing cases, used as makeshift tables; egg boxes secured with string; the fruit sellers shouted themselves hoarse through their masks. The São Paulo state governor, a politician who in normal times I’d have no time for, steered the city through, until on January 17, 2021, Monica Calazans, a black ICU nurse with her own underlying health concerns, became the first person in the country to be vaccinated. Brazil has one of the best immunisation infrastructures in the world (honed not least during the 2016 Zika epidemic) and pictures soon emerged of workers from the free public health system riding boats up rainforest waters to vaccinate remote indigenous communities; a viral video spread of a man from one northeastern farming state arriving to get his shot on the back of a mule. He rolled up his arm without even bothering dismounting. My own initial vaccination came a few anxious months later and I couldn’t have imagined a better venue. Like football, in Brazil you are often expected to be able to name your favourite samba school: a team to get behind come carnival when the groups compete to put on the best parade through the Sambadrome. I adopted Vai-Vai as mine, formed in 1928 by a group of fun-making and troublemaking football fans. Their rehearsal hall in the Italian neighbourhood of Bixiga had been turned into a vaccination post, and I got my jab against a huge backdrop of the school’s black-and-white laurel leaf insignia and its brimming trophy cabinet.
With the pandemic now on the back foot, the shops and streets are busy again. Yet there has been no letup in the numbers who hover by the kitchen’s bamboo gate come midday. The lowest amount of rainfall in 91 years this past summer, followed by a deep frost, has had a devastating effect on the nation’s agriculture. While that alone would have driven up prices, the weak Brazilian real has also seen the country export more food than ever, leaving less for the domestic market. The importation of vital Russian fertiliser is threatened by sanctions. The result: massive inflation that is only barely stabilising. Prices of beef, that Brazilian staple, are up 15 percent, while chicken is also more expensive. The cost in the city’s markets has risen 24 percent in the last year. The fruit sellers have to shout for custom twice as loud. Recent flooding in the northeast of the country is likely to exacerbate the problem. Brazil had been removed from the World Food Programme’s Hunger Map in 2014 after a decade of progress, but now 33 million people are estimated to regularly go without enough to eat. One night at a bar by the train station in Mogi das Cruzes, a satellite town of São Paulo, waiting for a train, I got talking to a fisherman, similarly travelling through. His job kept him fed, he said, but he lamented ‘I haven’t eaten pork since Temer was in power’. Vilma says her kitchen primarily serves people with low-paid jobs, but other similar services benefit São Paulo’s homeless population (which, now numbering 31,884, rose 31 percent in the last two years). Each diner brings their own Tupperware container, some clutching a few: one woman comes with four empty and scrupulously washed cream cheese cartons, one for each of her children left at home.
The lead character of Jorge Amado’s novel The Country of Carnival, written in 1931, describes his uneasy relationship with the Easter festival. As a member of the elite, Paulo claims, ‘I only felt Brazilian twice. Once, at carnival, with the samba on the street. Another, when I beat up Julie after she cheated on me.’ The misogyny is painful but the line also portrays the alienation many in the upper echelons of society continue to feel towards their own country: Brazil is one of the top 10 most unequal countries in the world, with the income of the richest 10 percent in 2018 being 13 times higher than the poorest 40 percent of the population. While almost everyone buys into the idea of Brazilian exceptionalism (with an oft frustrating ambivalence to what’s going on elsewhere: a characteristic, I guess, of living in a continent-sized country), with such a huge gulf of lived experience between the privileged and the disadvantaged, great swathes of the rich regard so much of what is unique about the country as brutish and unsophisticated. The streets are for driving through in 4x4s with auto lock on and the windows closed, the roads only shared by app-based delivery drivers winding their way through the city to drop food off with the porters of the apartment blocks. The short stories of Rubem Fonseca invariably describe moments when the tension between the two Brazils explode. ‘Night Drive’ (1979) centres on a wealthy man (‘my children had grown up, my wife and I were fat’) who performed hit and runs for bored fun; ‘The Taker’, from the same collection, describes a man whose life as a fodidos – one of the fucked over – leads him into a spiral of maniacal violence against the well-to-do. With Bolsonaro there are the true believers; there are many more, perhaps deceived; there are the angry and frustrated. Their vote was their own attack against the fat and smug. The worst, however, are those whose votes were a knowing pact with the devil, a necessity to keep the market ticking over, taxes at bay and the inheritance laws maintained. If Brazil has a thriving left, and an in-power far right, the majority of congress is dominated by the dozen or so amorphous, ideology-free (though neoliberal in bent) centrão parties, for whom power, and being close to whoever is in power, or whoever is likely to be in power, is the driving force. The moment I thought the president might be done for was when self-inflicted travel restrictions meant the rich could no longer go on European ski holidays. The ski holidays are now back on.
I take up serving mashed manioca, alongside the regular volunteers lined up at the hatch. Vilma keeps an expert eye on the portions we ladle out to the long queue that has assembled, ensuring that the food stretches. After the rush she tells me that the kitchen is sponsored by the Homeless Workers’ Movement (MTST), a left-wing group that campaigns for housing rights for Brazil’s poorest, and is best known for staging occupations of abandoned buildings and empty land. Nearby is one such protest, a vast village of wooden crate-and-tarp shacks built overnight on a long moribund plot of land belonging to a rich businessman, a man the organisation says owes the city unpaid taxes. The occupation provides safety and community to the otherwise destitute and is a means of leverage for the organisation’s demand for a more equitable housing policy. Vilma got involved in the kitchen five months ago after she serendipitously met a coordinator from the group. She is living in another informal housing settlement, unable to afford commercial rent and making little headway in the government list she has spent four decades sitting on. She is paid a small stipend for working at the kitchen, but more importantly the hours she puts in advance her along the queue for an apartment from MTST. Her cooking earns her credits, which will eventually make her eligible to buy a place of her own, mortgaged at a dramatically reduced price. Later, Rose, younger, still with her braided hair tied back, but her apron folded away in her bag, shows me the two-bedroom apartment she got from the Movement, where she lives with her children. Working at a bakery close to one of the city’s universities, she had got chatting to an activist over the counter. We talk while one of her sons sits watching a children’s TV show, which, like most Brazilian TV, is entirely populated by white kids who live in a big house. Before long, probably annoyed by our conversation, he politely asks if he can go out to play. We follow him as he runs down the stairs of the block to a tarmacked space for football opposite.
Rose shows me the communal garden she looks after, teaching me the Portuguese plant names I don’t know. In October she and the rest of the country will go to the polls again. Lula is free from prison, and free to run. He is currently ahead in the polls, but in recent months Bolsonaro has been clawing back popularity from his pandemic nadir. Worse still, he has indicated that he will question the veracity of the election result if it does not go in his favour. Polling wisdom dictates Bolsonaro should choose a woman as his running mate, to bolster waning support amongst that demographic. Instead he has picked a military man. Newspaper editorials have been diligently weighing up which sectors of society will resist a coup and who might support one. Increasing this has begun to feel like an election campaign ‘for the eyes of the English’, as a Brazilian phrase goes, each party going through the motions (speeches, sambas and motorcycle rallies), but behind the scenes the real work is happening in shoring up a commitment to democracy – or otherwise – from business sectors, armed forces, media and clergy. The first signed a manifesto for democracy, but ever pragmatic, in the face of a consummated coup they are likely to adapt. Both Lula and Bolsonaro are more than politicians; both are conjurors of their own mythologies, elevated to gods amongst supporters. But such devotion can also be used for insurrection in the wrong hands. Brazilian democracy is a fragile construct, 37 years young: which Brazilian story prevails awaits writing.