São Paolo and Rio De Janeiro: Cities Rich With Contradiction
But there are a lot of other things, like beauty, poverty, lightning, meat, graffiti, sun, and wonderful people.
My husband and I recently had the amazing opportunity to travel to Brazil with one of his student groups. Among his many gigs, he is director of the San Francisco Jazz High School All Stars (SFHSAS) combo. His students, and those of the big band, travel each year for concerts, competitions, jazz festivals, and clinics. I get to join as a chaperone! This year was the first international trip. Clinics and performances were planned at American Schools in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. We travelled with 21 well-behaved, talented, and very slow moving teenagers. While every transition from bus to destination, and back to bus, was at sloth-like speed, the kids did a remarkable job recovering from jet lag and playing their hearts out every time they picked up their instruments. They were grateful for the incredible opportunity and seemed to learn a lot.
There were many memorable moments of the trip, but today’s cup of decaf is with the contrasts I found in the beautiful country that I barely got a taste of. Here are some reflections from the trip. Pour a cup and enjoy!
I can’t speak for all of Brazil, but the two cities we visited are filled with contradictions. There are approximately 13 million people in São Paulo and 6.4 million in Rio, so you can imagine the opportunity for opposing elements. Both cities are so sprawling, they seem to go on for hours as you drive in them. The cities are surrounded by breathtaking mountains and vast skies. In contrast, however, the inner cities seem compressed with buildings and people. We saw some neighborhoods that are clean and modern, and also huge areas that are run down, out dated, and ladened with debris. These areas are called “favelas.” They are colorful and rich with culture, but as I looked out the window of the bus, I couldn’t help but think about the struggle it must be to live in those communities.
Regardless of the socio-economic changes across the neighborhoods, there is graffiti EVERYWHERE. As high up as you look and as far down. Literally almost every building had graffiti on it. It was so striking and prevalent that I was compelled to read about it. I found an article written in 2016, “Pixacao, the Story Behind São Paulo’s Angry Alternative to Graffiti,” by Marcio Siwi. I learned that the graffiti I saw is known as “pixacao” done by “pixadores.” The letters are straight and sharp, and I thought, looked like hieroglyphics. The style was influenced by the heavy metal record albums of the 1980’s. Think; Death Metal meets Cleopatra.
Apparently, the goal for the pixacao is to put their signature calligraphy on as many buildings as possible throughout the city. For the more extreme taggers, the goal is to place the marks as high up on buildings as possible. The artists literally climb the outsides of buildings, in the night, in the most dangerous ways possible. They lean off the roofs, they scale the sides, they use cables, and they sometimes die. The lucky ones just get arrested. The defacing of the buildings is an expression of the anger toward the elite of the city. The practice dates back to the 1980’s, when the wealthy, and their desire for financial gain, had forced the less fortunate out of their neighborhoods and into the favelas. The ongoing goal for the pixadores is to protest commercial development and thus degrade the city. Siwi writes that the more sacred the site, the better the target. The fact that it is illegal apparently makes it more attractive to the artists. Some of the artists have become known for their work and have been encouraged to commercialize themselves. It will be interesting to see if that brings more awareness to the plight of the poor people of these cities, or if it will foster more resentment and hostility. For instance, the mayor of São Paolo has reportedly declared war on the pixadores. He calls them criminals, while others say they are simply reclaiming their environment.
The graffiti paint is black and not what you would describe as aesthetically pleasing. It looks hostile and is obviously meant to disrespect the property and those who own it. In that way, the pixadores fulfill their intentions well. In contrast to that dark and angry pixacao, we also saw large colorful murals covering the sides of some buildings. They are often decorative and filled with intricate scenes and images of Brazilian culture. Some also present a bold political statement, but likely the creation of them didn’t involve the danger that the pixadores were willing to risk.
In the same way that the graffiti and murals showed me contradictory ways to express social issues through art, I noticed a contradictory side to the expressions of pride Brazilians feel for their country. All of the people we met were kind, generous and passionate about Brazil. They shared their pride in the food like the “Feijoada” and “Churrascaria” that they fed us. There was pride in talking about Carnival, which was about to begin. And there was definite pleasure felt about their magnificent landscape. Yet, without fail, they all told us to be on guard, prepared us to resist thieves, and basically said we should not feel safe. Our tour guides shared many reasons to love their cities, while also giving multiple warnings of violence, danger and crime. We even met a woman on the beach in Ipanema who was trying to educate the kids and shouted at us to be on watch because “This isn’t America!”
In spite of all the cautionary tales, I never really felt unsafe. Maybe it was because we were with our hosts and tour guides most of the time? We were so well taken care of, that we were somewhat sheltered from the dangers of the cities. I was careful, but I never felt afraid, as I have in some places I have travelled. So, when people often comment about the lack of safety in these two cities, I have to say, that was not my experience at all. As a traveler, I am often in a new place for just a few days. Therefore, I’m never fully qualified to form any real opinions. That being said, I do have first impressions, and they are important and lasting. My impressions on this trip were definitely colored by the wonderful experiences with the people. I would love to return to both cities and explore other parts of Brazil, meet more beautiful people, and find some decaf! And maybe a sloth or two!