- An Ethnography of the Week(s) Before the Flood:Cash Money, Progressive Politics, and Revolt in Millennial Brazil
In early June of 2013, flush with what was really only a small reserve of research money gleaned from various academic and government institutions in the US and Brazil, I traveled from Rio de Janeiro to the northeastern city of Salvador, Bahia to give a talk to the Federal University of Bahia’s Anthropology Department. Before departing, and while getting breakfast in Rio’s Urca neighborhood, I listened to men at the lunch counter talking about the quebra quebra (literally “break break”) in Rio’s buses and city center the night before. They argued that the manifestations were the work of professional agitators who were part of an ongoing battle for control of Brazil’s left-leaning political parties. I was intrigued, especially since the quebra quebra around buses has a long history in Rio and Salvador, Urca is well-known as the home of high-ranking military officers, and I have more than a passing interest in the contradictions of life in Brazil today. But I must admit that I thought little of the protests or of the fact that they might spread, until my spider sense tingled in Bahia as, finishing my talk, some graduate students asked about my teaching in New York. As I responded that CUNY Graduate Center’s program is filled with students committed to [End Page 919] political organizing, including a number of people quite active in Occupy Wall Street, I felt a buzz pass through the room as the audience members seemed to straighten and refocus on the visitor. “Gosh, they’re really into Occupy,” I thought myopically. “Is it the movement itself, or is there something else at play?”
Later that afternoon, I escaped the lecture hall and visited some old friends in the working class neighborhood of Arraial do Retiro (hereafter “Arraial”). As I approached their house, a young boy, who I will call Miguel, spotted me and cried out, “Mommy, who’s that man?!? Who’s that man?!? Get him out of here.” His grandmother said soothingly, “No, Miguel, that’s tio [uncle]; you know Tio John,” to which he responded, “No, I Don’t! Get that man out of here!” Miguel had cuddled in my lap during my last visit, just two months earlier, to hear stories of airplanes and to brag about how brave he would be if he traveled alone to New York. But in June, he failed to recognize me. His grandmother explained, “You don’t know what’s happened here. You don’t know the half of it!” She continued with a shocking story involving the assassination of Miguel’s 21-year-old father weeks earlier, as his son sat on his lap. After the shots rang out, Miguel ran back home—covered in blood and pieces of brain—screaming, “They killed my daddy! They killed my daddy!”
On the day in June that I visited the neighborhood, the same gang of teenagers who had killed Miguel’s father—in a dispute for control of a valuable highway drug dealing point where they could meet expensive automobiles driven by Salvador’s bourgeoisie—came strolling past his grandmother’s house, kicking dogs, cats, and household instruments. I sought to melt into the tiny front room’s miniature couch, and all present struggled to assuage the dangerous passersby by silencing the barking dogs. Yet such scenes, no matter how terrible they may be, are not novel in the impoverished Arraial, sandwiched between an abandoned quarry and the highway that links Salvador to Brasilia. Nor do they deviate all that much from dominant representations of the peripheries of São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro. But what is novel in Salvador, and I believe relevant to the recent waves of protest in Brazil, is the fact that 14 and 15 year olds are now walking in the street heavily armed during daylight, and they are taking in large amounts of cash.
I had an inkling that something new was afoot when, in 2010, I received an electronic Christmas card from Miguel’s now 21-year-old mother...