from I'm Still Here
The public holiday on 20 January 1971 was a day that had no end. It took us a long time to understand why that day existed and why it was the way it was. After a morning walk, my father lay down on the sofa in the study, lit a cigar, and began to read the newspapers. My mother kept him company. The telephone rang shortly after ten in the morning. A womans voice asked for our address. It was to deliver a parcel from Chile. My father didn't think anything of it and gave our address to her.
Half an hour later, six armed men in civilian clothes crossed the backyard of our corner house. Tense, as if invading rebel headquarters. They came through the back door and crossed the kitchen, pointing machine guns at the maid, Maria José. They ordered her to put her hands up. Calm, nice and calm …
My parents, both forty-one years old at the time, were there, in bathing suits, ready to enjoy the beach. The maid came in looking pale. She told my father some men were there to see him. He left the room. My mother continued reading the paper. He came back escorted by two military officers holding machine guns and said, "Honey, stay calm"
My father asked them to lower their weapons. He introduced them to my mother, one by one, said they were our guests and that the house was at their disposal. He seemed the calmest one there. They asked who else was in the house. Just children, said my mother. They all went into the living room. My sister Babiu heard the noise and went to see what it was. My mother reassured her and invited her to sit down. They asked about the others. Yes, my son, a little boy, is still asleep.
They closed all the curtains and windows.
Once the "headquarters" had been taken, they asked questions, exchanged information by radio, and then told my father they were going to take him with them to give a statement. All routine. He asked to be allowed to change clothes and went upstairs, accompanied by two agents. My mother and sister stayed in the living room. He put on a suit and tie in the presence of the agents. My sister Nalu arrived home with Cristina, the stepdaughter of Sebastião Nery, a recalled congressman like my father. They had stopped by the house on their way to the beach. They didn't understand what was going on. Nalu went upstairs, saw my father getting dressed, and thought it odd that he was putting on formal [End Page 131] clothes on a sunny public holiday. She asked him to lend her a shirt to use as a tunic, a habit of hers. He gave her one, went downstairs, and even chatted with Cristina, sending his regards to her stepfather.
He put on a watch and shoved some notebooks in his pocket. He left with two of the agents, driving my mother's Opel. Four agents stayed at our place. One of them said that his name was Dr. Stockier and that he was a specialist in parapsychology. My sister Eliana came home from the beach. She thought it strange that the house was all shut up, curtains drawn, windows closed. When she walked in, my mother quickly told her what was going on.
I woke up after all this and headed to the bathroom, still groggy. As I was brushing my teeth, I noticed a stranger in the corridor, watching the goings-on in the street through the second-floor window. I nodded in greeting. He was quiet and stayed upstairs the whole time.
Every six hours, the men were replaced by another four. To me, they were all the same.
Memory isn't a rock with hieroglyphs etched into it, a story told. Memory is like sand dunes, grains of sand that move from one place to another, take on different forms, carried by the wind. A fact today can be reread another way tomorrow. Memory is alive. A detail of something experienced can be remembered years later, take on a relevance that it didn't have before, and denote something that was previously more representative. We think today with the help of a small portion of our past.
With time, my fathers arrest (like my mother's and my sisters) acquired another meaning, other forms of proof, witnesses, rereadings.
When I came downstairs, I didn't find an environment of terror. Everyone was calm, almost too calm. The house seemed to be functioning normally. No one said a thing about the ununiformed strangers, now unarmed, young, neat in appearance, polite even. It wasn't unusual to find people we didn't know scattered about the house. Especially on a public holiday. But these men weren't dressed for the beach. Deep down, they seemed a little ill at ease. It was as if the family was trying to get on with the day, and they could see that it was actually just a normal house, not a rebel headquarters. Whenever the phone rang, one of the agents, Officer 1, would pick up the black lacquer telephone on the coffee table in the living room, a telephone that was usually in the study and had a very long cord.
"What's going on?" I asked my mother.
"Nothing, son. Have you had breakfast yet?"
"Who are these guys?"
She said they were inspectors, then she said they'd come to fumigate the house. Creative.
They had orders to arrest everyone who showed up. And on a public holiday, a beach day, everyone showed up. They took kids who were my sisters' friends. Nelson, my father's friend's son, showed up, and they arrested him, too. They took them all to the doi-codi, the counter-insurgency intelligence bureau. [End Page 132]
My mother served lunch. The atmosphere was one of apprehension, not tension. "Would you like something to eat?" she asked them. They accepted awkwardly. The maid kept saying, "I'm a bundle of nerves, my hand won't hold still".
The family members sat at the table, while the agents ate scattered about the house. My mother made small talk. We all did. What's for dessert? Pineapple. There was pineapple every day. I don't know why, but we had it in for pineapple. Because there was always pineapple, wed sing in unison, banging on the table, "Pine-ap-ple! Pine-ap-ple! Pine-ap-ple!" There was never ice cream, pie, sweet tarts, compotes, crêpes. There wasn't even sugar in the house. Or soft drinks. There was juice with artificial sweetener! My mother, obsessed with physical form and aware of our Italian heritage, taught us from a young age to hate fat, to despise bellies, to ignore sweets and enjoy the wonders of an orange, an apple, a pear, a tangerine, or a pine-ap-ple!
I slipped out without anyone noticing and went to play soccer on the beach. Right across the street, at Posto 11, there were beach volleyball courts and soccer pitches. The volleyball ones are still there. There's no room for a soccer pitch anymore. When the sea crashes on the beach, it is beautiful. The sea has risen. The broad strip of sand in Ipanema, Copacabana, and Leblon is narrower. It used to be a long way from the footpath to the scalding sand and then the wet sand. You had to run like an athlete to cross the "dead zone," the strip of beach where no one dared lie down. Playing beach soccer in Rio de Janeiro is for super-athletes. In Santos, the sand is hard and people often play in sneakers or even soccer boots. In Rio, players' feet sink in, they get bogged down, the ball doesn't roll according to a logical trajectory—it bounces here and there, unpredictable, irascible, out of control.
In front of our house, there were kick-arounds between children, young people, sometimes a combination of adults and children, sometimes one-on-one (one at the goal, the other attacking), and there were lively weekend games between organized beach soccer teams, with supporters, jerseys, rivalry, and fierce disputes. Nothing to do with todays game. It was the same soccer as on the field, eleven per side, except on the sand, barefoot, in shirts and shorts. In the 1960s, some games were actually broadcast on TV Rio—between teams such as Lá Vai Bola, Dínamo, Radar, Real Constant, and Copaleme—which mobilized locals. Players such as Júnior and Heleno de Freitas were discovered on the beach.
A set of goal posts in front of our house was the meeting place. The teams were chosen there and then, and the rules were also decided on the spot.
Two kids were there when I arrived. Because there were only three of us, one would have to play on the goal and the other two would vie for the ball; whoever scored a goal would stay in the field while the other one would trade places with the goalkeeper. It was more about kicks than fancy footwork, as is the case with matches in soft sand. A lazy game, under the scorching sun. The kids, brothers who lived on my street, were among those who referred [End Page 133] to me by the nickname Scally. Their dad had a Kombi and used to take us to Maracanã Stadium. There were fumigators in my house, and there I was in the sand, kicking a heavy ball around, without running too much.
I loved that Rio de Janeiro. My family loved it. Who didn't? Best thing ever, our move there. The space, the view, the number of friends I had. How easy it was to make friends in the street, on the beach. I took the bus to and from school. Here, all kids, rich and poor, took the bus. I swam. Rode my bike. Played soccer. I played on the beach, in Cruzada, in the street, at the club, at another club, wherever there was a place to play. I played soccer indoors, in the sand, on beaten earth, at the goal, in the field, barefoot, in sneakers, and I lived only a few blocks from the Mengão, the first team I ever supported.
When I got home, one of the fumigators gave me a telling off. He asked me where Id been. Come again? Who are you to ask where I've been? I was across the street playing soccer, like I always do. Its my right. Its my beach! Its a public holiday, there's no school. No one can stop me going to the beach. You just have to keep your wits about you when you cross the street. The beach belongs to everyone.
He was so surprised by my answer that he didn't say a thing. He looked at me with an expression that said, "You have no idea what's going on here, do you, kid?"
My mother saw the whole thing and had an idea. She made me go upstairs to her room with her, as if to tell me off. She asked me how Id gotten out. I walked out. Where? Through the garage. She wrote a short note, put it in a matchbox, and asked me to deliver it to our neighbor, Helena, and not let anyone see me. From her tone of voice, I felt that it was an order that couldn't be questioned and an easy mission to carry out.
I didn't think twice. I could jump from one wall to the other, but Id be seen. In my first real action against the dictatorship, I prioritized safety and efficiency. Our house was on the corner of Rua Almirante Pereira Guimarães and Avenida Delfim Moreira. The front gate was on Pereira Guimarães. The garage door was on Delfim Moreira. The street address was Delfim Moreira #80. It's still there. Not the house, but the address, a black building with only a few floors, built during the real-estate boom that disfigured the neighborhood of Leblon in the 1980s. It is a dark, coffin-like building, with what looks like a burial monument, a black stone, out front. Corroded by the salt air, the building underwent renovations that lasted years. I know because every time I pass it, I take a good look. Hello, old home. Hello, old me.
I turned right on Afrânio de Melo Franco, the stomping ground of the most violent gang in the neighborhood, which had many members and was feared by all. Sometimes they'd trash a bar, a nightclub, beat up a bouncer. It would be in the papers: middle-class kids running amok. Everyone would talk about it. Theyd be taken to the police station on the same street. They all had influential parents whod get them off the hook until the next rampage. My gang, which hung out on Pereira Guimarães, didn't hold a candle to them. [End Page 134]
I took another right on General San Martin. I was mugged there once. That is … some kids from the Pinto favela surrounded me. I was on my bike. They wanted my money. I had a little cash in my shirt pocket. They kept insisting: Give us your money. No. Give us your money. No. What's your problem, dude? What's your problem? I didn't give them my money. Period. What's your problem? The neighborhood kids still respected each other. They never mugged me, even though I was one of the rich kids who lived in a place sandwiched between two big favelas.
I turned down Pereira Guimarães and sprinted past my friends' houses without stopping. I flew past Fabinho's little building, the Kombi that used to take us to the Maracanã, Nando Buco's house, the ice-cream parlor in the middle of the block, the sauna. I slowed up, keeping close to the walls, past Eltes's garage, which served as a goal and whose window I had broken about five times with my powerful kick. Id break it and run, and wait for my mothers tongue-lashing that night. And Id pay for it by sweeping his yard. But Eltes was a nice guy. He stopped complaining after the third broken window.
Then I rang the doorbell, opened the box, and read the note. Aunty Helena, Eltess wife, answered the door. My hand shook. Mom asked me to bring you this. Deliver the box and run! Trying to understand what was written on a folded piece of paper bag from the bakery. rubens has been arrested, no one can come here, otherwise they'll be arrested too. My memory has retained details of this scene, second by second, from my heart rate to the temperature of the asphalt, from the warm sea breeze, the time Aunty Helena took to come to the door, her surprise when she saw me and noted my desperation. Rubens has been arrested. Why? What did he do? No one can come here, otherwise they'll be arrested too.
Dad had been arrested. Dad had always had problems. Dad was a persecuted politician. For as long as I could remember, Dad had had problems with powerful people. He'd go underground, reappear, hide. In Brazil, many people had problems. Dad explained it to us once: the "gorillas"—which was how he referred to the military, as did many others—had seized power because they didn't want reforms to help the poor. I loved the suggestion that the guys who appeared on TV in military uniforms and dark sunglasses and who called the shots in Brazil were gorillas.
Every time I go down Afrânio de Melo Franco, I imagine the scene: the eleven-year-old kid, in 1971, running down the street, desperate, on an innocent beach day, returning home in panic to his mothers arms, knowing his father has been arrested. I passed those trees. I always do when I go to Rio. Some of the trees on Afrânio today were there back then. Walking through Leblon, I retrace my steps, heart in my mouth, remembering every detail, reliving the unbelievable days of a jarring Rio summer. For many years, one of the goal posts across the street sported my initials, which I had etched into it as a kid. For many years in the 1970s and 1980s, I checked to see if the mrp was still there. For some reason I can't explain, the sea has encroached on Rios beaches, making [End Page 135] them narrower. My goal posts aren't there anymore. They took the wood with the initials mrp etched into the white paint. They recycled it. Neither rp nor mrp has stood the test of time. Nowadays there are only beach volleyball nets.
On the beachfront was Shorty's Kiosk. Coconut water, cassava crackers, served not by a short guy, but by my friend Juliana. In 1971, I jumped a fence that isn't there anymore and ran towards Afrânio. I passed four palm trees. Delfim Moreira #90, a large, older building; #106, another old building, but smaller; #120, an old, three-story building with large living-room windows, which was definitely there that day; #130, another small building, another witness. I turn down Afrânio. Terraced four-story buildings, all beige, with enormous living-room windows and no balconies, two bedrooms with sliding lattice windows—a constant landscape in old Leblon, heritage-listed Leblon. Afrânio de Melo Franco #42, a building named Paul Klee. What a surreal name for a building. Lots of almond trees along the way. They've been there for decades. They provided the little coconuts that the local kids used in their wars. Which weren't coconuts at all, but green almonds that had never ripened. Trees growing in symbiosis with devils ivy, spiraling up the trunks with heartshaped leaves. A few fig trees, too. On the corner of Afrânio and San Martin, I pass in front of the lot where there used to be the little houses on Almirante Belfort Vieira Square. Which is no longer a square, per se, as traffic is allowed through. Fabinho's building has been replaced with a twelve-story yellow apartment block. They demolished the little sauna building to make way for another giant. Fernando Pernambuco's house also gave way to a twelve-story apartment block in the same era. I'm still not sure if Eltes's house was incorporated into the same property that swallowed our corner house. His garage, the wooden door that served as a goal, is exactly where the buildings garage is. The flowerbeds where we played marbles are still there. To someone passing by today, its a footpath like any other. To me …
In those streets, I was also incredibly happy. In those streets, my family, my sisters, especially my father—originally from Santos, he found the cosmopolitan beach city and was enchanted by it from day one—were happy. I know that every time I visit those streets, that block, they are never the same. Its like gazing out at the Cagarras Islands, an uninhabited archipelago of seven tiny islands and rocky outcrops, which can be seen from Copacabana, Ipanema, Leblon, Pepino, Barra, and Recreio beaches, without noticing that they, too, transform. From Alto Leblon, they are one shape. From Jardim de Alá Park, between Leblon and Ipanema, another—the big one, Cagarra Grande, is in the middle, and seen from a distance they look like a single island. If you walk to Arpoador, at the end of Ipanema, the archipelago changes shape again, and you can see the individual islands: Cagarra Grande, 260 feet tall, is no longer in the middle, like a big mother, as I used to see it every day from the window of our little house. In fact, Cagarra Grande is the farthest out. During a simple stroll, locals can see what looks like a solid block from afar changing shape. What you [End Page 136] see isn't exactly what you see. For this reason, I write, like many others, what I have already written.
After delivering the note, distraught, I got back inside by jumping the neighbors wall at the same place where I had left. The so-called fumigation agents had arrested my father. No one could come over, otherwise they'd be arrested, too.
In the living room, my sisters were playing cards on a coffee table with two of the agents, who were scattered about on the sofa and floor. They were all calm. They didn't look evil. They didn't look like villains. They didn't look like they had it in for us. They were polite even. They didn't appear to be controlling what we did. They didn't look like executioners, prison wardens. They looked like guests. They didn't seem very efficient, as they hadn't noticed my brief absence. If they were the enemy, they didn't show it.
We could come and go as we pleased inside the house. The calm was shattered whenever the phone rang. One agent would listen in on an extension, while my mother had to speak under the watchful eye of another. She doled out dry answers to the friends who called to ask what our plans were for the public holiday: He's not here. He's gone out. He's out of town. He won't be back … On the other end of the line, our friends found her replies odd. What's going on, Eunice? Why isn't he there, we had arranged to go to the beach, why is he out of town, we were going to have dinner tonight, why did he go out, where, in this heat, this sun? My mother's coldness wasn't rehearsed. She wasn't following a manual for the wives of urban warriors ("terrorists!"). It was intuitive, she was clever, following a magical intuition, never thinking about what to say. She just spoke, and I watched her closely, because what she said always made sense, in interviews, at press conferences, in tense environments, with fumigators, in her militancy against the dictatorship, in human rights, at Amnesty meetings, to Indians, to Sting. She was common sense in person; it was enviable, and I have tried to imitate her in vain all my life, in the most complicated interviews I have given, bombarded with dubious questions, where I was expected to provide The Opinion of those who had lost family members to the dictatorship, The Opinion of the young writer, The Opinion of the opinion maker. I tried to imagine what my mother would have said. What's your, our struggle, everyone's struggle, the struggle for rights, for justice, which humanity needs, what's your opinion?
Her coldness raised a red flag. How could Rubens take off like that on a beach day? Call again, Eunice's acting strange, she's not her usual warm self, did we call the right number?
Suspicion set in. Rubens has been arrested. Rubens has been interned. Rubens was in their sights. Everyone was. It was the dictatorship. They had already arrested old intellectuals, editors, journalists, humorists, teachers, union leaders, congressmen, military officers, singers, musicians, actors, theater directors, filmmakers, writers, students, priests, nuns, jurists, monks. Phones [End Page 137] everywhere were tapped. Letters and telegrams were intercepted. They were closing in. Rubens was down. Rubens had been interned.
The network of friends was contacted. The alarm sounded. Some packed their bags and headed for the airport as fast as they could go. Exiles were informed. Foreign correspondents, too. Rubens, of all people? Rubens was against armed struggle, he was a recalled congressman, he wasn't even a Communist, he didn't fit the profile. But he was down, he'd been interned.
Time stood still. Snacks were served. Juice. I didn't see a single gun. I know they came in holding machine guns. I know that for a while everyone was in the sights of their revolvers. I know that, at my mothers request, they put them away after a while, in a bag under the stairs. All I know is that I woke up and didn't see a single gun.
I spent the evening bored, playing button soccer by myself. Narrating the match like a radio transmission. From the window, you could see the writing spray-painted on walls during a visit by an American banker a year earlier, now whitewashed. It was red, written in haste, all over Leblon. go home rockefeller. Many people didn't even know who Rockefeller was. And why didn't we want the presence of this "good friend" from America, the millionaire governor of New York, a progressive, liberal Republican, whose foundation funds research, curates museums to this day? Wherever Brazil goes, the United States goes. Rockefeller came to help move bilateral agreements along, refinance the country's foreign debt, invest money in Brazil, sent by the good American government, friend of the Brazilian people. Wherever the United States goes, Brazil goes, too.
The graffiti stayed on the walls of the houses in Rio's South Zone for days. The locals had to roll up their sleeves and whitewash and repaint their walls. Some were angry, or couldn't be bothered, so they just threw whitewash over it, carelessly. From my window you could still see a few pinkish letters of the phrase o om ro efe le.
Years later it got out: the Brazilian Communist Party, which hadn't taken part in the armed struggle, had been responsible for the graffiti. The Party believed that revolution had to take place within the system, whose contradictions and historical determinism would bring about its downfall. It wasn't necessary, therefore, to take up arms, but to do political work. Like spray-painting go home rockefeller in red on the walls of Ipanema and Leblon. [End Page 138]
Marcelo Rubens Paiva was born in 1959. A playwright, journalist, and columnist for O Estado de S. Paulo newspaper, he has published over a dozen books. His works include the autobiographical books Feliz ano velho [Happy old year] (1982), a bestseller that won the Jabuti Prize, and Ainda estou aqui [I'm still here] (2015). His novels include Blecaute [Blackout] (1986), Ua: brari (1990), Malu de bicicleta [Malu on a bike] (2004), and A segunda vez que te conheci [The second time I met you] (2008).