It’s Hard to Be a Saint in São Paulo

Stories and scenes from Brazil’s largest city

Founded by Jesuits in 1554 on a vast, fertile plateau near the Atlantic coast, São Paulo has historically drawn large numbers of opportunity seekers. In the nineteenth century, Italians, Spaniards, Portuguese, and Germans came to run its vast coffee plantations. Then, when the coffee economy began to decline in the early twentieth century, the newly industrializing city drew waves of immigrants from Japan, the Middle East, and northeastern Brazil. By 1940, São Paulo was considered Brazil’s economic engine, with a population that had increased by a factor of thirty, to almost 1.3 million, in just under six decades.

Another seven decades on, the figure is 11 million. Rapid growth has combined with the consequences of poor urban planning, military rule, and municipal corruption to cause deep instability. The United Nations Human Settlements Programme estimates that a third of the city’s inhabitants now live below the poverty line, and as the city’s economy begins to shift again — this time toward the service and technology sectors — São Paulo’s lower classes find themselves increasingly marginalized, taking refuge in ever more drastic living situations.

Some stay close to the centre, creating vertical slums in the thousands of abandoned buildings scattered throughout the city core, while more than two thirds of the populace lives in favelas on the outskirts, facing appalling sanitary conditions, overcrowded schools, and rampant crime.
Carlos Cazalis is a regular contributor to the Guardian, the New York Times, and the Mexican weekly Día Siete.

2 comment(s)

CazalisApril 17, 2008 17:34 EST

Dear Naor,

I believe you need to make another trip/visit to Sao Paulo. First of all more than 468 families signed up to receive, as you say proper government housing, before the dis-occupation of the Prestes Maia, primarily because the MTSC informed all its movement to come to the building and sign up when the Ministry of Habitat appeared to finally settle a deal. The basement was so overcrowded they had people signing up until 5am, and still some of the official residents got excluded because they were out working. Mauricio mentioned in this story included.

The truth is that less than half of those that signed were living in the Prestes Maia. Second more than half of the families who opted to find a home within the central area of Sao Paulo were promised housing in six months and they are still waiting. The MTSC and city hall keep delaying their plans it seems until elections in October.

Every Tuesday the MTSC holds a meeting at their base and does nothing but attempt to lift the faith of the ex-residents just to keep them in line and not lose vote opportunities for the current mayor, Gilberto Kassab's possible candidacy. Meetings average less than 50 people.

On April 22 the city is actually supposed to release an additional six month rent subsidy to these families. Approximately USD $250.

Yes, a great number of families are with community housing in the periphery of Itaquera, but the distance is so long that for the average person it's still at least USD $5 a day just for transportation.

To summarize the dis-occupation of the Prestes Maia in my opinion was an internal political move from the leaders of the MTSC to obtain power allegiances within city hall. The situation has also debilitated not only the MTSC's power but many of the other homeless movements in the city who had created a significant power base with the sucess of the Prestes Maia movement.

CazalisApril 22, 2008 14:52 EST


This is a very complex story with many political incentives and motivations inside the MTSC. Of course they have obtained housing for people and that's a good thing. Yet the disturbing thing is that no one that I knew of really looked in to the dirty side of all this story. City hall in Sao Paulo is no saint and the MTSC is corrupted but fighting a good cause, albeit using defenseless, poor and ignorant people, like all modern socio political movements -ad hoc

Like you, many of the artists/activists working in the building, found the romantic side of the battle was a fertile ground for expression. However, it disturbed me that on the final weeks of the evacuation all those people disappeared and did not come to see the final outcome, which as I say has had many layers in the process, including making a real count of who remained and who had been there for how long.

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