»To hell and back again« – A day in a Brazilian maids’s life








Zênaide Arruda dos Anjos’ black curls reach far down her back. She is beautiful, but life has worn her down. Zênaide is 41, though she looks ten years older. She bends her head over the sink and rinses the morning cups and plates with a practiced air. Her thick curls have not yet dried, although she showered two hours ago, at home. Now she is at her job in a house in the Northern Individual Residential Sector in Brasília.

Zênaide is a housemaid, belonging to the largest group of workers in Brazil. She was born in 1967 in the rural inland of the state of Bahia, a region still ruled according to the feudal model. A landowner controls the region, handing out jobs for the harvest. If it has not rained during the year, there are no jobs. People starve and move away. Zênaide’s parents left in 1975. The cocoa harvest failed two years in a row. One more crop failure, and her parents would have had to bury some of their eight children.

The Arruda dos Anjos family arrived in the monumental capital by bus along one of the new national highways constructed by the military regime. An aunt, who had fled from the drought in Bahia a year or so earlier, fixed things so the family could live in Cidade Livre, the capital’s first favela. A teeming throng of criminals during the construction of Brasília, the favela had become urbanized into the satellite city Núcleo Bandeirante. Electricity, water, and sewage service were in place. Since the satellite city was the one closest to the Plano Piloto, and thus also to jobs, Núcleo Bandeirante became the most attractive place for migrants who had recently arrived. Zênaide was seven when the family arrived. She was allowed to attend school, since she was the youngest in the brood of children. Her sisters and brothers had to work. They helped their parents to sell cookies, peanuts, and chewing gum on street corners. In the afternoons, Zênaide, or Zê as she is called by her family, usually gave them a hand. She was the one who sold the most stuff. Her big, round eyes and naturally curly hair were a magnet to customers.

When Zé reached her teens, it was clear that she was going to grow into a beautiful woman. A store owner realized this and started to sexually abuse her. Zê was thirteen. Her parents wanted to go to the police, but knew that reporting him would probably cause even more problems. Maybe the police would make the effort to come out and have a word with the man; but a store owner would never have to face trial, and there was a greater risk that he would subject the family to reprisals. He had money to bribe his way with. Zê’s father decided to have a word with him. No big threats — he just wanted to show him that the family knew, and did not accept, what was happening. The store owner defended himself by accusing Zê of being willing. Zê’s father informed him that sex with a minor was punishable under law.

“Go to the police, then,” the store owner laughed.

The abuse continued, and when Zê turned fourteen, her parents decided to send her to a relative in São Paulo. Her aunt was a nice person, and she had made a good life for herself in the lively outskirts of South America’s largest city. However, there was not a chance that she could support Zê. She had to start work. Her first job was as a waitress in a café. She liked it. Sure, she had only gotten to attend school for six years, but that was six years more than her sisters and brothers, anyway.

As a pretty waitress, Zê won masses of attention. The guests wanted to date her. But she kept herself to herself. Never again a sweaty old man, she thought. Instead, she got interested in one of the boys working at the café. He was charming, born in São Paulo, and was in charge of the beer taps, one of the most important occupations in the café. He could not resist the golden-brown beauty from Bahia. After a few months, they were a couple.

When Zê was fifteen, they got married. Then things happened fast. Their first child, Mariana, was born when Zê was seventeen. Four years later, Juliane arrived. Life as a young mother was hard. There was no state maternity support nor any municipal daycare to send the girls to. She had to become a housewife, dependent on her husband’s wages. The problem was that her husband had no respect for their new family life. He continued to come home late. He would tell Zê that he had worked late, but she knew that he had started going out with other girls. One day she had had enough, so she took the girls and moved back to her parents in Brasília.

Zê lines up the cups and plates on the draining board.

“Yeah. Man, what a mess. Do you want a coffee?” she asks, putting out cups on the family’s dining table.


  • ••

House 10, in block 8, on lakeside plot 11, in the high end suburb Lago Norte, is owned by the poet Nicolas Behr and his wife Alcina. Just like all the other middle class families in Brazil, they have a housemaid. That is why dishwashers do not have much of a market in Brazil. Nine out of ten hardware stores do not sell the product at all. In Brazil, the housemaid is the dishwasher.

Every morning, Zê arrives with the housemaids’ bus at 8 a.m. and puts her key in the lock. The parents are at their workplaces, and the teenage sons are at school. On the kitchen table, butter, cereal, milk, and plates are waiting to be cleared away. When Zê has cleared the table, it is time to go down into the basement and make the three teenagers’ beds. After that, she picks up all the dirty laundry lying on the floor, walks up the stairs, and sets the washer going. Then she makes the couple’s bed, folds their clothes, and puts them neatly on a chair. When it is almost 10 a.m., it is time to start preparing lunch. If this is quick and easy, she even has time to clean the toilets before the family comes home for lunch.

“I ain’t complaining. They’re a nice family. They treat me like I’m human. Ask me how I’m doing and look me in the eye,” says Zê, putting the day’s dishes on the shelves.

Outside the kitchen window the sun is shining.

“When I came back to Brasília, I was 22. And had my two girls with me. It was impossible to live with my parents. It was too crowded. But in the beginning we had to. I didn’t have a job. Couldn’t work. Who’d look after the girls? In the end, me and my older sister made an agreement. She said that if I found my own place to live, she’d move in with me and help me to look after the girls.”

For a start, Zê could forget about finding a vacant place in Núcleo Bandeirante. Proximity to the Plano Piloto had made the price of a primitive shack shoot up to almost US$ 16.000. It was no longer possible to get hold of cheap housing in Taguatinga or Ceilândia either, almost 30 km from the city center. The intensive migration during the 1980’s had driven up the prices. The only shanty she found at an affordable price was in the same street as the block’s boca de fumo, crack house. It was not a place she wanted to bring up her girls. Zê turned to the land occupiers, the so-called grileiros.

At the beginning of the 1990’s, the land occupiers spread out into an area around the Papuda city jail. The federal district’s civil servants were not interested in the land, since they supposed that no building contractor wanted to put up a pink-gated suburb near the infamous jail. One day the grileiros invaded the area and divided up the land to make it into a favela. The price per square meter was the same as the middle class paid for the land in their illegal gated suburbs. However, since the favela lots were ten times smaller, only fifty square meters, a lot only cost a thousand dollars. To guarantee the existence of the new favela, the land thieves had help from a local politician. He promised to prevent possible action by the eviction authority if the occupiers, in their turn, made the new families vote for him in the municipal election. When Zê heard about the occupation, it had been going on for a week. She was lucky and succeeded in purchasing a corner lot. Later, her sister would also be able to build a house on the same piece of land. The favela was named São Sebastião, after Rio de Janeiro’s patron saint.

“I remember how happy I was. Somewhere of my own. My own bit of land. And a view out over the whole valley. It was a great feeling.”

Her parents paid her first mortgage payment. The second, she was going to squeeze out of her husband. He was, after all, the father of Mariana and Juliane, now five and one respectively. The following payments she figured on being able to pay herself, as soon as she had her babysitter and could get a job. Her first house was built of red-brown brick blocks and corrugated iron. It was 20 square meters, divided into two rooms: a combined kitchen and living room, and a bedroom with a toilet. Water, electricity, and sewage would be brought in later, the land thieves promised.

“At night I lay and fantasized that one day I’d be able to afford to plaster the façade. What color would I paint it in that case? Light green? Yellow? Or maybe blue? And the door white? That’d be pretty.”

Zê hears one of the family’s cars driving up the garage driveway. She quickly smooths down her apron and lights the gas stove.

“How long have you been living in São Sebastião?” I ask.

She swings her corkscrew curls.

“18 years. 18 fuckin’ years.”

The family’s teenage sons saunter in. Erik, aged nineteen, sits down on the living room couch with his guitar and klinks a bossa nova while the food is being put on the table. The twins Klaus and Max, aged fifteen, go down into the basement to play TV games. Father Nicolas goes up to the second floor to check his e-mail. When the lady of the house arrives in her green Renault Kangoo, ten minutes later, they all sit down at the table. A Peruvian potato salad is served with the chicken.

“Zê, can you mix some of that sauce that’s so delicious?” asks Alcina, reaching out for the salad.

After lunch, Zê clears the table, rinses the dishes, and puts the plates into the dishwasher. The Behr family is one of the exceptions. They have bought a dishwasher to make the housework easier.

Then it is time to take down the dry laundry, hang up the wet laundry, and iron the family’s clothes. That usually takes all afternoon.

While working on this story, I stayed periodically with the Behr family. This was not my intention to start with. Initially, I stayed with my sister-in-law’s family in Super Quadra 107, in the South Wing. But when her husband, a retired officer, threatened me with a kitchen knife one morning, I packed my bag and left. He did not like my making a deal with his daughter to rent her car. He reckoned I had gone behind his back. When I mentioned the incident to Nicolas, he offered me working and living quarters on the second floor of his house. His wife agreed. Alcina had been an exchange student in Denmark in her teens, and she thought it would be fun to have someone to practice her Danish on, even though I’m a Swede. Having access to Nicolas’ library, which included books on Brasília, made this a very attractive proposition to me. So I gratefully said yes, installed myself in the guest room, and was given a corner of his workroom to myself. The first time, I stayed for two weeks.

Zê and I felt at home with each other at once. Every morning, she laid breakfast for me, even though I wanted to do it myself. She rinsed off the dishes and I read the morning paper. We talked. She was curious about my life, and I about hers. One morning, I asked if I could go with her to São Sebastião. At first, she thought I asked just to be polite. The most recent disputes had turned São Sebastião into one of the most dangerous places around the capital. It was no place for a white middle class guy, above all not for a gringo. Not until I had convinced Zê that I was used to favela’s in Rio did she give way.

“But forget your notebook. If they see that you’re a reporter there could be trouble. You know what happened to him, that other journalist.”


Contracting housemaids is regulated according to Lei do empregado doméstico, 5859, the so-called Housemaid Law. It was approved by the military regime in 1972 and regulates the minimum monthly wage to be paid by the employer. The law also guarantees the housemaid holiday pay and a pension. If the employer does not pay the social costs, there is a special section of the labor court to which the housemaid can report her family. The employer almost always loses. There are ten million housemaids in Brazil. They are the largest group of workers in the country. But they are not organized.

When Lula da Silva came to office in January 2003, the wages of housemaids were US$106 a month. When his successor, Dilma Rousseff, took over as head of state eight years later, this figure more than tripled. In January 2012, the minimum wage was raised to US$334 a month. In the urban metropolises of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, the market has pushed the wages up even higher. But in the satellite cities around Brasília, where unemployment is around 35 percent, the place is crawling with women offering their services as housemaids. Zê does not earn much more than the statutory minimum wage. It suffices for food and gas in the shanty in São Sebastião — not for health care and medicines.

The last things Zê does before she goes home are to change clothes and pat the dog. She never works in the same clothes as she travels to work in. It is a matter of pride. She puts on a little makeup, too, and tidies her curls before she walks out the kitchen entrance. Zê does not want to look like a housemaid when walking through the gated suburb. The risk that she will run into one of the inhabitants is, however, small. Most of them use their cars for even the smallest errands. The only people in sight are rich housewives taking powerwalks in the mornings. Not until five in the afternoon does the deserted atmosphere change as the housemaids pour out of the kitchen entrances. Like ants, the women creep’s along the house walls to the bus stop. Zê tries to avoid the train of lemmings, and she has found gaps in the checkered network of streets. Between the houses, there are small paths you can follow. But you have to be careful. Behind every wall there is a guard dog scrabbling away. Sometimes one of the beasts manages to tear himself out of his chains. Housemaids have been attacked several times on their way home from work.

“I always walk past here very fast,” says Zê as we pass a mansion that is a miniature copy of the White House.

Four guard dogs rush forward. They smash against the concrete wall with broken glass along the top, scratching, barking, and trying to leap over. Every attack makes us jump. We only start talking again out on the next street.

At the bus stop, about 30 housemaids have already gathered. Zê nods to her colleagues, as usual, and introduces me.

“He says that he wants to see what life’s like in São Sebastião.”

The bus stop laughs fit to bust.
Ten minutes later, the bus arrives that every morning and evening carries the maids between São Sebastião and the high-end suburb Lago Norte. Four departures per day, two in each direction.

“And where are you going?”

The bus driver wrinkles his eyebrows when I want to pay.

“He’s with me,” replies Zê.

The driver shakes his head as though thinking “another of those middle class guys exploiting his housemaid sexually.” Zê pretends that she does not notice his reaction and greets her colleagues who have got on a few stops earlier. At the back of the bus sit the men. They are gardeners, empty lunch boxes in their hands. Lunch is not included in the day’s labor, even though they take care of the gardens of the swanky houses to get them looking good. The men always flirt with the housemaids sitting together at the front of the bus. Last week, when one of the housemaids had a birthday, the gardeners celebrated it.

“It was cool. That’s right, ain’t it?” says Zê, turning around to the colleague with the birthday.

“Yeah, it sure was a surprise. The guys bought beer,” she replies, smiling.

She is called Luzia and is also single. Zê usually sits beside her in the bus in the mornings. Luzia works as an ironer for a family, three days a week. She always takes her three-year-old daughter with her to work. There is no daycare where they live.

“It’s more fun to do the ironing when she’s with me,” says Luzia.

Before we leave the high-end suburb, most of the gardeners have fallen asleep. Their heads loll back and forth to the motion of the bus. I look around. Although half of the citizens of Brazil are white, there are only black people on the bus. There is no longer any sign of the Brazilian melting pot. It does not matter that slavery was abolished in 1888. Servants in Brazil are still black.

“We’re poor, you see. Most blacks are poor. That’s just life. Ain’t nothing special,” says Zê.

The bus full lurches on the bend up to the L4, the fourth avenue going east. It runs behind the Northern Embassy Sector into the Plano Piloto. The bus does not stop anywhere to pick up or let off passengers. The servants bus is a waterproff compartment between the highend suburbs and the satellite cities. As we approach the Monumental Axis, we can see the modernist Foreign Ministry with its high arches. Up until 2001, there were only white diplomats in this building. The entrance test to the diplomatic course had gotten so difficult that only people who have studied at private schools had a chance of being accepted. Most of the Afro-Brazilian population do not have that access and get’s excluded. This meant that Brazil have been mostly represented abroad by white ambassadors. To change this apartheid situation, the president at that time, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, introduced positive discrimination for Afro-Brazilians.

“We need a diplomatic corps that mirrors our society. We are not a white nation and will no longer allow ourselves to be represented abroad as if we were,” said the president before he resigned in 2002.

On the servants bus to São Sebastião, this initiative has not made any difference. The truth is that the celebrated Brazilian melting pot conceals an apartheid structure. Seven out of ten poor people are black. 96 percent of management posts in Brazil are held by white men. AfroBrazilians comprise less than one percent of the House of Representatives’ 513 Members of Congress. Of the senate’s 81 members, only one is an Afro-Brazilian. Even in the national sport, soccer, where most of the players are black, almost all the trainers are white.

“Hey man, say you’re white. You gonna accept orders from a black trainer? No way,” one of Flamengo’s junior players once said to me, even though he belongs to the black half of Brazil’s population. They have been in the majority since 2011.

The bus swings out onto the Ponte JK, the JK Bridge, the latest architectural attraction in the capital. Three white, billowing concrete arches run out across the artificial lake. After it won praise at the Bridge Conference in Pittsburgh, the inhabitants of Brasília call it “the most beautiful bridge in the world.” The houses with a view over this creation have increased in value. The JK Bridge is to Brasília what the Sugarloaf is to Rio. At weekends, people park by the bridge and get out their grills.

Fifteen minutes later, the landscape sinks into a valley. Thousands of brick shanties form a patchwork below us.

“Welcome to São Sebastião,” says Zê, pulling the cord.

When the beauty from Bahia moved here in 1990, there were a couple of hundred families here. A few years later, the favela had 17 000 inhabitants. The land thieves had rapidly divided up the land and pocketed the money. A certain percentage also went to the local politician who had acted as a guarantor for the favela. Some years later, what the land thieves had hoped for actually happened. The federal administration realized that there were so many families there that it was impossible to evict them. There was only one thing to do — urbanize. Municipal water, electricity, and sewage were put in. Three years after the occupation, the authorities upgraded the favela to Região administrativa XIV, the 14th administrative region in the federal district. The favela became the São Sebastião satellite city. The three phase rocket — occupation, settlement, legalization — had succeeded. Today, the security prison Papuda is surrounded by almost one 100 000 inhabitants.

Before we get off the bus, Zê urges me not to look right. The neighborhood bandidos are sitting there. They use the bus stop for selling drugs. I quickly turn left and take in the view: The smoke from the shanties. The throngs of people on bicycles. The stores selling Chinese knick-knacks. Sun-bleached beer advertisements outside the bars. Smart guys lurking in the stairwells. Torn election advertisements on the housewalls. The good smell of smoldering kitchen wood fires. Two girls combing each other’s hair in a doorway.

This is like any other city outskirts in Latin America: as cozy as a village out in the country, as dangerous as a backstreet in the big city. Zê’s shanty is the one farthest down the street. The address is Block 104, street 1, house 18. A black-painted iron fence the height of a man surrounds the fifty square meters of the corner plot. No guard dogs, broken glass, or electric fence. The gate is wide open. Her younger daughter, Juliane, aged 17, has just gotten home from school. Her elder daughter Mariana, aged 21, has moved away from home. She lives with her boyfriend in Block 200, about twenty minutes’ walk from Block 104. Zê opens the metal door and turns on the ceiling light. The twenty square meters accommodate a gas stove, an old fridge, a worn couch, a polished dark wooden TV altar, and a solid dining table with a floral plastic cloth. Behind a wall there is a double bed that she and Juliane share. There is no kitchen counter in the combined living room and kitchen. The chores are done on the dining table. The floor is covered with white tiles, but the walls are just rough brick. In some places, the mortar has fallen out. Although Zê has lived here for 18 years, the walls have still not been plastered.

“Yeah, what am I supposed to do? Last winter, a storm tore the roof off. The rain came straight in. The day after, I went out to search for my roof. I couldn’t find it anywhere. Somebody must have stolen it. It couldn’t fly so far,” says Zê, lighting a cigarette.

A new roof cost several months’ wages. That was all the money she had saved.

“Plaster’s a luxury for me right now,” she says.

The door to the toilet behind the curtain shuts.

“Juliane. Juliane. You there?” asks Zê.
“We got a visitor.”

No answer.

“Yeah. She’ll come out when she wants.”

After Zê left her unfaithful husband in São Paulo, she took any work that came along. Her first job was as a seamstress, sewing underwear — panties and brassieres. When the Brazilian textile industry disappeared to Bolivia a few years later, she was out of work. Her next job was as a salesgirl in a perfume boutique. She liked that job. The boutique was in one of the shopping malls in the Plano Piloto. The customers were middle class. She worked in the boutique for eight years until a younger woman took over.

“As a salesgirl, your shelf life is short. That’s all. I was a bit too old,” she says, knocking off the ash.

Zê was 35. She looked for another job in a boutique in vain. After a while, she got desperate and took a job as a personal assistant to an old lady. It was the most boring job she ever had, but she needed the money. The girls were growing into teenagers and needed more food and better clothes. After a couple of years, her neighbor said she could take over her job as a housemaid in a family in the Lago Norte. The neighbor was moving from Brasília and could give Zê a recommendation to her employers.

“I thought, ‘oh hell, do I have to be a housemaid now.’ But I’ve got used to it.”

Zê has worked for the Behr family for several years now.

“They’re sweet. A couple of days after the roof had blown off, Alcina drove over here with some builders and helped me to put up a new roof. Otherwise all our furniture would have been ruined. Now I make payments for the new roof each month,” says Zê, getting up and lighting another cigarette.

“Though the truth is I’m tired of Brasília. I feel I’m finished with this city. São Paulo or a cottage in the country. That’s my dream. In the country, you can live on nothing. You don’t have to work. You have your chickens and your vegetable garden. But maybe São Paulo is best anyhow. Life’s cool there. The girls are grown-up now, you see. The problem is just to find some good place to live. It mustn’t be too far out of town. But then it’s expensive. Most landlords also ask you for six months’ rent in advance. Plus a guarantor. Crazy! I don’t know any guarantors.”

Juliane comes out of the bathroom. Her skin and hair are lighter than her mother’s. The corkscrew curls are identical. Zê’s younger daughter is as beautiful as Zê herself probably was when she was young. She kisses her mom on both cheeks.

“How was school today?” asks Zê.

“Mom, do you have to smoke?” replies Juliane.

You can see that the relationship between them is tense. Juliane does not like Zê’s new boyfriend. According to her, all they do is drink, get drunk, and fight. And then there’s no more money again. Zê usually meets him once at the weekend and once during the week. The day after, she is almost always off sick. The Behr family has got used to it.

“She has a go at the bottle now and then,” laughed Alcina one morning as she explained to her teenagers that they had to have lunch out in town because Zê was off sick.

Juliane sits down at the dining table and turns to look at me.

“Mom said you’re a journalist. Why you here? Yeah, sorry, I mean why you come all the way out here? Reporters never come out here.”

She reaches out for the coffee.

“Please mom, put it out. The smoke’s in my face.”

Juliane is doing her last year at the municipal high school in São Sebastião, and she has top marks. The great challenge for her is to acquire the knowledge needed to pass the vestibular, the university entrance examination. It is her only chance to get free university education. The private high schools take three years to prepare their students for the test. Most get in without any problem. The municipal high school has not got that kind of resources. If Juliane is to pass the test, she will have to study on her own or attend a private evening course.

“It’s hopeless. There are no books or teachers. There are strikes. The school sometimes shuts down because of shootings. The best teachers work somewhere else. We have almost only substitute teachers. The high school in São Sebastião, hey! Who wants to work there?”

To earn money for a private evening course, Juliane sells fruit baskets in the mornings. She loads the baskets with yoghurt, bread rolls, fruit juice, powder cappuccino, marmalade, melon, papaya, cake, and other delicacies. Then she delivers them to the residents in the neighborhood. The baskets have mostly been ordered for birthdays or other special occasions when it’s time to favor someone with breakfast in bed. A fruit basket costs twenty dollars. If Juliane has done the shopping properly, half of it is profit.

“What subject are you going to read at university?” I ask.

“I’m interested in media and communication at present. I don’t know. It sounds exciting. I want to write.”

I expected she would say administration and management, the easiest way to get into university for pupils from municipal schools. But Juliane really wants to work on a newspaper.

“All the journalists in this country are middle class and want to be upper middle class. They never write about how we live. Hey! Is there anyone out there who knows we exist?”

Zê smiles, for the first time. Even if they are sometimes like dog and cat, you can see that Zê is proud of her daughter. One of the things uniting them is anger over the father who deserted his family. Apart from helping to pay for the house, he has not contributed a single dollar during the girls’ childhood.

“Guess who knocked on the door here last year. A girl my age. She said she was my sister. I was real shocked. I told her, come back when mom’s home from work. She stayed the whole evening. Seems like that son of a bitch had a parallel relationship with another woman. When mom was pregnant with me. Safado! Fucking bastard,” bellows Juliane.

On the other half of the plot, Zê’s older sister has her shanty. By it is a garage with a freezer. To make extra cash, Zê and her sister make picolé, an ice stick in a thin plastic wrapper, that they sell for fifty cents each in the neighborhood.

The tired sun sinks over the valley. As if on a given signal, the naked street lights on the block all light up. Zê’s older sister comes along a path towards the house. She is pushing a wooden cart in front of her. She has her three children in tow, plus a girl she has adopted.

“How did things go today?” asks Zê.

“As usual. Everybody was there with their carts,” sighs Maria Arruda dos Anjos.

Zê’s older sister sells candies and sugary cakes outside the satellite city’s grade school. She stands there all day, along with about twenty other women who have also stuffed their carts full of chewing gum, candy, and suckers. The top seller is homemade sponge cakes. One piece of cake pretty much fills the belly of a hungry child. A big piece costs just under a dollar.

Maria greets her family. Then she goes inside to change, and puts on her eyeglasses. At the age of 43, Zê’s older sister has started primary school. She is making up for the education she did not get as a child, when she had to help her parents by selling peanuts on a street corner in Núcleo Bandeirante. President Lula da Silva had opened the country’s schools in the evenings to give illiterate people a chance to learn to read and write.

“Do I look OK?” she asks Zê.

“Yeah, yeah, hurry up now so you won’t be late.”

The children push the cart into the garage and lock it.
Maria’s youngest daughter is called Poliana. She is seven years old and has an eye defect. She can see contours fairly well with eyeglasses as thick as magnifying glasses. She was christened after the figure in American children’s books called Pollyanna, who spread optimism around her despite being an orphan and having lost both her legs. Poliana has the same role in the Arruda dos Anjos family. She is the apple of their eye. Poliana’s older sister is called Lidia. She is 21 and looks after her younger brother and sisters. The middle sister is called Micaela. She was adopted when her mother died of pneumonia. The only boy in the two shanties on the corner is Micael, aged 14. He is a bit childish for his age, but a truly reliable family member. When his mom does not have the strength to push the cart home from school, he does it for her.

Zê and Juliane start fighting again. As usual, it is about money. Juliane is angry at her mother for continuing to blow her money on her boyfriend.

“Mom, get a grip,” she says.

Zê looks at me with a crooked smile.

“See, Mom can’t have no fun. I just gotta work my butt off and then sit at home.”

Juliane goes into the bedroom and pulls the curtain across. I realize that it is time to go, and leave my business card on the table for Juliane.

“Post me if you need any help with anything. I know the managing editor at Correio Braziliense. A nice guy. He can fix a trainee place for you for sure.”

“Thanks,” can be heard from behind the curtain.

Zê accompanies me to the bus stop. Young Micael tags along.

“She’s like that sometimes. Don’t want me to meet nobody. But what she don’t get is, I need it. He dances like a god, is funny and handsome. Black and big. Without him, I wouldn’t survive.”

At the bus stop, people are spread out. The gang is smoking marijuana on the bench. They are laughing and fooling around. Seven teenage boys and three girls. You can see who is the leader. He is wearing a freshly laundered Real Madrid shirt. His revolver is stuck into the waistband of his shorts. It is scarcely visible. Only people who know the urban violence know he has it there.

In Rio’s favelas, the drug dealers are used to foreign journalists coming up to write articles about the cocaine war. Sometimes, the journalists buy a couple of grams of cocaine to take with them too. However, foreign journalists avoid setting their foot in the satellite cities outside Brasília since one of Brazil’s favorite reporters was injured in a shooting incident a couple of years ago. He was going to write a sequel to his article series “Drug trade, liquidation and fear,” revealing how violent life was in the band of satellite cities round Brasília. While waiting for the interview as agreed, he was sitting in a bar in the satellite city Cidade Ocidental when a teenager in a cap, shorts and flip-flops suddenly turned up. In his hand he had a silvery 38-caliber revolver. The reporter was shot three times in the stomach, but managed to ring his editorial office before he collapsed. A private ambulance was sent out and saved his life.

“They shot me only fifteen kilometers from the presidential palace. What shocks me most is that it’s so barbaric so close to the capital. Real wild west,” said the reporter afterwards.

The attempted murder received a lot of attention, and it makes me tense up. I turn my back on the gang so they will not see that I am a foreigner. Maybe we would just have had a wonderful chat about football, but my mere existence might also have irritated somebody. Zê pulls at her oily curls and watches anxiously for the bus.

“It’ll be here soon. Just chill,” she says.

The minutes tick past. The uniformed police drive up. Their scratched jeep glides slowly past the bus stop. Their red lights cast a rotating glow on the brick façades. Machine guns stick out through the wound-down back windows. The drug gang moves calmly behind the bus shelter. The police glare at them and continue on their way.

“Ouch. That was pretty close,” I say.

“Hell no. They work together,” whispers Zê in my ear.

Now even I am beginning to get nervous. The bus has not yet arrived. Young Micael hugs his auntie’s legs.

“Goddamn useless bus. If we wait here too long, the gang’ll steal all our money,” says Zê.

The minutes tick by, getting longer and longer. It is getting chilly. In the end, the two headlights of the bus appear below us on the road.

“Shit. Lucky it arrived. See you tomorrow,” says Zê, hugging me.

“Yeah sure, see you tomorrow.”


  • ••


When I return to Brasília a month later, Zê’s round eyes are dead. Her corkscrew curls are no longer oiled. Her hair is dry and straggly. Her goldenbrown skin has lost its luster. She looks further five years older.

“They wanted to take my daughter. My little girl,” says Zê, drying her bloodshot eyes.

We sit down at the Behr family’s dining table. A couple of weeks ago, the drug gang that hangs out at the bus stop in São Sebastião tried to break into Zê’s home to fetch her daughter. For a whole night, Zê and Juliane stood guard by the metal door in their nightdresses. In panic they barricaded the door with everything there was in house: the couch, the fridge, and the heavy dining table. They even pushed the gas tube for the gas stove in front of the door. In the meanwhile, Zê desperately rang the free phone number 190 on her cell phone.

“Come! Come! Come! They’re gonna take my daughter!” she screamed.

Zê puts her head in her hands.

“The whole gang gonna rape her. The whole gang.”

The trouble had started one day when Juliane was on her way home from school. Alex, an old school buddy, came looking for her at the bus stop. They spent six years in the same class before he left after intermediate school and started hanging out with the block’s bandidos. Alex was twelve when he used crack and weapons for the first time. Now, five years later, he asked if she wanted to go out with him. Juliane, one of the most desirable teenage girls on the block, if not the most desirable, looked at him in silence and left. The nice guy from intermediate school disappeared a long time ago. She had no desire to go out with him. He had sold his soul to the gang. Juliane did not want to enter his world of drugs, parties, and showdowns. Her struggle was about passing the university entrance test and leaving São Sebastião, never, ever to return.

“We’ll kill you, you whore!”
“Fucking cunt!”
“Open up and we’ll give you dick!”

The gang stayed there all night, kicking the door.

“God knows what they done if they got the door open,” says Zê.

The gang had gone crazy the day after Juliane refused the date. The gang leader waved her into the bus shelter. He asked why she would not go out with her old class buddy. ‘Alex is a real nice guy,’ he had said. Juliane explained that she did not want a boyfriend at present. She had her hands full with her studies. Also, she did not want to get pregnant too young. Her mother got pregnant at 17. Juliane did not want to repeat that bit of history.

“Oh yeah, you don’t wanna hang out with our gang?”

Juliane looked the gang leader in the eye.

”Você não é pro meu bico”. ”You’re not my kind of guy.”

Then she turned on her heel and went home.

“I know it was cheeky of her. You know, that’s just her. Cheeky as hell. But you can’t accept that kind of guy. I seen so many girls lost because they ain’t dared to say no,” says Zê.

The pounding at the door went on for several hours. Zê screamed so that she lost her voice.

“If you don’t bugger off now I’ll go see your moms tomorrow.”

“Yeah, man, you do that,” they laughed, still kicking the door.

What scared Zê most was if somebody started to shoot through the door. The bullets would have ricocheted round the little twenty-squaremeter shanty.

“I didn’t know what was best. To stand pushing against all the furniture blocking the door, and risk a bullet going through it, or to hide under the bed and risk them pushing the furniture away from the door,” says Zê.

The gang did not disappear until four in the morning. The metal door was wrecked. In some places, the mortar around the doorposts had fallen away. She would have to ask Alcina for a loan one more time. Zê’s eyes fill with tears.

“Oh man. It was so terrible. They wanted to take my daughter. My little girl.”

In the morning, Zê rang the Behr family asking to have a free day. The family’s teenage sons had to have lunch in the Plano Piloto again. Zê walked with determined steps to the police station in São Sebastião. She wanted to know why the police had not come although she had rung 190 many, many times. Then she realized that those tactics were wrong. She asked to be allowed to speak to the inspector.

“Fact is, he was real nice, and he understood how serious it was.”

The inspector told her about another case that did not end as well. Two girls had been murdered with shots to the head when they wanted to leave a gang.

“Oh man. He suggested that we should send Juliane away until it’s all calmed down,” Zê tells me, pouring a cup of coffee.

A couple of weeks have passed since the incident. The worst of the shock has worn off, and, by this time, she has told the story to everyone she knows. The gardeners on the servants bus got so angry that they offered to shoot the guys. Zê had to calm them down. First of all, the gang is well armed. Second, to get mixed up in that kind of thing might have caused even more trouble for the Arruda dos Anjos family in São Sebastião.

After Zê made her report to the police, the inspector accompanied her to the high school to talk to the principal. The inspector explained what had happened, and that the police could not do very much. The guys were under age. For a judge to approve a prison sentence, the police would have to catch the teenagers red-handed. Otherwise, the case would never hold up in court. The inspector presented his suggestion to send Juliane away for a time to wait for things to cool down. The principal understood the seriousness of the situation and, against her will, granted Juliane time off classes. But she made the point that it was important for Juliane to continue her studies wherever she was so that she could keep up with the rest of the class.

The principal’s final words were: “She mustn’t give up now, when it’s soon time for the university entrance exam.”

Then the inspector and Zê drove to visit Alex’s mom. Zê knew her from earlier. When Juliane and Alex attended primary school, they were always at each other’s kids’ parties. His mom lived a couple of streets behind Zê and was also single. Her husband had started a new family with a slightly younger woman in a satellite city with a slightly higher standard.

“She just cried and cried. Begged me on her knees to pardon her for what her son had done. She said that she no longer had any control over him. He was like an animal and hardly ever at home.”

Alex’s mom promised to have a talk with her 17 year-old as soon as she saw him. The rest of the afternoon, Zê and the sympathetic inspector drove around and talked with the other four moms. Zê knew the names of all the guys who tried to kick down the door. Juliane recognized their voices when they mocked her ambitions at school, yelling ‘open the door now, you stuck-up little cunt,’ ‘mom’s stuck-up whore,’ and ‘you fucking swotter cunt.’

“Pezão was worst — the one at the bus stop when you were on your way home. The gang leader in the Real Madrid shirt. Remember? He was so high on cocaine and yelling all kinds of stuff. It was him that kicked the mortar out. And then there was Ratinho and Robinho, sitting on the bench smoking while you waited for the bus. And Caliber 38. Little guy. The youngest in the gang, but the most dangerous. And then Alex.”

The moms of the four other guys’ repeated the same story. They had long since lost control over their sons. Some of the moms had given up. There were other kids in the family to take care of — other children to make strong so that they would not also give in the day the gang came and said it was time they joined up. There were sad conversations all day. The moms talked about their sons in the past tense, as they were already dead.

Meanwhile, Juliane waited in her grandma’s shanty in Núcleo Bandeirante, where she had moved the morning after the attack. At her grandma’s she was given food and love. However, she did not feel secure. The gang could easily find out where she was hiding out. When the inspector drove Zê home, he wondered where she was going to send Juliane. Zê said she didn’t know yet. She had a brother in Samambaia, another satellite city. But she was unsure about involving him in the whole business. He might well take the law into his own hands too. There was one further possibility. But Zê was hesitant about involving him.

“Do whatever you think best. The main thing is to get her away from Brasília for a while,” the inspector said, giving her the number of his cell phone.

Zê walked in through the vandalized door and started to put the furniture back in order. The fridge had defrosted, and water was all over the white tiled floor. While she mopped up the floor, she wondered whether she should call the number she had avoided for many years. How would he react? In the end, she decided she didn’t give a shit what happened, and she dialed the São Paulo area code. After a couple of rings, he picked up.

“Your daughter needs your help,” said Zê.

He took time to reply.

“What now?”

Zê told him what had happened, and he immediately changed his tone.

“Motherfucking hoodlums,” he yelled, and promised to jump on the next long-distance bus to Brasília and shoot them one by one.

When he had calmed down, he said:

“Yeah, sure, no problem. Sure she can stay here for a while.”

He even offered to pay for the thousand kilometer bus journey.

“But she ain’t gonna work. She gotta carry on studying. You gotta see that she continues her studies,” said Zê, putting down the phone.

Twenty seven years after she herself had to flee from Brasília as a fourteen-year-old, her own daughter climbed onto the bus to seek protection in São Paulo. Zê had left because a store owner abused her, Juliane because she did not want to hang out with the bandidos on the block. History is repeating itself for the Arruda dos Anjos family.

“Oh man, it was hard to send her away. But we agreed that it’s only for one month. Until the situation calms down. Then she’s coming back. She has to have time to finish her schooling. But the university entrance exam, that’ll have to wait till next year,” sighs Zê.



This story is extracts from the chapters Zênaide Arruda dos Anjos and On the Cocaine Trail from the book Fantasy Island – Brave New Heart of Brazil.

Translation: Margaret Myers

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