Smiling against all the odds

By Raphael Scire

On a cold Tuesday, during a week when thermometers registered low temperatures in São Paulo, Vinícius didn´t go to school. He missed classes due to the strong rain from the preview day that isolated his house in Vila Sonia, Itaquaquecetuba, on the border of São Paulo east side suburbs, famous for, every single year, popping up in the news because of the precarious life conditions of its population, victims of floodings that year after year hit the streets and make people who live around desperate.

Vinícius is one of the three sons of José Augusto, a trash picker who makes the dirt of Tietê River his incomes. Vinícius is 14 years old, has a twin brother and is extremely shy. His young brother, Mateus, shares with him this shyness trace. Vitor, the twin brother, is in jail after having been involved in a confusion. When coming back from the bakery next his house, together with some “bad friends”, according to his mother Cecília, the police stopped him. Scared, he ran away, reason why he was carried to jail. Cecília and José Augusto have long enough been desperate and both know, patiently, that there isn´t much to do. A lawyer, now, takes care of this situation.

The five-people-family live monthly with about US$ 150 and they complement the incomes with “a few more” that José Augusto earns as a pension after having lost the tip of his pointer left finger by the time he used to work with ironmongery for a company partnered with Companhia Paulista de Trens Metropolitanos (CPTM). He cannot precise his incomes, but assures that it is less than a minimum wage. He also doesn´t know his surname. The age, he only remembers because it is the same as his wife´s: 52 years old. Not even the time when he came to São Paulo, trying a better life different from the drought in the Northeast of the country, he knows very well. In spite of everything, all of them keep a smile on their faces, a hard task for those who struggle to life in adverse conditions.

On the edge of Tietê River, known by everyone Who lives in São Paulo by its smelly scent, the family divides a tight shanty, half made of woods and the other half of bricks. A makeshift bathroom is side by side with the beds. There is no privacy, neither for the couple nor for the kids. But there is room for a caged bird, three dogs and the hatch of four puppies newborns. If outside the house Tietê River spreads its nasty trash, inside the situation is completely different: it is absolutely clean.

When it rains, the soccer field in front their shanty becomes a polluted lagoon and the only leisure alternative becomes a worrying reason. The happiness becomes the anguish of seeing their house flooded and the risk of losing all the things they have, many of them collected from the street trash.

Bricks mold on the flooded wilderness in front the main entrance of José Augusto´s house. The extreme poverty, although, doesn´t spot him to make small cares, such as a garden. The excessive water destroyed the papaya tree José Augusto had planted, but the lemongrass resists the nature strength. The lemongrass, by the way, is the main ingredient of the tea Mateus serves the guests.

Receptive, José Augusto and his wife open their house´s door and offer us some coffee. An instant later, the young son comes back from the food locker and changes his mind: he says that he would prepare some tea. It is not difficult to imagine why he changed the offer: there is no coffee powder to prepare. The pantry is clearly empty.

José Augusto´s activity ends up being environmentally providential. It is from Tietê´s dirt that he makes up his life and supports his family. He works informally and has no perks. He and his wife, who follows him all the way around in search of materials they might sell, have no warranties in case they have an accident. They are subject to any kind of diseases.

And the surroundings where they live is full of diseases. Mosquitoes fly around their house and no longer bother them. By the time when Brazil was devastated by the progress of tropical illnesses, such as dengue, zika and chikungunya, transmitted by aedes aegypti, families like José Augusto´s are quite vulnerable. The health system, where they live, can only stanch bleeding but not cure it.

Cecília´s dream is to buy an old Kombi of an acquaintance. So, neither she nor her husband would have to push the cart around the streets of Itaquaquecetuba. Together, they walk about 15km daily and only don´t work on rainy days, for obvious reasons. The car costs US$2800 and they know they have no conditions to pay that much.

An alternative for the vehicle would be the construction of a boat in which José Augusto, together with his sons, could row down the river collecting the garbage. Once again, the lack of money is stronger. To make the boat possible, he would have to pay US$ 270, an amount he doesn´t have. Some time ago, he turned the door of an old fridge the boat in which he sailed through the river. It didn´t last too long and he had to come back to pushing his cart.

According to the NGO SOS Mata Atlântica, 157km of Tietê River are dead, completely covered by a spot of filth. By its curves, the chance to find more valuable materials to sell to recycling cooperatives is bigger. But it is not rare for José Augusto to find corpses floating on the waters. He tells that once he helped the firefighters to rescue a body in the surroundings.

José Augusto´s family, sadly, is only one more of many other families that struggle to live in Brazil and for which the public system turns back. They survive with a few, but even though they keep a smile on their faces. Certainly, if they could, their smiles would be much larger.