Izadora doesn't remember how old she was when she first saw the sea. About six or seven years old. One southern summer day in the mid-90s.
But she hasn’t forgotten that intense, infinite dazzle. Drinking in the endless sunshine with her eyes or her lips. She can't remember which. She thought she knew that Carioca sun already... She only knew its vengeful side. Its western side. The one that pounds asphalt and heads, biting without remorse from November to February, suffocating you on those lengthy bus trips on the Avenida Brasil... Its more clement, southern side, she discovered that day: the sun keeps it for those supple, golden bodies, triumphant with life, stretched out on those white strips, Copacabana, Ipanema... where Izadora treads shyly with her caramel-coloured feet.
“Is that sugar?”
In response, her father bursts into a powerful laughter, almost as intense and infinite as the sun that she can't stop drinking. “Of course not, it's sand, minha princesa pretinha (‘my little Black princess’). The most beautiful sand in the world, that of our wonderful city of Rio de Janeiro.” His Brahma beer out of the cooler, he is now the happiest man in the world. He almost allows himself some nostalgia: “When I was your age, I used to live nearby, you know... With my friends, we used to go down the morro (‘hill’) on Sundays to take a dip. But then, we all had to move away. After the fire.”
Her mother is too busy setting up what appears to be a camp, to show any amazement. For until such time as she had defined their space in this territory and her daughters were ready, just so, — hair, bathing suit, sound of their voice... not showing too much, nothing too obvious — the mother will feel uncomfortable, under siege. She will keep hearing the buzzing remarks you can read in a look, in a forced smile. Like those of the housewives in the South Zone who always find something negative to say about how Izadora's mother carries out herempregada (“domestic worker”) duties.
Izadora's sister, Fabiana — with the false self-confidence of a brash teenager from Villa Kennedy — dominates the beach with a single glance, looks up and down those for whom being here is a given, restrains her mother in her zeal for conformity, and tempers her father's enthusiasm with a Brazilian pop tune that flirts with the funk of the favela:
Rio 40 graus / Cidade maravilha / Purgatório da beleza / E do caos
(Rio 40 degrees / Wonderful city / Purgatory of beauty / And of chaos)
Yes, on this day Izadora wants to drink up all the sunshine. And all the sea as well. Her parents are scared to death. Escaping their surveillance for a moment, chaos will prevail over beauty. Fabiana dives in without a second’s hesitation, fishing her from the bottom of the water. Makes her spit out all the salt from the sea and of her innocence. No one will take her sister away from her.
April 2009. It's been a long time since Izadora left her childhood behind.
She has just turned 21.
But even today, she would still like to drink all the sunshine from the southern slope.
Last day of vestibular, last admission tests for this famous university in the South Zone, it's now or never... This time, it has to work.
Foco. Força. Fé. Focus. Strength. Faith.
She's been preparing for this for three years.
She attended Professor Costa's community pré-vestibular, racked up sleepless nights to study and poorly paid jobs to put money aside, filled out all the possible scholarship applications, sent all the supporting documents... — it's crazy how many papers you have to provide in order to prove what is ordinarily flung straight in your face... What about parties? She gave up on countless parties, opportunities to have fun, boys with such pretty mouths, not to mention the rest...
But here she is, back at square one: stuck on the western side.
Yesterday, Rio wept all the tears of its body. Houses collapsed on the hills of the Western and Northern Zones.
Some have lost everything. Their belongings, their lives.
Izadora didn't get a wink of sleep, on the tin roof, the sound of the rain crashing was almost as frightening as the echo of a shooting. One of those where teenage soldiers — as thin as the soles of their Havaianas — fight over the domination of a territory, a trade, a means of survival...
At daybreak, the walls are still standing.
From her window, the unreal spectacle of a boat. Firemen are crammed into it. It criss-crosses through the streets of the Villa Kennedy favela. Rua Zâmbia (Zambia), Rua Sudão (Sudan) Rua Congo, Rua Camarões (Cameroon)... Africa is no longer a mere fiction, a place attached only to the names of streets, since it has invaded the neighbourhood as small red and muddy rivers.
And a less than desirable Africa at that.
A mental association drawn from the reports we watch during commercial breaks, when Domingão do Faustão and other deliciously mind-numbing programmes are on, made her mother comment somewhat naively: “We're not doing so badly here, after all... God bless Brazil," and Fabiana, to reply in a dry voice: "In front of their TV, over there, they may be saying the same thing about us..."
Small red rivers that give substance to the other part of her anguish: bus traffic is very disturbed in the Western Zone. Monster traffic jams where cars circulate. Izadora feels her breath shortening, a line of pain running from her forehead to the back of her head.
Dying. For a moment, she wants to die. Just for a moment. Die so she doesn't have to think.
Mourir. Un instant, elle voudrait mourir. Juste un instant. Mourir pour ne plus avoir à penser.
She repeats compulsively to herself so as to contain the panic.
On the living room wall, a picture of her deceased father tries to reassure her. In the bedroom, her mother whispers blessings. Jesus can do anything, she believes. On the screen of her mobile phone, Fabiana didn't wait for him. As she did in days past, she is working out a plan to keep her head above water: “Meeting place at Praça (‘square’) Miami,in front of the statue.”
But how can you go down the street without getting your legs wet? She barely has enough time to ask herself this question when someone knocks on the door. It's the neighbour: “Fabiana told me you'd need this...” Her husband is a gari (“street sweeper”) She hands her a pair of plastic boots, the ones he keeps in reserve. Izadora thanks her profusely. The neighbour gently rebukes her: “It’s God who gives.”
She puts them on like stilts, managing to walk down the street without falling down.
Below, a shrill male voice calls out:
“Patricinha (‘Marilyn’) Kennedy... What a walk, a real parade! Where are you going like that, to college or to fashion week?”
“Edilson, what are you doing here?”
The young man, wearing a red and black football jersey — Flamengo, naturally — a smile as wide as his shoulders, retorts:
“What do you think? It's your hard-headed sister. She couldn't make it... She requisitioned me... And my uncle's van too! It's like she's never heard ‘no’ in her life!”
Edilson's good mood is catchy. Izadora feels her headache clearing up. They head towards the vehicle. At the centre of the square behind which Edilson is parked, stands, on a concrete mound, surrounded by wire mesh, the Statue of Liberty, a replica of her cousin in New York. An enclosure within an enclosure. Her dress covered with graffiti, she looks even sadder on this rainy day. Izadora stops for a moment. Edilson, banging loudly on the fence to snap her out of her reverie remarks, mocking:
“They put the bars even higher, they were so afraid she'd run away too!”
Izadora can only smile in reply.
She thinks back to that day three years ago, when she walked around the neighbourhood with Professor Costa and the other students of the pre-vestibular as if she was discovering it for the first time.
The doctoral student in History who had initiated the Program to help young people in the community gain access to university, long before the policies institutionalized by the Lula Government, made it a point of honour to tell the history of the neighbourhood. Legend has it that the thirty-year-old man, son of servants who had emigrated from the Nordeste, had taught himself to read. Like a sort of Christopher Columbus who would have discovered a new continent of knowledge using the oars of his efforts alone. It was Fabiana who had told him this as one would tell a tale. The Professor was the only person her sister had ever spoken of with such devotion. A nurturing figure who had inspired Fabiana's vocation as a teacher and her various commitments in the community. Not even Jesus was accorded such favours. Her mother was wary of him. “He believes in nothing but himself,” she said. She would have prefered that Fabiana’s work be overseen by Pastor Eraldo's parish. But then again...she couldn’t deny the effectiveness of his methods: Fabiana was the first person in the family to graduate from university. God would understand.
In front of the Statue of Liberty, the Professor asked the students if they knew why their neighbourhood was called “Villa Kennedy”. Silence in the audience. “Every place has a story, not knowing where you come from is giving up half of who you are.” His talk was full of those types of maxims. Izadora wondered if the Professor had made them up or if he had taken them out of a book... So she learned that their neighbourhood was named after the then President of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who died two months before its inauguration. He was murdered in his car, commented one of the students who had apparently heard of him in a film about a beautiful blonde, a starlet... In the context of the Cold War, after the Cuban revolution, its “Alliance for Progress” program was launched to finance various projects in Latin America with the aim of “slowing the advance of communism”.
Izadora couldn’t tell from the Professor’s tone whether he considered it a good or bad thing... What is certain is that the governor of the state, Carlos Lacerda, thought the operation to be a great success: 5,509 homes with drinking water, electricity and a sewage system, streets, a square... A real luxury for the former inhabitants of the favelas of the South Zone, he believed. In any disgruntled people who argued that the inhabitants had been forcibly evicted and that the two and a half hours of transport from the city centre would make their daily lives difficult the governor responded: “This is only the beginning... Tomorrow, even the people of Leblon and Ipanema will want to live here! Soon, I promise, there will be a centre for crafts and community services, farms, a textile factory, a bakery, schools, a nursery, sports fields, a cinema... and even a swimming pool!”
By the way he had spoken, you’d have thought that Carnival had come early, on this day of January 20, 1964.
In the surrounding euphoria, in order for the tribute to be complete, the governor had thought of commissioning a bust of the American President Abraham Lincoln and having the sculpture placed in the central square, to be named Praça Miami. But he’d come up with something even better: in the garden of the Paranhos family, wealthy landowners of the South Zone, stood a miniature replica of the Statue of Liberty made by the French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi — a commission from the Paranhos to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the proclamation of the Republic of Brazil.
When the American technicians came back two years later, in 1966, they found that none of the promised work had been carried out... and that even though the statue still presided over the Praça Miami, the ideal of democracy and freedom it symbolized no longer had its rightful place: the military had overthrown the Republic... “slowing the advance of communism”. This time, Izadora had little doubt over Professor Costa's opinion.
The dictatorship lasted until 1985. The Republic returned. But overall, nothing had really changed: there in the middle of Avenida Brasil, riding in the van, her ears full of Edilson's PutaQuePariu (“For Fuck’s Sake”) — swear words directed at the standstill traffic, and railing against fate more than anything — her hands clenched in her lap, the sea had never seemed so distant to Izadora.
Nor has the possibility of another future.
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