São Paulo, Brazil

MW de Jesus


The Name

Waldemar Adelino da Silva was one of nearly 26,000 Brazilian soldiers, called expedicionários, who fought under the command of US forces in northern Italy during World War II.

Brazilian soldiers arrived in Italy in 1944 and were ill prepared for the rigors of war and winter. By April 1945, they had overcome their initial deficits. When they defeated the Germans in battle at Montese it was considered Brazil’s best display of military ability.

Few remember or recognise Brazil’s involvement in the most significant global conflict of the 20th century.

Waldemar Adelino da Silva is not mentioned in history books, enshrined on monuments or celebrated in our collective memory. All that has survived of him is a street.

My street.

I was born in São Paulo, raised in the US and returned in 2010. The three years I’ve lived on this street are the longest I’ve been in the same place since 1997.

When I first moved here, I asked about Waldemar. Who was he? A father, a beloved son, a great uncle?

Brazilian politicians often name streets after family members. Paulo Maluf, the former mayor of São Paulo convicted of corruption and currently serving his sentence under house arrest in consideration of his age (late 80s), named one street after his father and another after his mother.

A street with Waldemar’s name also exists in a different city in another state. He must have mattered to someone, somewhere. But like so much with the passage of time, who and why has been forgotten.

The Street

Rua Waldemar Adelino da Silva is in the zona norte (northern zone) of the city of São Paulo. There is a bakery, an elementary school, an active stolen car trade, a barbershop, drug trafficking, a stationery store and families with small children, dogs and cats.

If a stolen car trade and drug trafficking elicit Hollywood images of ruthless men, unchecked violence and immorality, then close your eyes and try again.

Here, drug traffickers include: a young mother who walks her daughters to school every day; a man in his early 30s with short blond hair and round glasses and ill-fitting shorts; an elderly gentleman with a serious alcohol problem. No one carries guns or has the wealth and fame that seem to warrant so much media attention.

Teenage boys get their hair cut at the barbershop two doors down from my house. The head stylist is 17 years old and learned to cut hair by watching YouTube. The styles I see most often, the clean or mid fade pompadour, require hours in the chair and copious amounts of hairspray.

If adolescent high school dropouts provoke stereotypes of laziness, criminality and futility, then take a deep breath and try again.

These haircuts are works of art. The teens on my street challenge traditional notions of masculinity and care deeply about expressing themselves in a world where everyone has a voice and no one listens.

Men, 10 or 15 years older than the teens getting their hair cut, mill around the bar located between my house and the barbershop. The men at the bar don’t use hairspray. Their appearance is unremarkable in every way. They drink beer, talk about sports (mostly football), listen to very loud eclectic music, ranging from heavy metal to MPB (Brazilian pop music) to funk, and sell cocaine and marijuana.

If the word ‘bar’ elicits an image of a place where everyone knows your name, then hold on to that.

The House

All the residences on my street are houses—no high rises or condominiums. They range in style, from precarious hand-built cinder block homes to spacious single-family homes with backyards. My home is a single-storey casa germinada (I share a wall with my neighbour), and my front door opens to my garage which leads directly to the street.

Brazilians believe flats are safer than houses. I was robbed when I lived in a flat on a different street in the center of the city, but never in my house on this street.

My white and grey slightly overweight cat sits at our rusted front gate in the afternoon sun, always perfectly timed with the end of the school day. He nips the people who swipe their hands across his fur and coo at him. No one complains.

When we leave the house, he sits at the gate and cries. He’s achieved a certain level of fame on the street for this behaviour.

People often ask his name and stare in bewilderment at the response: Marighella.  Most Brazilians name their pets after football players or cute adjectives (fluffy, snowy, etc.). I named our cat after a mostly forgotten Brazilian revolutionary. It was 2016, the democratically elected president had been impeached on specious allegations, and I was searching for inspiration.

Carlos Marighella, like Waldemar Adelino da Silva, was a soldier. Adelino da Silva fought for the State, Marighella against it. My cat, despite the biting, is not a fighter.

The Neighbourhood

The zona norte consists of 18 neighbourhoods. I live between two: Freguesia dó Ó and Pirituba. This is the periferia, which simply means the area that surrounds the centre. Traditionally, in Brazil, regions farther out from the centre are poorer and have less infrastructure.

My husband grew up in Brasilândia, one of the 18 neighbourhoods in the zona norte and four kilometers north of our home. Taxi and Uber drivers often refuse to go to Brasilândia. It is considered unsafe. We’ve never had that problem on my street.

The name of the barbershop and nickname of the street is 130; I’ve been told that the origin is derived from football. It is common for daily life to relate to football. In addition to pets and streets that are named after players and body parts that are tattooed with local team emblems, during the World Cup, businesses and schools close when Brazil plays and millions of young boys imitate Neymar’s latest hairstyle.

The People

The stationery store on the corner is owned by my landlady. She doesn’t care about football. She lives on the other side of my back exterior wall and is a sworn enemy of the neighbour to our right, who shares our interior wall.

After my husband and I moved in, the landlady and the neighbour-to-the-right vied for control of the narrative through gossip. The landlady’s husband was a philanderer who didn’t take care of the property; the neighbour was a nosey woman and her daughter a moody alcoholic. Ultimately, my husband and I were equally convinced by the merits of both their arguments. All statements proved to be true.

The bar to the immediate left of my house was initially a source of concern. To call it a dive would convey more formality and structure than actually exists. It occupies two rectangular spaces with metal garage doors and red plastic chairs. The pool table is too scuffed to use. They night we moved in, they played hard rock on full volume until 6am.

My husband is a lawyer and his willingness to provide free legal consultations to the bar owner and clientele made him something of a celebrity. Lawyers in Brazil are called doctors. That’s now his nickname.

The bar owner, Carnaval, often comes to the front gate and calls out, “Doutor!”. His voice is deep, in part because of the incredible quantity of cigarettes his smokes, and his pants are loose around his waist. His salt-and-pepper hair is hidden under a baseball cap, not a common accessory in Brazil, and while he hasn’t aged well it is clear he was attractive in his youth. Most recently, he asked to fill up buckets of water from our sink. He hasn’t paid the water bill and this is his method to flush the toilet in the bar.

The Day-to-Day

On Mondays, the barbershop doesn’t open.

On Tuesdays, the city picks up recycling on the corner in front of the stationery store. One Tuesday evening I walked through a drug transaction with my bag of empty plastic bottles. No one complained. On a Tuesday in 1964, the military overthrew the government and initiated a 21-year dictatorship. That was the government Marighella fought against. He was assassinated for his resistance in 1969.

On Wednesdays, we leave the trash out on the pavement. It was a Wednesday when the president, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached in 2016. Marielle Franco, an Afro-Brazilian lesbian city councilwoman from Rio, was assassinated on a Wednesday in March 2018. It is generally believed that she was killed by the people she often denounced.

On Thursdays, license plates ending with ‘7’ or ‘8’ can’t circulate before 10am or after 5pm. This is dictated by our rodízio, the city’s attempt to reduce traffic. Every license plate number has a corresponding day of the week with these restrictions. When truck drivers went on strike in May 2018 to protest the 50 percent increase in the cost diesel over the past year[1], the rodízio was needlessly suspended; not delivering petroleum led to gas shortages, and with empty tanks most of us weren’t able to drive.

On Fridays, the bakery stays open until 1am. On a Friday in February 2018, the federal government signed a decree ordering military control of the state of Rio de Janeiro.

On Saturdays, the bar usually opens, but not always. It depends on Carnaval’s mood and his ability to pay for beer delivery. On a Saturday in April, former president Lula, who had declared his intentions to run in the 2018 presidential election, began serving a 12-year prison sentence for corruption.

On Sundays, the street perpendicular to mine fills with used cars for sale. Brazil’s first game of World Cup 2018 was on a Sunday. We played Switzerland. It was a tie. Most homicides in Brazil occur during the weekend.[2]

The Numbers

The Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research classifies Brazil as engaged in ‘limited war’. All identified conflicts in Brazil involve the government: drug traffickers vs government, social movements vs government, indigenous groups vs government.[3]

Brazilian politicians attribute violence to organised crime and drug trafficking.

In 2016, the most recent year with reported data, there were 61,283 intentional homicides in Brazil.[4]

At least one death was a tourist. (There are no clear statistics kept on homicides of tourists.)[5]

49 were land and environmental defenders.[6]

66[7] were human rights defenders.[8]

118 were Indigenous Brazilians.[9]

347 were LGBT Brazilians. [10]

4,606 were women.[11]

49,697 were Afro-Brazilian.[12]

None were from my street.

The Reality

No one on my street talks about war, limited or otherwise (unless constantly threatening to kill rival football fans counts).

In a small unscientific sample of three people who live on my street, when I asked if Brazil was at war, respondents paused, looked into the distance, asked me to repeat myself, and responded with their own question: “Why would you ask that?”

The principal tourist destination in the country is under military rule. Our president wasn’t democratically elected. In terms of sheer numbers, we are the country that most kills environmental defenders, human rights defenders and LGBT Brazilians. The vast majority of homicides are of low-income Afro-Brazilians from the periphery.

Perhaps we’ve forgotten what it means to be at war.


[1] https://economia.uol.com.br/noticias/redacao/2018/05/21/petrobras-aumento-gasolina-diesel-refinarias.htm

[2] https://g1.globo.com/monitor-da-violencia/noticia/uma-semana-de-mortes-o-retrato-da-violencia-no-brasil.ghtml

[3] https://hiik.de/conflict-barometer/current-version/?lang=en

[4] Anuário 2017: http://www.forumseguranca.org.br/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/ANUARIO_11_2017.pdf

[5] https://oglobo.globo.com/rio/professor-da-puc-turista-argentina-sao-mortos-facadas-no-rio-18688931

[6] https://www.globalwitness.org/en/campaigns/environmental-activists/defenders-earth/

[7] overlap. 43 of the 66 human rights defenders are listed as land & environmental defenders. This will be true to varying degrees for all of the numbers listed in this section

[8] http://terradedireitos.org.br/acervo/publicacoes/livros/42/vidas-em-luta-criminalizacao-e-violencia-contra-defensoras-e-defensores-de-direitos-humanos-no-brasil/22548

[9] http://agenciabrasil.ebc.com.br/geral/noticia/2017-10/relatorio-do-cimi-aponta-que-118-indigenas-foram-assassinados-no-brasil-em

[10] https://homofobiamata.files.wordpress.com/2017/01/relatc3b3rio-2016-ps.pdf

[11] Anuário 2017

[12] Anuário 2017

MW de Jesus

is a

Guest Contributor for Panorama.