Invisible Barriers

A fourth and last field report from the VU’s Master students, once again reposted from the Vamos Bien website. Martina Morbidini conducts research on informal waste collectors in Brazil, ‘catadores’ in Portuguese.

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By Martina Morbidini     Belo Horizonte is an egg, they say. It’s a huge city, yet everyone seems to know each other and happen to meet in the strangest situations, so that living here seems more like living in a huge village instead of in a city. As I arrived here, friendship ties left two years ago at an embryonic stage flourished as if it was ‘normal’. I found my current house by greeting a familiar face on the street, with the two of us not really knowing who the other was and why we knew each other. This city is full of beautiful, casual encounters.

So I ask myself why, in a city of 2.5 million people, ‘everyone’ seems to meet known people all the time, instead of giving the impression of being lost and surrounded by strangers all the time.

I got the idea that there are many invisible walls among citizens. Those barriers have the power of making the people on the other side invisible, and leave only familiar faces walking the streets, drinking at the bars, going to cinema’s and events, ‘spending time’ in shopping malls.

The wall especially functions ‘top-down’: there is a whole group of people working in the ‘hypercentre’ of the city which is invisible to the middle class. The ‘unnoticed’ are beggars and homeless people living on the sidewalk and systematically ignored by pedestrians, but there is also a whole category of working class people rather invisible to the average citizen’s eye. Waste pickers, which would otherwise be pretty visible with their ‘monumental’ wagons, end up being invisible to the chaotic majority, with cars only actually acknowledging their presence by honking.

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The invisible wall exists not only in the streets, but also in ‘middle-class’ houses, between house-owners and ‘faxineiras‘, or cleaning ladies. Old buildings and old apartments are distinctly divided between the ‘social area’ and the ‘service area’. The communicating space is usually the kitchen. Workers are used to entering from a ‘service elevator’ in the back of the building, and enter through a separate door which opens into the separate space in the house, where the lavatory, a secluded bathroom, a small bedroom and of course the kitchen are located. This separation, a heritage of the slave state, has far from disappeared. Even student houses, the so-called ‘republicas‘, have cleaning service, usually once a week. When I ask ”why don’t you clean your own house?” the responses are something like, ”but it’s so cheap” or, “then I would have to fire the woman.”

The class segregation is still alive in society, and when we talk about social exclusion and empowerment of waste collectors, we have to keep in mind that even in the most progressive middle-class citizen the separation is likely to be naturalized and taken for granted. For individuals, it is hard to break those walls. Middle-class people don’t talk to lower class people unless it is necessary. And lower class people also mostly abide by this unspoken rule.

In Belo Horizonte I am part of the (upper) middle class for many reasons. First of all, I am European, which means I traveled all the way down here, which means I can afford it. Then I am a student, which means, in Brazilian society, that I either had a good, expensive, private primary education, or that I can afford an expensive, private secondary education. And then of course because I hang out with ‘middle-class locals’, I am part of it. So the barrier exists also for me, even if I did not want it to just because I am identifiable in one of those two major groups.

The step of talking to a stranger would not be so difficult here if it wasn’t for this wall. And that is why it took me a lot of effort to get closer to the wagon and say hello to a ‘catador‘ for the first time. But that is another story…

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