For 40 years, Maria das Gracas Marcal, a second-generation scavenger, combed the streets of this metropolis of 2 million, collecting recyclable trash to feed her nine children.
Over the years, she has worked in filthy clothing while pedestrians and store owners yelled insults and motorists attempted to run her over. Police harassed her by confiscating her trash, which on a good month earned her about $60.
Yet Mrs. Marcal is now feted by city officials. She gives speeches to university students. She has even addressed a United Nations forum.
"Before, the scavengers were seen as garbage people, the scum of society," says Paulo Lott, Belo Horizonte's secretary for the environment. "But Marcal has played a historic role in making them respectable."
Marcal heads the Street Scavengers Association, an organization that has become a model for Brazilian cities unable to cope with increasing trash and urban poor. The organization has been so successful that it has received the city's highest medal of honor. Its members now open the city's annual carnival parade by marching in costumes made from recycled items.
Marcal is a short, stocky woman, with bulging biceps from years of pushing heavy carts. She says she can still push 1,000 pounds in her cart by herself unless she has to travel uphill.
Most of her upper teeth are missing, but that doesn't stop her from smiling easily and often.
When she was 7, she began scavenging with her mother, a widow with three children who lived in Pedreira Prado Lopes, one of the city's poorest and most dangerous slums.
At 13, she caught the eye of Jos Dias Carvalho, a mechanic more than 20 years her senior who noticed her hanging off the back of a streetcar to avoid the fare.
Over the years, they had nine children, who today range between 11 and 30 years of age. Marcal describes that period in her life as "push the cart, get pregnant, push the cart, get pregnant." One of her daughters was born on the steps of a police station and delivered by a police officer.
Since her husband didn't earn enough to maintain their growing family, Marcal continued to scavenge, often under the influence of a white rum called cachaca.
"I would push my cart weaving from one side to the other," she says.
Marcal says she stopped drinking 10 years ago after a friend dared her to stop.
"He said I couldn't do it. So I poured the bottle I was drinking down the drain and thank God, I haven't had a drop since," she says.
The idea for the association began in 1988, after Marcal and other scavengers took to the streets to protest police harassment. They demonstrated against periodic sweeps that either confiscated their trash or forced them to sell it clandestinely.
"I got so angry that I refused to allow this one cop to take my garbage," she recalls. "I told him that I wasn't stealing but working. He let me go."
A year later, members of the Street Pastoral, a social-welfare group linked to the Roman Catholic Church that operates throughout Brazil, intervened.
"Belo Horizonte was no different than any other Brazilian city," says Street Pastoral's Jose Aparacida Goncalves. "They used the age-old method of cleaning the streets of both trash and trash collectors."
Pastoral members held meetings under highway overpasses to listen to scavenger grievances, Marcal says. "They asked us what we wanted, and we told them that we wanted to work. The result was the association."
In 1990, the scavenger's association was created with 10 founding members, including Marcal, who was elected its vice president. For the next two years, the group slowly gained supporters and members. Then, in 1992, it was given a significant boost when the city contracted it to collect paper, plastic, tin, and aluminum cans and take them to designated drop-off points or directly to stores, banks, and industries.
After Marcal was elected president in 1995, the association doubled production.
Today, the association has 210 uniformed members, courtesy of a small grant from the United Nations Development Program. The uniform consists of shorts and tank tops with the Association of Paper Gatherers name, logo (a scavenger with a push cart) and the member's name printed on it. The members collect 15 percent of the total waste produced daily in the downtown area on wooden push carts that can carry up to 3,000 pounds. Garbage collection has increased from 121 tons a month in 1995 to 250 tons in 1996. That's a $35,000 a month business, according to the association's financial officer.
Scavengers' monthly earnings now range from about $240 and $600.
Each day, members of the group take their garbage to three processing warehouses, where they are provided lockers to change clothes, bathrooms, showers, kitchens, and a ride home after work. The use of drugs and alcohol is forbidden.
Moreover, the association offers literacy classes in a makeshift classroom in the downtown warehouse. The students include Marcal, who never went to school and learned to write her name only after she became president so she could sign association checks.
On a recent Tuesday, a visitor saw lessons written on a blackboard, including:
"I am a scavenger."
"I live gathering paper."
"My hands are calloused."
Today, Marcal lives in a comfortable two-story home in a working-class neighborhood with her husband and their younger children.
Although all of the children have worked with her, none of the four adult children scavenge for a living, instead working as a machine operator, a bus cashier, an auto mechanic, and a truck stevedore.
But Marcal still hits the streets daily - sometimes with her retired husband - between 4 p.m and 10 p.m.
On most days, she can be found sorting trash at the downtown warehouse, after fulfilling her duties as president, a nonsalaried position.
Recently, those duties took her to New York where she appealed to a UN forum on governance to support similar scavengers' associations worldwide. It was the first time that she had ever left Brazil, seen the ocean, or gone to the top of a building as tall as the Empire State Building.
But what impressed Marcal most about New York was the trash.
"I saw refrigerators, mattresses, and lots of nice clothes piled up on the streets," she says. "It was luxury trash that we rarely see in Belo Horizonte."
She also described her New York trip as "frustrating."
Each day, she saw scores of homeless people standing idly on street corners and sleeping on sidewalks. She said if she knew how to speak English she would have told them to go collect that "beautiful luxury garbage, earn a living, and go live in a house like me."
In the meantime, the Brazilian state capitals of Vitoria and Fortaleza and Colombia's capital of Bogota have sent representatives to Belo Horizonte, an industrial city north of Rio de Janeiro, to study the scavengers' association.
And Marcal, who was recently reelected president for a second term, expects trash production to double again in 1998.
Despite the recent success, Marcal says she is far from her most cherished goal. "I know how scavengers have suffered, and I won't rest until all are part of the association," she says. "Taking them off the streets is what gives me the most satisfaction."