A small boy, no older than six years of age, stood in the middle of an intersection. The streets were covered in entirety by small, colorful pieces of paper. Taking no note of cars passing by, the boy gathered up two handfuls and tossed a rainbow up in the air. The paper fell at his sides, as he looked overhead, laughing at the shower he had created. "Chuva de papel," my host sister said in Portuguese, taking note of the child. Paper rain.
These ubiquitous papers, 2x3-inch slips used as political propaganda in order to proliferate the name, photo, and campaign number of candidates, are called santinhos. These santinhos – which end up puddling in the streets, "evaporating," and falling once more as chuva de papel – are handed out generally tactlessly by individuals who are promised R$40, roughly $20, by a candidate for a day's work.
In Portuguese, there's a word for all this: brincadeira, derived from the verb brincar – to play, or joke. Perhaps as a result of Brazil's obligatory voting policy, many regard the voting process with a sort of flippant passivity. Failure to vote results in a fine, albeit minimal, and a bit of bureaucratic trouble. As such, votes are often determined not by way of political conscience or genuine interest, but rather, because a candidate has promised a beer in return for a vote.
In this brincadeira, the buzzword is corruption, or corrupção. Promises are made, bribes are offered and accepted, and many blind eyes are turned. Citizens complain that politicians are inactive for the entirety of the year, save for the election season, when construction projects are suddenly completed, politicians show their faces in neighborhoods otherwise ignored, and unfulfilled promises are delivered at long last.
One of the men running for mayor here in Salvador da Bahia – the third-largest city in Brazil, and the city with the greatest Afro-Brazilian population in the country – was featured on a poster embracing an elderly black woman. "The first time that that man ever entered a poor, black neighborhood was in order to pose for that photo," a Brazilian colleague of mine said with dismay.
Said candidate, the grandson of a famous Brazilian senator, is a member of one of Brazil's most politically powerful families. This sort of nepotistic culture is prominent within Brazilian politics.
Larry Rohter, author of "Brazil on the Rise," writes of family dynasties in which "governorships, mayoralties, and congressional seats ... are handed down
from father to son or daughter as if they were heirlooms."
Rohter's comment, while astute, seems to fail to acknowledge one reality: It seems that these positions of power rarely fall upon "daughters," or the women of this country. In this year's regional elections, a mere five women were elected to Salvador's city council. Five women, in a 43-member body.
Furthermore, not one woman ran for mayor of Salvador da Bahia. This lack of female leadership and representation is undeniably concerning. While Dilma
may be representing the voice of women to some extent in higher-level politics, the same is not being done at a local level.
Yet within this system, marked by corruption and passivity, I found my own local female hero. Unlike those carelessly handing out santinhos for profit, my host sister Luciana passionately campaigned in the city. Luciana engaged people in the streets in conversation about political activism and responsibility, and took an admirable approach, which was novel in this environment.
"Ask me how much I'm being paid to do this... Nothing!" she proclaimed proudly.
Luciana was not a passive politician. Her passion was both contagious and inspirational. And, may I add, effective.
"HE WON!" she screamed at night, when the results of the election were broadcast on TV. He won. She won.
And, in the end, one more battle against the system had been won.
Editor's note: Kim Asenbeck moved from Germany to the United States when she was seven. Internationalism and global-mindedness define her passions and interests. At her high school, Kim served as the president of her school's Model United Nations team and as Co-Chair of the Leadership Committee for Africa. During her senior year, she researched the capacity of the artificial language Esperanto as a lingua franca in the service of the United Nations. She now lives in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil participating in the Global Citizen Year community service program.
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