The introduction to “I Saw A City Invincible” quotes Richard Morse, saying “resemblance is not identity, nor do family members live out identical careers.” But for all the geographic, demographic, economic and political variations between Latin American urban centers, the introduction also notes the “haunting resemblance” among the cities, separated though they were by time, distance and circumstance (xiii.)
This week’s selection of readings drives home the near-universality of poverty and violence among Latin American capitals: from Ramos’s tale of a taxi “quicknapping” in Colombia to Guillermoprieto’s depiction of the struggle for modernization in Mexico, the Brazilian situation is far from unique in Latin America.
Szuchman traces the history of Latin America post-encounter, with attention to both the Spanish world and Brazil; by the twentieth century, many historical differences have been all but eradicated as industrialization has impacted various nations similarly. This is particularly true of Mexico, Brazil and Argentina, as their more advanced economies spur highest rates of urbanization (Szuchman 21). In the aftermath of World War Two, as jobs dried up due to first-world economic policies, urbanization continued while rural poverty pushed people to the cities. The lack of full industrialization and employment opportunities across Latin America created an environment of poverty and crime that continues to this day in slums like the Cidade de Deus.
On the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, as was fully demonstrated with Cidade de Deus, the lack of education and opportunity provide a breeding ground for criminal activity, with drugs and robbery as the most viable careers for a large percentage of the population. Bus 174 is part breaking news story, part expose on the conditions that created Sandro do Nascimento’s attempted robbery and hostage situation.
Bus 174 makes a compelling case for the entire situation as a fluke, a robbery interrupted that turned into something more, and a drug-fueled anomaly on the streets of Brazil. Perhaps most convincing is the testimony of the anonymous thief, who expresses his confusion that Sandro would choose to rob a bus. Why would anyone want to rob people without access to better forms of transportation? Similarly, survivors of the hostage situation speak of his deranged behavior, and his past drug addiction strongly suggests that the situation was unplanned and the tragic end result unintentional, rather than a form of performance art or giving his life meaning, as was briefly suggested in class.
Life in the Brazilian barrio is devoid of meaning or opportunity for Sandro. In America, we would point to someone who ended up on the streets after his mother’s murder and say “the system failed him.” There is no “system” or safety net in place for children like Sandro or the “runts” of Cidade de Deus. The streets, with their gangs and drug violence, are equal parts danger and refuge. Police are corrupt or make themselves scarce: it’s not a priority. Children sleeping in the streets are often thieves, and easy to harass and arrest. As in Sandro’s case, this can lock them into the only “system” available to them, one of incarceration and an inability to find a job or a future. Unemployable, illiterate, addicted and desperate: the only truly surprising factor of Sandro’s life was that he was able to break through the silence and invisibility of his existence even for one day, ending abruptly.
Alma Guillermoprieto quotes Aguilar Camin of Mexico, speaking of the problems of modernization: “in the nineteen-seventies, Mexico was supposed to be ‘proudly Third World,’ but today, we want to belong to the First World” (253.) And there lies the most problematic aspect of the polarization of many Latin American cities: Can Mexico City, or Rio de Janeiro, rise to the levels of the “First World” countries while the outskirts are locked into a cycle of violence and poverty? But by the same logic, can Shelby Country, with infant mortality rates higher than those of many underdeveloped nations, be considered part of a first world country? Are industrialization and trade marks of progress if they result in widening wealth gaps and further disenfranchisement of a significant portion of the population? How can the glittering, tourist-oriented cities be juxtaposed with extreme levels of poverty and crime?
In examining the circumstances behind the Bus 174 tragedy, these questions have to be considered. Sandro do Nascimento was a product of his environment, not an anomaly emerging from a void. And across Latin America, cities with no infrastructure and no means of addressing urban poverty and crime are faced with the creation of countless other people in the same extreme situations.