Another Reality

Ava Hoffman - Brazil

December 18, 2012

Two million, nine hundred ninety eight thousand and fifty six people live in the city of São Salvador de Bahia de Todos os Santos ₁.

Of that population, six hundred and eight thousand and nine hundred seventy six inhabitants live in extreme poverty.

Salvador is beautiful in its own way. Always bustling, Salvador never has a lack of movement, of human energy. Yet Salvador is city of contradictions, a city of extremes. Looking into the city, beyond the gaudy colonial buildings and cobblestone streets of the city’s historical center and beyond the picturesque beaches lined with resort-style condominiums, in the depths of the inner city lies a different reality.

The following statistics are drawn from a 2000 United Nations Development Program study conducted on inequality in greater Salvador as a part of a survey of the Human Development Index in Brazilian municipalities. Although this study is now twelve years old, it remains telling of Salvador’s socioeconomic extremities because despite significant national development, the polarity of urban development in Salvador has not changed—rather, I would hypothesize that the differences have only augmented between high and low income regions. The study divides greater Salvador into 149 Units of Human Development (UDH’s) according to pre-established regional considerations, most commonly by neighborhood ₂.

  •  In the UDH of Itaigara, a neighborhood in the southeastern city located near the Atlantic coast, the average monthly income per capita is R$2,135.54—roughly equal to US $1,067.77.
  • In the UDH of Coutos-Fazenda Coutos/Felicidade, located in the northwestern strip of the city’s “suburbana”, residents’ average monthly income per capita is R$82.94—the equivalent of US $41.47.

The striking inequality is further exacerbated by juxtaposing the wealthiest echelon of the former UDH with the most impoverished of the latter. The study revealed that of the 20% highest earners in Itaigara, the average monthly income per capita was R$ 5,562.70 (US $2,781.35), a stark 1,892% higher than the lowest 20% earners of the Coutos-Fazenda Coutos/Felicidade, where the average monthly income per capita is R$2.94 (US $1.47).

It would statistically take 1,892 months (over 157 years) for someone earning a monthly R$2.94 to earn the income of R$5,562.70 that an upper 20% resident of Itaigara earns in solely a month.

The link between socioeconomic standing and race in Brazil is undeniable. Brazil, exemplified by Salvador’s racial stratification, is described by a Princeton University study as a “pigmentocracy” ₃. The study directly links a statistical analysis of level of educational attainment with race in various countries in the Americas, including Brazil. The ensuing conclusion is that skin color emerges as the determining factor enabling—more acutely, prohibiting—social opportunity and mobility by means of education. The lighter one’s skin color appears to be, the more educational opportunity is available and on the contrary, he darker one’s skin color is, the more deprived of educational opportunity the individual is.

A typical social repercussion from such vast economic inequality as Salvador’s is the division of the city largely into caveats of white and high income neighborhoods in centrally-located, accessible, and highly developed areas and caveats of black, low income, rather inaccessible and isolated, and poorly developed neighborhoods. In a city where, according to a 2010 census, 79% of residents are from African descent (nearby 2,400,000), the lack of racial integration in terms of residential dispersion is astounding.

Corresponding to the low ranking of development attributed to the UDH of Coutos-Fazenda Coutos/Felicidade, educational achievement suffers.

While in Itaigara, 97.67% of children aged 7 to 14 attend primary and middle school, in Coutos-Fazenda Coutos/Felicidade, 82.78% of children are and worse yet, neighboring UDH of Coutos-Periperi bears the lowest indication of 78.68%.

The differences only grow as the education level furthers, as 82.91% of adolescents aged 15-17 attend high school in the former UDH, while just 16.03% do in the latter. Again, the pattern repeats with higher learning: Itaigara has the highest percentage of youth aged 18-24 pursuing a degree in Salvador, 59.64%, compared to just 0.37% in Coutos-Fazenda Coutos/Felicidade. Correspondingly, in the former UDH only .93% of residents aged 15+ are illiterate, compared to 12.95% in the latter ₂.

Living in the urban peripheral neighborhood of Fazenda Coutos has made me think about the significance of my own appearance in a way that I never have before.

Geographically distant from the city center and lacking in accessibility, most residents of Fazenda Coutos commute about an hour or longer to commercial or more developed areas in the city center to work. Fazenda Coutos is a majority black and mixed-race neighborhood.

A Caucasian female with light colored hair and blue eyes walking down the street in this neighborhood (once or twice with a backpacking pack…) is certainly not the norm in this neighborhood, and so perhaps I shouldn’t continue to be surprised or offended by the attention, which more often than not I perceive as negative, that my presence draws. From the moment I open my mouth at the bakery to order bread, the worker reads right through the phrase of flawless Portuguese that I’ve uttered and laughs in my face. From the moment I make eye contact with someone on the bus and quickly look away, I turn again to see that he not only is still staring at me, but is pointing at me to show his friend the sight of me that he finds so comical. No matter if I cornrow my hair (yes, I tried that look out…), no matter if I’m accompanied by locals, no matter how well I know my way around the maze of streets as narrow as alleyways, it’s so painfully obvious to everyone who meets my gaze that I’m not from here.

Feeling ostracized, even dehumanized at times, I feel like I never will be able to fit in. Immersed, yes. Living here with a host family and engaging in community and civil society organization, I feel immersed by the onslaught of culture. But I’ve found that immersing myself in a neighborhood and fitting in in a neighborhood don’t have to be one in the same. Being American living in a foreign country, my role is to adapt and learn from the culture in which I’m immersing myself rather than to change myself in order to go unnoticed. Blending into the crowd, rather, inhibits my potential impact in my community. My impact is actually quite contingent on standing out, in order to offer my own insights from an outsiders’ perspective.

And…despite the hours on end spent at the beach nearly every weekend, I certainly will never, as my host family likes to joke, get so tan that I will have the same skin color as they do.

Living in my neighborhood, for the first time since I came to Brazil, I feel like I am experiencing what I previously speculated to be the real Brazil. While I still can’t define what exactly that means, I’m reminded every day by living in a neighborhood which, albeit lacking in development, boasts a powerful sense of community. I’m reminded by living in a neighborhood where gateways to educational opportunity and social mobility falter but where physical gates are always unlocked, and doors always wide open, inviting me to participate in this beautiful culture amidst the extreme diversity of this city that I’ve come to call home.


— References —

1. De Bremaker, François E.J. “A Pobreza em Nivel Municipal.” Transparência Municipal. Salvador, February 2010. Web. 3 December 2012.

2. “Desigualdade de renda é maior na Região Metropolitana de Salvador-RMS que no Brasil.” Atlas de Desenvolvimento Humano da Região Metropolitana de Salvador: PNUD and Governo do Estado da Bahia. 27 December 2000. Web. 3 December 2012.

3. Telles, Edward, and Liza Steele. “Pigmentocracy in the Americas: How Is Educational Attainment Related to Skin Color?” AmericasBarometer Insights: 2012 No. 73 (2012). Web. 10 Dec. 2012.


Ava Hoffman