I looked out over the fields of Nova Suica, empty but for the occasional bull, the lights of the houses glowing in the distance. The night chill had already set in, but I resisted putting on my jacket for fear that when it got colder, I’d be out of options. And it would almost certainly rain later.
10:15pm. 15 minutes until Paulista was due to arrive with the truck. I took a moment to reflect on where I was at that moment, standing beneath a huge cement canopy in an MST assentamento, mandioc peelings under my feet, carrying only a backpack with some food, a sheet, and other essential items. I was surrounded by 14 Brazilian university students and a couple Nova Suica residents, waiting to pile into the back of what was essentially a giant pickup truck, which would then take us to Sao Francisco do Conde. There, we were going to reoccupy land: reclaim unused land and rebuild an encampment that had been deconstructed by the police. What? How did I get here?
Gilson, the regional leader, had arrived at the school while the students were having their end-of-the-day meeting–it must have been 9:00pm. The truck would pick us up at 10:30, he said, and then collect people at the assentamentos of Bela Vista, Eldorado de Pitinga, and Sao Domingo. We had rushed back to the house to gather our belongings (You’re not going to sleep tonight, my host mom Raquel told us), and met up here.
Headlights in the distance, engine approaching. Clambering over the side–with the help of a strong arm–feeling the night air rush around me as I gazed up at the stars. Assentamento by assentamento, the bed of the truck was filled, we passed quietly (as subtly as possible, all things considered) through Santo Amaro, until we arrived in Sao Domingo. Here, we waited for Gilson to check that everything was calm at the encampment site, loaded up the provisions, and gathered the future residents of Sao Francisco do Conde.
As we waited, bananas were passed around, tamborines emerged, students samba-ed and chatted amongst themselves. Chants were yelled, songs were sung, anticipation hung in the air. Gilson returned, and we were off.
“Vai ou nao vai?” “Vai!” “Ocupa ou nao ocupa?” “Ocupa!”
Suddenly we turned off the main road and hurriedly unloaded the truck, which then went to get wood for the barracas. The chants and songs continued while we waited, and an MST flag was raised at the roadside.
Then it was time for business: we were split into groups to begin the building process. Fortunately, the barracas had already been marked–it was just a matter of placing the wood, constructing a roof, and covering with tarp. It must have been 2:00am at this point, the group was fading, it was cold and damp, and my group leader was caught up in an argument with his drunk would-be neighbor, who didn’t want help building his barraca. And so, my night passed somewhat inefficiently, though it was reassuring to see other groups making progress.
We stayed there until about 5:00pm the next day, mainly because Paulista had a flat tire. Heat replaced cold, construction continued, communal food was made, water was fetched from a nearby river. By the time the afternoon rolled around, pretty much all the students were resting under a beautiful tree near the back of the encampment.
I was lightheaded from thirst and lack of sleep, dirty from sitting on the wet ground, more lonely and mute than I had ever been. But I had taken part in constructing that encampment. I had seen the families that were coming there in search of work, a home, some land to work. I helped one senhora build her barraca, which, hopefully, one day, will become a brick house and a plot of land with which she can pass her days. Those families might spend years in those structures, sleeping on matresses on the ground, but together and with the help of the movement, they can create a new life for themselves. That, in my opinion, is the magic of the MST–the core of the movement: occupation.