Read the initial publication in the Christian Science Monitor’s “Change Agent” blog, by clicking here.
A small boy, maybe six years old, stood in the middle of an intersection. The streets were covered by small, colorful pieces of paper. Unfazed by the passing traffic, the boy gathered up two handfuls and tossed a rainbow up in the air. The paper fell at his sides as he looked abovehead, laughing at the shower he had created. “Chuva de papel,” my host sister said in Portuguese, taking note of the child—paper rain.
These metaphorical drops of rain, 2×3 inch slips used as political propaganda 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 this sort of nonsense: brincadeira, derived from the verb brincar– to play, or joke. Perhaps as a result of Brazil’s obligatory voting policy, many regard the electoral 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 political conscience or genuine interest, but rather, because a candidate has promised a beer in return for a vote.
In this brincadeira, 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 otherwise ignored neighborhoods, and unfulfilled promises are delivered at long last. One of the men running for mayor here in Salvador da Bahia- the third biggest city in Brazil, and the city with the largest 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 colleague of mine said with dismay. This candidate, the grandson of a famous Brazilian senator, is a member of one of Brazil’s most politically powerful families. A culture of nepotism rules 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 Brazil’s “daughters.” In this year’s regional elections, a mere five women were elected to Salvador’s city council. Five women, in a 43 member body. What’s more, not one woman ran for mayor of Salvador da Bahia. While President Dilma Rousseff may be representing the voice of women at the national level, the same is not being done at a local level.
Yet in these paper covered streets, within a 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 for a refreshingly honest and ethical candidate. “Ask me how much I’m being paid to do this… Nothing!” Luciana took an admirable approach, engaging people in the streets in conversation about political activism and responsibility. Her passion was both contagious and inspirational. And, may I add, effective. “HE WON!” she screamed when the results were broadcasted, throwing her own shower of santinhos into the air in celebration. He won. She won. We won.