Between car repair shops and recycling

July 24, 2014
10 am – 1:30 pm
Warm and sunny

This morning, we headed towards “Contorno” by taking Alfonso Pena until we reached the “Praça Rodoviária,” in front of the bus terminal, where we had stopped on our last walk. That whole area surrounding the bus terminal is always very busy and filled with people, colors, and sounds. Underneath the overpass crossing the highway, many of the homeless gather; or perhaps they live around here? Near the park, there are many different stores: a pharmacy, a musical instruments store, several luncheonettes, toys stores, bags and backpacks displayed on the street, clothes, a skateboard shop, etc.

The first scene capturing our attention was a couple of old men dancing to the music coming out of the music instruments store. They were holding white, plastic coolers, so they were most likely selling cold drinks or ice-cream. It was an inspiring scene to see them engage with music in such a spontaneous way. It seems like in Belo Horizonte, music is constantly present everywhere. Different kinds of sounds and music overlap in public spaces. We began recording some of the sounds we find on the street; perhaps, sounds might help us evoke the experience of navigating the city. Using a small microphone plugged to my iphone, I documented the sounds of street vendors, advertisements emanating from stores, and music of different kinds. In front of the bus terminal, a group of men were selling tickets to Ouro Preto and other destinations in Minas Gerais; it was quite a scene to see these persistent men trying to catch some clients.  I also recorded some of the exchanges we had with people along the way. Although I can’t completely understand what they were saying, I hint that their stories contain some valuable insights in terms of how they see their city, their lives in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, and how they see us, two foreigners visiting their hometown.

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After we reached the “contorno,” the scene was mostly defined by the presence of a cluster of car garages and auto part shops. This area reminded me of “10 de Julio” in Santiago, which has a concentration of male labor associated to motor vehicles. The shops stood out for their auto parts displayed by the street and a male-dominated atmosphere. When approaching a corner, I smelled pod and joked “huele muito bom” – it smells good! – In half Spanish, half Portuguese. The guys called us and asked the typical question: “Chilenas” – I responded. One guy said Tamara was very pretty and did not give up flirting with her. He asked for our phone numbers, but unfortunately, we don’t have Brazilian phones. They asked what have we seen in Belo Horizonte so far. Tamara’s new boyfriend asked her to wear a mini skirt and high heels to go dancing with him on Saturday. How funny that we don’t fit the girly stereotype expected from them – definitely not feminine enough for their taste.

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After this encounter, I tried to photograph a guy carrying a cart full of cardboard to be recycled. He did not like it and told me straight up that he was no model to be taken pictures of. I approached him and apologized for my invasive attitude, and he said OK – “ta bom” – and did not seem too worried about it. Later in the day, we crossed paths with him again several times; no wonder, since the next few blocks were taken by a concentration of recycling warehouses. As we continued walking by the auto car part shops, I was surprised to hear, in the middle of such heavy traffic, loud singing of birds. Many small birds were hanging in cages above a store entrance. We walked inside and one of the vendors, a middle-aged woman, asked us very kindly what we were doing – “fazendo pesquisa,” “doing research.” She told us something like “feel very welcome to Belo Horizonte.” After this quick stop, we continued walking by several other auto car repair shops.   There was a small park, were a group of homeless were installed. There was one kid sleeping on the grass, and a woman standing by a shopping cart and a barbeque grill. Walking along these blocks, I found two signs that grabbed my attention. One of them, above the entrance of an auto car repair shop, reads “alcoolism tem cura” – “alcoholism has a cure” and the second one promises to bring you love: “trago a pessoa amada: cartas – buzios – faço amarração” – “I bring your loved one – buzios [?] – I twine.” Undoubtedly, there is a lot to find along these blocks.

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We walked into another market, very similar to the bazaar-like one we had seen on July 19th, but smaller, also full of objects, sounds, and colors. The way people display their merchandise around their kiosks is a captivating visual spectacle. Electronic merchandise, toys, clothes, watches, instruments, radios, etc. share the narrow alleyways of the market. The merchandise is also its advertisement. Both sounds and colors are so saturated that it’s hard to avoid getting dizzy while walking through these tight, indoor spaces. A guy selling watches asked us what were we doing, after seeing me walk around the market with a microphone in my hand. “Fazendo pesquisa; conociendo Belo Horizonte” – “Doing research and getting to know Belo Horizonte” – I replied. Soon after, we went back to the street, overwhelmed with such concentration of stimuli.

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While walking along the “Contorno” again, a young guy named “Vinicious” greeted us and asked the usual. He was very nice and ended up introducing us to other people on the block. After we told him we were artists doing a residency at JA.CA, he told us he was an “artist of auto parts.” An old lady, Maria, approached us very sweetly and asked us if we were tourists. “Somos Chilenas,” I replied. She spoke non-stop and I got lost in her long monologue, but I could tell she was greeting us and asked us to come back and visit. A middle-aged woman, who was watching the scene, told us that Maria has been working in this place attending the same cart – carrinho – for 33 years. With her stood Luis, her husband, who seemed very old, too, and a little out of it. Perhaps he does not hear well or he was not very interested in meeting us. Maria told us she was “Minera,” from the state of Minas de Gerais.

The middle-aged woman was standing by a door entrance, hugging her son, “Ala.” She told us that he is a very good son and they kept showing signs of affection; she also said several times that we were very pretty. She does not like to have pictures taken because, according to her, she is not photogenic. She invited us for coffee inside a small alleyway, where the shop where she works is located and served us some “cafezinho preto,” which she kept in a thermos. The coffee was light but very sweet. She explained that they repair motors in the shop and pointing to some kind of engine, told us it was a pool water pump. We stayed in this interior courtyard for a while, drinking coffee and talking to her and Ala. Although he seems to be very young, he told us that he is done with school and works as a nurse in two hospitals in the city. He was concerned with us liking his hometown and wanted to make sure that we don’t miss the important places to visit; he pointed out on our map “Praça 7” and “Praça do Papa.” He told us he likes to dance a lot, especially forro but does not know how to dance samba. He invited us to meet his brother, who works near “Praça 7,” but we were heading in the opposite direction.

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Next block, we passed by a big institutional building and reached a small triangle-shaped park, or rather a wider sidewalk, where many homeless people were camping out. Many mattresses were aligned on one side of the triangle. They were covered with blankets, sleeping. One kid was playing some music on a radio. My heart shrinks every time we walk by groups of homeless, and so far we’ve seen quite a few in Belo Horizonte. I’ve been taking photos of their possessions and ephemeral constructions. Regardless of the public character of the spaces they occupy, they are living their daily lives on the street. It feels like walking through someone’s bedroom. The idea of representation being reality, the inseparability of image and being, puts a lot of responsibility on our shoulders as researchers. Photographing the bodies of the homeless will condition the ways they will be perceived and understood.

After crossing a big overpass, which signals the transition into a different “quadrant” of the city [marked by the wider diagonals crossing the orthogonal grid], the scenario changed again. There was a lot of garbage on the street and a small, open, improvised dwelling built with cardboard and other recycled material, underneath the overpass. By the corner, there were many street carts – those that are used for the collection of recycled material – parked in front of a recycling facility – a big warehouse where the recycled objects are organized, classified and distributed. There was a lot of movement around this area, with people moving carts full of cardboard or other recycled materials, people coming in and out of the collection warehouse. There is a clear connection between the homeless and the recycling business of this sector of Belo Horizonte.

A man named Marcos kindly approached us and spoke to us about the recycling business. For what I understood, he works in the business to get food for his family. He was so welcoming, even though we are two foreigners doing tourism in a space where poverty prevails. In Belo Horizonte, I feel safe and at home, regardless of it being a foreign territory for us, walking around, spaced out with our cameras and sound equipment. This experience helps me confirm that Latin America is the place where I want to spend my life.

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The down side is, social inequalities are always present. A few nights ago, we went to a nice bar and passed by a beautiful, chic neighborhood with our friends. But this other reality we see during the day is strikingly different. Homeless people are found everywhere around the “Contorno,” under highways and overpasses and clustered in small parks. This side seems to be the neglected side of the city; excluded spaces that some people will never travel through. Regardless of social inequalities, people don’t seem to be bitter, even though their lives are defined by such an unjust and unequal society. How is our research re-signified in this context? There is a fine line between creating awareness and exploiting the misery of others. What does it mean to represent this other reality, the lives of the poor?

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