New Internationalist

Views From Below

Issue 093

How do people at the bottom of the heap view employers, landowners, politicians, bureaucrats, and all those who, in some wav or another, control their lives? Mary Ireland, when working in one of the poorest regions of Latin America - Northeast Brazil - discovered an intricate mix of respect, acceptance, and critical assessment.


Mary Ireland, who spent several years in Brazil, is preparing a paper entitled `Leasehold on Life: Memory, Action and World View in Northeast Brazil.’


JOACHIM
Old age pensioner,former cowboy, fireman, soldier, raft fisherman, tenant farmer and storyteller par excellence. Believes leaders must reward, punish and above all be just.

If you don’t obey orders, the boss tightens the reins.’

It was better when there was a king. His word was definite and he stood by it. If you defied him you were killed. But if you followed him faithfully he’d protect you. It’s like that where 1 come from. The rules are clear and there’s no mucking about. But this government works on favours. Look what happened when that Heurico [one of a wealthy sugar family ] entered government. He started off poor and came out rich. Then he began taking the side of the rich. You know, God’s like a father or a boss. If you don’t work properly, if you don’t obey orders, the boss tightens the reins. It’s a punishment, to train you. If you’re doing things right, then he’s generous. It’s the same with God.’


MANOR
Age 37. Former sugarcane worker. Unemployed since injured at work. Supported by a wife who digs for shellfish. He is angry with bureaucrats.

Rights are in the hands of those who hold the pens and the rubber stamps.’

Life’s full of problems, suffering and complications. Perhaps in other parts of the world life is different. But here, men’s rights are in the hands of those who hold the pens and rubber stamps. These men have no humanity, no love. They give favours to whoever they like. They accept bribes, they make things easy for some and difficult for others. If they had just a little bit of humanity they wouldn’t act that way. But they kick us around like a ping-pong ball. Backwards and forwards. Until we’re puffed up and ready to burst like a piece of popcorn. The doctors have pushed me about like that. I’ve been hanging around without a job for nearly four years now, since my leg was crushed in an accident coming home from work. But the doctors won’t sign the form for the invalid pension. To get that they say I have to be blind, insane or totally paralysed. I told them I wasn’t asking for favours or charity: I was asking for my rights. But the doctor laughed at me and said: "Look, your clothes seem 0K, and you’re wearing a watch. There are plenty of fellows worse off than you." Then he walked out of the room and didn’t come back.’


JOSEPHA
Age 35. Mother of six. Washerwoman, farm labourer, manioc scraper and former domestic servant. Ambivalent feelings about her political representatives.

All politicians are after one thing.’ ‘All politicians are only after one thing - winning the next election. But some are better than others. They treat you with respect. Like Senhor Paulo. He provides good food for the poor people who go to his fiestas. But when folk went to Senhor Chico’s, he gave them offal, tripe and bones. And his wife won’t let poor folk enter her front door. They have to go around to the back. But Senhor Paulo will drive you anywhere in his car if you are in need.’


JOSE
Mid thirties. Tenant farmer. Has responsibilites with local rural union. His attitude towards those above him sets him in harmony with the established order.

There are still fish left over.’ ‘You know, poverty is a sad thing. Look at all those people trying to catch a fish to take home. But God works things out perfectly. The landowner takes the big fish first, and after that he lets the people take the little ones. And then, when they’ve got what they need, there are still fish left over to breed for next year.’


MADALENA
Age 57. Mother of three and a widow, she is an agricultural labourer.

My father didn’t believe in stirring up ill-feeling between rich and poor.’ ‘I never took ajob as a maid. My father would not allow it. He worked for years on one property and became the administrator. He liked being in charge. No one could order him around. Later on, when my father was old he went to the landowner. "Doctor Fernando," he said. "You’d better start looking for another administrator. I don’t want to work any more. I’m too old." My father had been working for that man from 16. He’d spent his whole life on that property. So the landowner, who was very sad to see my father leave, said: "Listen here Ze, you should check up on your rights and what I owe you." "No sir," said my father "you are my union. I’m not interested in any other kind of union." So the landowner said: "Well, if that’s how you feel, then I’ll look after you. I’ll give you a house and you won’t need to pay a cent." And the house was built. No boss around here could compare with my father’s boss. If my father didn’t appear for more than three days that landowner would visit him in his house and see if everything was okay. And if my father was sick he had whatever doctor, whatever medicine and whatever comfort he needed. That man looked after our whole family. You see, my father didn’t believe in stirring up ill-feeling between rich and poor. You never get anything if that happens. But, of course, all bosses are not like that.’


MATEUS
Middle forties. Father of five. Sugar­cane worker before becoming a municipal employee. He condemns social inequalities.

Who has, has. Who has little can only have less.’ ‘The poor man cannot do a thing without the rich man getting a lawyer onto him. These men are prepared to catch the layman with no education. With two or three words they can have the layman condemned. The poor man might go to another lawyer, but he will say: "You’ve got no money to fight this case." If the two lawyers get together they debate and the thing finishes in a lecture. Through this the rich man gains everything. And so it is - the poor man always poor and the rich man getting richer, taking by force, ordering the poor man around, with the police at the door. Who has, has. Who has little can only have less. There are all sorts of proofs. You [interviewer] can get to the city in an hour-and-a-half in your car. If you went by foot, how long would it take? Who has, gets there sooner; who doesn’t have takes longer or doesn’t get there at all. That’s how it is in life.’

This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7

Comments on Views From Below

Leave your comment