Protest Viewed as Unsuccessful
By Aaron M. Smith
UBERLANDIA, Brazil – “There’s a conflict at one of the landless camps,” said Rodrigo, a Franciscan Friar and member of APR. “Get your camera.”
I was both excited and scared. What did he mean by conflict? I got into the car with Rodrigo and Murilo, another member of APR, and we raced toward the camp on a highway beaten by the sun and littered with pot holes. When we were almost at the camp after a nearly one-hour drive, a stream of police cars cruised past us one-by-one heading in the opposite direction of the camp.
“Ah, we lost,” Rodrigo said disgustedly.
The police cars meant that the planned blockade of the highway was over just minutes after it had started. Rodrigo was upset by that because the longer the conflict, the more attention would be paid to the plight of the landless people.
Rodrigo continued toward the camp, however, and pulled off of the road. I stepped out of the car and looked across the highway at a collection of black and yellow plastic tents, and many tired people chanting in Portuguese and playing hand-made drums and tambourines.
The group of landless farmers was disheartened over their “unsuccessful” attempt to make a statement, to get noticed.
“The television cameras didn’t even come,” said one disappointed farmer through Murilo’s translation.
Under the swampy heat of the meeting tent, Barroso, a coordinator of the National Landless Leadership Movement, assessed their recent protest and enthusiastically spoke about “keeping the fight.”
“Our destiny is to suffer,” he said. “Our manifestation was not a success. We need more organization, but we’re going to keep fighting. We will not be done until we win.”
He went on to say the landless basically have no choice but to continue their fight to survive, their fight to have even the most basic of human rights.
“We can keep fighting,” he said, “or we can be fine living under these tents as the heat bakes our brains.”
As the heat bakes our brains.
He wasn’t being dramatic. He wasn’t exaggerating. He was speaking in the truest sense, standing there in temperatures approaching the 90s. I looked around and saw the tired, desperate eyes of those at the camp. They looked at me as if to say, “What is he doing here?”
Rodrigo spoke to them in Portuguese and explained my reasoning for coming to South America. One woman wore a Cincinnati Reds baseball cap. I smiled at her and she smiled back. A simple exchange like that allowed me to relax. It was my first personal connection with these people and I knew there would be more opportunities to understand them.
A middle-aged man joined the landless community earlier that day after spending years as a homeless man in a big city. He was dressed in blue jeans and a tattered blue button-down shirt. His blue and gold baseball cap sunk down over his sagging eyes as he sifted through the red clay soil, making a space for his plastic home.
His first day was a memorable one. The protest from nearly 30 minutes prior still affected him.
“I’m still trembling,” he said. “I’m still shaking. My first day here and we have an event against the police. It’s scary.”
And this was a calm protest, a short one. That day was certainly the start of this man’s tumultuous existence at the camp.
Murilo took me on a tour of the camp following the meeting. The place was in shambles. Hubcaps hung from tree branches as decorations, hungry dogs with skin shrink-wrapped to their bones hunted for scraps, and cars whizzed by on the highway oblivious to the pain and suffering just outside their window.
The first thing that caught my attention was how slowly people walked. They weren’t in a hurry to get anywhere. They had nowhere to go.
A tired teenager, who looked to be about 18, stopped Murilo and asked him what I thought of the camp.
“It’s an interesting place,” I said, not wanting to say I was heartbroken by the image of his home. “It’s unlike anything I have ever seen.”
Then the teen began to talk. He started getting choked up and tears began to form in his tired eyes. I’ll never forget those eyes. They were red and watery and the black circles looked directly toward me.
I looked at Murilo, anxious to hear the translation.
“Believe it or not, this camp is great,” the boy said. “I came from another camp. They had no food. They just sit around and starve to death there. They sleep on the ground. They have no food. When I was there, I cried a lot. It hurt a lot.
“This place, it’s not bad,” he continued. “I like it here. I just hope this can be my permanent home. I hope we can live here for good. We want to live on this land.”
He shook my hand, smiled, and walked away to sit down on a bench in his frail home. What else was there to do?
I stood there. I was scared. I felt guilty for some reason. I wanted to leave. I wanted to stay. I have so much in the United States and I felt ashamed for ever complaining about my car or about my college loans. I am blessed to have opportunities to be in debt. Here, they have nothing. They have no opportunities to fight their way out. I can always make things right again. They cannot.
On the walk back to the car, another landless man hurriedly shuffled toward me.
"Do you want some coffee?”
“Sure,” I said. “Obrigado.” That’s thank-you in Portuguese.
Murilo and I each had some of the man’s coffee. While drinking the sweet, powerful beverage, I noticed the man smiling. I was warmed by the thought that this man, who has almost nothing, still rushed to share what little he had. Again, I felt guilty. But then I thought I shouldn’t feel guilty at all. It would be an insult not taking this man’s coffee. It makes them proud to be able to provide something, and makes them happy to have something that others desire. The smallest of gestures mean the world to these people and that man felt a sense of pride that afternoon, simply because a few people from outside of his community paid attention to his camp and shared a cup of coffee at his home.
During the entire trip to Brazil, I had been frustrated and disheartened because I couldn’t understand the people and they couldn’t understand me. Even though we spoke two different languages at the camp, I didn’t need a translator to understand their stories. I didn’t need Murilo to tell me that they were happy only compared to living under overpasses in the city or starving to death at sadder camps.
Their pain, their frustration was written in their expressions, in their slow walks, and in their broken houses.