By Nacho Doce
Deep inside the massive favela called Brasilandia, one of the biggest of Sao Paulo’s wretched slums, lives Rose with her husband Ivo and their three disabled children. I first learned of Rose’s predicament while doing a feature story about the AACD clinic for disabled children. I immediately arranged for us to meet for the first time in their slum at 5 am, the time they leave for a weekly session of physical therapy.
Their alley didn’t appear on my taxi’s GPS, and we got lost in the dark maze. I had to wait for a more decent hour closer to 5 am before phoning them for help. With their directions, I finally reached the top of a steep alley, and found myself practically inside a “boca de fumo,” best described as an open air crack den. It wasn’t until Ivo quickly rushed to meet me and spoke to one of the addicts, that I heard the words, “Taxi free to pass.” I was relieved.
By Nacho Doce
What brought me to the AACD (Association for the Aid of Disabled Children) clinic for the first time was Dani, a 16-year-old girl who had been diagnosed with severe scoliosis, or curvature of the spine. When Dani’s mother, a close friend, showed me her x-ray it was a shock. All the doctors they consulted repeated the same diagnosis and solution – surgery. We didn’t doubt that surgery was one solution, but her mother wanted to find a less radical one that wouldn’t leave her daughter with a metal rod in her spine limiting her movement. Dani exercises every day at home with a therapist to change her posture, and began visiting AACD. Admittedly ignorant of the range of problems that cause so many children to become disabled, I was astonished by what I saw – children with severe conditions fighting physically and mentally to improve their lives.
It was the children’s smiles and willpower that drew me to them from the start, as much to those who couldn’t move as to those who couldn’t speak or sense. The parents and even the therapists also showed incredible strength. Once I asked Yara Santos, 9, “How are you able to smile all the time?” Yara tried to answer me, but due to her condition I couldn’t understand. Her mother and therapist could, and they answered for her. “There’s no recipe for smiling,” were Yara’s words.
By Nacho Doce
Three days after photographing the svelte models at the upscale Sao Paulo Fashion Week, I found myself in the crowded backstage of the Miss Brazil Plus-Size beauty pageant, a contrast in every aspect from body size to the organization’s budget and the cost of each dress.
Backstage the overweight models pushed their own dress-filled suitcases with no assistants to help them, very different from the Fashion Week models, each of whom had two or three people dressing, preening, and supervising them.
By Nacho Doce
The sensations of those who can’t see or hear you.
When I learned of the dance school I knew it was for the visually deficient. But when I arrived I found myself with many who also couldn’t hear or speak.
It was one of the most difficult assignments I’ve ever had. I had to learn quickly the steps of their rehearsals so as not to get in the way of their dancing. They surprised me with steps and jumps in which I feared tripping and injuring them. One of the instructors was also nervous with my position, and although I soon understood their movements I knew they could change at any time. That could have been tragic for them.
By Nacho Doce
Before I was able to experience a Sao Paulo favela firsthand, my knowledge of that world was mostly defined by a movie I saw only a few weeks earlier called “Linha de Passe,” or “Passing Line” in English. The title is a metaphor of the concept of teamwork, the imaginary line that connects players passing the ball in soccer. In the movie the players are the four brothers of a family, and the ball is life itself. What I took away from the movie about a slum family’s struggle to survive, was an idea of what it’s like to live on the edge of life, on the edge of a precipice.
That movie and a newspaper article about a social graffiti project in one of the city’s largest favelas ignited my curiosity, so I searched out and met founding members of the project named OPNI, a Portuguese acronym for “Unidentified Graffiti Artists.” OPNI was founded in 1997 by 20 youths in the city’s marginal slums with the goal of transforming the streets into an open-air gallery where the community can express its gripes. Of the original 20 only Cris, Val and Toddy are left after most were either arrested, abandoned the activity, or died from drug abuse.
On some of my first trips around Sao Paulo after moving here, I caught glimpses of life under the city’s many highway viaducts, whether it was of people storing recyclable waste or even living under the bridges. I refer to my roaming excursions in this city as “trips,” because this massive city of nearly 20 million inhabitants is a world in itself.
One day, as I gradually widened my geographic range and knowledge of my new city, I spotted people practicing sports under one bridge. It was a brief view but long enough to register in my mind. So when I read soon after about a boxing school under a viaduct and went to search it out, I realized immediately it was the same one I had spotted that day.