Dignity Wage

August 30, 2013

Brasilia, Brazil

By Ueslei Marcelino

I phoned Sueli yesterday to give her the good news.

“Mrs. Sueli. The government just announced that it will increase the minimum wage in January!”

With the same lively voice she spoke with when I visited her a few days earlier, she responded, “Child, that’s a great thing. Maybe there will be a little extra money now to buy some meat?”

According to her ID card, Sueli Paes Alecrin is 48 years old, but her eyes reveal that she is older, much older. She is a single mother to her sons Alessandro, 16, and Alex, 15, and her daughter Amanda, 11. Amanda was born with cerebral palsy.

The family lives in a simple house with no luxuries but with humility, joy, and harmony. I met Sueli through a friend, and witnessed first hand the sacrifice that she makes to run a home with two teenagers and a little princess who requires daily medical care, all with just an income equal to the monthly minimum wage of $294. I should say, minimum wage plus a miracle.

Sueli, who can’t work because she can’t afford to pay someone to care for Amanda, receives a welfare check equal to minimum wage for her daughter’s illness.

It’s a fact that Brazil’s cost of living is high. You don’t need to be an economist to be made uneasy by a supermarket bill, which seems to rise every month.

The culture shock I experienced while illustrating this story turned into a life lesson. How could she manage to live on minimum wage? I couldn’t think of anything else as I clicked away with my camera. I couldn’t resist asking how they managed to make it to the end of the month.

“Look, Ueslei, there are times that I really don’t know how I do it, but I do. There are months when we run out of money because something breaks or the boys need something, or we have an emergency or need some different medicine for Amanda. But when we don’t have it, God sends it to us. A neighbor or friend appears by surprise and brings us something that we really need. God uses those people at the right moment.”

Sueli is determined. Separated from her husband, she runs their home with a firm hand. She is sweet, cheerful, and entertaining. Her home is simple, but very clean and orderly. She told me that over time she learned that it’s better to organize her income by priorities. Food and medicine first. Then come clothes and shoes if there’s money left over, but most of those come through donations.

Sueli’s days are full. She says 5% of her time goes to the boys, 5% to clean the house, and 90% of a 24-hour day goes to taking care of Amanda. It’s a life marathon: wake up, cook, bathe, play and give Amanda stimulation to continue living. Amanda doesn’t speak or walk. She suffers from nausea, fever, and convulsions. However, I noticed that she loves romantic songs that play on an old radio. Confronted with my camera, Amanda surprised me by showing a beautiful smile.

Sueli is a strong woman, much stronger than many of us, I would say. In the face of great difficulty and suffering, she has demonstrated affection, joy and desire to be happy. She minimizes her problems with a simple life, and does everything for her children.

The only time I saw her cry was when she recalled her mother, who died last year. Sueli had just confided to me that she learned to love life and her children more when she realized she hadn’t shown her mother how much she really loved her. After that, not even I could avoid shedding tears.

Minimum Wage gives this family dignity, and should be called Dignity Wage instead.



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