A streetcar desired

September 18, 2013

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

By Pilar Olivares

“Why is Bonde crying, Mom?” my six-year-old son Caetano asked me. I hadn’t noticed it before but he was right. Bonde, the little streetcar that was retired but is still ever-present in our neighborhood, is depicted as tearful in graffiti, posters, stickers, t-shirts, and souvenirs. The yellow trolley that was part of the old train system for more than 115 years and became an icon of Rio de Janeiro’s Santa Teresa neighborhood, doesn’t circulate anymore. Bonde is crying, and so are the neighbors!

Last August 27th was the two-year anniversary of the great Bonde accident in which six people died, including the conductor, Nelson. That was the day Nelson became a hero when, realizing that the brakes were failing, he began screaming to the passengers to jump as he struggled with the mechanism until the fatal impact. That’s why Nelson appears in Bonde graffiti with a big smile on his face, and shops sell posters with his emblematic face.

As I photographed the neighborhood before and during the anniversary, I spoke to residents of Santa Teresa, which is my neighborhood too. I began to understand their feelings and devotion for Bonde, whose loss they still cry over.

I first experienced Bonde six years ago, as a tourist. But by the time I moved to Rio and came to live in Santa Teresa, the accident had already happened and the streetcar was gone. Neighbors tell me about the tranquility of living in this place surrounded by forest and isolated from the traffic of this chaotic city. But all that changed when Bonde disappeared. Santa Teresa no longer had that little yellow streetcar to take the children from the slums to school.

Bonde has been replaced by more routes of urban buses with drivers who don’t respect others, racing faster than the speed limit and endangering pedestrians. And when it rains the buses skid on the Bonde’s old rails and cause accidents.

The Association of Neighbors and Friends of Santa Teresa (AMAST) has existed for many years, but the return of Bonde has become their mission. They hold protests, cultural events, street parties, and post messages and poems on social media and lampposts. They want Bonde back on their cobblestoned streets, and with it all the tourists it used to attract. They want the antique streetcars made of wood and steel back, which sit abandoned in a yard in the same neighborhood.

The nostalgia can be felt and read everywhere. Graffiti on the streets read, “Two years without Bonde, two years without music and poetry”, “We want our Bonde”, and “Bonde now.” These are the demands for the return of the antique streetcars, and their rejection of the 14 modern replacements that the state government has promised for 2014. According to AMAST, those new ones will only be for tourists, and at tourist prices.

Santa Teresa is still in mourning, but it’s a cheerful neighborhood where people dance on Bonde’s rails, waiting for the yellow streetcar to appear again.

In the meantime, although its conductor Nelson will never return, he will always be their dear hero.

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