What I gained from twenty-eight years of photos
A Chance Encounter
I was confused as I stood at the checkout counter with a cart full of groceries and supplies for my new apartment. Why was the cashier just putting all of the items back into the cart? What was the word for bag? How would I get all of this stuff home? I glanced around and saw other shoppers had come prepared with boxes for their goods. When I tried to ask the cashier for some boxes, using mostly sign language and Spanish, she gave me a sympathetic look and pointed toward the door.
I wasn’t sure what to do, so I wheeled the cart outside, wondering if maybe I could load everything into a taxi. But soon a small army of kids surrounded me, offering to help. With no taxis in sight, I thought this would be my best hope, so I chose a quiet boy with a friendly smile. At that time, my Portuguese was mostly just Spanish with a bad accent, but somehow he understood me. After scrounging up some boxes, we managed to carry it all to my apartment several blocks away. That was the first day I started taking pictures of Pércio.
Pércio was 12 when I met him in 1992. He was extremely hardworking, responsible, and trustworthy. He went to the warehouse grocery store every day after school to earn tips for helping customers load up their cars. I soon learned that he had twelve brothers and sisters and lived in the favela over the hill behind my apartment.
When I finally had learned enough Portuguese to understand that his mother was looking for work as a maid, she began cleaning my place once a week. Pércio was my regular helper each time I went to the grocery store, and he and his cousin, Alex, began coming by for dinner or to just hang out after work. They became a regular and important part of my life in Brazil.
Pércio was also brave. His experience with “rich people” (basically, anyone who didn’t live in the favela) was limited and he took a big risk by trusting me and getting to know my world. Over time, I brought him to my school’s Halloween party, to the mall and shopping centers where rich people shopped, and to attractions in Porto Alegre and beyond. These places might sound fun to a typical kid, but I was taking him to unfamiliar spaces where he knew how he would be judged, even if I was oblivious to it all. Pércio was willing to step outside of his comfort zone in order to experience something new. He and Alex had so much to teach me.
Spending so much time with Pércio and Alex taught me Portuguese and so much more about Brazil. I learned from Alex that Brazil was not a post-racial society as it had often been described in those years. He hated going to the mall where we would watch movies because the security guards always followed him. My white American perspective tried to justify this scrutiny, or attribute it to Alex’s imagination. However, I experienced it firsthand when Alex and I were leaving the mall one day and I was stopped by a guard and asked for my receipts. I was never stopped when alone, and learned to trust Alex when he told me of the racism he experienced.
When I moved to Brazil, I didn’t have to pack my privilege; it automatically came with me. Pércio and Alex showed me that despite my feeling welcomed everywhere, there were places in their own city that they could not be without being subject to suspicion, derision, or worse.
I would be reminded of this lesson years later while standing in line at a crowded post office in the Northeast of Brazil. A woman tapped me on the shoulder and when I turned around she warned me that there were two street kids watching me through the window. “Be careful,” she explained in Portuguese, “these kids will rob you because you’re a foreigner.” I looked up to see my newly adopted sons peering through the window and assured the woman that there was no need to worry.
I learned many other lessons from the boys. They told me of their under-resourced school which stood in stark contrast to the exclusive English-speaking school where I worked. Since public schools were so crowded, students studied either in the mornings, afternoons, or evenings. The boys also taught me of the challenges of living in the favela. Depending on the time of day or night, they would walk different routes from their home to mine to avoid running into the drug dealers and potential violence.
On the other hand, Pércio once told me he could not imagine living anywhere else. In the favela, he had his large family and everyone knew each other and formed a close-knit community. Despite the lack of basic services and challenging living conditions, and despite being looked down upon and feared by mainstream society, along with the multiple forms of oppression experienced by the poor in Brazil, the favela where Pércio lives is a vibrant and friendly place.
Long Distance Relationship
“When you entered the plane, I almost cried, but I held it in.” Pércio wrote this in a letter to me soon after I left Brazil in 1995. He had come to see me off at the airport with his mom, Maria Luíza , and cousin, Alex. I marveled at how much he had grown up since meeting him three years earlier, and I hoped we would be able to stay in touch.
We had many other aiport meetings. The boys would meet me each time I returned to Porto Alegre. On one occasion, I was delayed nearly 24 hours and I had no way to reach them. They waited for hours that night before heading home, but I was able to find them the next day when I showed up at the home where Pércio grew up. In 2003, when I returned with my sons, Pércio was joined by his girlfriend, Edulaine, at the airport. She seemed nervous about meeting me and later admitted she was worried I would take Pércio back to the US with me.
On my last visit to Brazil, in 2010, the “boys” were approaching 30 and Alex was a father. Pércio was living just down the street from his parents’ home. The favela had a few more paved roads, but other than that it didn’t seem to have changed much. Edulaine whipped out their photo album with all the old photos of us. She knew every story from our three years spent together because Pércio had told them to her over and over. What fun we had sitting in his home, looking at the pictures, and telling the stories again.
The photos revealed so many of our fond memories. There were all those nights of eating pasta at my house (I wasn’t much of a cook), our many trips on overnight buses to the beaches in Florianópolis, my dog that had to move in with Pércio’s family when I had to change apartments (she still remembered me on each visit), and the time we stayed with his grandparents and extended family on a farm in the countryside. This time, I was the one stepping outside his comfort zone. We hunted armadillo, the boys insisted that I be the one to snap its neck, a moment and feeling I will never forget, and we enjoyed armadillo soup that night.
One of our favorite memories was from July 17, 1994 when Brazil beat Italy in penalty kicks to win its historic fourth World Cup title. Sitting between Pércio and Alex on the couch in my townhouse, our palms were sweaty as we gripped each other’s hands for good luck during each penalty kick. We erupted in cheers along with the entire country that day and wallowed in the joy that seemed to permeate the air.
Reconnecting During A Pandemic
I started writing letters and using snail mail again this past spring. Actually, they were postcards with pictures of my grandkids and me on our hiking and museum adventures. Something about being in lockdown drew me back to a simpler time when the whole world communicated via handwritten letters. Though I thought of my Brazilian family often, we had fallen out of touch since my visit in 2010. I occasionally searched for them on social media, but never found anyone. The photos I had hanging on the fridge, along with many others I uncovered in boxes during several moves, continued to spur memories of my time in Brazil and my love for this family that welcomed me into their lives. I had no idea if a letter would arrive via snail mail during the pandemic, but I decided to give it a try.
I recalled that during my visit ten years earlier, some of the siblings had reluctantly informed me that their mom, Maria Luíza, was disappointed I had never addressed my previous correspondence directly to her. It had never occurred to me to do so, and I was deeply humbled to learn how my lapse of judgment had affected her. This woman was so humble and grateful to me for hiring her and spending time with her son, yet I felt an incredible debt to her.
By writing directly to Maria Luíza, the tone of my letter changed. I suddenly found myself thanking her for trusting me with her son and nephew during my time in Brazil, and for welcoming me into her family. I included several photos, including one of Maria Luíza holding Luriana, her 13th child, who was born when I lived in Brazil.
Just a few weeks later, during an online session with my seventh graders in Connecticut, my phone started pinging repeatedly. Messages were coming in from Brazil. It took a moment to recognize the name on the WhatsApp profile. Luriana, who would now be in her twenties, was the first to contact me. I felt some sense of excitement knowing they had received my letter and a little concern over what might have transpired during the ten years we had not communicated.
By the end of the day and many messages and video calls later, I learned that their beloved mom, Maria Luíza, had passed away in 2013. How I wish I had not waited so long to contact her. The love and adoration Luriana has for her mother was evident in her tears upon receiving my letter and the many photos she later sent me. Maria Luíza’s children and large extended family are a testament to her strength, quiet determination, generosity, and love.
A Hidden Photo
When I looked at another photo that Luriana sent me via WhatsApp, I barely recognized myself and to this day have no memory of when or where the photo was taken. What touched me was that Luriana told me it was the photo her mom kept in her Bible as a reminder to pray for me every day. I suddenly realized I’d had a guardian angel in Brazil all these years, a woman who had suffered much in her lifetime, but took the time to pray for me whenever she opened her Bible.
I now have many new friends on Facebook and WhatsApp, but I have gained so much more than that. The photos and messages of love have strengthened me during this pandemic. Hearing Pércio’s recorded voice messages brings me comfort, even as he battled his own bout of COVID.
More than Photos
Would I remember all of these details without the photographs? Probably not. Looking at these photos since reconnecting with my Brazilian family has spurred new memories that were previously forgotten. The photos, however, bring back more than memories. They bring back feelings: laughter, warmth, joy, love. I am so grateful to Maria Luíza and her family, and for the photos and memories we share, and for the new memories we will create together.
And today, 28 years after that chance encounter, my grandchildren know Pércio and Alex from their photos that are on my refrigerator. They see the photos of their dad when he was a boy meeting the young adult Pércio and Alex, and know that we are a part of each other’s families.