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viewpoint

Different people, same problem

| Thursday, January 30, 2014

São Paulo reminds me a lot of New York. It is the financial center of South America and the largest city in the southern hemisphere. There is great wealth here, and on the outskirts you’ll find deep poverty as well. The streets are crowded with cars, buses and taxis as joggers and dog walkers line the sidewalks.

But there is something immensely different about the Brazilian culture. Here, relationships and personal connections are vital and genuinely sought out. People aren’t numbers; they’re family. It’s partially why a hug and kiss on the cheek are considered proper greetings and handshakes are offensive. Extending your hand out puts space between you and the other person, creating a divide that says, “keep your distance.”

Last Saturday on the Aniversario de São Paulo, my friend Elizabeth and I decided to wander over to a nearby park to hang out and talk. Much to our surprise, the park was filled with vendors, exercise groups, children running and playing, music floating through the air and a myriad of places to relax and enjoy the scorching Brazilian sun. (Sorry for those of you freezing in South Bend right now.) We laid out beneath the shady trees to catch the live samba music playing in the square. People of all ages gathered beneath the trees, in front of the stage and on the outskirts of the vicinity to let samba, drink, smoke and life flow through their veins. The rapid beating of the bateria sent samba rhythms high into the air and as they rained down over us at the park, people stood up to dance, clap and sing along. As I sipped on my cerveja and munched on coxinhas from the street vendor, Elizabeth and I compared our Brazilian lives to our American ones.

In the States, moments of relaxation and freedom are sparse and often planned. Day-to-day events consist of work, class, homework, exercise and quick eating. People rush through life. Instead of taking time to smell the roses, they have to buy rose-scented candles to freshen the stale air inside their workspaces.

Breaking my thoughts, a young man collecting cans from the grass sat down in front of Elizabeth and me to rest for a few moments and smoke what was left of a cigarette he found on the ground. He asked if one of us had a lighter, and Elizabeth handed him hers with a new cigarette from her pack. We chatted for a couple minutes, and then everything changed for me that day.

As our conversation deepened, we learned his name was Jorge Eloy. When he tried spelling his name, he struggled to remember the letters — it became apparent that he had little-to-no schooling. He shared with us that he had been living on the streets in Cracolândia since he was a kid after his parents were murdered in the favela. Jorge is 22 years old and spends every day collecting cans to give him enough money to eat or drink a few times a week.

“Sometimes, I go to bed without food. Other times, without drink. I’ve been on my own since I was 11, so this is more or less the only life I’ve ever known. But I know every inch of São Paulo,” he said. “Yep, born and raised here. I know you both have probably never experienced this, but maybe one day when you both go back to the United States, you can write about me in your books and maybe someday someone will care about my story.”

After an hour of hanging out with our new friend Jorge in the park, he had to leave with another friend from the streets for a little bit and asked us to wait for him and not leave. We waited for an hour and he never came back.

So, this article is an ode to Jorge Eloy — a young man who was robbed of his childhood and forced to live on the streets.

It was really difficult to sit and just listen to his painful story. It is much easier to focus on our own fast-paced lives back in the States that center on getting a degree to make money to buy a house and fill it up with nice things. And it is even easier for us to donate old clothes and money around Christmas time to help us feel like better people at the end of the day.

We need a reality check. One that makes us uncomfortable and challenges us to reconsider what is truly important. Matthew 25:35-46 describes our responsibility to care for the very least among us, and while I could not offer Jorge a home or clothes, I am sharing his story in hopes that each of us can count our blessings and learn to share them with others.

Amanda Peña is a junior and a sustainable development studies major with a poverty studies minor. She can be contacted at apena4@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer. The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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