Paulo Lins
"Cidade de Deus / City of God"

March 4, 2004

In a wide-ranging talk before a rapt audience that packed the Geballe Room at Berkeley, Paulo Lins spoke on March 4 about Brazil and his experiences as childhood resident of the slums, aspiring novelist and accomplished artist, while also addressing the inequalities and inequities of Brazilian society that produce the setting for the acclaimed Cidade de Deus.

“Cities of God” and Globalized Violence
By Renata Marson Teixeira de Andrade-Downs

Is the everyday violence portrayed in the Brazilian film City of God (Cidade de Deus), about a Rio de Janeiro slum wracked by poverty and drugs, a global or a local phenomena? Indeed, despite living in different countries, speaking different languages and having different educational and job opportunities, many Afro-descendants in the U.S. have much in common with the inhabitants of Cidade de Deus: both live with juvenile gangs, heavy drug and arms trafficking and alarming levels of violence. Paulo Lins, author of City of God, the novel on which the Oscar-nominated movie was based, insisted that violent local environments reflect a global, structural violence created by the unequal distribution of wealth, neoliberal policies, the drug and weapons trade and racism.

Lins, himself a native of Cidade de Deus, argued that Brazil’s urban violence must be viewed in a historical and global context. Brazil still bears deep scars from racial segregation and socioeconomic inequality, born out of 300 years of institutionalized slavery and a hundred years of American and European economic and political imperialism. According to Lins, these legacies brought unequal development, high rates of urbanization and the concentration of wealth in the hands of the Brazilian elite and international investors. The everyday violence of Cidade de Deus is a result of this underlying, historically entrenched, structural and political violence.

There are several parallels between the author and his City of God character Busca-pé. Lins, the writer, and Busca-pé, the photographer, are both redeemed through art. In addition, both come from the top of the “slum-pyramid,” which he described as divided into three social layers. “On the top of the pyramid, one finds people who can continue to keep their family together and find jobs outside the slum,” such as Buscapé and Lins. “In the middle of the pyramid, one can find people with lower pay, who can still keep their lives organized.” In contrast, Dadinho, the criminal leader in the novel, comes from “the bottom of the pyramid, where there are unemployed, alcoholic and drug-addicted people,” striving to survive their social exclusion.

An overflow crowd packs the Geballe Room at Berkeley. More than 150 faculty, staff and students, as well as members of the Berkeley community and the greater Bay Area, listened to Mr. Lins on March 4.

Lins insisted on the complexity of social marginalization. In the favelas (slums), middle- and upper-class necessities dictate social meaning for excluded individuals. According to Lins, there are two kinds of marginalized people: “the unwanted- and the wanted-excluded.” Although members of these two groups have different opportunities, both are “excluded” because very few will gain access to education and better jobs. The wanted-excluded provide legally sanctioned services as cleaners, bus drivers, gardeners and dustmen. Unable to find work outside the favela, the unwanted-excluded fall into organized crime and drug trafficking, activities which still supply services to the middle- and upper-classes, albeit illegal ones such as drugs and “safety.”

“If it was not possible to sell drugs, what would drug dealers do?” Lins asked rhetorically. “Waves of robberies would roll downhill towards Rio’s middle class neighborhoods.” By absorbing the “unwanted-excluded,” drug trafficking helps to avoid increases in other kinds of violence. Lins recalled an episode in 1995, following the recording of a Michael Jackson video, when police invaded the Santa Marta favela in Rio. Drug trafficking was stopped temporarily, but robbery in the surrounding middle-class neighborhoods increased tenfold. Criminals are not born, Lins claimed. Rather, they “need to have a mix of opportunity, vocation and courage.”

Asked if there is hope for positive social change in Brazil, Lins called for further incorporation of racial issues into socioeconomic policy. This process has already started with the United Nations Conference on racism, held in Durban in 2001, and the proposal, in Rio de Janeiro, to set quotas for black students among state university entrants. It has intensified during the current administration of President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva. Recently Lins has been a consultant to the interministerial group responsible for the creation and implementation of the Secretaria Especial de Promoção da Igualdade Racial (Special Secretariat to Promote Racial Equality). The Bureau is charged with formulating and overseeing a national policy to fight racial and ethnic discrimination, a model that can be compared to affirmative action programs in the U.S.

In conclusion, Lins described his work as “developing a socially-engaged art.” In searching for hope, Lins paraphrased Milton Santos, who portrayed the city as “a primordial place, full of contradictions.” Lins’ City of God challenges us all to face many raw contradictions, to create a better future for the children of the many slums around the world.

Paulo Lins is the author of the book Cidade de Deus.

Renata M. T. Andrade-Downs is a graduate student in the Energy and Resources Group.

Paulo Lins holds the Mario de Andrade Chair in Brazilian Culture at The Center for Latin American Studies at UC Berkeley. He is the celebrated author of Cidade de Deus (City of God), first published in 1997 and recently made into an acclaimed movie of the same name.

Mr. Lins book was based on "10 years of research and 30 years of life experience" in the Cidade de Deus housing project in Rio de Janeiro and is as much a memoir as a novel.

Paulo Lins



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