By Jason Bermingham
We continue Jason’s article from last week, Brazil: Traffic Business Part 1, about the people who survive by working at the traffic lights around São Paulo.
I put my own apprehension aside, for the week at least, and got to know Jos and a few other marreteiros. Here are the stories they told me:
Robson Cunha Maragon, 35, sells breath mints, chocolate malt balls, and other merchandise at the traffic light where Jos works. Robson has been at this intersection for six years and many drivers know him by name. He is married, has two children, and pays rent. “When I started out,” he says, “I used to make 100 or 120 reais a day (about US$40.00). Now I take in 30 or 40. A lot more people are working the traffic lights. And the city is more violent. Unless commuters know you, they usually don’t roll down their windows. Of 100 cars, I’ll only make a sale to three or four.”
Robson Roberto Miller, 34, has worked the Barra Funda neighborhood for 12 years. Missing both legs below the knee, he’s known among locals for his Evel Knievel-like daring do. Zigzagging through lines of stopped vehicles with a cardboard box in his lap, Robson sells candy and pens. When the light goes green, he latches himself onto the bumper of the last car in line and gets towed back to where he started. “I don’t think many handicapped people do that in the United States!” he jokes. “The situation here in Brazil is very difficult. Companies have turned me down because of my deficiency, but people on the street always help. It’s important to understand that most handicapped people at traffic lights aren’t begging. We’re selling a product – it’s business. Marreteiros have their own unions.”
Kulu, 31, sings for a Rap group called Atrito Moral. He markets their CD at an intersection where a topless Mona Lisa has been airbrushed on a nearby wall. “I sell stuff like other marreteiros, just that in my case it’s music. I met our producer at this traffic light. We had recorded some songs and he suggested we sell them here. So far I’ve sold 130 CDs – more than enough to pay for what we recorded. You meet a lot of people on the street. Last month a photographer drove by and offered to take pictures for our album cover. Another guy bought my CD for his kids. They liked it so much that he brought them back here to meet me.”
Darlan, 28, spends a few evenings each week at a traffic light at Avenidas Rebouas and Henrique Schaumann – the Park Place of São Paulo’s marreteiro Monopoly board. It’s one of the most heavily trafficked intersections in the city, and the light stays red for nearly two minutes. Union-working marreteiros circulate in blue jackets by day, selling cellular phone accessories, inflatable Scooby-Doo dolls, and strings of garlic bulbs. At night the intersection becomes a circus, with entertainers like Darlan juggling flaming torches. “The city’s best performers come here,” he says. “We’re not marreteiros and we’re not unemployed. We use the traffic light to practice, to earn money, and to make contacts for gigs at night clubs, parties, and events.”
The Promise of a Better Future
As night falls on Avenida Pompéia, Jos Silva Ramos removes the last of his plastic sacks from a duffel bag. Just four or five more red lights and he’ll head home. He puts on a tired smile and steps into the glowing headlights.
Brazilian President Luiz Incio Lula da Silva made a promise before he took office last year: ten million new jobs before the end of his term. While Brazilians aren’t quick to trust politicians, Lula’s words resounded among the country’s “jobless” workers. After all, Lula was once a marreteiro himself – selling peanuts and shining shoes in the streets of São Paulo as a boy.
“You’ve got to keep at it,” Jos says. “You’ve got to keep looking for something better.”
The traffic light takes up five days of Jos’s week. Sunday he spends with his family. That leaves one day to visit employment agencies. Openings rarely appear, and when they do, younger candidates quickly snatch them up. But Jos remains optimistic. He knows he’s not alone in these difficult times.
“Some people are worse off than I am. Last week I met a guy at an employment agency who hadn’t been to school and couldn’t do math. I helped him with some questions on the application and a friend of mine later asked, ‘What if he gets the job instead of you?’ I said it didn’t matter. If I’m not willing to help someone, how can I expect others to do the same for me?”
Jason Bermingham works as a writer/musician in São Paulo, Brazil. If you enjoy Bob Dylan covers, send him an e-mail at email@example.com. He’ll set you up with a table at his next gig.
To read previous articles by Jason click the links below:
Brazil: Traffic Business Part 1
Brazil: Carnival in Your Living Room
Brazil: Busking in South America
Brazil: Improve Your English – Make Every Sentence a Song
São Paulo’s Liberdade District: Where Latin America Meets the Orient
Brazil: Deconstructing São Paulo
A Good Gig in São Paulo“