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The International Writers Magazine: Rich and Poor

Hidden People
Jeannine Pitas

 A few years back, when I was still in college, my parents began hosting foreign exchange students who came to live in our house for a few months and attend the public school in our district. Part of her motive was companionship; empty nest syndrome is not easy for any parent, especially when that parent’s only child has chosen to attend a college a full day's drive away from home.

However, another motive was the simple desire to learn about other cultures and ways of viewing the world. In the past few years, my parents has hosted students from such countries as France, China and Pakistan; all of these experiences have proved interesting; all have given us the opportunity to learn.
But, one of the most interesting of all these experiences would have to be the sixteen-year-old Brazilian exchange student who came to live with us three years ago. Beautiful, intelligent, glamorous and confident, Juliana astounded all of us with her social savvy and worldliness. Despite her initial homesickness, she soon became one of the most popular students at her high school and seemed to fit in wherever she went.
The one thing, however, that seemed to make her uncomfortable was when we took her to visit St. Luke’s Mission, a soup kitchen in one of Buffalo's poorest neighborhoods. As we drove past the boarded-up houses and garbage-strewn lawns, Juliana began to get uncomfortable. This was, after all, a vision of the USA that she’d not seen in Hollywood films or even on the news. However, she most certainly had seen it in her own country. Brazil is known for having one of the most inequitable distributions of wealth in Latin America; for every jet-setting, wealthy Brazilian there are a lot more who live in squalor and have nothing. Juli, who attended a private Catholic school and had been sent to live abroad, belonged to what we would consider the upper middle class and what in Brazil is definitely the affluent stratum of society. Curious to hear her take on her country’s situation, I asked her, “Juli, do you think most of the people in your country are poor or rich?”
And, to my utter amazement, she responded, “I think most Brazilians are rich.”
Astounded, I found myself at a loss for a response. How could this young woman- with all her sophistication and good education back home- really believe this? I knew that Juliana had lived a sheltered life; also, at sixteen she may have displayed some adult sophistication, but in other ways she really was still a cartoon-watching, ice cream-devouring kid. Nevertheless, it still was unfathomable to me. Even if she lived in an affluent neighborhood, she surely must have witnessed some poverty in her life.
Last December, we had the opportunity to visit Juliana in Recife, which is Brazil’s third largest city. After finishing college, I received a government grant to study and work in Montevideo, Uruguay, and when my parents began making plans to visit me I decided that we may as well take advantage of the opportunity to visit Brazil. We were all curious to see the world which Juliana inhabited.

Recife was much what I’d expected it to be: big and crowded with amazing beaches, posh high-rise apartments, a historic city center, some beautiful old houses, and many poor areas. Now nineteen and in law school, Juliana no longer seemed to believe that most Brazilians were rich. While she currently lives with her family in a luxurious condominium overlooking the ocean and is looking forward to a comfortable life, she has demonstrated a commitment to improving the lot of her compatriots.
Recife Mall

However, as I spent time that weekend following Juli in her daily routine- shopping at the mall, which is the largest in Latin America and puts my city’s Galleria to shame, touring the opulent government palace where her aunt works as a translator, visiting her old Catholic high school, and dancing in a posh club where almost all of the revelers were upper class and white- I began to understand why, at sixteen, she believed that the Brazilian poor were a minority. For while we did see beggars panhandling outside the church and drove past ramshackle favelas by the river, on this trip we did not come in contact with the millions of poor people who are supposed to live in Brazil. And it is very easy to forget about the people and things that you don’t see on an immediate, daily basis.
I came to understand the whole seeing-is-believing phenomenon even more clearly while living and working in Uruguay, which, though not a wealthy country, is known for having a strong democratic tradition, progressive social policies, and the most equitable distribution of wealth in South America.

When I first arrived in Montevideo’s airport and drove along the coastal highway – The “Rambla” as it is called- past miles of gorgeous beaches and large houses, I could not believe I was in the so-called Third World. As I began to explore the city, with its high-rise apartments, beautiful old houses, abundant trees and green spaces, and bustling downtown area, I felt like Montevideo could be any European city. It wasn’t until I spent some more time there and began to see things- men with horses and carts who come from the poor neighborhoods to pick the garbage, jugglers standing in the middle of the street and entertaining the passing cars with the hope that some kind driver will offer them a few pesos, young children coming into restaurants late at night to sell flowers. On any bus ride I could be sure to hear the speech of a vendor selling socks or candy; any bridge I passed under under always had some people bedded down for the night.

And yet, what surprised me most was how quickly I adapted to seeing these things. I had always questioned the ethics of living a first-world lifestyle in a third-world country; to my shock, I felt no qualms about living in my typical American way- going out to dinner regularly, seeing movies and shopping at the mall- in Montevideo.  And I realized that the main reason for this was that most of the people I saw on a daily basis in Uruguay were not really poor; most wore business suits and went to work every day and ate in pizzerias; they jogged along the water and sunbathed on the beach. While I knew that slums existed on the outskirts of the cities, I did not have to see them every day, and even though I did come into contact with extremely poor people…After a while, one starts to adjust.

And now that I’ve returned to the United States, with our overabundance of material goods, our huge supermarkets and fast cars…In Uruguay and Brazil it is easy enough to block out the realities of poverty, but how much easier it is when you live in a society where poverty is confined not to the outskirts of cities but to their inner core, where the poor possess cars and houses and thus hide their plight behind the mask of our affluent society, where everyone is “middle class”, where everyone wears jeans, where poverty is nothing more than one of our nation’s best-kept secrets – How much easier it is to turn a blind eye, to assume that all are as comfortable as you, and to ignore the realities that life behind the beautiful exterior like a long-held secret that no one is prepared to reveal.

© Jeannine Pitas December 2008
jumpingjitterbug at

Jeannine Pitas
I can’t stand it when someone yells at me. It really doesn’t matter who it is-

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