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Literature in the periphery

Foto: Tânia Caliari

Literature in the periphery

The Cooperative for Culture of the Periphery (Cooperifa) has brought poetry to one of the most violent regions of São Paulo for 14 years.

At an intersection in the Chácara Santana neighborhood, one of the poorest of South São Paulo, Zé Batidão’s bar stands out in the landscape. The place catches the eye for its location, standing on elevated ground on the corner and, especially, for being Cooperifa’s – Cooperative for Culture of the Periphery – hub for poetic activities. It is Tuesday night: Since the end of the afternoon, the bar has transformed into a sort of cultural center, with people adjusting microphones, putting up decorations, and signing up to recite poems and texts. It is the Sarau da Cooperifa – an evening event hosted by the cooperative.

Poet and cultural agitator, Sergio Vaz’s low pitch voice opens the show. He tells the audience that silence is essential during the recitations, and he calls the first poet. Luciana Silva recites a poem about rain and childhood. Next, Kennyaata breaks out to the rhythm of a rap beat with a social poem about the Quilombos [settlements of fugitive slaves], filled with references to Africa. Casulo, in turn, begins with a narrative poem about soccer and ends by blending styles of canonical authors with marginal literature. More than 30 have signed up tonight to present their compositions.

The work of many years

As one witnesses the evening flow and as one perceives the force of the poems, it seems that a cultural initiative of this kind is a simple thing to put on. However, Cooperifa’s Saraus are the yield of over 14 years of work, set in one of the poorest and most violent areas in the periphery of São Paulo – and one most deprived of education. High school dropout rates are as high as 10.5% in the district. “We put poetry and the Sarau onto São Paulo’s daily agenda, and we did this from the periphery, in a bar, in a place that never even had a movie theatre, a playhouse or a library,” says Sérgio Vaz, who founded the Cooperifa with a group of friends in Taboão da Serra, a city in Greater São Paulo. They launched the project with a series of music, painting, theatre and literature events organized initially in the warehouse of an abandoned factory.

After four shows, they were thrown out of the place. “So we moved to a bar in Taboão. That’s where I realized that if you have an open mic, people will end up coming to participate sooner or later,” Vaz recounts. But the bar was sold and, again, the group was bereft of a place to recite their poetry. In this situation, Vaz remembered the pub that his father used to own in Chácara Santana, now operated by his friend Zé Batidão. Vaz brought his project there, and the Cooperifa grew. The group started screening films on the bar’s roof – Cine na Laje, Rooftop Movies –, established contacts with schools, where it holds some of its Saraus, created the project Chuva de Livros – It’s Raining Books –, which finds partners to donate books, and created a high profile annual cultural exhibit.

A counterpoint to violence

In 1996, the United Nations had called Jardim Angela, the neighborhood next to Chácara Santana, the most violent urban area in the world, with 98 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants – a statistic that reached 123 in 2001, but has diminished significantly since, even though the region continues to be extremely violent.

Cocão, the rapper, has the Cooperifa’s name tattooed on his arm. “I can’t even begin to talk about how much progress I’ve made since I arrived here,” says the musician who, in the violent 1990s, was already composing rap songs and recording them on tape. His music echoed what was happening on the streets: death and gangs. A friend told him about Cooperifa’s Sarau. “Evening party? Poetry?”, he asked perplexed. He went to a Sarau to check it out for himself. “I was impressed. I saw that there were various topics: some presenters were talking about the worker, others about love, dreams, about everyday hardships, and about violence, too,” says the rapper who, today, is in the line of fire at the Cooperifa, “the guy who does it all”. He does not stop for a second until the Sarau commences, adjusting the sound, lights, setting up tables and chairs.

A space open to all tastes

Lu Sousa is also on the Cooperifa’s board. A teacher and poet, she has brought the Sarau to prisons and shelters for minor offenders. “In these places, believe me, people read and write a lot,” she reports. “It’s a way to find freedom.” She continues: “At the beginning, I was embarrassed about my poetry, very overly emotional compared to the intense poems delivered here. But the space is so democratic that I mustered the courage to present myself.”

Lu Sousa, along with Cocão, Sergio Vaz and other members of the Cooperifa, visited Buenos Aires to participate in the 40th International Book Fair in April 2014. And Franco-German Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a leader of the May 1968 student movement and former member of the European Parliament, filmed the Sarau in Zé Batidão’s bar, when he was in Brazil during the 2014 World Cup to make a documentary about the country.

“We have this international recognition. But the academics and writers here in Brazil are often shocked by what we do. We have frequently been told that it’s not literature. But we do not have to ask permission from anyone to write poems”, Vaz clarifies.


    May 2015
    Brazil, São Paulo



    Tânia Caliari
    is a journalist based in São Paulo.

    Translated by

    Sara Hanaburgh

    Portuguese Version


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