Affection and violence in the flow of Cracolandia “I’m singing while I walk”

The central area of the city of São Paulo, an area preferred by hundreds of consumers of drugs, homeless people, is much more than a large illegal market. It is a meeting point for people living in poverty who lead a radical life, where dialogues are established with delusional intensity.

Samba
© Pavio

Samba, sun, and beer
Everything in the square is ready. The instruments are on the stage, but where are the musicians? Marquinhos Maia takes a tantán (percussion instrument), Raphael Escobar grabs a tambourine, and they go in search of their friends in the “flow,” as some prefer to call Cracolandia. “Malandro, eu ando querendo falar com você/ê malandro,” Jorge Aragão’s samba would later say. Before entering Cachimbo Square, the two members of A Craco Resiste review the names of the people they seek. It’s a scorching hot Sunday, and that area on Cleveland Boulevard, between the fences of an open field and the Julio Prestes train station, is full. On the asphalt we meet some people who are sitting. On the sidewalk, a group of men roll out a black tarp to mount two tents. Behind them, other tents are already up.

Many people talk, walk about the place, yell, and sing in the middle of the flow. We walk up to a man who plays guitar leaning against a wall, and when we reach him, someone yells from the other side of the crowd: “Escobar! The Pirate!” Escobar runs with the tambourine, hands over the instrument, and hugs the stranger. Marquinhos Maia’s tantán is already in someone else’s hands and the music begins immediately, as if fired up by a spark. Other people come closer. They talk. They come to an agreement. Marquito Pirata and Érico now walk with us. Fábio, who was playing the guitar, joins the group later. Dennis and Du did not show up. “They have their own timing, right?” says Escobar while we walk back to the stage in the General Osório Square, where the meeting had been scheduled, with fewer people than expected. Escobar is particularly regretful that Fábio has not come. “We built the samba together,” the first Samba na Lata with professional structure.

When we return, Adailton Ferreira, aka Adá, is organizing conference chairs in a circle for the musicians. Wearing a bow tie, pink shirt, and yellow tennis shoes, Adá is a professional musician and has played several times in Cracolandia, invited by A Craco Resiste. Érico checks the available instruments, moves the two microphones, rearranges some chairs, and picks a place at the front for the tantán. We exchange a few words. He is an MC, works at the lighthouse, and tells us why he got out of the flow just for today: “There’s no money here, it’s the attention, it’s their attention.” The Pirate sits a few chairs away with another tantán, and on the other side of the circle, Escobar tinkers with the tambourine.

Away from the stage, the audience starts to take their seats. First, two girls with dolls sit on the bench next to the table that is used as bleachers. They’re accompanied by a man who leans against a tree to listen to the first song: “Esse samba é pra você/É bonito de se ver/Cultura popular/Você não samba mas tem que aplaudir.” Eventually Gaspar shows up. He is a man with a deep voice and a thin face, who takes a drum and plays standing up. Marquinhos places a blue plastic tub in the middle of the circle. It is full of cans of beer and ice. Then he grabs another tambourine and takes a seat. Nearby, a group of comfortable-looking teenagers occupies a wall and accompanies the atypical movement in their square with one eye on the stage and another on the ping-pong table, between hits of marijuana and cigarette smokes.

The Pirate starts to play the next song: “Uma vontade de olhar, admirar/Isso é amor/Ô a ôa, ô a ô.” “Du! He’s here!” Escobar cries and gets up to hug the new member of the circle. Gaspar had gone out to look for him and took the opportunity to bring back a big black trash bag. He leaves the bag by the tub with the beer, takes two empty cans, and clashes one against the other almost to the beat of the samba. To him, this samba is a party, but it is also a chance to collect cans to sell as recycling.

Slowly, slowly, the space fills up with the audience. A lot of people had found out about the circle through Facebook where A Craco Resiste keeps a page since December 2016, which today has nearly 17,000 followers. The page is constantly updated with news about police operations, rights violations, the dismantling of municipal social assistance programs, the precarious conditions of workers linked to NGOs hired by the Mayor’s Office and by the State government to act in the region. It also includes information on what life is like in the streets of São Paulo. The online event had 450 interested people and 64 confirmed attendees. At the samba’s fullest moment, however, approximately 30 people distribute beers bought in neighboring bars and cigarettes. They all clap together. Only those who are on stage making the party drink for free here. That’s a good thing, because there is no samba without drinks, and homeless people like these musicians can barely afford to eat, sleep in a bed, or buy clothes.

But even so, people are not wearing rags here. Érico, for example, is wearing a black cap, silver neck chain, blue sleeveless shirt, black and white striped shorts, and white tennis shoes with tube socks the same color. The Pirate prefers a Nike cap, silver chain which matches the bracelet on his left hand, shorts, tennis shoes, and a bowling shirt stamped on the back with a figure with dreadlocks holding a lit cigar and the sign: “E. C. Bola +1.” Dennis, who has just arrived, is wearing gold frame sunglasses that match his watch, the samba school shirt, and black crocs, black as his shorts.
 
Samba 2
© Pavio

Now!” someone yells in the middle of the circle when they see Dennis. “This is gonna start now!” he responds with a voice that is deep but friendly and his mouth open in a half smile. Escobar gets up smiling and hugs him tightly. “Quando minha cuca maluca computa você/É um tal do meu peito doer/É um tal do meu peito doer.” The circle heats up with the arrival of Dennis. “A toast to the Samba na Lata! It’s the beginning of a lot of samba!” Marquinhos yells and all the musicians stand up for the toast, each one with their own can of beer.

The samba grows with the people that pass by and stop there to accompany the party. This is the case of a man who takes an empty can of milk in a corote, the popular name of a small plastic bottle of cachaça. Another one arrives with a big black bag on his back, climbs up on the stage, leaves the bag on the floor, and begins to dance and sing. Suddenly, he climbs down and pulls a pack of cigarettes from the bag, takes one, lights it, and puts the package back in the bag. Then he pulls a bottle of Sprite out of the bag. It is filled with a clear liquid. He takes a sip, grimaces, closes the bottle, and puts it away once again. There is so much samba that the man takes off his gray blazer and puts it away in the bag as well. Now he is only wearing a tight blue shirt and tight jeans. His straight jet-black hair, parted sideways, is a little wet, as if he had just taken a bath. Meanwhile, the man with the corote is already in a party mood and offers sips to the musicians.

In this samba one can participate by dancing, playing standing up, sitting down smoking, or lying on the floor, rolling in the dirt. This is the case of a man who falls asleep between the stage and the ping-pong table. When he urinates, wet soil gets stuck on his pants. The young owners of the place don’t want him lying there and threaten to attack him physically if he doesn’t beat it. A friend who is almost as drunk as him protects him, and teetering, tries to lift him up. He takes him by the arms, pulls him up, but the man reacts like a rag doll. He’s down. The friend gives up, puts him back on the ground, and leaves. Shortly after, the drunk man wakes up and manages to sit up. A young man yells at him, approaches him, and kicks him on the head. The man crumbles down on the ground once more. The young man stops kicking him because a woman from the samba audience intervenes. “Stop that.” The young man leaves and the man lies there, spread on the floor, knocked out. “Destino por que fazes assim, tenha pena de mim/Veja bem, não mereço sofrer/Quero apenas um dia poder viver num mar de felicidade/Com alguém que me ame de verdade.

Among the flow’s regulars, alcohol is not a minor issue compared to the compulsive ingestion of “smoked cocaine,” a form of use most commonly known as crack, possibly due to the noise made by the stone made of cocaine base paste mixed with baking soda when burned in a pipe. Cocaine can also be snorted or injected. 2017 numbers submitted by the State government, based on a sample comprising 136 people from the flow, out of a universe of approximately 1,860 regulars from the region, show that more than 40 percent of the people use, concomitantly, smoked cocaine, alcohol, and snorted cocaine; 19.6 percent consume only smoked cocaine, and 15.1 percent, only alcohol. The analysis sponsored by the Brazilian Platform for Drug Policy, conducted in 2015 with 80 people that had joined the Open Arms Program (DBA), showed that 80 percent of respondents had consumed alcohol at some point in their life. Among the most cited substances, tobacco appears in first place, with 90 percent of mentions; followed by smoked cocaine with 85 percent, and in third place, marijuana, cited by 83 percent of the people. After alcohol, snorted cocaine appears in fifth place, mentioned by 77 percent of the respondents. Among the harm reduction agents working in the street with drug consumers, it is common to hear that it is harder to deal with an alcohol addict, who shut themselves off after the hangover, than with crack users, who are often more open to being approached.

The DBA was implemented in 2014 by the São Paulo Mayor’s Office, with a proposal unprecedented in the country to offer housing in hotel rooms near the flow, in Campos Elíseos, as well as opportunities for paid work in activities such as street sweeping. Those who entered the program also had access to health services. All this without the obligation to interrupt the use of smoked cocaine or other drugs. More than abstinence, the program intended to reduce harm associated with the use of drugs. In 2017, when a new political group took the Mayor’s Office, the program was virtually terminated: the hotels were discredited, and the few professionals still linked to the program condemn today the precariousness of their job and the fear to be fired abruptly.

Music is dialogue
In Samba na Lata, it is not necessary to be clean to participate either, but no one seems to be riding the wave of smoked cocaine. The day of the samba, what passes from hand to hand is not a “bolinha” pipe or a “calarga” improvised with an aluminum can, but musical instruments instead, in addition to beer and cigarettes. The exchange of instruments is uncomfortable to Érico, who had grabbed a tambourine after the tantán and now wants the tantán back. “This passing of instruments from hand to hand is breaking the samba,” he says. “It’s going to get better,” the Pirate replies, smiling, and as if he were coordinating the circle, he decides to unplug the microphones and amplifiers: “This is what we’re going to do now: low sound and voice, without hitting the instruments.”

A tin on the hands of a drug user can become a pipe, a rattle, and a “hat,” the traditional way for artists to ask money during street performances. As Marquinhos explains: “The idea is for people to contribute so that the samba becomes autonomous.” As he speaks, he presents a big empty aluminum can and comes forward. The sound of coins on metal goes around the audience. At that moment, Gaspar begins to threaten the person holding the can with no apparent reason. Sudden violence is common in this man who has the habit of drinking a lot, as a friend of his explains. “It’s killing our samba, pal!” The Pirate reprimands Gaspar. “This samba is family. Stop it,” Érico adds. “Então me ajuda a segurar/Essa barra que é gostar de você/Iê/Didididiê”. The idea of A Craco Resiste is to schedule more shows so that the group raises money. Escobar says he has two more shows pending. After this first concert, the friends of the flow even tell him that they had been rehearsing every day of the week. But when the next day arrives in Cachimbo Square, he finds no samba.

Raphael Escobar has been hanging out at the square almost every day for five years. He even lived in the flow for a week to help a friend in their research. He would rest in Dennis’s tent and there would be samba from 10pm until sunrise. During these years, the visual artist worked with harm reduction in the use of drugs in different NGOs and in municipal programs targeting Cracolandia. He currently works at the Specialized Care Service (SAE) in STDs/AIDS (sexually transmitted diseases) in Campos Elíseos, on Cleveland Boulevard. Up until the Carnival, when Brazilians have the habit of taking time off from work, Escobar had been supporting consumers and workers from the region of Blocolandia—a carnival-like belt coordinated by the Colectivo Sem Ternos, which paraded for the first time in 2017.

The same year, in May, making music was the strategy of A Craco Resiste—this movement having stemmed out of Sem Ternos—for holding a vigil of human rights observers during the last big police operation, which left several injured consumers, doors of pension rooms shattered, broken furniture, and bars, pensions, and hotels closed. The same day the operation took place, the current mayor of São Paulo stated that Cracolandia was history while walking by the empty streets of Campos Elíseos. However, only two blocks from there, the inhabitants of the area were beginning to congregate in the Princesa Isabel Square. Weeks later they were back in Cachimbo Square, on Cleveland Boulevard.
 
Samba 3
© Pavio

Temporary areas
Before the flow concentrated in the small space comprising only one square and a stretch of Helvetia Street, near Cleveland Boulevard, meeting points for consumers emerged and disappeared in the vicinity of La Luz Station, near Santa Ifigênia, by the square where Samba na Lata took place. This region was the first to be known as Cracolandia in São Paulo, and possibly in Brazil. Although the consumption of crack cocaine in the country occurred first in the periphery of São Paulo in 1988, the placename only began to fall on La Luz at the time that the Department of Control and Use of Property (Contru), a body of the Municipal Secretary of Housing (Sehab), closed 39 hotels, pensions, and bars in the area, in 1999. Since then, meetings for buying and consuming crack began to take place in the streets, according to research carried out by Luciane Raupp for her PhD thesis on the circuits of crack cocaine use in the city.

As told by media reports, the meeting points were not prevented from multiplying and changing venues by police operations carried out during the following years, always on a stretch covered on foot for a few minutes. In 2005, the Mayor’s Office promoted Operation Clean, while a law was enacted with tax incentives for owners to expand or reform properties in the region. On account of this repression, in 2006, consumers crossed Duque de Caxias Avenue to occupy Helvetia Street and Barão de Piracicaba Boulevard, in Campos Elíseos.

In 2007, the area’s inhabitants also moved toward Dino Well Boulevard, Ana Cintra Street, and Julio Prestes and Princesa Isabel squares, as Heitor Frúgoli Jr. and Enrico Spaggiari show in their research on the “itinerant territoriality” of Cracolandia. In 2009, the Mayor’s Office transformed the ancient law of tax incentives in the Nova Luz project, which also envisioned granting buildings and public spaces across the entire area between the Duque de Caxias, São João, Ipiranga, Cásper Líbero, and Rua Mauá avenues to private initiative. In 2012, the project was still only on paper, but it kept pushing actions of repression in the area, such as Operation Emergency. In 2013, the Nova Luz project was definitely blocked.

After many displacements, the only point where a great gathering of consumers is still tolerated by the police includes a stretch of Helvetia Street and the Cachimbo and Julio Prestes squares. Consumers are forced to move around there three times a day when the Mayor’s Office washes the streets and sidewalks with tanker trucks and huge hoses. Consumers usually move out of the way when the jets of water approach, but sometimes they also get a “futibomba” thrown, that is, when the police throw gas bombs to intimidate people. “They clean the whole street, but then it goes back to normal,” a regular of the area told us. However confined it may be, the flow is threatened, once again, due to a new transformation project for the area: a public-private partnership promoted by the State government, with support of the Mayor’s Office, to build residential towers after the demolition of the buildings where poor families and informal workers, not necessarily drug consumers, used to live in rental. The first towers are almost ready in the place where there used to be hotels, pensions, bars, and a popular shopping center (originally the main bus station of the city), demolished between 2010 and 2013.

Even with so many attacks, tradition still stands in a region that used to be a mixture of containment area and shelter for nearly 70 years. In 1940, the first official red-light district of the city emerged near that place, on Itaboca (currently Cesare Lombroso), Aimorés, and Carmo Cintra streets, and a stretch of Ribeiro de Lima in the Bom Retiro neighborhood. It was there where the term “area” was popularized to refer to places frequented by free spirits, prostitutes, criminals, gays, and transvestites, as shown by Sarah Feldman in her book on planning and zoning between the 1940s and 1970s. While it existed, the area used to be the place for free spirits, where the night of the city happened, as Hiroito de Moras Joanides, the King of Boca, mentions in his autobiography. For the governors, the area was a strategy for maintaining morally reprehensible activities away from the areas where the real estate market flourished. When female prostitution was prohibited by law, a violent police operation emptied the area’s hotels in 1953. This episode was described with much blood, fire, and brutality by João Antônio in his short story “Paulinho Perna Torta.”

Art and shelter
The extinction of the containment area for prostitution in Bom Retiro caused Boca do Lixo (Mouth of Garbage) to arise in the place where free spirits, thieves, and ex-convicts also lived. Since then, an axis of adult entertainment was created on São João Avenue, as well as a region synonymous with the denial of regular work. Boca emerged, then, as a ‘shelter’ for workers that did not fall within morally acceptable professions, as told by historian Hera Franco. In the following years, actors, film producers, small merchants, peddlers, prostitutes, and journalists sought refuge here and gave fame to the region, while the film industry was just beginning in the country. During the 1970s, almost all the national film production came from this place, ”where whores become actresses and actresses, whores,” as Paulo Haría, director of the Personal Faroeste Company, based on Triunfo Street, likes to describe the history of the region that has inspired his work so strongly. When Brazilian cinema became more glamorous and conservative, in the 80s, producers migrated away from Boca, especially towards Vila Madalena.

The dramatic intensity and diversity of life in the central region of the city, which inspired producers and film directors in the 1970s, is now too becoming art with the actions performed by damage reducing artists like Escobar. When crack users become musicians, rappers, or sambistas, it’s as if A Craco Resiste were bringing back the marginal and radical artistic tradition of Boca do Lixo. This tradition is also resistance against stigma and against the elimination of a particular way of life: sometimes violent, sometimes affectionate, sometimes free-spirited, sometimes degrading, sometimes overwhelming, sometimes refuge, but always radical and intense.
 
Samba 4
© Pavio

Funk, gas, and corote
“That image is forever stuck in my head: I’m holding the earpiece, the microphone, and the DJ is standing by my side,” Dennis tells us on the day the music he had recorded in a studio is released right in the middle of the flow. Right at the moment when the composition by Dennis and Meia-Noite is booming in the amplifiers, we tell a barefoot boy, who roams around the dance floor with a lunchbox in one hand and a fork in the other, that that music is his friends’. “That one? The one playing? Seriously?” He almost can’t believe it. “Then I support my friend, what he does is good,” we hear from another woman when I tell her the same story.

Dennis Alberto, 38, is more comfortable during the second encounter, on Friday, December 15, and in a place he knows well: in front of welcome tent for people living in the street, almost on the corner of Helvetia Street and Cleveland Boulevard. In addition to the infallible shades, this time with a pink frame, he is wearing shorts. The soundtrack of this encounter is also more related to his style, as he likes to compose rap and reggae. Dennis began to write lyrics when he went to jail for the third time, in 2008, and decided to go back to school and learn guitar. In 2013 he got out of jail, spent time in his parents’ home in Jabaquara, and one year and seven months ago he started to live in the streets of the central region. He is proud of the music he recorded with the help of DJ CIA, despite the fact that the lyrics mix verses of a reggae that he wrote when he was still in prison with the improvisations of Meia-Noite, a rapper friend. “I learned something there [in the studio]. Who knows if I’ll ever do it again.” “Cantando eu vou/Falando e cantando eu vou/Bla bla bla bla bla bla,” Dennis’s voice opens the song and appears in each refrain.

The music echoes in the street thanks to a powerful amplifier connected to a gas generator. Five people had helped Escobar to bring by foot, under a scorching sun, the equipment that was stored inside the Contenedor Mungunzá Theater, a few blocks away from there. After playing the unreleased music, Escobar’s cellphone becomes a jukebox. The orders are organized in a sheet and those who have requested music help find it on YouTube. The dance floor, dominated by men, lights up with funk tracks such as the one by MC Fioti, “Vai mexe o bumbum tam tam/Vem desce o bumbum tam tam,” or Cavucada by DJ Henrique de Ferraz.

In the midst of the party, still empty, a man in a wheelchair with a metal pipe holds a small mirror while he combs up his hair, caked with dirt. Shortly before, the guy had taken his shirt off while getting a haircut from another man, also shirtless. The hairdresser was swinging his body and moved his scissors to the beat of the music, “Menor, muleque maloqueiro/Mundo mágico, menino mulherengo/Misterioso, malvado, me mostrou malandros malandriados/Maioral, melhores momentos/Marginal, maldito movimento.” On the dance floor, a woman dances with her top pulled up while she lights a pipe with a “bic”—a word that has come to mean “lighter” in the flow since, legend goes, a man known as Lighter died—. Another man dances with a toy gun in his hand: “Hey, play another one for us.” “Cinco dias de terror/O Brasil parou pra ver/Quem manda/Quem manda/Quem manda é o PCC.

The rules are clear over there: no recording or taking pictures, unless one has permission from the ‘brothers,’ local traffic managers connected to the “movement.” This prevents the identification of someone fugitive from justice, as well as the exposure of regulars of the flow to their families. The team of cameramen that intended to record the launch was aware of that, but one of them was holding a switched off camera in his hand. Suddenly, a man sitting in front of the amp gets up and grabs the camera. The cameraman, known in the area, and a friend of Escobar’s, explains that he did not record anything and offers to show the images to prove it, but the man does not accept. Mayhem ensues. Other people draw near and grab the equipment, which has now become a tug-of-war. They ask the man to drop the camera, they struggle, but it’s no use. Dennis and other consumers are trying to convince him when CRACK! The directional mic breaks, the camera is in the hands of the cameraman, and part of the microphone is left with the wary man.

They still try to make him drop the piece of broken equipment and give up the fight, but nothing changes until Masa arrives and starts to hit him in the chest as he screams with a very deep voice. The man finally lets go of the equipment and is taken to the tents in Cachimbo Square. Shortly after, another person comes back asking for the camera to take it to the brothers. Escobar takes the equipment and goes up to a tent. Once inside, they check more than once all the recorded images. They listen to the artist’s story and that of the man, a rookie in the area. Friends of the flow explain that Escobar is known by all, that they trust him, and that the man didn’t have to be paranoid. The brother accepts the argument and declares: “So he has no idea: it’s over.” They return the equipment. After a few minutes, the paranoid man crosses the street crying and saying that the cameramen had lied.

Some people ask for the music to come back. “Foi numa noite de frio, que eu te encontrei com o coração vazio filho/Perdido e sem rumo, sem prumo e sem direção.” Soon the sound comes back, but the gas from the generator is running out. “I’m going to fill it with cachaça,” shouts a boy, dirty from head to toe, with a black eye and a corote in his hand (the little cachaça bottle). They roll out the generator cord a few times. Nothing happens. “Positive energy, now. Let’s remove all the negative energy,” says a man stretching his open hands over the generator. Someone pulls the cord and the engine suddenly starts. “Yes! I told you!” This joy is short-lived, though. “If the music doesn’t play I’m gonna take my clothes off!” shouts a man inside the tent when the engine fails again. “Let’s steal some gas!” cries another emboldened man standing near the amplifier.

It’s no good. The generator has run out of gas, the sound is over, the launch party for the music made by two regulars of the flow has come to an end. Once more, Masa and a few others help carry the equipment back to the theater. When the group has already turned around the corner on Dino Bueno Boulevard toward Julio Prestes Square, Dennis turns up to say goodbye to Escobar. They get closer, talk quickly, and exchange a big hug.