Peri Alto, a Suburban Pandemic

by | Nov 14, 2020

Luca Meola is featured in the digital exhibition, “Documenting the Impact of Covid-19 through Photography: Collective Isolation in Latin America,” sponsored by ReVista and the Art, Culture, and Film program at Harvard’s David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies (DRCLAS.)

The resulting exhibition, based on an Open Call for Photography launched in July 2020,  aims to create a critical visual record of our unprecedented times so they can be remembered by future generations. 2020 will be remembered as a watershed year in which a pandemic laid bare the inequalities and fissures within our society. It has also underscored the importance of living and participating in communities even while experiencing the pandemic in isolation. The exhibition seeks to promote a regional perspective from Latin America and the Caribbean of the collective isolation imposed by Covid-19.

Two boys try to tame a newly stolen horse. Where today there is a favela, before the 70s, it was all forest.

The Peri Alto favela, in the northern suburbs of São Paulo, reflects the structure of the Brazilian society.  At the top of the mountain there are the most solid houses, built in the 70s, when from the northeast of Brazil people emigrated to São Paulo in search of fortune. From the top, going down towards the river, the houses become shacks. They are fragile, made of improvised materials and lack basic sanitation. A main road divides these two worlds, a separation that is not only physical. In the Sem-Terra (landless)  favela, as the lower part is called, there are at least 3,000 shacks. When it rains, the river rises and putrid water invades the houses. As in a maze, children play hide and seek in the alleys, while in front of the biqueiras, where drugs are sold, some teenagers with radios in their hands control the movement within the territory. Nearby little girls, who care for their younger siblings, have the look and attitude of women. In the Peri Alto favela you become a mother at 15 or 16, sometimes even earlier. In 2012 this territory was visited by Fernando Haddad during his election campaign. Haddad, who would later be elected mayor of the city, declared in an interview that Peri Alto, for the conditions of extreme poverty, was the worst place to live in São Paulo.

Since about mid-May, I immersed myself in this neighborhood, thanks to contact with the Associação Resiliencia (Resiliency Association). This local organization, which arose to support the paths of children and adolescents who live in Peri Alto, during the pandemic distributed food and basic baskets to the most deprived and needy families. I started this project to document the impact of the pandemic on a suburban community and I realized that, in addition to Covid-19, there were structural and deeper problems.  As we enter the territory, the impression we have is that, while the coronavirus spread has disturbed the world like a tornado, here it presented itself as a light breeze.

During this period, the streets of the community remain full and activities have never stopped. In the favela there are 47 places of evangelical worship, some of which have always remained open. Few people on the street respect social distance and wear a mask: in this community life during these months has continued as if nothing had happened. The houses are very small and overcrowded, making it difficult to quarantine. The households are made up of at least six members and many of these families are surviving thanks to donations.  Most of the children have been away from school for months:  it is difficult to take classes online when the internet connection is weak and there is hardly one cell phone for family. In the absence of tests to measure the diffusion of the Coronavirus in the territory, many underestimate the severity of this pandemic. Some locals argue that it is the water from the sewers, so close to the shacks, that keeps the virus away; others claim that for young people of the community, it is more likely to die of overdose of lança-perfume, a chemical solvent that is inhaled and aspirated than from Covid-19. During the period that I spent documenting the daily life of this favela, four wood barracks went on fire and unfortunately a four-year-old child died charred. Perhaps truly, the pandemic, for the inhabitants of Peri Alto, is the least of their problems.

Luca Meola is an Italian photographer with a degree in sociology. He has lived in Bolivia and now spends his time between Italy and Brazil. @lucameola1977

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