Can a Brazilian Change the World?

The Brazilian school system requires a 17-year-old student to decide on an occupation for the rest of one’s life—at least the few fortunate ones who will have the opportunity to attend college. In this phase, many start a battle against themselves, trying to find out what is worth living their lives for. Parents spend money on psychologists, and teachers give workshops and lectures to help students. Still, many fail. When I had to decide, psychologists and teachers asked me what I would like to do, and "change the world" was the most honest answer I could give.

All of them came to the same conclusion: I should go to art school because I did not have my feet on the ground. Opposing all professional advice, I applied to study journalism, hoping to help improve the society where I live, the most economically unequal on this planet.

Now, three years after my decision, I am interning at Friends Journal during my summer vacation, and it has been an amazing life and professional experience among Friends in Philadelphia. My internship is coming to an end, and I am getting ready to go back home. Before I leave, however, I would like to share some thoughts.

"Change the world" sounds ridiculous; and it is. It is even more so when coming from a naive 17-year-old who lives in the "Third World"—an unfortunate global cliché that implies inferiority. Such utopian ideals will always be inside the minds of the ones who wish to be like Jesus Christ and save humanity, like me. Brazil is huge (even bigger than the continental United States), but still, in my home, I feel as if I’m on an island, surrounded by the illness of inequality and savage competitiveness, suffocated by people trying to convince me that "every man for himself" is the only way. Those around me, my friends, wish to live in a "First World" country (and I don’t blame them for wishing a better quality of life for themselves), and they escape at their first opportunity. Each day I feel more ridiculously idealistic and alone, tempted to give up.

It is not easy to persist. Using the words of U.S. historian Marshall Eakin,"The middle and upper classes form a minority of affluent citizens atop an immense mountain of poor Brazilians." The eighth biggest economy in the world is crowded with miserable people. In large cities like Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, one can easily see entire families ransacking garbage and feeding themselves from it daily. Or at stop signs, begging at the windows of BMWs, asking for any kind of help. Brazil faces all the problems an "underdeveloped" country can have: lack of basic health-care, violence, drugs, illiteracy of over 15 percent, etc. This combination of problems makes Brazilians vulnerable to manipulation by politicians and by the media—Globo, the world’s fourth largest network, after ABC, CBS and NBC, routinely entertains 70 percent of all Brazilians with their TVs turned on.

Brazil has a powerful economy with corporations like Petrobras (which holds the world’s highest technology on deep-water petroleum exploitation) and Embraer (one of the biggest aircraft manufacturers and exporters). The country also has an amazing diversity of flora and fauna, beaches and ports along its 4,600-mile coastline, rivers like the "river-sea" Amazon, canyons, mountains, and so on. "Brazil is the country of the future," as naive Brazilians say. I dream that one day Brazilians will have the chance to live this future. Is it just another utopia?

In some aspects I consider Brazil the world in miniature. Brazil was colonized and explored by Europeans, inhabited by natives, and has a strong influence of Africans brought as slaves, besides a large Asian migration. Like planet Earth, Brazil shelters all races—though all are mixed in a 3-million-square-mile melting pot, and it presents contrasts as shocking as between Europe and Africa. It shelters both wealthy and miserable people.

To help improve this situation can be a lonely job. More than 70 percent of Brazilians (112 million people) live below the poverty line ($100 per month), and they have to worry about surviving. Less than 20 percent hoard 70 percent of all riches in the country, and they are anxious to get richer. The middle class is squeezed in between the other classes and feels unable to contribute to social change. The only solution I see is through changing the elite’s selfish mentality, to see that they have the means to act and raise their own quality of life by promoting the decrease of social and economic inequality. The elite fears violence, but it doesn’t see the cause. Agrarian reform, for example, has barely started and is limping. The elite deludes itself by thinking it has nothing to do with others’ problems. On a world scale, if one person has two pairs of shoes, another one somewhere in the world has none; and the unshod one will bring and increase violence unavoidably.

The greater part of the world is in a calamitous situation, while in some spots everything is plentiful. One dies of hunger, the other dies of obesity. "Third World" countries borrow money from the International Monetary Fund and become slaves of interest payments. The government sold Brazil’s greatest companies to foreign or national private buyers to pay the IMF bill, and now has already paid, in interest, the same amount of money as the total debt—money that should go to healthcare and education. This situation is not going to get any better unless both rich and poor are aware of what is happening outside their homes. A country is exactly the same size as the whole universe for those who don’t know what is beyond its frontiers. Astronomers, when studying the universe, are studying 10 or 15 percent of it, only the part that has light and can be seen. What people know is the extent of their universe. The starving people have to know that they deserve justice and happiness; and the wealthy people have to be aware of their power and stop acting in such an egoistic way. That is true in Brazil and in the world.

I will go back home and persist with my "change-the-world" dream, hoping I am not really isolated on a huge island. I am relieved to have met some people here in the U.S. who see what is happening outside their country (and, many times, because of it), and fight for a just U.S. international policy. This summer break I met some people who use their occupations as teachers, therapists, journalists, or artists to make a difference, who share with me the same heavy bale—even though they live on top of the world—the same God, the same "change-the-world" dream. And that makes me keep believing.

It may sound weird that a young person like me has to make a great effort to "keep believing" in dreams. It’s sad, I know. But, for most people on Earth, once one realizes what to expect from life, it is not easy to keep on believing. In these past three months I saw many people around me facing the problems of aging: where to live, what to do, medicines, doctors, loneliness, absence of hope. I don’t think these people realize how lucky they are not to be facing these problems until there is not much life left, after they have already enjoyed a plentiful and happy life. What can an Iraqi teenager, for example, expect from life? Or what can a Kenyan mother expect from her child’s life? I shouldn’t assume things about aging, though, since I am only 20 and know nothing about getting old. I still have so much to learn and so much to give, and in "an immense mountain of poor Brazilians," I feel truly blessed to be born there and able to choose what it’s worth living my life for.

Nara T. Alves

Nara T. Alves, a Journalism major at Methodist University of Sao Paulo and a Geography major at University of Sao Paulo, served as an intern for Friends Journal from December 2001 through February 2002.