Why I Wrote This Book, “RIO – The Street Kid Stargazer”

SONY DSCEver travel to a brand new world?

True story. It was my first trip to South America. I worked for a little company named Middleby, today a roughly $2 billion sales company that in 1986 was just over $38 million in annual sales. I don’t speak Spanish or Portuguese, and would be relying on my Latin American export representative, Juan Cobo, to guide me through the market. When you flew to Rio de Janeiro back then, American flights departed from either Los Angeles or Miami late at night and arrived at dawn the next morning.

I awoke from a restless sleep as my flight circled around an imposing statue of Christ that I would learn was Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) a 98 ft. tall statue atop Corcovado Mountain, one of the Seven Wonders of the World and a monument to Christianity globally.  As I officially entered Brazil through immigration, Juan Cobo was being escorted out of the county.  He called out to me, “My visa has expired. They won’t let me in. I’ll see you in Buenos Aires.” Seriously. I was on my own.

After claiming my luggage while a band of sleepy musicians played samba music for tips, I exited customs to a sea of people: family there to greet arriving relatives; cabbies hustling for rides; and panhandlers hoping for any handouts.  I visited a currency exchange to trade my valuable American dollars for a rapidly devaluating Brazilian cruzado. I don’t remember her name, but she sweetly smiled and warned me in pigeon English, “hang on to your money.” I should have taken her advice to heart.

After grabbing a cab to the Hotel Caesar Park, I checked in, dropped off my bags and set out to explore Rio.  I had just left the lobby when I noticed a scrawny kid toss some dust on my Florsheim shoes. “Shine shoes, Senhor?” He asked.

“Why not?” I replied kindly.

He ran a grimy cloth across my shoe tops a few times and then asked me to pay him the equivalent of $50 USD.  His little friends were gathering around. “I know my math,” I replied. I signaled what was a generous amount at the time, $5, and he nodded “yes.” I pulled out my money clip and the kid snatched it from the palm of my hand as fast as a viper strikes its prey. The kid went racing off down the street. What he couldn’t know was that I was a well-conditioned runner and he would be in for a long, dramatic race. I chased him as he darted up toward the favelas in the hills.  After a many blocks, I was closing in on him.  He threw the money clip high in the air and pushed an elderly woman over, as he made his escape into the crowd.  I picked-up my money clip and helped the older woman to her feet.  To my surprise, she scolded me. “Don’t feed the street rats. You only encourage them and make the problem worse.”

I spent three days in Rio, fascinated how this breathtaking city of vistas has evolved from the center of power in South America for centuries to a tale of two cities today. The wealthy live in compounds near the beaches.  But over one-million impoverished live in shanty town slums known as favelas, which have been ignored for decades except during election times.  Instead, the favela hills have been ruled by drug lords since the 1950’s. I was so drawn by this and two later trips, I wrote a musical called “RIO” about my experience.

All began changing in 2008 when Rio de Janeiro was awarded the first Olympics to be hosted by South American country. The government wants to reclaim some of this favela land and reduce the escalating crime that threatens the intense tourism that will occur over the 2016 Summer Olympics.  I began thinking, what would a street kid do to protect his younger twin sisters during the upheaval of the reclamation of Rio? In the slums of Rio, thousands of homeless children are forced to make similar choices. When interviewed, here have been some of the questions facing random street kids:

  • Am I better off staying with my prostitute mother who is hooked on crack cocaine or live on the streets?
  • Will I earn more begging for scraps or stealing from tourists?
  • Am I safer joining a drug gang for protection or running the risk of death-by-ambush from vigilante death squads or rival gangs?
  • Am I really committing a sin if I murder to protect my own?

In my upcoming book, “Rio—The Street Kid Stargazer”, Sixteen year-old orphan, Lucas Rocha, watches helplessly as a death squad executes his older brother and is now the sole caregiver for his twin six year-old sisters. Should he beg, steal or sell drugs to survive? There is no right in a world of wrong. Sometimes good people do bad things for a greater good. Yet he looks to the heavens from the squalor below, a stargazer who fervently believes his dwindling family will someday live a better life, and he’s hell-bent to see it through.

In the meantime, I encourage you to subscribe to my weekly newsletter about some compelling human interest stories from Rio or possibly even your own home city.

Stay tuned. My book will release this February, 2016.

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RACE and RIO…

brazil-estrutural-slum

It used to be that no matter what your background — Asian, African or European — you can fit in easily in Brazil. But the reality is very different. Brazil used to be regarded as one of the most racially harmonious places in the world. Yet over the decades, the racial divide has proven to be similar to other countries: driven financially.

Despite the fact that an alluring samba, sultry climate and geography made it easy for a blended society to party together, the workplace was a different matter. Over time, most of the black population has evolved into the service jobs or none at all, whereas the wealthier class are in middle management and above. It is a fact that Brazil was the last place in the Americas to give up slavery. It also imported more than 10 times as many slaves than the United States — some 4 million. In 1872, when Brazil’s first census was conducted, the population was split into just two groups: free people and slaves, who then represented 15% of the population. According to a 2010 census, 7.6% of Brazilians said they were black, compared with 6.2% in 2000, and 43.1% said they were mixed race, up from 38.5%. Interestingly, in the USA, surveys don’t offer a respondent the option to indicate a blend of races.

Thus, more than 50 percent of the population is of African descent, but those numbers haven’t translated to opportunity. Sadly, as an economy tumbles, so do race relations.  The same study found that 31.3% of Brazil’s white population had private health plans, compared with just 15.2% of the black population. The same study found that 31.3% of Brazil’s white population had private health plans, compared with just 15.2% of the black population.  According to studies based on the 2000 census, an eighteen-year-old white Brazilian boy has an average 2.3 years more education than an eighteen-year-old black boy. The father of a white boy also had 2.3 years more education than the father of a black boy. The educational disparity between white and black has remained stubbornly constant over the past three generations. The bottom line:  Mixed races (Afro-Brazilian) comprise just over 50% of the population but are 70% of those in poverty.

 

Lucas Rocha, my character in “RIO—Reluctant Ascension into Infamy” is a sixteen year-old racial mutt who has had virtually no education but that of the streets. I encourage you to subscribe to my weekly newsletter about some compelling human-interest stories from Rio or possibly even your own home city.  “Rio – Reluctant Ascension into Infamy” is a Brazilian Oliver Twist meets The Godfather, when people’s lives crash together with irreversible consequences of love and tragedy. Stay tuned.

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How People Fall In Love

loveoneI wrote another book called, “Dating for Life.” It has VERY little relationship to my upcoming book, “RIO—Reluctant Ascension into Infamy.” RIO is a young adult thriller about overcoming adversity in the slums of Rio de Janeiro.  “Dating for Life” is a self-help non-fictional book that offers the Four Keys for setting up a great date. Without getting into details, I will offer a spoiler alert. No human being can make another fall in love. There is no alluring outfit or exotic perfume that will seal the deal. Through a twist of fate Daniel Burke, a character in RIO, is inalterably linked to Gabriela Serrano, and they quickly tumble into a passionate love.

lovetwoCertainly the sultry sea breeze and coral sunsets didn’t hurt, nor did the breathtaking views from Sugarloaf Mountain. But when their hot date intersects with a crime gone wrong and Lucas Rochas enters their lives, there is no turning back their destiny, nor their love.

Amidst the glorious landscapes of Rio de Janeiro where the statue of Christ the Redeemer on Corcovado Mountain forgives the millions of people below, Daniel Burke also risks his life so that Gabriela might live. What would you do in his shoes? Sometimes good people do bad things for the greater good. Stay tuned for my book that launches sometime before Ash Wednesday, when everyone atones for his or her sins.

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The Difference in USA Slums versus Rio de Janeiro

There are fundamental differences between the slums of America and the slums of other regions of the world. Let’s talk about America first. Slums in American are by-and-large the by-product of shifts in types of business within regional areas. In a country where the total employment ranges between 3% and 7%, most of America is working. But when a region that specializes in heavy manufacturing loses major factories to offshore manufacturing or other states that incentivize manufacturers to relocate, it suffers job losses.  America has been gradually shifting from a manufacturing economy to a services economy, which can also lower employment opportunities for blue-collar workers.

Downtown Detroit abounds with abandoned factories where businesses pulled out in favor of cheaper manufacturing areas elsewhere in the country, leading to pockets of massive unemployment.

Abandoned area of Detroit

Abandoned area of Detroit

High unemployment areas place a strain on government services, as tax revenues decrease, and services such as unemployment assistance, food stamps, and retraining expenses increase. Logically, so does crime. Most cities underwrite cheaper government housing, either in the form of row homes or high-rise affordable housing. Sadly, most of these ambitious projects of the 1950’s turned into failed social experiments, because poverty was concentrated in a dense area, allowing gangs to quickly take control. On March 30, 2011, the final high-rise of the once-infamous Cabrini-Green housing projects in Chicago were torn down, and most dwellers were relocated into lower-middle-class neighborhoods where they could be integrated into a more balanced society..

Cabrini Green in the 1980’s.

Cabrini Green in the 1980’s.

No, the story doesn’t end here, because neighborhoods throughout USA cities still face microcells of gangs and major poverty pockets. Sadly, there are kids in crime-ridden neighborhoods of major cities who live a few miles from a vibrant downtown yet have never left “the hood” for fear of violence.

Southside neighborhood in Chicago

Southside neighborhood in Chicago

But here’s a glimpse of the future, should American unemployment double or if nearly 20% of its citizens have stopped filing for unemployment benefits and are basically “off the grid.” In the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, squatters built colorful shacks high up in the mountains, which formed communities that were “off the grid” as far as the city government was concerned.  There was often no infrastructure provided: no streets, no electricity, no running water, no schools, no fire stations or hospitals. Residents fended for themselves. The locals continued to build on free land until many favelas approached one hundred thousand residents. The default governing body of each hill often became the local drug lord, who lived at the very top, inaccessible by the police. As the money trickled down from above, locals could use cell phones to alert the gangs above that there were intruders. Ironically, as dangerous as the areas were, there was an odd “honor among thieves” and most residents were left alone. In Rio today, there are over one million poor living in favelas in a city of six million.

Rocinha, the largest favela in Rio

Rocinha, the largest favela in Rio

But with the onset of the 2016 Olympic games, some of this favela land has become strategic to locating Olympic events and housing. The government began to reclaim some favela land in 2008 in preparation for the 2014 World Cup and accelerated cleaning up the slums for the day when the world watches the opening ceremonies of the summer Olympics in 2016. Special forces, called Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais, better known as “BOPE” has been engaged in battle with the gangs for control of their turf. Although the official program is “pacification” of the favelas, BOPE forces have only been trained for combat, not socialization and gentrification. The net result is chaos.

America has its slums and certainly pockets of gangs. But all land is deeded, developed, has roads, water, and electricity. Residents have access to free primary and secondary education. Hospitals are nearby as are fire stations and police departments. None of this exists in most of the Rio favelas.

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Amidst the glorious landscapes of Rio de Janeiro where the statue of Christ the Redeemer looks down on the masses from Corcovado Mountain, the rich and famous enjoy luxurious reside by the beaches. Further up the mountains is another world, one that I write about in my book, RIO – Reluctant Ascension into Infamy, where teen Lucas Rocha does what he can to survive and protect his twin six-year-old sisters. Sometimes good people do bad things for the greater good.

 

 

 

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A Word about the Homeless

homeless1

I am a compassionate person.  My wife and I live in downtown Chicago. We walk past people with homeless signs every day. Some have physical disabilities, and others are clearly “not all there.” Because there is a PADS program in Chicago, almost all of them have access to centers that will provide temporary housing. There are also soup kitchens that provide life-sustaining meals. Most of the people on the street choose to live there, rather than be thrown into a group environment.  I have few problems with this.

HOWEVER, I have a real problem with someone who is clearly healthy and in the prime of his or her life sitting on a sidewalk with a corrugated sign that reads something like, “I lost my job and need money.” Here’s why this ticks me off:

  • There are 5.4 million job openings in America, mostly lower level and requiring very few skill sets to quality. Source:  October 14, 2015, Bureau of Labor Statistics
  • Unemployment assistance lasts for six-months before it runs out. Source: IDES
  • There are dozens of retraining programs freely provided. IllinoisWorknet.com
  • People who claim to be veterans don’t mention that any veteran no longer able to work qualifies for a Veterans Disability Pension.

I am not insensitive, but I compare the above scenario to the unbelievable conditions that people live in elsewhere in poverty-stricken areas of the world:

  • There are 70 million homeless in India with no possibilities for employment, even though many are highly educated.
  • The top five rates of unemployment range from Senegal at 48% to 70% Zimbabwe (see Wikipedia for all rates)
  • The United States has a murder rate of 4.7% (per 100K inhabitants) versus Honduras—90.4%, Venezuela-53.7%, El Salvador-41.2%, and Brazil-25.2%. Source: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

There are probably one billion people in this world that would risk their lives to move to America or other affluent countries. It goes on daily at our borders. You would have to have been asleep not to see what has been going on with refugees from war-torn Syria.

I am writing a book about a homeless kid in Rio de Janeiro named Lucas Rocha and what he does to save his sisters from the slums. Sometimes good people do bad things for the greater good.

 

 

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Cristo Redentor and RIO…

How the Statue of Christ Redeemer came to be

The idea of building a large statue atop Corcovado was first suggested in the mid-1850s, but Brazil became a republic and, with the official separation of state and church, the idea was dismissed. The second proposal for a landmark statue was made in 1920, by the Catholic Circle of Rio motivated by the ‘Godlessness’ of the society at the time. The design represented a confluence of the Christian cross, a statue of Jesus with a globe in his hands, and a pedestal symbolizing the world. After considerable designs, the monument was opened on October 12, 1931. In the opening lighting ceremony, a battery of floodlights switched on remotely by shortwave radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi, stationed 5,700 miles away in Rome, as if the Vatican blessed the work.

There are many different images of the ever-present Cristo Redentor. It is regarded as a savior, a reminder to follow God’s will, and a sad figure watching over the carnage below. Christ Redeemer is the link between heaven and the hell below.

Cristo Redentor and RIO2

The statue was struck by lightning during a violent thunderstorm on February 10, 2008, and suffered some damage to the fingers, head and eyebrows. A restoration effort was put in place by the Rio de Janeiro state government to replace some of the outer soapstone layers and repair the lightning rods installed on the statue.

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I encourage you to subscribe to my weekly newsletter about some compelling human-interest stories from Rio or possibly even your own home city.  “Rio – Reluctant Ascension into Infamy” is a Brazilian Oliver Twist meets The Godfather, when people’s lives crash together with irreversible consequences of love and tragedy. All the while, Christ the Redeemer watches with his omnipotence and omniscience from above.

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Danger and RIO…

dangerandrioTragedy and Beauty comingled

Brazil is certainly one of the most violent countries in the world. In 2012, 56,337 people were murdered. In the same year, fewer than 15,000 people died violently in the U.S., a country with 60 percent more people. Not surprisingly, beautiful Rio de Janeiro has actually gotten safer for white people as the 2016 Olympics are approaching. In the past decade, homicides in Brazil among whites have decreased 24 percent but have increased 40 percent within the black population. Those who have money can afford to hire private security and build electric fences and gated communities.

The poor have to deal with a police force that killed some 2,000 people in 2012, roughly five per day.  Per capita, one-eighth as many individuals were killed in the United States. It is common to see pre-teens toting semi-automatic rifles roaming about the poor neighborhoods. Drug gangs rule most of the hills, and in a continuing struggle by the pacification units of Rio police, many neighborhoods quickly turn into war zones.

Jobless single parents, some who are crack heads or prostitutes, have reared generations of slum children. Many kids find it safer to form packs and live on the street rather than home. You can imagine why Lucas Rocha, my character in “Rio – Reluctant Ascension into Infamy” would have done almost anything to protect his twin six-year old sisters. He joins a nefarious gang to be a drug runner at night to care for Fernanda and Inez by day. Sometimes people do bad things for the greater good.

I was compelled to write a fictional thriller about Rio after several trips there in the 80’s. Now, with onset of Olympic development turmoil “Rio – Reluctant Ascension into Infamy” will be released soon. In the meantime, I encourage you to subscribe to my weekly newsletter about some compelling human-interest stories from Rio or possibly even your own home city.  Stay tuned. Before you know it, the world will be watching!

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Romance and RIO…

romanceandrioThe term “Latin Lovers” exists for a reason.

People who live in dark, cold climates are typically prone to depression while those living in bright, sunny climates are logically happier. Rich or poor, denizens are treated to regal vistas of lush green mountains reaching up toward heaven out of an undulating ocean. Sultry ocean air loosens up your body. Pair this unique setting with samba and people will fall in love. Life is a contradiction of emotions and outcomes.

Rio de Janeiro is a curious mix of mind-boggling crime amidst a romantic, fun-loving samba society. In my book, “Rio – Reluctant Ascension into Infamy,” a street kid named “Lucas Rocha” steals the wallet of arriving tourist Daniel Burke, which changes the tourist’s life forever. Daniel was in search of his roots, whereas Lucas was in search of his next meal. But had it not been for Lucas, Daniel discovers much more than he bargained for and also meets the love of his life, Gabriela Serrano. As the Atlantic Ocean crashes into the shores of Rio, so do people’s lives crash together in this complicated, overpopulated world.

I encourage you to subscribe to my weekly newsletter about some compelling human-interest stories from Rio or possibly even your own home city.  “Rio – Reluctant Ascension into Infamy” is a Brazilian Oliver Twist meets The Godfather, when people’s lives crash together with irreversible consequences of love and tragedy. Stay tuned.

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Samba and RIO…

The World’s Biggest Party

The World’s Biggest Party

Imagine an entire city block devoted to a competition of the top samba clubs in Rio de Janeiro. Constructed in 1984, massive concrete stands span both sides of Marquês de Sapucaí Street and are filled with over ninety thousand spectators each night for the one-week long event during the world’s biggest party, Carnival. Three nights before Ash Wednesday, six elite clubs compete with 90-minutes performances, and six more elite clubs perform the following night. The winner is announced, and the top five clubs perform in a final extravaganza before all devout Catholics begin to repent on Ash Wednesday for their sins.

Each samba club has thousands of dancers, hundreds more percussionists and a bevy of musicians who perform an elaborate, thematic show-parade. Every performer has a custom-designed sequined costume, original music and towering floats as high as 450 feet. Each Rio samba school has its own crest and color-scheme, and an army of devoted supporters. These clubs are flourishing businesses headquartered in its home community, as well as several samba rehearsal halls, although clubs build their floats in Samba City, an immense warehouse district near the Sambadrome competition.

As immense as Sambadrome may be, there are hundreds of additional samba block parties in the favelas and residential streets of Rio, because the people of Rio love to samba. To them sultry samba is the rhythm of life and romance too. It’s not surprising that many people fall in love at the Carnival. Daniel Burke, a Boston writer in my fictional thriller “Rio – Reluctant Ascension into Infamy” fell deeply for Gabriela Serrano, an aspiring student. Certainly samba was part of the equation.  But as everyone finds out, sometimes even good people do bad things for the greater good.

My fictional thriller tells the tale of a street kid who would do anything to protect his little sisters amidst the 2008 onset of Olympic development turmoil. “My book will be released soon. In the meantime, I encourage you to subscribe to my weekly newsletter about some compelling human-interest stories from Rio or possibly even your own home city.  Stay tuned. Before you know it, the world will be watching!

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The Olympics and RIO…

RIO jpgWhat will happen when the world watches?

On October 2, 2009 the International Olympic Committee awarded Rio de Janeiro the 2016 Summer Olympics.  World soccer star Pelé convinced the IOC that Rio was ready to be the first country in Latin America to host an Olympic games.  Knowing the forces of money, the games will go on, probably similar to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, although toilets were being installed through the opening ceremonies.

But is the Rio community ready for an Olympics? State and local governments have been clearing out many shantytowns to make way for the Olympic village and event facilities. One sixth of Rio’s population, over one million people have been under the rule of a drug gangs. Why?  Because until recently the government didn’t care about the shacks built up in the hills, known as favelas, except during election times. The poor who live there pay no taxes and return have few streets, no schools, hospitals, or fire departments.

Squatters built on steep, virtually uninhabitable land that the rich never wanted as far back as 1565, preferring instead to live near the glorious beaches that border Rio de Janeiro on the eastern and southern shores. The city was a domain of the Portuguese empire, and in 1763 the colonial capital of Portugal until 1808, when the Portuguese royal family and most of the associated Lisbon nobles, fled from Napoleon’s invasion of Portugal and moved to Rio de Janeiro. They remained there until Napoleon was defeated in Waterloo in 1815.  Brazil finally declared its independence in September 7, 1822 ending 322 years of Portugal’s colonial dominance. But as long as the poor remained in the hills, they remained independent from the new government of Brazil as well.

In an odd way, the drug lords have been the only form of government in favelas since the early 1900’s when hundreds of thousands of peasants flocked to Rio in search of employment and slapped together shacks of scrap lumber, mud, stone and corrugated tin roofs up in the hills. Rio de Janeiro was the capital of Brazil, the center of power, until Brazil decided to encourage its population to migrate inland by moving the capital to Brasília in 1960.  This sealed the plight of the poor as unemployment skyrocketed.  Only the upcoming Olympics has prompted Brazil to reclaim the hills it hasn’t wanted for nearly four hundred fifty years.

Imagine the individual stories of gang leaders fighting for what they considered theirs, corrupt policemen who padded income by working for death squad night militia, and the broken families and street kids caught in between. I was compelled to write a fictional thriller about what a street kid would do to protect his little sisters amidst the 2008 onset of Olympic development turmoil. “Rio – Reluctant Ascension to Infamy” will be released soon. In the meantime, I encourage you to subscribe to my weekly newsletter about some compelling human-interest stories from Rio or possibly even your own home city.  Stay tuned. Before you know it, the world will be watching!

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