Saturday mid-day, February 2, 2008
Thirteen-year-old Lucas “Pantera” Rocha had a bittersweet morning. He was now R$129 richer from effortlessly fleecing a stupid tourist. He had just bagged an equivalent to the average income that forty-five million Brazilians earn in an entire month. This was his first day back on the job in over a week. His future should have been promising, a cause for celebration. Yet he sullenly rode the bus back toward Ipanema beach. Patricio, he thought, you would be proud of me. Hustle the arriving tourists at the airport when they don’t know any better—this was my idea.
Lucas adored his older brother Patricio, and why not? Patricio was always there for him and the family. Patricio had shielded them from their mother’s drunken boyfriend for some troubling years when they all dwelled in a shack northwest of Engenho de Dentro in Rio. In 2002 the scoundrel bolted rather than marry their beloved mamãe, Ana, right before she gave birth to twin-daughters Fernanda and Inez. Patricio became the man of the house. While Ana nursed her, Patricio earned what money he could through buying Marlboros or Derby cigarettes at wholesale rates and selling them on the beaches at a 50% markup. Lucas tagged along and eventually learned the business. Local kids sometimes made fun of him because of his hyperpigmentation, but a protective Patricio saw to it that it would only happen once. Together, they scraped together enough for the Rocha family to subsist. Life was palatable only because of Ana’s unwavering love. Patricio, he thought, you were right. Mamãe was the glue to our family.
In August 2002 Rio was awarded the 2007 Pan American Games. Citizens had gushed in joy, for this event would bolster the economy. In early 2004 the government condemned the Rocha home in order to clear the area for construction of Engenhão Stadium to host the games. Ana held a family meeting and bravely stated that they would take this challenge in stride because, “A vida acontece”—life happens. Patricio helped the family relocate to a dingy hovel situated in gritty Favela Chácara do Céu, nested in the rocky hills just above the stunning Vidigal beach and the Sheraton Rio property. His ailing mother later said their home’s proximity to the hotel was a “gift from God,” for she had been able to secure a job there as a maid.
When Ana ambled to work early each morning, Patricio and Lucas raised Fernanda and Inez. They carried the twins everywhere: to the mountains, to the market, to the beach. Little Lucas was sure-footed as a cat and could climb any tree. He and Patricio regularly harvested the orange, lime, mango, banana and fig trees. Lucas would scale each tree and toss down the fruit to his brother. They would then sell it in the market, and then take their sisters to frolic in the ocean. Life was as good as Lucas could remember.
Lucas’ daydreams were interrupted as the bus turned right on Avenue Delfim Moreira and drove westward along the Ipanema and Leblon shorelines—two miles of the most awe-inspiring scenery in the world. International tourists and wealthy locals sauntered along on the signature black and white mosaic walkways that border the beachfront. Hundreds more frolicked in the Atlantic Ocean waves or played volleyball on the toasty-white sands. The substantial remaining tourists were drinking from whole coconuts under traditional yellow beach umbrellas or were on siesta, basking nearly naked in the mid-day sun. Lucas’ keen sense of smell breathed in the sea air tinged with a scent of tanning oils. Mamãe, he thought, you were right. Our home was a gift from God.
The bus shuttled past a gated, opulent estate on the west end of Leblon, and Lucas bitterly recalled his first brush with prejudice. Three years prior, he had naively crashed an outdoor party at this mansion to sell them some fresh-picked fruit. Like any street peddler, he wouldn’t take “no” for an answer from the insouciant guests, except that this was a private event for the privileged. He had mouthed off to a security guard, who smashed his beautiful smile with a steel truncheon. Lucas reeled back in pain, but collected himself and threw his open box of fruit at the man, then adroitly scaled an eight-foot high stonewall, leapt up to a towering Tipuana tree and swung back down to the ground outside the property. Once home, he cried bitterly in his mother’s arms. She embraced him with all of her love until nightfall. He looked up at her with misty eyes and asked, “What did I do to deserve this hatred?”
“Sweet son of mine,” she replied, “Hatred is ignorance. Wipe away your tears so you can clearly see the stars.” She gently stroked his nappy hair. “Always remember, son, that life is only beautiful if you leave your heart open to receive love.” How she could she mean this when her boyfriend regularly beat her, so he was told. But she was sincere because she was filled with nothing but joy and love. Mamãe, he reflected, you were right again. Hate is boundless prison.
The morning day Patricio bestowed Lucas his nickname. “Brother, only a jaguar could scale a wall twice its height, sure-footedly navigate the thinnest of tree limbs and then gallop fast as the gale winds. Now that you have added fangs to your spotted face, I am convinced you are a black jaguar.”
Lucas was so offended he charged his brother, who quickly grabbed his strong arms and wrapped him tightly against his own body. “Lucas,” he said, “hold still. I am not teasing you; I am giving you a supreme compliment. We are all born with blessings and curses. The question is how we deal with them. For example, a spotted jaguar is the most powerful cat in the Amazon, but a black jaguar is also very rare. Is this animal blessed or cursed? I choose to believe it is a distinguished breed just like you.”
As Lucas daydreamed about one of his favorite moments, he smiled when he remembered his brother then said, “Think about this, little brother. All true champions are remembered by a single name. When the name Pelé is spoken anywhere in the world it is spoken reverently. Someday soon, this will also be true of your new nickname, Pantera.” From then on, Lucas proudly used his moniker. Later, his mother explained to him that the species Pantera Onça symbolizes passion, self-confidence, independence, tenacity, awareness, and empowerment. Mamãe, he thought, you were right again. This is what I am and what I am intended to be.
The bus ascended up Avenida Niemeyer’s winding ways into the Vidigal hills, approaching a scheduled stop across the street from the Sheraton Rio. Lucas hopped off because the entrance to Favela Chácara do Céu was just up the hill. A few paparazzi were staked out in the hotel parking lot, signaling that a celebrity was staying there for Carnival. Given my last week, he thought, a pantera like me should live like the beautiful people, if only for today. Brimming with confidence and his newfound cash, Lucas ventured down the circular driveway to the lobby doors, only to be promptly stopped by a razor-thin, massively hook-nosed, mono-browed bellman. “Are you a guest of the hotel, sir?” the man snipped in an odd, nasal Portuguese, clearly not the local carioca dialect used in Rio.
“Don’t I look like one, senhor?” he deadpanned in a mock nasal tone.
“Then what is your name?” The bellman asked with growing irritation.
“Pantera,” Lucas proudly replied. “But enough chatter. I’m going inside for some lunch. Will you let me by, please?”
“You know already know the answer.” He folded his scrawny arms, clearly swimming within his oversized uniform. Torso for torso, Lucas would have truly filled out this uniform more fully except for the fact that the man had eight-inch longer legs.
Lucas peeked around him, eyeing the plush, gold-lit marble lobby inside. Ironically, his mother never brought him to her place of work. Maybe it was a hotel policy, or maybe because Ana had been on sick leave more than not. Lucas pulled out his newly acquired wallet, flipped it open and flashed the cash. “Are you saying my money isn’t good here?”
The bellman edged closer and glared down at him. “That might buy you a fancy lunch, my little friend. Maybe even a few trinkets from the gift shop, but nothing more,” he grunted.
“How silly of me. I know what you want,” Lucas replied. “Tips.” He held out 10 reais. “And in return, I want to take a nice relaxing swim after I eat my lunch by the poolside. A tip for your favor, meu bom homem.”
“You would be correct,” the mono-brow replied as he snatched the bill like a vulture snaps up road kill. “Money makes my world go around. But even if you offered me ten gold coins, I would never let you in because I would surely lose my job. Still, I am curious how a punk like you is old enough to qualify for an American driver’s license. So what’s your real name, wise guy?” Mono-brow edged closer.
Lucas slowly backed up. “Like I said, Pantera…but who says I wanted to spend my time in a shit hole like this anyway?” Mono-brow grabbed for the wallet, but Lucas quickly reared back and sprinted up the driveway, his keen grey-green eyes darting everywhere for nearby police.
“Don’t let me see your face around here again, gutter trash.” Mono-brow bellowed.
Lucas flipped him the middle finger salute and continued running until he crossed Avenida Niemeyer and entered the safe zone—the narrow mountain path that leads up to his favela. Idiota, he silently cursed. Here I am supposed to be the robber, and I almost got robbed.
Few roads, if any, lead into a favela. Tragically for its residents, no roads ever seem to lead out of one. Chácara do Céu is no exception. Makeshift shacks, fabricated out of scrap plywood, stones and concrete, sheets of plastic and tin roofs, were built as far back as the 1940’s by hundreds of thousands of squatters who migrated from the country to Rio in search of jobs. The lucky ones found work but in the late 1950’s the Brazilian government relocated its capital to Brasilia, moving with it all government and related service jobs. The squatters that stayed behind never found employment and thus never escaped the slums.
Every shantytown was built with a total disregard to urban planning. There are no numbered streets that run through a favela, no sewers, few telephones, and only pirated electricity. Only the most luxurious shacks have kitchens, which may include a small refrigerator, propane stove, and a rubber hose that sprinkles cold water into a sink that drains into a tin bucket below. There are no hospitals, police or fire stations in a favela. The desolate must fend for each other, yet they do so with joy because they never forget how to celebrate life.
Locals can grab exceptional cuisine and enjoy a beer in some ersatz pubs, such as “Rodrigo’s.” Lucas treated himself to one of his favorite meals—a bowl of eijoada, a thick black bean stew with chunks of beef and pork. Seated at rusty metal picnic table underneath a torn green striped canvas awning, Although a nearby boom box blasted samba music, Lucas lowered his head and prayed, “Bless us, O Lord, and these, Thy gifts, which we are about to receive from Thy bounty. Through Christ, our Lord. Amen.” After crossing himself, he reverently ate in solitude.
His mother, Ana Rocha, made her family recite these words before every dinner. She was a devoted Catholic who dragged her children to Our Lady of Peace as many Sundays as she could with the hopes that the church and Padre Andréa’s sermons would rub off on them.
Had she not been a regular attendee, Padre Andréa probably wouldn’t have visited their one room home to administer last rites as she finally succumbed to Aids. Lucas swallowed hard, remembering that moment. Aids, he thought, is the only lingering memory I will keep of my drunken father—this toxic gift that he gave to my mother. Yet Lucas’ once vibrant mother, now a lesion-riddled shell of herself, had still radiated joy as the wise old owl of a priest called upon God to receive her soul. How could you have been blissful at the very end, Mamãe? He thought. And how could you forgive that devil of a boyfriend? How do I learn from this?
Before leaving, Padre Andréa emphatically prayed for the Rocha children. “O Heavenly Father, I commend these children unto Thee. Be Thou their God and Father.” Having done all that he could, he said, “Remember this. Some day you and I will all be in a better place—a place with God.” Padre Andréa then moved on to do the will of God elsewhere in the city.
Ana drew her children around her. In her final breaths she had tenderly delivered parting thoughts to each of her children, starting with her oldest son. “Patricio, when you were born, I chose your name because it means ‘noble.’ Did you know this? Did you also know that our family name, Rocha, means ‘rock or unwavering?’ Very soon you will be the head of the family. I ask that you be unwavering as you do noble things. I love you, son.”
Patricio would have his first chance to honor her wishes only a few hours later when she died. He cloaked her in his black poncho. He handed the only two dented aluminum-cooking pots they owned to his sisters. “Bring these with you,” he instructed. “Minha família, help me take our mamãe as close to heaven as possible.” Lucas helped Patricio carry his mother to the very top of Favela Chácara do Céu, the “outskirts of heaven,” which accessed a winding road that ultimately led them to Two Brothers Park.
Lucas would never forget that night when he first contemplated the panoramic vista of glittering Rio below. A full moon lit a distant Cristo Redentor on top of Corcovado Mountain. “Jesus,” Patricio called out, “we have delivered mamãe as high as we can. Please take her from here.” Behind a small wooden concert stage stood a single eucalyptus tree. Both boys dug a shallow grave using the cooking pots. Once their mother was buried, Patricio pried a wedge of basalt slate from the walkway. He pulled a switchblade from his pocket and inscribed “ANA” into it. Satisfied, he pressed the wedge into the dirt. “Ana Rocha, you were our rock,” he cried.
On their way back down the mountain, noble Patricio instructed his siblings to act as if nothing had happened. “If anyone asks, tell them that mamãe went away for a while.”
Lucas couldn’t finish his lunch at Rodrigo’s. His memories only compounded the realities of his life, which created an aching pit in his stomach. He threw the remaining scraps to some stray cats that were lingering about in hopes of a treat besides the usual mice. He plopped down a healthy tip and continued hiking further up the zigzag paths through the slums, observing many homeless children who were less fortunate than he. Children without parents usually find themselves homeless, because ownership of shanties is largely determined through squatter’s rights and a survival of the fittest. Street kids sleep in city parks and alleys. Oh Patricio, he thought, how wise you were to protect our home. How wise you were.
Patricio had continued to honor his mother’s wishes by doing many virtuous things. He told his brother stay near home to raise his sisters and keep an eye on their home. Before leaving, Patricio flipped open his switchblade and told his brother, “If anyone gives you or your sisters any trouble, they will have to deal with me.” Nothing ever happened. Lucas played with his sisters near their shack until the neighbors accepted the new order of things. Patricio also shielded his family from gang activities such as gunfights, drugs and child prostitution. Lucas paused from his walk to light a cigarette, rationalizing that smoking, at least, was his only addiction. I guess I owe this to you as well, my brother, he mused.
Stealing was another matter. Thou Shalt Not Steal may be one of the Ten Commandments, but a street kid is forced to beg, borrow or steal in order to survive. Patricio once justified stealing when he told Lucas the story of Robin Hood. “Lucas,” he said, “that man stole from the wealthy and gave to the needy. He was a hero. Well, maybe Patricio Rocha can be a hero as well. After all, who could be poorer than us? I need to go out and be a hero.”
Patricio worked the Leblon/Ipanema strip by pickpocketing or purse snatching. Occasionally he’d threaten a wealthy tourist with his switchblade to guarantee results, although he promised his brother that he would only put it to use in defending their home. Patricio made folly of the juvenile justice system, stating that it was a nothing more than revolving door. He was arrested only once, which resulted in one day’s detention and complimentary prison chow.
Meanwhile, Lucas would take his sisters near the Sheraton Hotel entrance to beg. He turned panhandling into a game. Whichever sister received more handouts that day would be recompensed with a piece of brigadeiro candy when they arrived home. Fernanda was an adventurous actress who concocted amazing stories to solicit money. Her eyes grew as wild as her unkempt sun-bleached russet hair when she told her tales to sympathetic tourists. Just like mamãe foretold, her daughter Fernanda’s name had the meaning, “To be brave and bold,” which described her precisely. And Inez, who carefully pulled her tight-curled hair into a ponytail, would pleasantly ask people for money just so she could eat. Her name meant, “To be gentle and pure,” which described her perfectly as well. Paradoxically, each girl’s approach to begging was equally effective.
At night, the Rocha kids would stay at home and watch a small TV that their mother had “borrowed” from the hotel years ago. The one power cord that fed their shack also borrowed power from a shack next door, which in turn was bootlegging power from further down the hill. Life was good. Why Patricio, why wasn’t it good enough for you?
Patricio had decided that it was more lucrative to rob prominent shops along the strip. He’d brazenly march into a store at closing time and flash his switchblade at the store owner, saying, “The Bible says that it is better to give than to receive, does it not? So give me your money—now!” And with several store heists, he was proving that crime does pay. His family ate better cuisine. He bought them firsthand clothes. He even saved some money. Patricio had dreams that someday they would escape the favela and even live in a normal home. “After all,” Lucas recalled Patricio saying, “What can the police do, little brother?”
But in the struggle to survive on the street, the street ultimately wins. What Patricio hadn’t anticipated was that shop owners would eventually retaliate by hiring Esquadrão da Morte, a death squad of mostly off-duty police, to solve their problem. One night, under a moonless sky, a faceless militia of three men wearing masks quietly entered their shack. They dragged a kicking and screaming Patricio outside and began savagely beating him. Lucas bravely tried to pull them away. He tore the mask off the smallest officer, a pit bull of a man, who reeled around and smashed the butt of his M-16 rifle into Lucas’ left arm and then kicked him back into the shed. He and his sisters watched helplessly as the same man raised his weapon and fired a single shot into Patricio’s head. The three paramilitaries quickly retreated, but Lucas ran after them, screaming, “You’ll pay for this!”
The pit bull assassin spun around and pushed a grimy finger in Lucas’ forehead, thundering, “Você está próximo!” Even in darkness, Lucas was close enough to never forget the man’s pot-holed face or the crimson red serpent that was tattooed on his neck. His guttural words, “You’re next,” continued to echo each night in Lucas’ nightmares.
Lucas finally arrived at his intended destination—Two Brothers Park. Behind the stage, under one single eucalyptus tree, were two large mounds. One mound, lush with natural grass and vines, had a wedge of slate marked “ANA.” The other mound was fresh dirt with a slate newly inscribed, “PATRICIO.” The dank night air was laced with an acrid odor of something burning, although he couldn’t place it. All he knew was that the smell was appropriate.
Lucas “Pantera” Rocha carefully plucked two orchids off a nearby bush. He laid one on his mother’s gravestone. “Mamãe, I asked around to find out what your name means. You must have known this although you never told us. Ana stands for ‘grace’, which is what you always shed upon us.”
Lucas placed a second orchid on his brother’s stone. His eyes moistened as he stuttered, “Life happens…bullshit! Tell me Patricio, what do I do now? How do I care for my sisters all by myself? How can I survive?” He nervously scratched his rash, and carefully removed his splint and examined his muscular, festering arm. Standing above “the outskirts of heaven,” he surveyed the paradise lost below him. Lucas turned to face Corcovado Mountain far on the horizon and squinted through watering eyes to regard Cristo Redentor. “Mamãe told me that my Christian name, ‘Lucas,’ means ‘enlightened one,’” He called out somberly. “Do you always make it this painful to become enlightened? What kind of God are you anyway?”
Christ the Redeemer didn’t reply.
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