My story of overcoming poverty in Brazil. Not a sad one, though

Tonight I am flying back to Sao Paulo after finishing my postgraduate in the UK. Not that anyone else should care, but I am thrilled. It was a year in which I met so many great people abroad. Now I am able to go back home to become a (sort of) businessman-reporter. The reason I write this, though, is not to boast myself. It is to explain a bit of what to be middle class in Brazil is — a very different perception from anywhere else. I am not the kind of blogger who likes to talk about his private life, but since my roots have lots in common with many Brazilians who overcame dire social and economic issues in the last 15 years, I think it would be nice to tell it in English so internationals can have a better grasp of what this new Brazil is about. The moment seems to be ideal.

I grew up in a poor region of São Paulo, where the main distractions were pubs and playing football on the streets. There was violence, but nothing close to what international media talks about. I have always liked sports, but I also enjoyed reading. It was cheap and worthy. One of my uncles, a journalist, stimulated me into it. I had many friends because of sports. But I had none to discuss what I had read. There wasn’t any money for videogames, trips or restaurants. So different from today. Access to cheaper technology and higher salaries have allowed this booming middle class to spend a lot, like never before. They even spend on books nowadays. But the gap between those who come from a well-educated background and the new middle class is still gigantic.

Most of my colleagues at the state schools either worked to get some extra cash or gave up on everything. Not something you find nowadays. It was difficult to keep the enthusiasm about school then. Who would, after spending months without a Physics teacher? Weeks without a Geography teacher? That happened many times during the eight years of my elementary education. It was the same in high school. Now the main issue is quality, not only of the school equipment, but also of the teachers. Brazilians go to school now. Still, pretty much as it was then, state school students know for a fact that very few of them are going to the best universities. Those are dominated by students of private education. Many of those come from the meanest elite in the Americas.

To do better than the average I had to come up with an alternative.

So I decided to study English and teach it. My uncle paid for it and I studied very hard for eight years. In high school I was the only one out of 50 pupils who could speak English. Not much has changed so far. About 10 million out of the 200 million Brazilians speak English at some level. Probably even less speak Spanish. It is about to change, because the Brazilian middle class curious about traveling abroad. They can do it now. But there is still lots to improve.

When I was little only two types of Brazilians traveled abroad. Either the elite or immigrants who still today think Brazil is as bad as it was 15 years ago. Both talk Brazil down as if it were the worst place on Earth. International media gets a lot from our elite. Until recently it was unlikely any international visitor would have a meaningful conversation with someone like me. They could hear from multinational executives and those who preferred to be cleaner abroad to going back to do anything else. Now the pattern is changing. Brazilians like me can actually study in global institutions — sometimes, just like me, without any scholarships.

That dialog on Brazil needs resetting.

Teaching English allowed me to pay for college education back home. I owe it all to my mother’s idea. About 20 years ago she was a maid and basically paid all the expenses at home. There was no money for unnecessary items. She taught me how to read when I was very little because she believed in the power of education. She has never been to college. There wasn’t any university near where she lived in the sixties, in the heartland of Brazil (now there are three).

If there was, she would probably be just like my friends in high school: too worried about money to even try. But most these parents want their children to get a degree. And many of those come from this new middle class.

Although journalism doesn’t give too much money to anyone, I could make a good living out of it. I worked with people from a very different background in the beginning, but more and more I find people I share a lot of common ground with. Perhaps it is this clash between the old Brazil and this middle-class-driven one that started the protests in June and makes the country so difficult to understand. I hope I can work as a bridge between Brazil and the rest of the world. I also hope I can work as a bridge between the Brazil of disappointment and the Brazil of high expectations.

The most difficult part of the journey seems to be finished.

Terminal 5, Heathrow airport. Time to cross the bridge. I will be operating in this area from a little farther now.

About Mauricio Savarese

I am a Brazilian journalist who got tired of reporting only in Portuguese. Politics and football, these are my turfs. Twitter: @msavarese. Email: savarese.mauricio@gmail.com

Posted on 08/08/2013, in Politics, Social and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. Mauricio, interesting post and goal. I think there is a lot of scope for good writers and observers like yourself to help non-brazilians like me understand the dynamic changes Brazil has undergone without losing sight of the historical context. As you say and many other experts say “Brazil is not for beginners”. I fell into the trap of generalising Brazil and over simplifying many aspects. Keep up the insights!

  2. Excellent post as always. As a long-term expatriate, I confess I started to lose touch with Brazil in the past few years, in spite of watching and reading Brazilian news daily – you only get the true reality talking to people with different perspectives and experiences. It was great meeting you in London and seeing the perspective of someone with a very similar background, but who actually saw this whole change through (I left shortly after Lula’s first won election). Do keep on going. There’s still a lot to happen – a lot to report on.

    • Mauricio Savarese

      Thank YOU for all the kindness and help. I hope I can repay your great dinners in Sao Paulo next year.🙂 All the best, dear.

  3. I notice there are so many English schools, at least in Sao Paulo, but not that many people speak English. I was shocked to see schools like Wizard or Fisk sponsoring soccer clubs. But it’s indicative of what they’re about — turning a profit instead of actually teaching the language. A larger middle class may mean more people learning English, but I think there needs to be greater change in the institutions that teach it.

  4. Nice post Mauricio and congratulations for everything you’ve achieved. My wife is not from a too dissimilar background so I can understand your story. Good luck with everything and I hope to meet you in Sampa sometime!

  5. Rob Pernambuco

    Your story reminds me of a Brazilian friend of mine. In 2003 I was living in north east Brazil and my friend used to go to the local bar but could only afford to stand outside with a few friends. My friend taught himself English and used to ask me why do all my dreams end in money? I told him to give it time, when I was young to fly to New York was beyond the means of most whilst today travel like that is open to the masses. He became an English teacher, got a teachers license, and today in 2013 is teaching Portuguese in Bogota. But I wonder how much has really changed… Compare Brazil in 2013 to 2003, or 2003 to 1993, or 1993 to 1983. I’m sure each decade and generation can tell you how much richer it has become, but why are the majority in large cities still living in favelas?

    In 2003 I was struck by the outrage of middle class Brazilians for the “war.” Marches and demonstrations followed. Conversations were dominated by your views on the war. I was younger and couldn’t help think why are they not demonstrating about the majority of Brazilians living in abject poverty.

    Thanks for your interesting story and website.

  6. Mayte Alvarenga

    Hi Mauricio. First, I want to congratulate you on finishing up your postgraduate degree in the UK. It makes me very happy to hear that more people are now able to leave Brazil and pursue an education outside of the county.

    As a Brazilian who has lived outside of Brazil for 15 years, your post really touched on something I had never noticed before: I’m surrounded by Brazilians who usually have nothing pleasant to say about their home country. My parents left during the ’98 financial crisis and I grew up hearing that returning to Brazil was a bad idea.

    I feel like a grew up with a generation of Brazilians who are afraid of their homeland. My friends and I grew up hearing about how violent the country is, how bad the education and health care systems are. Some of us were sent to stay with family during the summers and everyone came back with the idea that Brazil was no place to live.

    Before the age of 22, I was afraid to visit Brazil. I finally had the opportunity to stay a week in Rio (by myself, which certainly scared my family) and saw a different picture than the one painted my parents. I’ve lived in the US since the age of nine and have been considering moving back, to work as a journalist.

    I’m glad I found your blog. It’s refreshing to see a different outlook on Brazil.
    Keep up the good work!

  7. I know you said you don’t like talking about your personal life, but thank you for sharing, you seem to be a fighter and it’s warms my heart to know that you are achieving your goals.
    I have lived overseas for 9 years now, and it saddens me that the general consensus within the Brazilians is that the grass is definitely greener elsewhere, whatever other country we are talking about. I also have a more optimistic view of the country and share some of your views. I am not Poliana but it is good to look at the positives and be proud of them.
    I have met so many foreigners that love Brazil and a few more that successfully moved from their ‘first world’ to our poor country.

  8. Very interesting and illuminating.

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