My story of overcoming poverty in Brazil. Not a sad one, though
Posted by Mauricio Savarese
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.