Flashmobs at malls beg the question: what is the role of the Brazilian elite?

Newly acclaimed “rolezinhos” are gatherings of hundreds of aspiring middle class teenagers at São Paulo malls. It is a very paulistano non-political phenomenon, not a national one. There have been similar events abroad, namely in the US, but not with the same level of shock seen here. These youngsters are basically keen on consumerism, running around, being loud and listening to bad music. They are not criminals. They are just pretty stupid.

But who wasn’t at the age of 17?

Rolezinhos are so shallow that they would lose steam overtime. A simple dialogue between their leaders and shop owners could bring an understanding as to how they could be hosted and profited from. Our elitists, though, preferred to make them international news. They insisted the police should crack down on those kids who use malls as the public areas they don’t have near their aspiring middle class homes. Kids who work as builders, bakers and the like. 

The excuse that store owners have given was that other clients wanted to spend their money in peace. Some businessmen went to court just to stop rolezinho-prone minors from getting in the malls. Others decided to shut down the whole building whenever one of those was scheduled via Facebook. Since plagiarism is a great Brazilian expertise, political groups kidnapped the rolezinho spirit to make their point on how this country is racist, elitist and so on.

That is a point the teens never intended to make.

If you haven’t heard about rolezinhos, this post adds it all very well. The point I am making is a different one. It has to do with the huge disconnect between our small elite and the vast majority of our population. That will surely outlast rolezinhos, which are getting smaller because of the reaction and the attempt to twist what they meant. By the way, they are no risk to the World Cup — except if the police is too harsh and teens decide to march over Brazil.

That disconnect is a big reason for the Brazilian upper class to be so cruel. They behave as if our social issues had nothing to do with them and would surely go away if they closed their car windows fast enough. That is a big reason for Brazil to be so difficult to grasp from abroad, since our tiny elite still has a monopoly on the discourse of what is country is about. It wasn’t until recently that working class people could express a different Brazilian perspective.


You don’t need to take my word for it. Just take a look at those Human Development Index (HDI) graphics. The elite had Brazil all for itself in the mostly red map. Until 1991 the best social policies we had were from the thirties: minimum wage, pensions and right to vacations. The colorful one shows what happened when the elite had to share the country with more people. It is a merit of three presidents. There is more on this here.

Bashing the Brazilian elite is not an exclusive sport, I should say. It isn’t only for leftists and foreigners fed up with people they meet at fancy neighborhoods like Jardins or Leblon. San-Tiago Dantas was Brazil’s Foreign Minister in the early sixties. He is a big reference for our diplomacy, one of the the main fields for our elitists to use their prejudices in a more euphemistic fashion. This was his take: “India has a great elite and a shitty people. Brazil has a great people and a shitty elite.” Not very diplomatic, one might say. But in Brazil’s case it seems true.

Rolezinhos have become one of the clearest signs of how clueless our elite is about the country they have run for the last centuries. When dealing with potential consumers, they decide to shy them away. When they are before a chance of building a new community, they choose to stick with a tiny part of it. Whenever they can embrace change, they just carry on as before. The elitist reactions to the flashmobs in the local malls is just what they do overall.

Take São Paulo as an example. It was built in a very exclusive fashion: all jobs, infrastructure and services are downtown and the suburbs have nothing. The biggest impoverished area is the east zone, where a population as big as Portugal’s lives (if you count the small cities around it). It is also the place our elite never goes to. “I’ve been there once,” a CEO once told me and other journalists. How about setting up a business there? “Too difficult,” he said.

He didn’t even feel he should justify.

Of course there are Brazilians netting profits with these new consumers, but they are not enough to put any of our retailers among the 250 biggest in the world. If you leave airspace out, most of the Brazilian industries are getting obsolete and there is still little investment in training people like those flashmobbing at malls. Our elite cries their heart out about bad governance and high taxes, but cannot suggest an inclusive model to Brazil. Just cutting spending won’t do the trick. 

Rolezinhos started in the east zone of São Paulo as meet-ups between kids who were popular on Facebook and their fans. They have done it for ages. Their region has the most crowded subway on Earth: in 2011, the average of passengers on week days was of 1.1 million a day — that means eight people by square meter. That many people going downtown everyday is a traffic problem for everyone who doesn’t own a helicopter. Despite tax breaks given by City Hall, very few companies move there. So why not flashmob local?

Our elite has government incentives, enough roads and loads of room in the east zone so it can help develop it. Brazil’s biggest airport is not very far. Still, they’d rather build a completely new structure somewhere else so that they can come by air or in their luxury cars. That is Barueri. That is Paragominas, a city giant miner Vale fostered in the poor state of Pará. The result is that politicians are pressured to not invest too much where our elite won’t see, specially mayors. 

A large chunk of that elite that hates rolezinhos also hates affirmative action, social policies that help people who were forgotten for decades and, bizarrelly, they hate a bigger and brighter consumer market. This is well represented by a 70-year-old engineer in a letter to Folha de S.Paulo. He believes everything he achieved could be achieved by those kids taking the busiest subway on Earth, having bad education at state schools and who aim no more than buying fancy sneakers.

An elitist view of São Paulo. It never reaches the east end.

“I studied to be in the elite, I had no time for rolezinhos,” he said. “When I got to college, that elite would stand out for their knowledge, and never by the color of their skin or social origin. It was a meritocracy, and that is a bad word under the current administration.” By the way, that man says he has always lived in Itaim Bibi, one of the fanciest regions of São Paulo. That is the typical rap for Brazilian elitists: it was better when less people had a chance.

Now everyone at least has a share.

Brazil started improving economically 20 years ago, when the Real Plan made a big impact in controlling inflation — the biggest tax there is on the poor. Later on social policies gave the country a buoyant internal market not only in places like São Paulo. People in the poor Northeast had their break into the limelight. São Paulo’s east zone is full of Northeastern migrants who, despite their rise, are still looked down on by our elitists. Perhaps it is because many of them are blacks. Perhaps it is because they are poorly educated.

Another evident sign of how elitists are out of touch with Brazil show in the recently set program to bring more doctors to isolated communities. There is surely a debate on how efficient medics can be by going somewhere without all equipment they would need to perform well. But the discussion prompted by our elite was much shallower: we shouldn’t pay foreigners for that. When the program was open to nationals, our doctors tried to sabotage the system so it didn’t work. Some bullied Cuban doctors because they don’t speak Portuguese.

These very doctors go to the best state universities, sponsored by taxpayer’s money, and rarely care to pay back: they basically choose to open their own offices, work for the same elite they come from and leave the jobs at bad state hospitals for beginners. A very elitist lady I met year ago joined Doctors Without Borders in Africa without ever setting a foot in São Paulo’s outskirts. Again, she and many other elitists behave as if our social issues had nothing to do with them. Our elite chooses not to be a part of Brazil.

I don’t understand why our elite chose to be so mean spirited. Perhaps that is because I was never a part of it.  But that disregard they have for poor Brazilians is so blatantly obvious even those who don’t stay in the country for very long can notice it. It doesn’t make any sense economically or socially for the country to achieve more. Since Brazil won’t go back to the days of the red HDI map, it is fair to wonder about the future as a whole in a place where the elite hasn’t updated their perceptions.

The most vocal elitists won’t allow the aspiring class into their malls, they won’t open invest heavily in stigmatized areas and they won’t treat them in hospitals. They won’t support affirmative policies to heal part of the wounds slavery has still left, they won’t find any merit in those coming from bad state schools (like me). They won’t embrace anyone different even if they get richer by selling Abercrombie, flat screen TVs or new music players for teens to listen to their crappy music. So what is the role of the Brazilian elite?

Maybe it is time Brazil starts importing someone else’s.

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 22/01/2014, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. A great read, Mauricio,

    I have been wondering what effect the reaction to these ‘rolezinhos’ is going to have on the young people involved. Is it going to alienate them even further than they already seem to be? Will the fact that they have been treated so badly for just messing around politcise them in the future? Or will it just show them that it is business as usual?

  2. Daniel CMS

    I guess an elite is an elite in any part of the world. In general, I don’t feel any elite does really care about the people. Some countries will have more philantropy embedded in their culture, and the reason for that is disputable.

    When I say that I exclude the outliers in the world: nordic countries on the side of very socially equal, some African and Asian countries on the other side of huge inequallity. I think of UK, Spain, France, Germany, US, Argentina, Chile. Do the elite in these countries really care about the people? How many Brits or Germans are also in Africa working for Doctors Without Borders when they could be working in Northern England or Northern or Eastern Germany?

    I guess what differ one country who apparently care more about the people from Brazilians are the institutions. And the strong hand and drive of the government towards their people. But, as I write here I remember my motto: the government and politicians are a mere reflection of the society. If you agree with this motto, you’ll also agree that it’s not the elite alone who elects the government (anymore).

    So, in the end I do really think that while our elite is probably more selfish than others, there’s a widespread lack of care in the country for the other fellow Brazilian citizen. I see this on a daily basis on buses, tube, streets, restaurants. In the end, I feel Brazilians are selfish or have selfish attitudes in general, maybe because we do not see the consequences of our selfish attitudes (education?), maybe because there are a few opportunities for many and competition is agressive.

    Just my 2 cents 🙂

  3. Good article, many good references. Thanks, Mauricio. If you allow me just one, minor correction: the “rolezinho” is not only a São Paulo phenomenon (although particularly well know in São Paulo, especially with the occurences as of late): I recently read a blog post from a Brazilian acedemic (now teaching in the US, or was it UK, I can’t remember) who years ago studied and wrote academic papers on “rolezinhos” in Porto Alegre.

    Again, thanks for he article.

    All the best,

  4. Very good article,

    A breeze of fresh in days when we see young middle upper class Brazilians appealing to foreigners to “save” them from the “chaos” that a government with social concerns is creating through a boycott to the world cup.

    I would like to suggest that the reaction to the rolezinhos is the tip of the iceberg of a growing “facistization” of the Brazilian middle class. We hear voices praising the military dictatorship, we see openly right-wing commentators such as Lobao gaining space in the mainstream media, quasi-paramilitary protesters voicing true hatred towards the left and the pathetic resurgence of an anti-soviet hysteria.

    About the comment that the elites are the same all over the world. Elites in Germany, in the UK and in the US generally have to prove themselves capable of maintaining their status. Also, as warped as they are, they have an ideology where they see themselves as necessary players for their societies to achieve well-being. The Brazilian elite sees itself as deserving its privileges, full stop.

  5. Leandro Henrique Portello

    Super stupid point of view for someone who doesn’t understand what it is about and don’t even know what happening in Sao Paulo.

  6. Interesante verles, Brazil. Solidaridad.
    Just put up a post about a removed elite as you call it, in this country they are high frequency trading and nearly all the recovery $ has gone to a top 1% in US.

    As for the rolezinho, I’ve noticed in Occupy that a “secondary backup location” is a really key tactical advantage. You want to have a place to go to and, so much of occupy is reclaiming public spaces. Especially better to have another spot as a mall is capitalist in nature. Maybe this will be useful, viva el che http://twitter.com/eddiemill

  7. João Torres

    So, a poll showed that about 80% of the citizens hates rolezinhos. Is the elite composed by 80% of the population?

  8. Marcos Serra

    Maurice disagree with you, cause the immense ,part of racism comes from blacks themselves .
    Worked with managers in an industry where I had the displeasure of hearing two employees of mulatto or mulatta claim they were nicknamed ” monkeys ” and that became the target of teasing .( “negrinha safada”.)
    ‘ve Been doing a check on who had done this abominable attitude, and to the surprise of all was a black who dubbed them ” monkeys ” , and made ​​no effort to apologize because it says that they had called her ” bitch Scaup .”
    A year later on another occasion had two Haitians and one of them called me to make the complaint , told me that a group of employees were racist jokes with them , ” gum Oz” ( ” Chiclete de onça “), ” rest of fire ” among others , thus asked the boy to show me who was again only this time 3 black guys . The story ended up in the direction of the company that requested an emergency meeting with me and the guys who insulted and it was amazing they even defended , one was fired two requested clearance, and 3 days later together filed a lawsuit against company claiming they were pressured , overwhelmed by being black and the board and I did approach a highly racist towards Haitians , who are black .
    Not the rolezinho, or not identifying blacks in senior positions in the country, which will characterize whether or not there is an apartheid.
    The Jew suffered immense discrimination, were targeted for more than 3000 years everywhere from jokes to pogroms, and yet knew through mutual collaboration and education overcome all kinds of barriers and to impose worldwide who were certainly much larger today who are of African descent in Brazil.

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