Stories From Val's Family: Memories
Stories From Val's Family: Memories
Tonight we are sitting on Val's floor lost in conversation like we have been so many times since 2005. The differences are subtle and yet profound. In the beginning Val and I had neither portuguese nor english between us. We used my very basic grasp on her language and our inexplicable affinity for one another, which I believe allowed us to communicate with very few words. 5 years later and we can speak easily in portuguese, which by now I have a firm handle on. To add to our communicative possibilities Val is slowly and determinedly learning english. I believe it is much more difficult to learn a language without immersion and Val shocks me with sudden phrases she exclaims in a sweet, lilting tone. My favorite is, "I love you every day of my life!".
My legs are tangled in Val's lap and I absentmindedly hold a doll Val sewed and named Joanna. Since my return to Rio in April, Val and I have been joking that Joanna has replaced me since I left in 2007 and I feign an uncontrollable jealousy of this cloth creature. Tonight, however, we have a truce and I hold Joanna in my lap.
Val's daughter Jessica, who is now 20 and Jessica's boyfriend of two years, Wender, are with us. In the time I have known Jessica she has wanted very badly to have a partner that will respect her and be faithful to her. She has not had a tremendous amount of faith in the fidelity practices of brazilian men, though I have heard the same thing said about brazilian women. Jessica's distrust is amplified by her mother's distrust, built up from a series of heartbreaks when she was younger. It is also accentuated by Jessica's older sister's four fatherless children.
Jessica, however, is wildly in love with Wender and from what I can see in this young couple, he returns the sentiment. He is intelligent and gentle, qualities he and Jessica share. He also loves Val in the way a child loves his mother and since Wender lost his mother at age 6, this love makes sense to me.
Wender grew up and continues to live in a different favela than the one Val and Jessica reside in. Though Val has taught me a lot about the favela system through her knowledge as well as the sharing of her own experience, tonight I hear stories I've never heard before. I am unprepared for some of this new information. I make the naive assumption I have heard the most difficult stories of Val's life, since we have already shared so much with each other.
The story telling circle commences when Val comments on the current stability, albeit relative, of Cidade de Deus, a favela in Rio made famous by the movie City of God, directed by Fernando Meirelles and released in 2002. The movie recounts a specific massacre in the favela's past and exemplifies some of the most terrifying aspects of the favela infrastructure.
"When I was little", Val remembers, "my aunt and uncle lived in Cidade de Deus and my mom would leave me there sometimes on the weekends to visit them and my cousins. At the time there was a war going on between the faction in control of Cidade de Deus and a rival faction that wanted control over Cidade de Deus. Often when I was walking down the road I would see blood smeared on the outsides of the houses and decapitated heads on sticks. I was only ten and it scared the hell out of me. Everyone just looked the other way. This was the way factions demonstrated who was winning. By explicitly displaying the bodies of their enemies."
Val recounts this story with sadness, shaking her head. Jessica is unmoved as she has heard stories similar to this before. Wender, who I notice listens for a long time before speaking, seems motivated by Val's story telling. He leans forward on the bench where he sits in the corner and nods in echo to Val's words.
"I remember when I was ten", he begins, "there was a similar war going on in my community. A dispute between two factions and a battle to get control over my favela." Wender pulls Jessica over from her spot on the floor until she is sitting in between his knees. He places his hands on her shoulders and she closes her eyes as he continues.
"I was walking to school one day and on the way to school I had to pass the soccor field by my house. I noticed some guys playing so I stopped to watch for a second. They were kicking around a lot of balls and making a ton of noise about it. As I got close I realized it was a group of traffickers from the faction that controlled my favela. The balls they were kicking were human heads. The heads of the men they killed in the rival faction. I walked faster to get myself to school as quickly as possible, but that image is burned into my memory."
We sit in silence for a moment, the four of us. Val looks at me and frowns.
"It's really surreal that human beings are capable of this kind of violence. I live in it and I still don't believe it is possible."
A week before I leave I go to a world cup party near Val's house. The whole family is there as well as a hundred hand held horns and a blurr of hips shaking in yellow and green skirts.
Wender corners me on a staircase slightly removed from the chaos and abruptly tells me,
"Do you know that I was never tempted to enter into drug trafficking Jocelyn? I had all the opportunities in the world to join, but I was never tempted. Not once. It only felt like a degradation of my humanity."
I stare at him wide eyed, moved by his articulateness as well as his urgency to let me know this particular thought. I flash on a memory of Val talking about her oldest son. Contrary to Wender, he became a drug trafficker and although he eventually got out he suffered a lot of trauma as a result. Val thinks that he has never been the same. She told me once that she believes the reason he entered was the reason many young brazilian men enter the traffick. Because they don't have the conditions to buy the things they want. Brand name shoes, shirts, a bicycle. Things that in the daily struggle of poverty seem like gold. "In a world where drug trafficking and violence is normalized", she told me, "it is very persuasive for these young boys. The opportunity to have all the money they need. To have a sense of power and control. I don't fault my son for being tempted to join. I wish he hadn't, but more than that I wish I'd had the conditions to give him a better life."
Val and her entire family continue to share their lives, their stories and their knowledge with me regarding the complicated web of drug trafficking, police practices and the politics of favela communities in Rio. They have all given me permission to share the things they have said and they themselves work on their own writing to share via Pulse Wire.