BLINK and you’ll miss much. The city centres of Brazil’s concrete jungles tend to be a little different from what you’re used to. Often places to be avoided rather than embraced, this isn’t high street, high value or high society.
Instead it’s high rise, and where much of the underbelly of Brazilian culture either survives or thrives behind a grey veil. Forget the stereotype of sun, sand, soccer and samba, this isn’t even the stereotypical projection of the nation’s sexual culture. Yes, there’s no shortage of seediness, but to the unfamiliar eye it’s more sad and shocking than seductive.
Downtown in the country’s third city of Belo Horizonte, and across from the main bus station, is a tired and weary shopping centre with a few rarely used rooms on the top floor. In one of them, the prostitutes, who are legal here, are given English classes by volunteers so they are better prepared for the World Cup.
All around you, hidden away up narrow staircases between overflowing shops, are the city’s 23 brothels, locally known as zona that are open from 6am to 10.30pm. Meanwhile, just up the street, buried at the back of an indoor car park, is Aprosmig.
The acronym stands for the association of prostitutes in the state of Minas Gerais, essentially a union that’s been running for three years, and it’s in their office that you now sit. In a way the physical surrounds sum up much. High on the wall are erotic pictures but underneath sit charts of the female body, notes about diseases, numbers for doctor’s surgeries and timetables for psychology sessions.
It’s a tearing, grating combination that doesn’t fit, but for the women coming in and out, these are merely the vagaries of life. Meanwhile behind such a sentiment are stories — sometimes harrowing, sometimes funny, but somehow all normal to those that have created them.
One of those is Cida who, at 55, now limits her work in the industry to Sundays and instead spends much of her time volunteering here so others can have a better and safer professional environment than she ever had.
“For sure they’ll get more money with the World Cup,” she says of the month ahead. “We have six games here so I think in the nightclubs they’ll be earning a lot. It’s normal for foreign guys to come and look for them, they always do that all year round, and now there’ll be more foreign guys. The girls just need to be careful with diseases and this kind of thing but they always are anyway. That’s their job, World Cup or not.”
Hers is just one of the many tales of this nation that reminds you of the real issues away from foreign opinion of hotel quality and the exact completion dates of billions worth of stadia. Cida became a prostitute at 27. Having gotten pregnant and seen the factory she worked in close, her friends turned their backs.
Eventually she found a job as a housekeeper but, with nowhere to leave the new-born, her employers said they’d adopt. When she said no, they insisted, and feeling she couldn’t keep both job and baby but couldn’t go hungry, there was one street left to walk down.
“I prostituted when my child was sleeping,” she sighs. “At first I worked on the street but I didn’t get much money. I spent two years there, getting one or two reais [less than a dollar]. On the streets though, there used to be lots of fights for position. One day it was cold so I went to work a different corner and this girl started shouting at me to get out.
“She was so angry, wanted to punch me, so it was dangerous but because of the girls, not the guys. That time I saw loads of girls running after me and I just ran into a pharmacy and the bouncer was telling me not to go out, they were still there. So I waited, but when I went out I saw a girl had hung around with a knife and she tried to stab me.
“I ran as much as I could and finally got away. That’s when I started going to the zona. It was safer but the fear at that time anywhere was Aids as there were no condoms. And it was really weird — you are lying there on a bed as rows of guys pass by and look in your door before deciding if they’ll take you or not.
“It was too much and I left, but I remembered my duty and I remembered that I had to bring food to my house, to pay for medicine for my children, so there was no choice. After that I spent my life in that hotel. I missed out on so many things.”
Her mother and aunt guessed as much and while she never told her three children, she suspects they worked it out too. Her brother is also aware but he discovered because he went to the zona she worked in as a customer and passed by her door. “He almost chose me; at first he didn’t see properly that it was me. We spent years not talking after that. Then one day I was at home and he came and said, ‘You are just something else,’ and he left it at that so there was no fight in the end.
“Maybe that was the worst experience but there have never been good parts. I’ve never enjoyed it. I was forced into it. Sometimes I spent a month in the zona without going home. There are women now that spend six months at a time. I was paying someone to take care of my children and I’d go just go home to bring food before going back to the hotel again. I didn’t see my children walking, growing teeth, starting school, but I had to stay not just for money but to keep the room because if I was absent I’d lose my place. It’s hard regretting what you had to do.”
Different strokes though. There are others that weren’t forced into this, instead they just chose it.
As she talks, Cida scurries around the office and through tasks with a gentle flightiness that defies so many dog-hard days. Meanwhile, every couple of minutes there are new arrivals, mostly coming to pick up unlimited boxes of condoms that their monthly $4.50 membership allows them to take.
Two of those that arrive are sisters and their first question shows the flecking contradiction of their profession. “He’s a journalist, is there a camera?” they urgently ask. You soothe their concern but consider that for a job based on forceful overconfidence and hefty chunks of courage, there’s an awkward shyness to many of these women when under white rather than neon light.
The sisters finally agree to talk, but initially answer in short and sharp jabs. One is 38-years old, the other three years younger. The latter has six children, each to a different father, none planned. They live in one of the poor neighbourhoods in the city. Neither had a dream to end up like this when growing up in the Venda Nova suburb on the outskirts of the less well-off northern part of town. Then again such a place never allowed any of the kids there to dream.
But over time they relax and some long and rangy replies tell of their true attitude. “We started by ourselves, nobody came to us and offered us,” they say. “We have to pay more than 130 reais [$60] per day for a room each but we are usually still making a lot of profit. Since I started I can eat what I want, buy the clothes I want. If I was working as a cleaner I’d barely be able to feed myself with any food. The hotel owner is the one that makes most though. Sometimes after his fee we have 30 or 40 reais [$15] left. So, many girls have their own place, loads rent an apartment so they make more money, but for us it’s too dangerous. So we prefer to pay the zona.”
Such a career choice based on greater income may seem like burning down the house to get the flies out of the kitchen. But while it’s easy to gaze below from on high, it can be hard to glimpse up from the bottom and see brightness.
“Look,” the younger insists, “Why feel bad? I never even felt shy at the beginning. I’m not there because I like it but it’s a profession. I’m not going to be grumpy and be treating people badly. If I’m there working, I’ll be there smiling. In any profession you need to be like that. And the sex is pleasurable. That’s honestly how I feel. If people look down on me I really don’t care, I don’t pay attention. And when people ask, I tell them I’m a prostitute, but they don’t believe.”
How many men have you slept with, you enquire? “I can’t even count,” she replies. “If I did, I’d get stressed so I don’t even bother. It’s best not to.”
Is that the worst part of it, you add, or have there been particularly bad experiences? “It’s the day you work hard and you don’t even pay the hotel fee. They are the bad experiences. You go home really upset, you’ve no money and all of what you’ve done all day was for nothing.”
Her sister interjects with a coy smile awkwardly pitched on her face. “Well for me, bad experiences, you get some weird people. One guy wanted to sit on my foot and did it so hard, he fractured it.”
They chuckle for a moment, but there’s always a serious side lurking behind any laughter here. For all the World Cup might briefly do for their income, it also reinforces their status.
“It’s just ridiculous what the government are doing,” the elder sister stresses. And whatever you make of anything else, there’s no arguing this. After all former president Lula previously said, “The event will have total transparency… You can hold us to it.”
Former sports minister Orlando Silva promised: “There won’t be one cent of public money used to build stadiums”. And former head of the Brazilian Football Confederation Ricardo Teixeira guaranteed, “Public money isn’t going to be used for the World Cup”.
Yet all these women struggle by in a country where taxpayers have footed most of a $15bn bill for a one-month circus. In the last year the government spent more on stadia than on basic sanitation yet:
- 15% of children under four live in areas where there is sewage running openly
- illiteracy averages 10%
- reports say that 13 million are underfed
- 42,785 are murdered per annum according to the last body count
-the transport system is buckling to the point Sao Paulo has broken the world record for a traffic jam at 192 miles
- there is even a shortage of 168,000 physicians
Perhaps faced with all that, it’s why to them their profession isn’t as unfortunate as it might be elsewhere. Thus a living here is something to be appreciated, no matter the job title.
The two sisters head back out onto the street where there are constant reminders of what could have been had they been born with a silver spoon in hand. On the sides of the rickety, overcrowded, tin-box public buses of Belo Horizonte are pictures of the city’s new administrative centre — a massive, modern, multi-million pound piece of architecture near the airport that houses the elite civil servants, although such a name is laughable. But back inside the grubby little office Aprosmig make do with, more that will never know such a world come and go.
One younger girl who arrives tells you “it’s rare but sometimes the men do rape,” before she suggests the real problem is in the three transsexual brothels where fights regularly break out. But there’s always that horrific chance you’ll draw a bad hand and Cida tells of a 62-year old she knew that was murdered last year.
“There was another stabbed to death too,” she recalls. “They found her in the bedroom, she was still alive, but was bleeding. She spent a week in hospital but didn’t make it. It was her boyfriend that did it in the zona. But really, violence isn’t common; it’s just that the girls end up with the wrong people, drug dealers and this kind of thing.”
But this life goes way beyond Belo Horizonte. With a total of 3.7 million tourists expected in the country for the World Cup, there have been many accounts of preparations across Brazil. In Fortaleza, a local prosecutor stated: “Foreign clients order underage prostitutes who are delivered directly by the hotels pimps”.
A massage house beside Congonhos airport is said to be offering a limousine service and hiring English and Spanish speakers to improve customer service. Meanwhile in Sao Paulo, local reports have quoted a dental student there who will earn $5,000 to give exclusive attention to a German businessman for two weeks.
Such stories lead to a thick and choking awkwardness in Aprosmig. Nobody here wants pity to the point they’re insulted by it. But it’s the natural reaction to all of this which leaves the place dripping with an unclaimed emotion. They don’t feel inferior yet you’re conditioned to think their work makes them that. But vice-chairwoman of Aprosmig, Laura Maria Do Spirito Santo, arrives and cuts through it all with an attitude that’s boisterous and a personality that’s bubbly.
As loud as she is warm, as energetic as funny, you muse that after a lifetime of this, what’s been gained in sharpened wit has been lost in a dulling of the soul. But she’ll have none of it.
For starters Laura insists you use her name because she has no shame to hide. Her life is her life and she’s done her best with it. “This is what I had to do but look at it now. I’ve a daughter who is studying to be a doctor in Portugal, she’s was studying before in UFMG [the highly-rated university in the city]. I don’t want to talk too much about her because I don’t want to put her in a situation, she’s a beautiful girl and so smart. Does she know? She’s not stupid, she passed through three universities and she can see on the internet and I’ve been on loads of TV programmes. How does she think her mother gets so much money?
“I go to Brasilia, all the other cities and I give speeches for politicians, for businesspeople. Most of them, you can see, they are good looking, rich and lonely. That’s why they look for us. There is a businessman who lives in a rich area here, he came to me one day and said he’d give everything he has just to be happy. This Canadian guy, he came here five times to me, gave me a necklace and diamonds. One Christmas he arrived on a Saturday, gave me a present and had to fly back a day later. So you are constantly in the middle of that and of your own life.”
It was her idea to form the union because prostitution was seen as a really bad profession and she wanted to help show a positive side. Since then they hold an annual Miss Prostitute pageant that she claims attracts celebrities and drew more of a crowd than the Miss Brazil equivalent.
“We want to say to people, we are prostitutes and want respect. We are humans too. There is still much prejudice though, especially from housewives because their husbands come to us all the time.”
It was her idea to start the English classes as well because with the World Cup approaching, she saw an idea to incorporate learning with greater profitability.
“It’s going to get much better during the World Cup. During the Libertadores [South America’s Champions League] there were many foreigners and even when we didn’t understand them they’d take paper and write down things. But the language gets you ahead. Loads of the girls travel a lot so they aren’t going to the classes. It’s their loss. The ones going are learning the basics — how to introduce themselves, conversation to break the ice and what the guys want. So we we are the ones who’ll profit from that. It’ll be great.”
You tell her that what she has done for her colleagues is admirable but it’s still difficult to understand how all of this can be described with the cold, blunt, matter-of-factness of the everyday. So she grabs your hand. “Come then, I will show you our reality then.”
Downtown the zonas appear everywhere, pockmarking the landscape. Blink and you’ll miss the reality of this place and the reality of so many lives.
Laura has a quick word with the bouncer who sits on a barstool on the side of the street and he waves you in through the airport-style metal detector.
“I have my regular customers, I’ve clients from 20 years ago, some die, some take their sons now,” your guide laughs. “Many are really rich, one I know for 20 years and he owns a real estate agency. I keep playing with him that 20 years seeing each other is like a marriage so he should give me half because in Brazil you don’t have to be married to get half. There are Italians, Canadians, Americans. In the Cup there’ll be many more.”
As she talks, you climb the stairs and in front of you is a cross between a run-down prison and a hostel even the earthiest backpacker would turn away from. The floors and walls are bare concrete while the hall extends in a rectangle past door after door into cocooned rooms where women lie. And while it’s only one o’clock on a Monday afternoon, there’s almost a feel of the Kaaba about it. The echoes of footsteps reverberate as 100s of men walk anti-clockwise and transfixed, each with only seconds to glance in and make up their minds before they are washed along by this human tide.
“It’s like a supermarket,” you suggest.
“You should see it later on,” replies Laura. “It never gets quieter than this. But, you know, today all my clients call me their psychologist. Most say they’ll pay more to spend an hour and they close the door and just want to talk. Their wives don’t care about them. I used to have 45 or 50 people a day. I was a machine. But years ago, a prostitute was cheap, now it’s more expensive.
“There are still girls charging seven reais [$3] for oral sex and this kind of thing. But that’s bad for them, they devalue their work. I charge 70 reais [$30] an hour. It’s a personal thing, but you need to respect yourself.”
She takes you to her room and such is her pride, you avoid honesty. There’s a mattress in the corner of what’s more like a cell, a toilet and a sink sitting across from it while on the bald floor are empty bottles of water and condom wrappers. It’s not the sight that hits you hardest though, rather a smell of sweat, sex and bleach.
“See it’s not that bad,” she insists and you just nod. “Actually just in the zonas in Belo Horizonte there are over 2,000 girls working. The association now is helping them a lot.
“The government gives small subsidies to buy an apartment so as an association we give a declaration that a girl works as this. There are some trainees of a psychology course coming and we have partnerships with almost all the universities. The girls all have folders about diseases, the city council gives them tests for aids and check-ups all the time. We do a lot.”
Out of her room and back into the corridor, she again stops to talk with some of the younger girls in what seems a bizarre situation for mothering.
“All those young girls, when they just start, they are too crazy, they start making too much money. They have sex without condoms and sometimes they get boyfriends inside of here and that’s when they get pregnant. Loads work until just before they’ve babies. One week even. Some of them live here in these rooms. And what can happen with young prostitutes are drugs. But in these places, no kind of drugs are allowed because the owner really wants to keep the place and if that problem crops up, the police will close it down.
“But always, the younger girls fall in love but with the wrong guys. Look around. There are beautiful girls, they could have all the businessmen and they end up marrying a builder. I’m not discriminating but they could have a better life. They should see the prostitutes that marry a rich guy. I know two or three. One married a judge and they live in luxury and she has everything. Another got pregnant by a guy, he married her. Now she drives imported cars and she has eight maids in her house.”
You try to take in as much as possible but it can seem a little much. So, outside, you draw a much needed breath and Laura smiles and insists that there’s one last person you speak to. Back at the office, the chairwoman of Aprosmig who is also called Cida, has arrived and while younger it’s not all that makes her different from the woman you first met upon arrival. This Cida comes from a wealthy background and studied law before her banker father got her work in the Minas Gerais central bank.
“What did you make of the zona?” she asks you.
“Honestly, it was a little shocking,” you admit.
“I think it’s just your culture, it’s totally different. Here in Brazil everything is really free and liberal.”
“Maybe,” you reply out load. Maybe not you think inside.
“Different people like different things,” she explains. “In that other job in the bank, well I hated the bureaucracy. It’s so boring. And even before I tried this I liked reading about it and watching erotic films but I like the fetish, not the sex. Really, I love what I do, I never want to stop. Loads of the girls love what they do, they just don’t tell people because of the prejudice. But I’m not ashamed. Everyone in my family knows, we talk about it openly. I hate the idea of marriage and being stuck.”
She mentions she has a daughter and you wonder what if she ended up with the same mindset. “I’d be very happy,” Cida answers instantly. “But she wants to be a business person. That’s her choice. This is mine and I work the streets and prefer it there. I specialise in fetishes. I just like to be free. I don’t like to be sitting there waiting. I like to be out, walking and doing my own thing. That will never change. I don’t worry about it being the dangerous either. We have a great relationship with the police, they know us all and that makes a big difference. Really, this is a great life.”
She claims it’s proof that in Brazil this is a job done by all shapes and sizes, colours and creeds, ages and mind-sets. And while clearly true, you think certain types are more the rule than the exception. After all, as you leave and wander back past the many zonas in the grim and grey centre of Belo Horizonte’s centre, there’s a story Laura told you that won’t go away.
“When I had my daughter, I lost my job,” she recalled. “I told the father and he said, ‘You can burn that child, throw it in a bin, kill it, whatever you want. Just don’t bother me with it’. We were going out for a year and he was from the upper class. His mother was a lawyer, his father an engineer and he said I couldn’t destroy his life because I was poor.
“I told him even if I become a prostitute, I’ll have my child and raise her well. But the first time I felt the worst humiliation ever, it’s the worst feeling when a woman has to go to bed with a guy she doesn’t want. I had to though and I never asked anyone for anything and it’s been worth it when I see what that child has become. So why should I be ashamed no matter what people think? Why should any of us?”
Blink and you’ll miss strength and courage like hers. Sadly, for many in a modern-day Brazil summed up by social divide, it’s a conscious choice to blink and ignore them all.