As World Cup nears, poverty in Brazil troubles many
The racks and shelves at By Brazil, a shop tucked onto Castor Avenue in Northeast Philadelphia, overflow with yellow-and-green hats, horns, flags, stickers, and soccer jerseys.
But roughly three weeks from the opening game of the FIFA World Cup in Sao Paulo, Brazil, owner Lindolfo Neto was glum.
"How are we going to spend millions building stadiums, and our people don't have hospitals or schools?" he asked. "I'm not excited for the World Cup in Brazil."
What should be a time of passion and excitement for Brazilians in the Philadelphia area has been tempered, they say, by the civil unrest in their homeland over the billions of taxpayer dollars being spent on the most expensive World Cup in history.
Confrontations between police and protesters leading up to the June 12 opening have become commonplace, and last week, homeless demonstrators burned five buses in Sao Paulo.
A popular Internet meme by Brazilian street artist Paulo Ito crystallizes people's frustration: A hungry child sits with knife and fork at the ready, crying when his plate comes bearing not food but a soccer ball.
Patricia Zemek, 26, an administrative assistant at the Philadelphia Language Center on Castor Avenue, said it's a complicated time for Brazilians living in the United States.
The international stage of the World Cup gives Brazil a chance to show a new face, to shake off a reputation for violence and drugs and embrace a fresh role as a young, vibrant, and emerging nation. At the same time, she said, she agrees with protesters who insist on better education, health care, and living conditions.
"The government there, sometimes they don't listen to what the people have to say," said Zemek, who came here five years ago.
A coworker, office manager Daiana Thompson, 28, said she feels "a little embarrassed" by the news images of burning tires and angry demonstrators holding signs that say, "FIFA go home!"
Soccer and support for the national team unite the country, she said, and stores, schools, and colleges close during World Cup tournaments. She can tick off the dates of Brazil's upcoming games and the names of its opponents. The language center will host viewing parties.
"The Brazilian people, they like to express their opinions, and sometimes the only way they find is going on the streets," said the Sao Paulo native. "Not because we're against the World Cup, but against the way the government is spending so much money."
For the first time since 1950, one of the world's most watched sporting events returns to the home of the most successful national team in World Cup history, to a country where soccer is a common religion and the saints go by the names of Didi, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, and Pele.
Brazil - winner in 1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, and 2002 - is the favorite this year. But victory could come against a backdrop of unrest.
The cost of building the Mane Garrincha stadium in the city of Brasilia tripled to $900 million, largely due to fraud, auditors say. Anger over financial ties between politicians and builders fueled violent protests last year, when a million people took to the streets during the FIFA Confederations Cup, the big pre-World-Cup event, to protest corruption and spending.
Today in Sao Paulo, thousands of people squat in plastic tents and under tarps not far from the gleaming, 48,000-seat Arena Corinthians. They say they've been made homeless by soaring rents, living outdoors while about $450 million was spent on the stadium, which will host six Cup games.
"Believe me," said Val Hauber, a retired Philadelphia electronics technician, "there's going to be a lot of disruptions during the World Cup. Some of the games are going to be disrupted. It's going to be a mess."
Hauber, 69, is a huge Brazil fan with an unusual soccer heritage - born in Austria to Ukrainian parents who moved to Brazil when he was 2. He left Brazil when he was 18, but returns each winter to the land he considers home.
Of course he'll watch the World Cup on TV and root for Brazil - "it's in the blood" - but he's distressed by the spending on facilities like the new Arena Pantanal stadium in the state of Mato Grosso.
"They're going to play four games in that stadium, and then the stadium is going to sit there, idle," Hauber said. "At the same time, people don't have schools and hospitals and doctors."
Brazil is the largest and most populous country in South America, and has the continent's largest economy - one in which the middle class is expanding rapidly but one out of five people lives in poverty. Brazil has 1.7 doctors per thousand people (compared with 2.4 in the United States) and 2.3 hospital beds per 1,000 (compared with three per thousand here).
The search for jobs has pushed Brazilians across the globe. About 340,000 live in the United States, according to the 2010 Census, though other studies suggest the true number is much higher.
In Philadelphia, Brazilians tend to live in the Northeast, but there's no "Little Brazil" in the way that there's a Chinatown. Homes and businesses are spread out.
On Castor Avenue, the Bull Boi meat market stands nine blocks from Cantinho Brasileiro, which is squeezed between an Irish pub and a Chinese restaurant. Flames restaurant on Bustleton Avenue expects to be packed with drum-beating Brazil fans during the games.
Brazilians also have settled in suburban communities such as Abington, home to the Vida Nova Brazilian Baptist Church in Roslyn.
Jessica Winterbottom, 30, a law-firm interpreter whose husband runs the Philadelphia Language Center, said she tells her American friends that Brazil is two countries:
One is a cityscape of fast-paced jobs and growing opportunities, like her home in Porto Alegre, the other a place where poor people's basic needs go unmet.
"They think, 'Why are they spending so much money on a stadium when my grandmother is dying because she's waiting for health care?' "
It's also important to recognize, she said, that the World Cup will bring attention, visitors, and money to a Brazil that is, after all, a young democracy, having shed a military dictatorship only in the mid-1980s.
This country has seen riots and protests, too, she points out. The news reports make it seem like Brazil is the only country with troubles. "I don't understand why people are making such a big deal out of it," she said.
At By Brazil, owner Neto, 35, says he'll watch the games on TV. After all, "soccer is everything in Brazil." But he'll also be looking for protesters demanding better conditions for all Brazilians.
"We don't want to see a tragedy," he said, "but we like to see our people waking up to the problems."
This article contains information from the Associated Press and Reuters.