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Are Brazilians Cordial People? – Intolerance and A Camillian Physician, a Sign of Hope

Are Brazilians Cordial People?

Intolerance and A Camillian Physician, a Sign of Hope

 Alexandre A. Martins


As part of a great team of CTEWC contributors who write from different parts of the world, my function is to write on issues that challenge the theological ethics in Latin America, especially in Brazil, my home country. In my last contribution, I wrote about issues regarding to the lack of dialogue in Brazilian society. Just like other countries, Brazil is currently a polarized country where people with opposing viewpoints do not want to dialogue with one another. In a forthcoming book (Fundamentalismo: Desafios à Ética Teológica, eds. Maria Inês de Castro Millen & Ronaldo Zacharias. Aparecida: Santúario Press, 2017) to be released in August during the XLI Brazilian Conference of Moral Theology in São Paulo, I wrote a chapter in which I argue that social fundamentalism is one of the causes for this polarization and lack of dialogue. Furthermore, I present the uprooting of Brazilian society from its history, traditions, and values as one of the reasons for this social fundamentalism and consequently rising intolerance.

Seeing this context from outside, especially from the lens of media, the picture seems worse than what it is. The impression is that Brazilians – who worldwide gained a reputation of being peaceful, hospitable, and tolerant – are yelling on streets against one another all the time. Brazilian historian Leandro Karnal deconstructs a romanticized view that Brazilian people are a peaceful, cordial people (Todos Contra Todos: O Ódio Nosso de Cada Dia. Leya Press, 2017). Based on historical facts, he examines how the history of Brazil, since the colonial period until today, does not allow us to support a thesis of a “cordial people.” According to him, the current polarization and intolerance (especially against minorities, such as Afro-Brazilians, people from the Northeast, and LGBT communities) are more visible today than ever. One example is that Brazil, the last country of the Americas to end slavery, never actually lived a process of reconciliation with its past, or created a real process of social inclusion of minorities. Although Brazilian people are a mix of black, indigenous, and white blood that created a new people according to Darcy Ribeiro (O Povo Brasileiro: A Formação e o Sentido do Brasil. 3rd ed. São Paulo: Global, 2015), the difference – determined by an elite that oppresses its own people because of their social status and racial origin – always has been a reason for intolerance. This reality has supported an unjust and discriminatory structure that corrodes society.

I have developed activities in different parts of the world. In the last few years, every time I stayed a long period outside of Brazil, when I came back, I thought I would find a country which I could not talk to people anymore because everything I may say could be a reason for conflict. Again, seeing from outside, this is the picture that one might have. But this is not true when you begin to walk throughout São Paulo’s streets, the largest Brazilian city. Karnal’s thesis of deconstruction is true and Brazil suffers the consequences of its own history of intolerance and racism. However, this is a structural violence (or social sin, in theological language) that has poisoned the Brazilian society in more than five centuries. Average citizens on streets are struggling daily against this structure. They are victims of a racist, sexist, and intolerant elite /structure. But, unfortunately, these counter-values also contaminate those who are not part of this elite, more today than ever, making the dream of the poor and oppressed to be rich and oppressor. As a result, the context of intolerance becomes visible and affects everyone. It is a complex reality. On one hand, walking in Brazilian streets and interacting with people, I see a kind and friendly people. On the other hand, there is an atmosphere of polarization, and the statistics have proven the increase of hate crimes. For instance, a recent study showed that São Paulo was the city the most hate crimes committed against LGBT people in the world. Ironically, São Paulo is also the city that has the second largest LGBT pride parade in the world (Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Violence Against LGBTI Persons, Organization of American States Press, 2015). The contradiction is so big that is extremely difficult to understand the facts.

As I affirmed several times in essays published in this Forum, dialogue is a way for us begin to break this reality of polarization and intolerance. Of course, there are many ways to engage in a dialogue. Social dialogue does not mean only talking to someone, but it also includes actions that care for the other, regardless of who he/she is, with the only goal being to promote the humanity and well-being of the other. Walking throughout São Paulo’s streets searching for signs of hope in the midst of this context of fear, I found many people who proved that Brazilians are indeed cordial. However, this cordiality has limits determined by some subjects that cannot be touched. Perhaps, the best way to excise tolerance is through actions of caring and being able to testify a real solidarity to one another. Having this in mind, I visited an old friend who is now a Camillian priest and physician, Marcelo Valentim de Oliveira. He is a family doctor who serves in a slum in one of the poorest areas of São Paulo city.

I have known Fr. Oliveira since he was a scholastic in the Religious Order of Saint Camillus. After he finished his studies of theology, he went to be a missionary in Brazilian Northeast and then in Bolivia. Later, he was ordained priest and began to attend medical school in São Paulo. Currently, He serves in an impoverished community that suffers with lack of healthcare resources, especially doctors and nurses. Listening to Oliveira, he said he does the “work of a little ant” caring for his patients. In his humility, he repeated several times that his work is very small, and he does not do anything special, it is merely his obligation as a priest and a physician. However, his patients do not think his work is small. They love Fr. Oliveira, or Marcelinho as he is known (Marcelinho means little Marcelo, a nickname that he has because of his short stature). These patients are thankful because Marcelinho gives them an opportunity to be cared, to continue living, and to see their dignity empowered by a physician who cares for them just in the way they are in order to address their health needs and improve their lives.

The reality of slums in Brazil is marked by poverty, unemployment, over-population, lack of appropriate housing, lack of basic sanitation, precarious public systems of education, transportation and healthcare, drug trafficking, sexual abuses, and violence. In terms of health care, public health services are the only type of care offered in these regions. Among other problems, the Brazilian public health system has difficulty recruiting physicians to work in slums. Although Brazilian medical schools educate enough doctors to serve the need of the country, there is an internal brain-drain in which most physicians do not go to work in poor areas. Oliveira moves in the opposite side of this tendency in order to be a partner of the poor.

I asked Oliveira if he faces conflicts with his patients because of different values, perspectives and even ideological beliefs. He said that he realizes clear differences between his patients and him in all of these aspects, especially when there are different perspectives because of faith. However, he affirmed that these differences never were a problem for him to approach and to care for his patients. I also asked him if the polarization that Brazil is now facing affects his work. He said that this polarization is visible, but this does not affect his work at all. What actually affects his work is the lack of better public health policies that can provide more resources to serve his patients. Oliveira works in partnership with the public healthcare system that is responsible for providing medical material and medication for his patients. He said that in the first quarter of this year, municipal authorities in charge of supplying public health clinics and hospitals with medication drastically decreased healthcare resources. This made his work almost impossible, but he continued serving his patients, asking friends for donations to buy medication and securing his own resources.

Unfortunately, my time with Fr. Oliveira, MD was very short because I only stopped in São Paulo on my way to the Amazon Rain Forest area in Northern Brazil, where I will continue my search for signs of hope among Brazilians in this context of polarization and increasing of intolerance. I agree with Oliveira that his mission is “the work of a little ant,” but Brazil, and perhaps the world, needs this kind of ant. I have the privilege of having met many little ants like Oliveira around the world. They are signs of hope on this earth. Through his work, Oliveira testifies a tolerant and fruitful dialogue that cares for the other, regardless who the other is. Perhaps Brazilian people are not as cordial as many had thought, perhaps the human being is not cordial in its nature of an animal whom, as any other animal, struggles to adapt and survive in a hostile world. However, there are little ants, signs of hope, that make us to believe that a world of tolerance, respect, and care is still possible.