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Brazilian Dialogue

Public Invisibility

An arresting story was published in Sao Paulo's Diario recently. A psychology student at the University of Sao Paulo joined the university's street sweeping crew to get practical experience for his master's thesis: "public invisibility."

Social psychologist Fernando Braga da Costa put on the sweeper's uniform and spent eight years among his peers and professors unrecognized, proving, he says, that manual labourers are "invisible beings, nameless." Well-known and liked on campus by both students and faculty, at work he became merely a "social shadow." Braga worked only half time as a sweep and without pay, but learned, he says, the most important lesson: "I learned that being greeted by a simple 'good day,' something I never received as a sweep, is like the breath of life, a sign that I existed."

His research made him feel in his skin what it is to be treated as an object and not as a human being. "Despite heavy work under a hot sun and with daily humiliations, one can find dividends -- and one learns silent defenses against those who ignore you," he says.

Diario: Why did you do it?
Braga: My thesis meant to analyse and understand the working conditions of the sweepers and how they interacted with the public -- to find the barriers to social interaction and try to find openings for the sweeps and the public to encounter each other as persons.

Diario: Did the sweeps recognize quickly that you were a student doing research?
Braga: I showed up for work in their uniform, red pants, shirt, cap. I thought I'd present myself as simply newly hired, but they caught on right away. There are two kinds of sweeps, blacks and mulattos escaping the poverty of the Northeast, and I'm quite light, but this wasn't what gave me away, because there are white sweeps too. I asked them how they knew. It was how we "superior" folks talk, they said, how we carry ourselves, our gestures.

Diario: Give me an example.
Braga: Well, suppose we're sweeping and I chat with one of my fellow workers and a well-groomed fellow carrying a brief case walks by not noticing us, not greeting, as usual. "So, Braga, look," says a fellow sweep. "You can tell right away even without the briefcase that this donkey is a money bags. Peasants like me - we walk very softly, hardly any sound at all. But with high-class folk, just listen to the noise they make, the tic-toc of their footsteps. Or when we wait for a bus, you can tell right away: a peasant looks down, all wrapped up in himself. Not them. They look around. They look over our heads and, of course, always clutching their briefcase tightly."

The sweeps accepted Braga quickly. They gave him a new broom. They insisted he ride in the cab of the truck, instead of in the truck box where they were all transported, one with the tools of their trade. They always saw to it he was spared pick and shovel work. "But it wasn't a question of their feeling debased because of me. It was simply to protect me."

Diario: Did they ever test you?
Braga: Yes, already the first day. We had a break for a cup of coffee. One of the sweeps pulled two dirty pop cans out of the garbage, cut off the lids, poured in coffee from the pot, took one and handed me the other. I've never liked coffee and don't drink it, but I saw how the whole group had stopped to watch. And despite the ants, the cockroaches, the dirt, the smell, I took it and drank. It was amazing how the tension all around evaporated. They all began to talk to me, to tell jokes, to be playful. This experience cured me of my bourgeois sickness. One day one of the sweeps invited me to eat with him in a restaurant. I had to run in to the psychology building to get some money from my locker. I passed all these people I knew and who knew me. Nobody, but absolutely nobody "saw" me. One of my professors passed by so closely he bumped into my shoulder. No excuse me, nothing. It was as if he had bumped into a post.

Diario: And when you go home into your "real" world?
Braga: I cry. It's so sad. These men are now my friends. I know their families. I visit in their shantytown houses. I changed. And I always greet a worker, show him he exists. They're treated worse than animals. At least animals have a name. These sweeps are treated like things.

Al Gerwing