This academic year, I'm using the AIP book review series, On My Shelf, to revisit the books in my personal library. Over the course of the next ten months, I rereading my collection of ethnographies and popular science books and to share some thoughts with you.
Biehl, Joao (2005). Vita: Life in a Zone of Social Abandonment. University of California Press.
Vita is an experience that grows more meaningful with time. I re-read my notes after I had finished reading the book, and found that I still agreed with what I had written initially but now those thoughts were grounded in my personal experiences, which made Vita more accessible—and more real.
Vita is a non-place. It’s a hospice, of sorts, where the very poor are abandoned when their mortality seems certain. And “abandoned” is exactly the right word to use in this case: Vita collects the unwanted—those shunned by family and those whom medical facilities will not help. They come here basically to die. Located in the very real city of Porto Alegre in Brazil, while many know of its existence, including city officials, it just is. There was no official record of this place in any documentation. Once you know of it though, it hovers in the periphery like a potential threat.
Vita was founded in 1987 by Ze das Drogas, a reformed street kid and drug dealer, who converted to Pentecostalism and felt a calling to help other dealers and addicts rehabilitate their lives. das Drogas and his friends created a makeshift center by squatting in a downtown building, but soon found that people who had no social support system—those who were mentally ill, sick, unemployed or homeless—were being left on their doorstep by family members, neighbors, the hospitals, and the police. As their mission and reach widened, das Drogas moved Vita to the outskirts of the city, where it grew into a ramshackle overcrowded tent-city with minimal, volunteer-run services.
We learn that Vita is built continually by the residents and outsiders. For example, Biehl encounters a woman whose head is full of small holes; she appears to be infested with maggots or worms of some sort which caretakers have not been able to fully clean. Her story perfectly explains the relationship that Vita has to the outside world. She was released from a psychiatric hospital after ben successfully medicated, but which no where to go, she wound up on the streets. It’s unclear what happened to her there, but she was found in her present state and taken to a hospital, which refused her admission, so the police brought her to Vita. She barely eats, and very likely has AIDS. She is waiting to die at Vita. So Vita is at once contracted by the people who bring others to the site as well as the residents, who accept their fate and resign themselves to the experience of Vita.
Biehl talks about how this meeting overwhelms both him and his photographer, and it’s easy to understand why. It is hard to imagine someone so utterly refused by society that she’s left to live in a state of decomposition. Perhaps this is why he latches onto the story of Catarina, another resident within Vita who distinguishes herself by displaying a degree of agency. While others are waiting to die, Catarina is still somewhat active and cogent. She seems to be actively working at retaining herself, of holding on to the clarity that she knows, which she does by generating lists of words. Bielh launches himself into uncovering her history and tracing her path to Vita, and it’s a troubling, haunting journey that highlights her humanity. You are left feeling that Catarina looks like a distant but possible future—unwanted, lonely, and forgotten in some retirement home. If this is what happens when you are no longer valuable to those around you, it seems urgent to prove yourself necessary.
But of course it is not simply that Catarina’s family was unable or unwilling to care for her. Biehl carefully demonstrates how a systematic pattern of negligence and indifference within the healthcare system creates the circumstances that make Vita a viable option for her. When she began to display signs of physical and mental illness, her family commits her. Unfortunately, the health services for the urban working poor cannot provide in-depth treatment of any sort. She is diagnosed with a variety of maladies by two institutions, and yet no treatment plan is issued for what appears to be rheumatism. Here is how the cracks widen despite your best efforts to hold onto yourself so that you eventually are lost to those who may have cared.
The social and personal blindness toward Catarina by those closest to her and those charged with treating her is echoed in Vita’s story overall. The landscape of Vita was originally shaped by the labor of people who had nowhere to go and this is reflected in its haphazard condition. Biehl makes it quite clear that Vita initially receives no real outside funding and its residents are characterized by such seemingly abstract items as a plastic bag, an empty bottle, an old magazine, a doll, and a broken radio. They and the space they occupy are garbage. Vita is a broken city with dilapidated buildings, maggot ridden foods, and deformed residents. It is clearly a slum that is treated as though it could be swept under the rug. However, once public officials start showing an interest in revitalizing Vita, the landscape shifts with the influx of capital and there is a promise in the potential of new buildings and developments. In this way, Vita is the site of a contest regarding representation. Vita should only be seen when it can be depicted as a picture of progress, not when it symbolizes a massive gap in the healthcare system of Brazil. Sadly, what this means for the people there isn’t clear.
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Also in this series:
The views expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.