Carla Perez’s photo, which now gathers dust alongside decade-old bottles of cachaça, and whose inkjet-printed colors begin to fade into a tone of cyan, still arouses in me a strange mix of terror and endearment. What child in Brazil did not grow up with these hypersexualized portrayals of women, transiting seamlessly between children’s TV shows and Playboy magazine covers?
Carla’s photo embellishes the backdrop of everyday scenes at Tarcísio’s bar on Paim street. Sitting there, I turn to the three men who sit by my side, as one of them says to me: “with the new welfare reforms, it’s only going to get worse for us.” This quickly incites agreements from the other two, who then conclude that “they [politicians] are a bunch of thieves.” As tired workers who have just finished their long day of service in restaurants all over town, they gather around a drink for roundabout conversations and jokes that ease the daily strain. They also give themselves the right to, just for a little while, simply sit in silence, together. I do wonder about the fact that no women are present to engage in these informal discussions, or important moments of a shared quietness. Where are they?
Looking at the street from the large opening at the front of the bar/lunch counter, called lanchonete in Portuguese, I see women of all ages passing back and forth, often with strollers and small children. That capitalism thrives on “invisible” workforces is, at this point, well understood, having permeated human relations for centuries. Sitting here, I think about this invisible and most often female labor that cooks, cleans, and puts the kids to bed, so that these workers can themselves provide economic sustenance to the family. Consequences, it seems, of a mixture of real practical necessities and stubborn sexist constructs.
As part of our series of Encontros na Paim—curated encounters in which we experiment with different forms of interactions with the lanchonete, we invited the scholar Vanessa de Oliveira Andreotti to chat with us about her research on the decolonization of linguistics and pedagogy. Andreotti proposed that instead of attempting to represent existences that have been systematically erased from a historical narrative, or to render present that which is invisible, these existences should, rather, be made “visibly absent.”
Sitting at that countertop, recognizing this invisibility was immediate, and part of a history of normalized practices that represent a much larger structural condition. A condition delineated by a dependency on an under- or unpaid workforce, that continuously carries a burden that Brazil’s political agenda, generally, refuses to give the importance it requires. The population finds itself locked into cycles of labor that replicate exploitative economic systems internally in order to sustain itself, as is often the case in how domestic labor comes to be assimilated. I stare at Carla and Carla stares back at me, I wonder how long she has been the background for countless small talks, serving as a sort of visual candy to tired minds and bodies, often representing the sole female presence in the space. Always present, and yet, permanently absent.
Paula Van Erven
Paula Van Erven is an artist, member of Lanchonete.org, currently living and working in São Paulo, Brazil. She holds a Studio Arts B.A. from Bard College, and has also pursued Urban Policy studies at a postgraduate level.