October 2010 – Some three hundred people, mostly women, children, and the elderly walked in holding candles and singing Evangelical songs. The new residents of the abandoned former Hotel Columbia on São João Street had tricked the police and were now in control—one of the seventeen buildings that were occupied that night across the city, from the Eastern periphery of São Mateus to the center of São Paulo. All the rest had been blocked or bombed by police; only the Occupation at São João was not attacked.
Nazaré Brazil was present that night. An unemployed former stenographer, she had returned to São Paulo just hours before the occupation began, encouraged by her sister to attend a “big party, not the kind of party you’re thinking of.” She arrived at the Frente de Luta por Moradia (FLM), or Fight for the Housing Front headquarters in the East zone where 800 people were gathered. She remembers being anxious and excited, with nothing but a backpack, not knowing exactly what to expect.
Nazaré’s personal history is clearly a densely storied one, spanning many locations and reincarnations. A builder who refurbished abandoned spaces into “night houses”—stages for performances and concerts. An unintentional community organizer who used these stages to engage poor, drug addicted youth in who she saw talent and promise. A mother of two returning to her hometown, after caring for her deceased sister’s children. A leader in an emerging cultural movement.
“This apartment was one of the most destroyed in the building,” Nazaré says, pointing to the walls in her sitting room, a partition separating it from the rest of the home. She recalls the early days of the São João Occupation, locked in by the police for 24 hours with no food or water. Rats, dead pigeons, red carpet covered in mold. Suddenly immersed in this confluence of poverty, homelessness, addiction, and misery, her initial reaction was to panic. Yet the women of the occupation began to clean the space with “some kind of certainty.” Slowly, they refurbished the space with discarded materials. Nazaré decided to renovate the most challenging space, and began to invite other families of the occupation to discuss possibilities “to bring culture to the housing movement.”
Eventually, she excavated a large dilapidated space and began to convert it into a gallery, performance, and meeting space, arguing its necessity to the success of the movement. She was met with resistance from within the occupation, by those who wanted to avoid unnecessary attention. But eventually, with reluctant acceptance from other leaders, she staged a party with live punk bands. The cover charge would raise money to redo the ceiling. The concert was a success and put São João on the cultural map of São Paulo.
At the same time, Nazaré says, its success earned her the ire of the other movement leaders and on more than one occasion she was threatened with expulsion. But engaging the larger artist community of the city to raise money and strengthen the movement had become her mission. She describes this artist community, many of whom were not part of the occupation in its inception, as a “collective of big dreamers from different backgrounds.” But they were realizing these dreams required money. The big break came in the form of a single patron, Marcos Amaro, an artist and and airline industry heir. With a donation of 100,000 Reais, they were able to complete renovations, outfit the space with equipment, and pay for modest salaries, food, and books.
As word spread of the goings on at São João, artists from elsewhere in the city started to migrate to the occupation. This began the formalizing of the cultural movement into a cultural center, with a growing schedule of activities and an educational curriculum. Hosting a weekly movie club was one way to build trust in the community by providing entertainment and engaging the children. Through these program activities they made the Occupation at São João an essential, multi-stakeholder cultural space.
Since the beginning, Nazaré had acted as a public relations machine maintaining the cultural momentum of the occupation. But at the same time, a split in the movement had already begun. Some felt that outside actors had failed to properly engage the occupation in a meaningful way. Others felt that the cultural component had eclipsed the occupation movement itself. In the end, many people left the movement while Nazaré and a few others stayed on. Around this time, they were awarded their first municipal cultural funding and were able to stabilize the movie club, storytelling sessions, poetry readings, and open mics. And for a year, they managed to bring people together from the periphery to the center.
Continued opposition from within the occupation movement resulted in the decision to close down the cultural programming at Occupation São João. Yet Nazaré maintained her belief that cultural visibility was their best defense against eviction.
After a three-month hiatus, during which time she left for the north of Brazil and occupied a chicken coop, Nazaré returned to São Paulo. She reapplied for municipal funds for programming exclusively for residents, at the same time bringing back some of the initial supporters. She believed that “culture would allow the movement to win the building.” She then applied a third time for municipal funds to develop a cultural education program within the occupation, while building connections outside of it.
After four years, Café Imaginário has become an essential, consistent, and responsive forum for discussion, debate and imagining around pressing social issues within the occupation and outside it. Though it seems to be constantly straddling the uncertain space of a cultural movement and that of an emerging cultural institution, it remains a unique space in São Paulo for temporal philosophical discussions and artistic interventions where “residents are involved as the protagonists.”
Sidd Joag is an artist, journalist, and community organizer working at the intersection of arts, culture, social justice, and human rights for 15 years. He is the Managing Editor at ArtsEverywhere, a co-coordinator of ArtistSafety.net, and a member of Amber Art and Design.