Maria and the Right to the Center

Paula Van Erven
November 17, 2017

Photo credit: Leandro Moraes /

Maria do Carmo came to São Paulo when she was eleven years old. Originally from the state of Piauí, she came to help take care of her sister’s children, and ended up staying for good.

For over 30 years, Maria has lived in the Bela Vista neighborhood, in the center of São Paulo. Displaced by rising rent, she has moved from one building to another, around this area of São Paulo. Her migratory pattern embodies the struggle many low-income families face to continue living in a familiar neighborhood. As prices continue to rise, it becomes increasingly difficult for these populations to remain in the center of the city, close to their workplaces and amenities.

Since Maria first arrived in São Paulo, she has worked as a hostess in an Italian restaurant, which is walking distance from her current apartment. Having a three-hour mid-day break between shifts, this proximity allows Maria to return home to rest before her late-night shift. She explains that she tried living away from the center for two years, when prices were too high and she could not find affordable housing nearby. Maria would spend more than four hours commuting to work everyday, not to mention the three-hour break in the middle of the day, during which she could no longer return home. More than seven extra hours with no compensation. The distance quickly proved to be too difficult to endure.

Given Bela Vista’s rising real estate prices, Maria worries she will have to move out once again. She is currently housing her daughter, a pharmacy student, and her nephew, who is unemployed. Maria is a relentless caretaker, not only helping to raise several children besides her own, but also continually taking in individuals who are in need of extra help due to financial, health, and/or psychological difficulties. She also keeps the elderly residents of the building company, chatting with them and doing arts and crafts such as sewing and painting with them, hobbies Maria says she would pursue further if she had more free time.

As evidenced by Maria’s story, and countless others like hers, the current system of hourly remuneration cannot fully compensate the entirety of work that individuals are actually doing. Be it the labor of caring for family or of time spent on long commutes, these overlooked hours are significant. It is impossible to discuss economic development without questioning what is not factored into remuneration, yet poses severe limitations on individuals’ capacity to be resilient in the face of changing demographics. Maria’s salary has remained the same for 30 years, while the housing prices in her neighborhood are consistently rising. If time is to be commodified into how it can translate into financial compensation, perhaps it is time for policies to address a larger dynamic that dictates the importance of living in the center of the city.

Paula Van Erven

Paula Van Erven

Paula Van Erven is an artist, member of, 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.

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