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prestes maia

A JOURNEY INTO THE HISTORY AND THE PEOPLE’S STORIES OF BRASIL’S BIGGEST EVER SQUAT São Paulo, Avenida Prestes Maia, number 911: an abandoned 22-storey building occupied by 468 families who, before arriving, formed part of the swelling number of homeless people living in Brasil’s largest metropolis. Boasting a population of 10,700,000 inhabitants, São Paulo lacks housing for around one and a half million people, however in the city centre alone there are over 400 empty properties. And that’s why, on the 3rd November 2002, a team of women from the MSTC (Homeless Movement of Central São Paulo) organised the occupation

of the Prestes Maia Building. Upon entering the building the new tennants filled about 200 truckloads of rubbish accumulated over the 15 year period that the building had been abandoned. From that point on a true sense of community began to grow. Cleaning rotas, shared guard duty and recycling programmes developed so that life in the largest occupied high-rise building in Latin America could run smoothly. With the symbolism of 2000 people squatting in a building in the centre of the country’s largest city, Prestes Maia 911 soon became far

more than just a home for homeless families; it became an effervescent cultural centre. For almost five years the squatters at Prestes Maia resisted all attempts to evict them. The supposed owners of the building, entrepreneurs Jorge Hamuche and Eduardo Amorim, didn’t have the documents necessary to prove ownership and owed the state R$5 million (£1.35 million) in council tax - virtually the value of the building, which was estimated at R$7 million (£1.88 million). Nevertheless, on June 15th 2007 a team of inspectors and council officials helped make Prestes Maia an



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deep in the jungle

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abandoned heap of concrete once again. Over a year later this building full of history has arrived in London: the book In a Window of Prestes Maia 911 Building, by Brasilian photographer Julio Bittencourt, aged 28, is being launched. “A journalist friend invited me to photograph the squat for an article in 2005, but when I arrived there I realised I wasn’t going to wrap up the session in one day. It was just the beginning of the project”. Julio began visiting the building on a day-to-day basis, without his camera so that the squatters would feel at ease with him. After

four months of living side by side, studying the light coming into the building and deciding on which cameras and lenses to use, he began to take pictures: “the project took two years to complete. As I decided to photograph the front windows I had to shoot everything from an apartment in the opposite block of Prestes Maia, posing the challenge of finding both the families of opposing apartments at home on the weekend”. The end result is a beautiful book with 50 portraits of people who lived at Prestes Maia, framed by their windows. Even when facing

the camera, all of the squatters appear relaxed, completely at ease with the photographer. “All of the photos were staged, primarily because of the lighting. But lots of people positioned themselves in their windows and decided on how they wanted their picture taken”, explains Julio. At its height, as well as a film club and a communal library that stocked 15 thousand books donated by people who lived in the building and collected recyclable material, Prestes Maia played stage to a series of soirees, shows and exhibitions. During

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prestes maia

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Carnival 2007, José Celso Martinez Corrêa, one of the most important theatre directors in Latin America, played Antônio Conselheiro, the prophet of Canudos, in a performance organised to support the occupation. The main protagonists were people of the squat, such as 34 year old Ivanete Araujo. Like many of her neighbours, Ivanete moved to São Paulo in search of a better life. After fighting to survive in a concrete jungle where the high costs of rent forces some to choose between going without food or getting into debt, Ivanete, her husband and two children were evicted to the streets of São Paulo. “It’s a horrible situation. You have no privacy. On the street people lose their identity, they even forget their own names. In that time I lost my sense of self-esteem”, she recalls.

That was when social activism entered into her life. After three months of living without a fixed address, Ivanete and her family were invited by the NGO Apoio, who support the homeless, to take part in the occupation of an abandoned hospital in Avenida Paulista, São Paulo’s commercial and financial centre. From then on, Ivanete joined the Homeless Movement and, on November 3rd 2002, she was one of the women that helped organise the squat at Maia. Today, she helps coordinate the MSTC, financed by a partnership between the NGOs Apoio and Cafod and the EU. Julio Bittencourt’s photographs and Ivanete’s struggle show that, despite being boarded up by São Paulo city council, the memories and the legacy of the Prestes Maia 911 squat will never be buried away. ,&

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JungleDrums / novembro 2008