Brazil is facing a high rate of social inequality despite being one of the five largest countries in the world after Russia, Canada, China, and the United States, and having the sixth largest population in the world. Even though the country has achieved remarkable economic development and has built metropolitan and industrialized cities, such as São Paulo, Brazilian society is characterized by a wide range of social and economic inequalities between the rich and poor. This is because Brazil’s socioeconomic standing has historically been based on slave-colonial principles and an agro-export model that facilitated the creation of a land-owning upper class and exploited lower and middle classes.. 

The government of Brazil acted as a counter-revolutionary oligarchy, preventing the lower social classes from developing democratic movements and from getting into power to act on behalf of their community. Inequalities deepened even more due to international trade with Europe between the 18th and 19th centuries, when products, mainly raw materials and food, were sold for lower prices than their actual value. This led the Brazilian economy to become competitive in the world capitalist economy through the overexploitation of its workforce.  

To get more background into the current social inequalities in São Paulo, I conducted an interview with Vaneza Oliveira, a resident of São Paulo as well as a popular actress and social activist within her community. Of particular importance is Oliveira’s role in 3%, a highly ranked Netflix dystopian series, as it depicts the current social issues of Brazilian society. By understanding the show’s economic and political message along with Oliveira’s own perspectives, it becomes clearer what changes need to be made to improve the conditions of disenfranchised communities in Brazil.

Vaneza Oliveira’s personal experience: social mobility and accessible education in São Paulo

3% portrays a divided world where only 3% of the population can live on an island with free resources provided including free food and education. Oliveira obtained her role as Joana in the show after passing a rigorous selection process. Oliveira said the character of Joana resonated with her as they both experienced similar struggles: both of their lives were dependent on survival and the fact that they were fighters. What she learned from the character was the internal strength needed for a collective fight and to believe that she could make social changes by concentrating on collective needs.

Oliveira grew up in the favelas (slums) of São Paulo, so she is familiar with life in the peripheries. She explained that there are many types of favelas, not only those on the hills as depicted in the media but there are also neighbourhoods, such as where she lived in São Paulo, which are not positioned on hillsides. Oliveira pointed out that traveling to the city center from the favelas takes several hours. The long commute made it more demanding to complete her studies. 

Oliveira explained that many people left the favelas because there was a time when the government made education more affordable. Many of her friends who graduated from university moved away from the favelas, but some people chose to stay in the segregated areas. Those who moved away, through university and technical courses, were able to break out of the cycle of poverty. However, after a change of government in 2016, this initiative was terminated and the people living in slums no longer had access to free education. The cultural project for social change also did not evolve because of the lack of funding. Therefore, these governmental policies ultimately did not succeed in making a sustained impact on society in light of their closure or low financing. 

In Oliviera’s words, “In this actual moment, there are no social projects for improving people’s lives that live in this area with the current government…. In the past when there was a historical movement, when education was way more accessible, that’s when I found these free acting courses. And after that, I did the 3%. But then the government changed, and this movement where I could have been able to get something (similar) to other people, a lot of these initiatives were closed down. Like cultural projects for example and those that did survive, those initiatives were very affected so they had a lot less funding. Because of this, it is a lot more difficult to make an impact and involve with them.”

Regarding the urbanization of favelas, Oliveira pointed out that the government of São Paulo has initiated projects such as paving the streets for people who live in rural areas to be able to get to work. While there might be paved streets and structures that allow people to get to work and travel from their homes, there is no proper or basic sanitation. Overall, the government provides some sort of urbanization and structure, not for the people to live well, but for them to be able to get to work. At the moment, there are no ongoing social projects that would improve the conditions of living in rural areas.

On the question of how local people reacted regarding unproductive governmental policies, Oliveira responded that because of their disadvantaged situation, the residents of the favelas receive incomplete or inaccurate information from the government. Whenever there is some sort of social movement, the people are either not well informed or not informed at all about the situation of the country they live in. The politicians might argue that the country currently does not have the funds to implement those kinds of changes, and therefore it is hard to ask for reform. There is nobody who will take accountability and responsibility, and therefore, people do not know whom to ask for change.

Regarding the safety and security of living in a favela, Oliveira pointed out that safety for a woman of color can be understood differently depending on whether she lives in the city center, with a majority white population, or if she resides in a favela. For example, when she lived in a favela she felt safer than living at the center of São Paulo because in the favela there is a kind of social agreement not to steal from each other, despite some exceptions. She explained that the favela makes you feel safe because it is a community and there are not as many residents living in the favelas as those living in the center of the city. However, in the center of São Paulo, those social agreements do not exist, and due to racism in the country, she does not feel safe there. The reason for that is that she might be perceived as someone who is a thief because of racist stereotypes and she might feel the repercussions of being a  woman of color in the city center. Therefore, for her, safety has different connotations.

A Way Forward

Oliveira defines the inequalities in Brazil as resulting from a lack of opportunity for people to follow their dreams and to have a chance for a better life. She confirms that Brazil is a country with a high rate of inequalities, having serious social inequality and a meritocratic social mindset, meaning that if you go after something you want you will get it. However, she says that this is not the case, because the people in the rural areas are exposed to inequalities such as lack of education, poor health outcomes, and lack of access to healthy food, which makes their lives even more difficult. She describes her situation as a single mother who is always looking to improve her living conditions for her and her daughter. However, many people in the country have had to give up their dreams and live their lives without having opportunities to create a better life for themselves.

In terms of her personal perspective compared with her character on the series 3%, Oliveira does not support the extreme view of destroying the system to create a new world, as she does not believe that this is possible considering the current political circumstances. Instead, she thinks that the promotion of education and culture could be effective in diminishing inequalities. She points to the example of the municipality of Diadema in São Paulo, which has high levels of violence due to a lack of preventive measures implemented by the government. She believes that cultural programs and education can prevent much of this violence. Another example where government actions furthered violence was by removing taxes on the sales of guns and instead increasing taxes on the sales of books. Therefore, Oliveira emphasizes that people have to make an effort to create a better world through good quality education and cultural structures, instead of creating violence.

At the end of the interview, Oliveira advised that to fight against inequalities it was important for her to not accept the racist structures of her country that could have prevented her from achieving her goals. She emphasizes that by being a stubborn person and by being supported by her family she was able to achieve her dreams. Finally, she advised to not let limiting structures influence or define the future by saying that: “Receiving tailored support from organizations initiating affirmative actions is essential for those who are victims of social and economic inequalities to achieve their dreams. I agree with Joanna, that breaking out from the inherited disadvantageous status might be difficult even with the help of the supporting networks, but it will be worth it in the end.”

Theoretical Overview

Although 3% might have some futuristic and ideological themes, the series gives insights into the struggles of those living in the slums of São Paulo, by showing the hardships of inland characters who live in extreme poverty because they lack access to resources and technological advancements. The show also promotes the idea of very limited social mobility due to the fact that only a very small percentage of people (3%) can be selected to live offshore on a utopian island with access to sufficient resources and medical supplies. In reality, this can be interpreted as the possibility to gain better social status for those people who are living in the lower levels of society. 

Overall, the idea in the series was to show that all the people who get selected are coming from a lower class, through a competitive examination called “the Process”, to get better social status. The tendency of high disparities between the poorest in Brazil, as per the fictional story of 3%, can be explained by the theory of Marxism. Marxism proposes that the way to overcome inequalities between different social classes, capitalists and workers, is to build a new society where the existing one is restructured. This brings about a collective conflict (revolution) between different social classes. 

The ideological representation of Marxist theory in 3% is mainly embodied by Joana. To abolish the leadership of the small group of Offshore residents who have privileges over the underprivileged Inland citizens, she convinces the collective leadership of the society as the main organizing force to mobilize. Under the societal model proposed by Joanna, social, political, and economic equality would be realized. At the end of the series, the story turns into a re-constructivist action when a totally new society was set to begin, based on new ideological rules and the leadership of Joana. The inclusion of others in achieving a common goal was intended to find a solution that would help the community and prevent the Process that granted access to resources only to 3% of the community.

After conducting the interview with Oliveira, it can be concluded that promoting accessible education and social mobility are effective ways to achieve change in society as opposed to giving privileges for a small segment of the community as was depicted in the series 3%.  

Portuguese to English translation by Luiza Teixeira