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City's Bright Lights Prove Big Let Down for Indian Family

Once they leave reserve, it's difficult to go back

Zela da Silva Viera sits in her cluttered wooden shack on the flank of a lush green gully in this Amazon city, threading tropical seeds and bird feathers into necklaces and dreaming of the faraway land she left as a young woman.

"I've tried three times to take my children back to where I grew up, but they only know the customs of the city and so could never get used to it," says the Satere Maue Indian. "This is their home."

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"This" is a squalid favela, or slum, of a dozen Satere Maue Indian families in the Santo Dumant section of town. It exemplifies the conditions that most of Brazil's urban Indians live in - and helps explain why, after years of accelerating migration from Indian reserves to the city, a growing number of Indians are thinking twice before making the move.

"I tell the young people they should stay where they are, that here life is expensive and jobs are hard to find," says Darcy Doache Comapa, a Manaus Indian leader who makes regular trips back to his native Javari Valley in the far-west Amazon region. "They think life here is all Coca-Cola, but I tell them if they have clean river water to drink, why work to pay for a Coca-Cola?"

Indian activists and government officials say they don't know exactly how many Indians now live in Brazilian cities, but the case of Manaus, capital of the state of Amazonas, gives an idea of the national dimension. Of the 90,000 Indians in the state, local officials believe about 15,000 now live in the favelas of Manaus.

Like Mrs. Viera, the Indians are drawn away from their traditional homes by images of modern living and dreams of better health and education opportunities. "Newborns dying without proper help is still a big problem where I come from. People understandably seek something better," she says.

But after 25 years in Manaus, she says she now knows the city isn't always an improvement.

And she says the young people in Satere Maue reserves are less eager than just a few years ago to leave for the city, because they hear more about the hard times their urbanized relatives are having.

"The problems they face here range from poor health conditions and lack of education opportunities to violence and discrimination," says Joao Melo, a case worker with the Manaus office of FUNAI, the federal Indian agency. "They really aren't accepted by the majority population, except as cheap labor."

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Viera and her husband, Benejito, lost their housekeeping and construction jobs, so now they make jewelry to sell in local markets.

And since she knows she will never go back to her Indian community to live, Viera says she has a dream for her community here.

"We would like to build a little school right there so all our kids could learn both Portuguese and Satere Maue," she says, pointing to a small patch of vacant land near her house. The local schools "tell us there is no room for our children, so they don't go to school," she adds. "You wouldn't think it should be that way in the city."

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