There is one main road to Boa Vista, the northernmost city in Brazil. The BR-174 winds up from Manaus through the rain forest like a flattened snake — a dead echo of the Amazon River. The air is oppressive with oxygen and the overripe smell of peat. Half-decomposed leaves lie in clumps on the double yellow lines. Wakes of vultures take flight when cars approach, revealing exotic roadkill: a short-legged tayra, the stiff hand of a spider monkey. After five hours of driving, there is a small clearing with a stone marker indicating a latitude of 0 degrees — the equator. From there, it takes another five hours to reach the city.
The military regime began construction on the six-hundred-mile road in 1967 with the goal of “settling” the north, but the project was stalled twenty years by disease and conflict with forest tribes. By the time it was finished, an estimated twenty-six hundred Waimiri-Atroari people had been killed, along with twenty-three road workers and servicemen. A monument at the equator commemorates the latter, “who gave their lives pacifying the Waimiri-Atroari indians. They did not die in vain.” A gold rush and the promise of land allotments brought tens of thousands of migrants from a poor, arid region, the Brazilian Nordeste, up the new road, nearly tripling the population of what in 1988 became the state of Roraima, with Boa Vista as its capital. Residents recall the narrow buses that would break down on the way from Manaus — it would be another ten years before the road was paved — and the bus drivers who insisted on keeping the windows closed, despite the heat and the lack of air-conditioning, for fear that the índios would shoot arrows at them from the trees.
But all that was long ago. Or long enough, at least, for those prospectors and soldiers who bushwhacked their way through indigenous territory to wash their hands and start families. The wealthier among them acquired land and cattle, and many became politicians.
Last summer, Boa Vista — the city I now call home — was in full swing for the 2018 national elections. President Jair Bolsonaro was then one of thirteen presidential nominees, alongside tens of thousands of other candidates vying for seats in the Federal Senate and the Chamber of Deputies, the two branches of Brazil’s National Congress. Around the country, full-color leaflets brightened gutters with their photoshopped smiles, motorists turned rear windshields into advertising spaces for a fee, and conflicted musicians negotiated small fortunes to record campaign jingles.
Campaign consultants summoned to Boa Vista were paid far too well to have to travel on the BR-174. From the oval windows of their jets, the Amazon rain forest must have looked like a sea of frothy, dark green foliage, its mud-colored rivers fanning out like bronchial tubes. The flight from Brasília takes three and a half hours, and for most of that time there is only forest. It seems endless. Then it ends. The jungle flattens into fenced yellowed pastures, with white specks of cattle visible at the edge of silvery pools.
Boa Vista is bigger than most visitors would expect: a sprawling net of concrete on the edge of the Rio Branco. At its heart — inside the central traffic circle — stands a thirty-foot monument with a statue of a garimpeiro, a shirtsleeved prospector bending over his gold pan. Residents say the city is built like Paris, with avenues stretching away from this traffic circle like rays of the equatorial sun. It is impossible not to think of the sun in Boa Vista. Temperatures hover between eighty and ninety degrees year-round, except in the rainy season, when dark clouds gather over the river and cool the air enough for afternoon walks past the modernist homes of statesmen and evangelical pastors. More often, the city waits until night to come alive. After dinner, families take their children to one of the many playgrounds or ice-cream parlors, or to the promenade over the river, or to the park to see the fountains that light up and jump in time with the classical music played through hidden speakers.
Why keep lugging everything you own toward an unknown place where you are already unwelcome?Tweet
Boa Vista used to be considered the number-one city in northern Brazil in which to start a family — another fact locals repeat often. To understand why it was demoted, you would have to travel even farther north. The BR-174 continues beyond Boa Vista for another 130 miles up to the small town of Pacaraima, which sits on the border with Venezuela. This route is harsher than the road from Manaus. There are no shade trees, only dry scrub and savannah. Heat waves rise off the pavement and blur the distant horizon. Still, along the way, there are people walking in the opposite direction: immigrants carrying children and dragging suitcases with broken wheels. The walk from the Venezuelan border to Boa Vista takes around five days, depending on the weather, the condition of the walker’s shoes, the weight of her suitcases, and the number of children she may have in tow. By car, the trip takes two and a half hours. Cars may slow as they pass the immigrant, their tires crunching gently over loose pebbles. A driver might even roll down the window to offer her a ride, or a bottle of water, or to spit on the road beside her. He might say, “God bless you.” He might say, “Turn back.” It really depends on who’s behind the wheel.
On my last trip to the border, I saw a young woman who had paused in her journey, sunburned and sitting on her suitcase in a cloud of dust, still sixty miles outside Boa Vista. Why keep lugging everything you own toward an unknown place where you are already unwelcome? The answers are multiple, but there is one common denominator, repeated enough times among immigrants to have become a hallowed promise. In Brazil, bread can be bought with coins. For people coming from El Tigre and Maturín, Venezuelan cities that collapsed with the oil industry, this is reason enough to stand up and keep walking.
An estimated three million people have left Venezuela in recent years, fleeing economic disaster. After the oil market plummeted in 2014, the country’s oil revenue — its primary income — was slashed by two-thirds. Imports were dramatically reduced as a consequence, and basic items disappeared from supermarket shelves and hospital storerooms. Inflation became hyperinflation, and people’s savings withered to nothing, their salaries buying them a bag of rice and not much more. To combat the crisis, Nicolás Maduro, elected in 2013 after the death of Hugo Chávez, has opted for a series of weak palliative measures without striking at the central cause of inflation, namely systematic corruption and capital flight enabled by the government’s disastrous currency controls. US policy aggravated the crisis in 2017 by limiting the country’s access to credit markets, and new, politically motivated White House sanctions continue to cut off routes for recovery.
Still, not all Venezuelans have reached the point of leaving the country on foot. Indeed, of the hundred and fifty thousand who have arrived in Brazil in the past three years, around half have come on errands, to undergo medical procedures, or to head to the airport. But for those immigrants who have no assets at home and no options abroad, Pacaraima’s single-strip main street has become a causeway for survival.
Pacaraima’s economy used to be propped up on smuggled gasoline, a handful of dry-goods stores, and the surrounding farms. But since 2016, the sleepy outpost has become almost unrecognizable. Enormous white tents emblazoned with the acronym ACNUR, indicating the UN agency for refugees, line the road into town; behind them are newly assembled barracks filled with aid workers and federal troops. The narrow sidewalks are crowded with people buying, selling, sweating, seeking. Every morning before dawn, fifteen hundred to two thousand people wait outside the parish church for a cup of coffee and a bread roll. In the largest UN tent, the same line splits into two categories: those applying for residency and those seeking asylum. The application process can take days, and prior to the inauguration of an overnight shelter, every night in Pacaraima meant a night sleeping on the street. Inside the tent, people flit back and forth between the lines, trying to determine which is faster. Asylum requires less documentation, but it comes with a price. While residents may travel freely back and forth over the border, asylum seekers are considered political refugees and must stay in Brazil.
According to a UN border survey of thirty-five hundred migrants, less than 1 percent of incoming Venezuelans say they fear persecution in their home country. The more common reasons given for departure are the lack of economic opportunity and the lack of access to food and health care. Most immigrants feel endangered not by an authoritative state but by an inept one, its fumbling policies exposing them to the brunt of the crisis. Public services no longer reach the countryside. Subsidized groceries are stolen along the distribution chain and resold on the black market for outrageous sums. Forty-two percent of those surveyed said they feared severe hunger if they were to return.
Boa Vista looks its best at night, and this was especially true during campaign season. Fairy lights hung from the trees in the park. Every bulb in every streetlamp was glowing bright. The police kept immigrants out of the central plazas, for aesthetic reasons.
In July of 2018, before the campaign officially began, a stranger entered the pub where I was working. He was tall and wore a sports jacket like the ones I’d come to associate with campaign consultants. He ordered a Heineken and drank it facing away from the bar, scanning the low-ceilinged room and the stage where a woman in a tight blue dress was crooning Nina Simone — me. The pub was decorated for Boa Vista’s leisure class, with British and American paraphernalia: the Beatles, Route 66, God Save the Queen, Coca-Cola. Minutes passed, and in walked Romero Jucá, or “The Senator Who Gets It Done,” as his campaign posters described him. There was a ripple of movement in the bar as guests and employees turned to watch the two men greet each other.
An older man with a walrus mustache and tightly packed teeth the color of old ivory, Roraima’s Senator Jucá became notorious in 2016 for his lead role in ousting the leftist president Dilma Rousseff on corruption charges, a move that heralded a period of neoliberal reform led by interim president Michel Temer. For his efforts, Temer awarded Jucá a high ministry position, though public scrutiny obliged him to step down within days. (There were twelve Supreme Court investigations open against the senator, including one for a multibillion-dollar kickback scheme at the state oil company, Petrobras.) Backpedaling, Temer made him head of the Senate, still quite a high position for a senator from such a far-flung state. Most Brazilians couldn’t place Roraima on a map, yet nearly all of them could pick out Jucá’s mustache in a police lineup.
The senator laughed loudly at a joke I couldn’t hear from the stage. The pub owner approached, spherical, bowing, unctuous, and led them both toward the wine cellar — a soundproof room reserved for guests of honor. Behind me, the guitarist began an upbeat arpeggio, a Fifties progression on a blues scale, then paused for my cue.
When the night has come,
And the land is dark,
And the moon is the only light we’ll see . . .
It was a popular song, an oldie, instantly recognizable and suitable for nearly any occasion. In 2018, it was sung both during a Super Bowl commercial and at the royal wedding of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle. Jucá stopped short. He swiveled on the balls of his feet toward the stage, and when the chorus came, he sang along. So darling, darling, stand by me . . . When I returned to the verse, he blew me a kiss. The pub owner followed suit, grinning. I smiled back. My teeth felt sharp in my mouth. Behind them, the adviser watched his client closely, as if trying to determine what part of this show of sentimentality might be useful to his campaign.
Old songs would not serve him, that much was certain. Voters in Roraima were marching to a new beat, and it didn’t take much effort to hear the chorus. I wondered how long the campaign adviser had been in Boa Vista, and how much he had heard. Perhaps if he had gone to buy cigarettes the night before, he would have overheard the men who sit outside the convenience store talking over the television propped on a plastic stool.
Every day, six hundred people coming in. That’s what they say.
Did you hear about the girl they robbed outside the university last night? One of ’em cut the straps of her backpack with a knife, could have killed her.
Of course they don’t check criminal records at the border —
I heard their president opened up all the prisons, let the inmates fend for themselves. Same as he did with the zoos.
If he went for a jog in the early morning, he might even have seen the immigrants themselves, the children sleepily brushing their teeth outside rows of mismatched tents behind the bus terminal. Churches, the UN, and NGOs have built shelters, which today hold a combined fifty-six hundred migrants; according to official data, the total number of Venezuelans in Boa Vista is over seven times that. When it rains, the unsheltered gather under store awnings with bedrolls and bags. Dripping wet, they appear faceless behind reporters from São Paulo on the national news. The news anchors from Brasília call them refugiados, but the locals have come up with names of their own, christening the women oitenta, or eighty, which is the discount rate the new prostitutes are expected to charge for sex.
Former president Temer took a surprisingly liberal stance in response to the wave of newcomers. Some said this was due to his own parents being Lebanese immigrants; others said he was under acute pressure from the UN. Whatever the case, he passed a law in 2017 making residency free and accessible to Venezuelans. He also staked federal funds on “interiorizing” the immigrants, or transporting them in army planes out of Roraima and into shelters across the country. The program was created to alleviate strain on public services and give immigrants a better chance of finding work in less saturated markets. But local critics spread rumors about the initiative, saying it prioritized “good” Venezuelans with college degrees and left the “bad” ones for Roraima to deal with. (On average, nonindigenous Venezuelans in Roraima have a higher education level than local residents, with over 32 percent holding undergraduate or graduate degrees.)
A machine blew a puff of dry ice over my feet and across the stage, where we had moved on to a set of Cuban boleros. An older man and a young woman entered the bar and perched self-consciously at one of the high tables in front of me. The woman reached down to rub at her heel where her shoe seemed to be hurting her. I tried to imagine the senator and his adviser seated across from each other at the long polished table in the cellar below, but I couldn’t conjure the drinks in front of them. Whiskey? Gin? I am sure, though, that whatever they ordered was served on the rocks. Just as I am sure that of all the topics they discussed that night, one of them, inevitably, was Bolsonaro. He was all anybody talked about in those days.
A former army captain who spent twenty-seven years in Congress, Bolsonaro had only passed two laws while in office, despite proposing dozens of bills, and was dismissed by his peers as a military nostalgic past his prime.
He was the guy, Jucá might have said, chuckling, who stood up in 1993 to tell his fellow congressmen that Congress should be dissolved and that all of us should return to military rule.
Bolsonaro, who once described refugees as “scum of the earth,” would name Venezuela repeatedly in his presidential campaign, not to feed anti-immigrant rhetoric but to incite fear that Brazil could become Venezuela if voters chose the leftist Workers’ Party (or PT, for its Portuguese name, Partido dos Trabalhadores), led by former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known as Lula.
My claim on the country is as strong as any claim of yours over the people and places you love, which is to say, I have none.Tweet
Lula first became president in 2003, four years after Chávez was elected in Venezuela, and the two worked together to usher in the “pink tide,” a period that saw many Latin American countries depart from postdictatorial neoliberalism in favor of progressive reform. The Lula Administration was marked by economic growth and a 50 percent reduction of poverty in Brazil, and when he left office in 2010, Lula’s approval rating was over 80 percent. Support for the PT declined under his successor, Dilma Rousseff, and especially after 2014, when a series of corruption scandals engulfed Lula and much of the acting government. Still, Lula announced a new bid for the presidency in January 2018 — presidents in Brazil are limited to two consecutive terms, but may run again in the future — and was poised to win the elections when he was arrested in April. Critics cried foul, saying the arrest was politically motivated, and the UN Human Rights Committee tried and failed to secure permission for Lula to run. From jail, Lula continued to lead the polls with 33 percent of vote intentions. Bolsonaro had 15 percent.
Disoriented, the PT didn’t retract Lula’s candidacy or name his replacement until halfway through the campaign, in September, a misstep that proved fatal. Meanwhile, Bolsonaro had been busy promoting himself as a political outsider and a “clean slate” against corruption. He gained traction by saying things that most politicians believed you were not allowed to say. While casting his vote in favor of the 2016 impeachment, the congressman paid homage to Colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, a man responsible for the torture and rape of dozens of dissidents during Brazil’s military regime. In 2017, at a rally in Deerfield Beach, Florida, he promised he would give the police “carte blanche to kill.” As the 2018 election approached, he promised to banish leftist minorities in a “cleansing never before seen in the history of Brazil.”
Jucá, an old-school neoliberal, was likely shocked by the effectiveness of Bolsonaro’s campaign. He himself had always preferred to speak softly and carry a big stick. As the director of the Federal Indian Foundation in the late 1980s, Jucá had posed as an advocate for indigenous rights. In practice, he cleared the way for hundreds of logging and mining routes to be opened in Yanomami territory, a move the National Truth Commission says led to a genocide of the isolated hunter-gatherer tribe through conflict and disease. But these policies made Jucá a champion among miners and loggers, and after leaving the Federal Indian Foundation, he became the first governor of Roraima. In 1995 he ran for senator and won. Eight years later, he won again, then again in 2011.
But for some reason, even before the 2018 campaign season kicked off, Jucá was lagging behind in the polls. I’m guessing he went out of his way to find a new adviser that year — someone young, but with a good track record. Someone whose job was not so radically different from my own, in fact. Regardless of who my audience is, I am in charge of creating moods. Occasionally, I’ll jump down the set list if the crowd seems eager to dance. But you never want to be too hasty; once you get people up and moving, it’s hard to get them to sit back down. If Jucá injected too much hate into his campaign, he could risk losing control of the situation on the ground. And if he veered away from the president’s liberal narrative, he risked his position in Brasília. So why not appeal to people’s finer qualities? Their Christian charity? For a while, that seemed to be his strategy.
It was after midnight when the band started packing up, musicians cracking jokes across the stage in Spanish. The senator and his adviser had left an hour before, halfway through our second set. Out back, my husband packed his guitar and other instruments into the trunk of our 2003 Honda Fit, and the four of us piled in. We made stops to drop off the drummer and the saxophonist, ages 64 and 26, respectively, at their girlfriends’ homes, where they were usually welcome. Back home, the air in our apartment was so humid I couldn’t strike a match. I used my husband’s lighter to light the stove and heated a washcloth in a small pan. In the upstairs bathroom I wiped my makeup off, and the act was finally over. The game was up. Looking at my face in the dull light over the mirror, I noticed I looked as tired as I felt.
A few weeks later, on Saturday, August 18, the townspeople of Pacaraima rallied and took stock of all the streets and abandoned structures where Venezuelans had set up makeshift homes. A crime had been committed the night before: a shopkeeper named Raimundo Nonato de Oliveira had been attacked with a screwdriver and was rumored to be in a coma. A congressional candidate posted a Facebook video saying de Oliveira was hovering between life and death, and the video was shared widely across Roraima. Everybody said it had been done by Venezuelans, it had to have been done by Venezuelans, there was nobody else in town who would think to do such a thing, other than the Venezuelans. Over a thousand villagers joined forces to punish them. A tractor was enlisted to topple the public stage underneath which a number of immigrant families were living. People were pulled from their tents and told to march. Photo messages circulated on WhatsApp of Venezuelan men being grabbed by the collar, and people texted back clapping hands, praying hands, emojis of redemption.
By evening, twelve hundred Venezuelans had been run back over the border. Others were hiding in the triage center, in the church, and in the homes of a few sympathetic residents. Border soldiers did nothing to stop the rioters, and everything left behind, all the clothes, blankets, tents, and belongings, were burned in bonfires along the main street.
In truth, Raimundo Nonato de Oliveira had never been in a coma. He was upset about the attack, but he was also shocked by its repercussions.
Provincial Roraima flooded the national news, and the BBC published photos of the violence. Brazilian public figures condemned the attacks as “xenophobic.” Local politicians became defensive and took to Twitter to argue that the people of Pacaraima were being unfairly judged by outsiders who didn’t understand them. How would you like to live on the front line of a crisis? In a series of careful tweets, Jucá assured his forty thousand followers that he had spoken to the president about the possibility of closing the border. “Roraima cannot take any more new arrivals,” he added. “We have a serious security problem.”
When I was 17, I left New York and moved to Venezuela. In the eight years that followed, I built the foundations of my adult life; my musical education, job experience, husband, mother-in-law, nieces, nephews, my band, and most of my closest friends are Venezuelan. My claim on the country is as strong as any claim of yours over the people and places you love, which is to say, I have none. I only miss it. I miss the frank humor and outspokenness of Venezuelans, their sudden warmth when they like you immediately, their blithe indifference when they don’t. I miss feeling connected to Latin America. Brazilian culture is vast but insular, and few people are aware of the social movements that run like telephone wires up and down the Spanish-speaking continent around them. I even miss the miracles, though that might sound strange. As the economy unraveled, whole Venezuelan cities were held intact by small miracles, by strange coincidences, by random acts of goodwill and community-improvised solutions that stretched like gossamer between the houses and buildings, bearing the weight of all our hopes. What I mean to say is, there are moments, as you fall, when you feel like you can fly. But I watched as people began to slip through the cracks, and then the floor gave out altogether.
My husband and I hit the ground in 2016 after eight months without running water, when he nearly died from lack of malaria treatment. We decided Boa Vista was the most strategic place to continue supporting his family, who live on the other side of the border. We were lucky, too. Dizzyingly lucky. Our band, which had been growing slowly in Venezuela, became a hit success in Boa Vista, and we were treated like local celebrities. We were introduced to the powerful political class and invited to play gigs at their clubs. A former Miss Roraima flew us out to perform at her wedding in Brasília. (Jucá was in attendance.) In one month we moved out of our friends’ house and into an apartment and bought a mattress, a used fridge, an old sofa, and an air-conditioning unit, all in small stacks of cash.
We did not hide the fact that we came from Venezuela, because there was no need to — we had arrived ahead of the curve. By the time immigrants started coming in bigger groups, we were on bigger stages, and our fanbase had become more diverse. We combined efforts with local organizations to collect donations for the first immigrant shelter, and our audience responded enthusiastically. For a brief moment, we were an institution. We wrote a song for a UN campaign against xenophobia. We sang Manu Chao’s song “Clandestino” at concerts and tried to start a conversation about migration as a human right. People danced and bobbed their heads. Once, a drunk man pulled my hand roughly between songs, forcing me to lean down to his height.
“You’re a pretty thing, and you sing good. Stop talking.”
Then came a night before Carnaval, in February of last year. A Brazilian friend called me and made me promise not to look on Facebook. A photo of me holding a protest sign had been posted by a reactionary page and already there were hundreds of comments, most of them critiques of my body. My friend read the funnier ones to me over the phone. All of the commenters believed I was Venezuelan. My “new clothes” were proof that immigrants like myself were cashing checks from the government and the UN. Two people had seen me buying drugs downtown, they said, surely with taxpayers’ money. Most people agreed I should shut up and sing. There were other, more threatening comments, too. Another friend, a public prosecutor, took screenshots of those to court, and the page was ordered to shut down.
As always with Bolsonaro, it was hard to distinguish rumor from truth, and harder, even, to remember why one should distinguish them, when it all came down to the same thing.Tweet
In theory we could have left Boa Vista for a bigger city like São Paulo, but supporting family in Venezuela can be tricky. The economy is sanctioned and isolated, and bank accounts are throttled by low daily withdrawal limits, so any money wired into them deflates more quickly than the account holder can spend it. Instead, every three weeks we pack twenty kilos of groceries — rice, beans, powdered milk, dried beef, cured sausage, tomato paste, coffee, sugar, margarine, flour, along with soap, toothpaste, and feminine hygiene products — into an enormous canvas bag, which we send by bus to Pacaraima, where my mother-in-law picks it up and takes it home across the border, divvying part of it into smaller packages to send to her own mother and her siblings in other cities.
Then there’s the fact that our apartment in Boa Vista has taken on a role of its own. The second bedroom — which I called “my office” until I realized that was a pipe dream — is frequently occupied by friends, acquaintances, or, occasionally, strangers who are in transit or have come on an errand. In the evenings we sit on the sunken couch and listen to our houseguests process their shock at seeing thousands of people like themselves living on the streets, people whose faces and gestures recall uncles, sisters, friends. One word used often is nightmare, but not in the casual way, not like how you would clap your forehead and say, “What a nightmare!” Rather, they say it the way my husband has said it, gulping air, one hand flying vaguely out to me in the air-conditioned darkness of our bedroom. A nightmare.
Recently I met a man on a bike outside a produce shop, around the same age as my husband and visibly fatigued, sweat dripping down his ashen face. He asked the owner of the shop for a glass of water, and she acted as if she hadn’t understood, though it’s the same word in Portuguese as it is in Spanish: água. I bought a bottle from the fridge and asked him his name. He looked up when he heard me speak. Jesús was his name, he had been in Boa Vista for six days, and the only money he’d made was twenty reais (around $5) for mowing someone’s lawn. Another migrant had lent him a bike so he could look for work. I told him it was dangerous to be out at midday. It was over 100 degrees, and the streets were deserted. He would do any kind of job, he went on, he only wanted to send his mother food for her to eat. That’s how he said it, comida para ella comer. I went to the car to get some groceries. His face tightened as he looked into the plastic bag, not from disappointment but because he clearly despised himself; his need for water, his need to eat. He took my hand, squeezed it gently, and got back on the bike.
I teach a creative writing class at the immigrant aid center inside the university. In a recent class I asked my students to write down a memory, any memory, using all five senses. A 15-year-old girl stood up to share hers.
“My happiest memory,” she began, “is waking up in my bed . . .”
Then she was crying too hard to continue.
On the last Monday in August, I drove to the university. Bolsonaro’s slogan, “Brazil Above All, God Above All,” was visible at every stoplight — if not on the car to the left, then certainly on the one to the right. (His education minister would later ask schoolchildren to repeat this slogan every morning, after the national anthem.) I remember noting that his popularity in Boa Vista had grown visibly in the span of one week. It might have had something to do with the attack in Pacaraima, or an old video clip that had gone viral on Facebook in which he promised to revoke the protections on indigenous territory and swore to “put a rifle in every landowner’s hands.” And behind the viral videos, there were rumors. People said his campaign was being managed by the firm Cambridge Analytica, of Brexit fame, and advised by Steve Bannon. But as always with Bolsonaro, it was hard to distinguish rumor from truth, and harder, even, to remember why one should distinguish them, when it all came down to the same thing.
Breaking news, a woman’s voice came over the radio. In an unexpected move, Senator Jucá has announced he will be splitting from President Temer and stepping down as leader of the Senate. This, he says, is due to the president taking too weak a stance on what he called “the Venezuelan invasion.” The senator went on to say his primary concern is the safety of the people of Roraima —
A week later, a local Boa Vista man was stabbed and killed while barring the exit of a supermarket to stop a shoplifter. His killer, a teenage immigrant, did not get far. He was beaten to death within a block of the store. Within hours, the nearby migrant shelter where the teenager had been living — a former fire station housing three hundred Venezuelan men, women, and children — came under attack. Locals patrolled the streets, shouting insults and threats. The UN agencies warned their workers not to go near the area with any sort of identifying gear.
For thirty-six hours, while the neighborhood man was buried, nobody left the shelter. Gunshots were fired at the concrete walls. One Brazilian woman, Sister Telma Lages, left home with a mattress in hand and spent a night in the entranceway, hoping that her status as a Catholic nun would shield the immigrants inside. The following morning, the building was empty. Local activists had dialed the right numbers, and the federal army had escorted everyone out under cover of night.
I didn’t see Jucá or his campaign adviser in the weeks leading up to the October elections. I wondered if both were lying low, waiting to see the results of their coup de maître. I tried to imagine the adviser back in Brasília, relieved to get back to his air-conditioned gym after hot, sweaty runs in Boa Vista.
But back north, Jucá continued to slide in the polls. I pictured the adviser pausing to ignore a call from the senator on his iPhone before increasing the speed on his treadmill. What was supposed to have been easy was going terribly wrong. Boa Vista, I imagined him saying under his breath. He had not realized before how perfectly composed the city was, how neatly it managed to encompass the hopes and fears of Brazil’s aspiring middle class. Wedged between primitive forest and socialist Gomorrah, the city was a citadel for family values, its brightly lit avenues and shopping malls a testament to the safety that money can buy. No wonder Bolsonaro called Roraima “the apple of his eye.” The whole state was younger than his third wife, and Boa Vista was its crown jewel: a city that looked only forward, never back.
In the week before the elections, dark green flags appeared at the stoplights in central Boa Vista. The large triangular banners are often used by minor candidates to get their names out, but these were unusual. These banners bore the name of Jucá. At one intersection, flag holders promoting the senator stood awkwardly beside an immigrant man who had been there since the early morning. On his cardboard sign were listed his abilities:
Someone forwarded me a photo of this scene via WhatsApp. Underneath she added the caption: “I lived to see Jucá begging for votes at the stoplight.”
I laughed. It was gratifying, for a short moment, to see the old rulers losing ground.
On the final day of the elections, I was sitting on the back porch of my apartment building with a few girlfriends. Two of them had already voted; the other was an immigrant like me and therefore could not vote. Occasional firecrackers were going off throughout the city in anticipation of the results. I was hungry, and I asked who wanted to come with me to buy cheese for the arepas I planned to make. The supermarket was only a five-minute trip by car. All three friends joined. The ballots had not been fully counted, but the streets were already filled with revelers. People hung out of moving vehicles and crossed the street in large groups, many of them wearing the national yellow soccer jerseys with Bolsonaro’s campaign number, 17. I stepped lightly on the brakes to let a car full of teenage girls pass me on the right and realized there was something odd about the number on the shirts. The 1 was bent at a strange angle and had a handle . . . It was not a 1 but an AK-47.
Distracted, I followed my regular route, merging onto the five-lane central circle without realizing that traffic was moving unusually slow. It had become a caravan of vehicles circling the central garimpeiro statue. Unable to switch lanes or exit the circle, my friends and I were now stuck in the sluggish progression of cars. Fireworks went off over our heads, this time in earnest. By then, we didn’t need to turn the radio on. It was clear Bolsonaro had won. Thousands of people were gathered around the statue, where Brazilian country music, called sertanejo, was blaring from a tower of speakers. Between the cars in front of us, hot-dog sellers and hawkers with Styrofoam coolers were showing up on foot.
I was grateful, in that moment, that the windows of my car are tinted. Doing a quick inventory of my passengers, I counted two nose rings, including my own, two septum rings, multiple tattoos, and four heads of curls ranging from Lucille Ball to Donna Summer, all of which clearly identified us as women in opposition to the new candidate. (Ninety-nine percent of women who support Bolsonaro have straight or straightened hair. I dare anyone to prove me wrong.) Behind us, a silver Nissan truck was beeping incessantly, its bumper pushed right up against the back of our car. At first I thought it was in celebration, but the driver was not happily honking like the others. I glanced quickly in my rearview mirror. The man behind the wheel was pressing on the horn in one loud, angry beep.
My friend leaned in close to shout over the noise. Did my car have any revealing bumper stickers? I searched my memory. There was one of our band logo, another retro-looking one from a national park, and — my stomach dropped — a sticker my husband had put on the back windshield months ago, when things were still so different. It says simply, in red letters, i am an immigrant. Other cars had joined the truck to form a chorus of beeps behind us. Moving carefully, I tried to maneuver into the outer lane. I glanced in the mirror in time to see the man gesturing angrily in our direction. I looked away before we could make eye contact and kept my eyes on the road. The beeping continued, blasting out the music beyond. At the next exit, I lurched toward an opening in the right-hand lane, inciting more beeps until, finally, we were able to exit the circle.
After all the ballots were counted, Jucá lost by 426 votes to a man who campaigned under the nickname Messiah of Jesus and with the slogan “Roraima First.” Bolsonaro swept Boa Vista with 78.6 percent of the vote, the second-highest lead of all the country’s capitals. Roraima also elected a new governor, a powerful agribusinessman tied to Bolsonaro’s emergent Social Liberal Party. Within days, the president-elect announced plans to fold the Ministry of the Environment into the Ministry of Agriculture, effectively putting a group of cattle, corn, and soybean magnates in charge of the Amazon rain forest. Before Bolsonaro, Brazil was already the deadliest country in the world for environmental activists. After Bolsonaro, who knows? Since getting elected, he has gone back on the merging of the two ministries and a few of his other campaign promises, like his threat to leave the UN. Some days he declares he won’t cooperate with them in regard to the migrant crisis; days later he says, quietly, that he will. The problem is his followers. Like I said, once you get people moving, you can’t get them to sit back down.
After my friends and I managed to get home from the supermarket, I mixed corn flour with salt and water and placed the arepas gently, like little yellow suns, onto the cast-iron griddle that was a parting gift from my mother-in-law. After dinner, we lay out on the porch, and I sang for the first time in months.
If the sky that we look upon
Should tumble and fall,
Or the mountain should crumble to the sea . . .
The night I performed “Stand by Me” for the senator was one of the last times I sang in public. After the August attack in Pacaraima, my husband and I decided to look for other jobs. The only show we agreed to do was the gay pride parade, because the LGBT community has been supportive of immigrant rights since the beginning. As for the rest of the city, I don’t trust myself to hold a microphone in front of them. I don’t know what I would say.
Good night, Boa Vista. I hope you can sleep.