FILM: Behind the Pristine City. . .Rubbish People


Anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes reviews “Waste Land,” the Oscar-nominated documentary about art and Brazilian trash pickers.

When I first lived on a rocky cliff of the Alto do Cruzeiro, a hillside shantytown in the sugar plantation zone of Brazil in the mid-1960s, sharing a tiny wattle and daub hut with a railroad worker and his wife, we had to make do sans electricity, running water, sanitation, sewers — without any amenities to speak of. I marveled how, through the torrid heat of summer and the torrential rains of winter, the 5,000 odd squatters living cheek by jowl did not stink. Not badly, anyway. Nor did their huts stink. To be sure, the few outdoor pit latrines stank to high heaven, and necessary nocturnal visits to the pits were softened with the help of lemons and guava fruit split in half and worn like a clown’s nose. But most offensive to the keen olfactory sensibilities of the people of the Alto was the giant mound of garbage dumped at the bottom of the hill awaiting weekly pick up. By Sunday night, the dump crawled with rats, giant cockroaches, and the ominous gathering tribes of urubu or black vultures. The birds circled overhead, adding their odiferous scent, the catinga-de-urubu to the mix. The primitive viaducts that carried wastewater from the Alto to the local river also reeked, but not nearly as bad as the stench that oozed from street drains in the most elegant sections of Recife, Rio de Janeiro, Salvador, and São Paulo.

Publication date: 
August 19, 2010
Publication type: 
Berkeley Review of Latin American Studies Article