LARGE IMAGE Scholar by day, street sweeper by night, black man navigates Rio’s racial divide

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RIO DE JANEIRO, July 6 (Reuters) – Felipe Luther spends his afternoons studying for a degree from one of Brazil’s top universities, nestled in the verdant hills of Rio de Janeiro above the luxurious beaches of Leblon and Ipanema.

He spends his nights hauling garbage in these wealthy communities below.

“When I tell my classmates about my job, they are often shocked,” Luther said in an interview.

In 2017, he was awarded a full scholarship for the social sciences program at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio (PUC-Rio), a private school that has struck central bank presidents and movie stars.

Luther’s rare opportunity and daily routine are reminiscent of the disparities in Brazilian society and in Rio in particular, where a police raid killing dozens of people in May sparked a new debate about the dangers and downsides facing men. black like him.

Luther, 38, had previously dropped out of college to work to support his family, including a street sweeping job with the municipal cleaning agency since 2009.

“A lot of students like me start working at a very young age,” said Luther, who comes from humble roots in northern Rio, more than two hours from campus. “It cuts down on the time and structure they need to be able to compete with the elite kids.”

Studying at PUC-Rio put Luther’s dreams at their fingertips, while also bringing him face to face with the predominantly white elite of a country where 54% of people have African ancestors.

In 2000, the national census found that white Brazilians were five times more likely to have attended university than their black, mixed-race and indigenous peers.

“Because there are so few blacks at this renowned university, many see blacks as waiters, not classmates,” Luther said, recalling the awkward clashes on campus.

In one case, a woman mistook Luther for an elevator operator. In another, someone tried to buy him a cup of coffee, mistaking him for cafeteria staff.

“It hurts, in a way, because you feel like you are out of place,” he reflected.

Educational inequalities in Brazil have only grown during the pandemic as distance classes force students to depend on resources at home, widening a gap between the haves and have-nots.

For months, Luther read by candlelight at night in Niterói, across the bay from campus, where his student residence often ran out of power. He charged his phone and laptop at work and used them to study until his 9pm to 5am street sweeping shift.

“For my course, which takes a lot of reading, I need a better computer than the one I have. But some people don’t even have a computer,” he said, pointing out the range of challenges for disadvantaged students forced to study at home. “Not all phones are good enough to work, and not everyone has a phone … or enough internet data to download their readings.”


Felipe Luther, 37, a scholarship student at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio (PUC-Rio) who also works as a street sweeper, uses his mobile phone to participate in an online course for his university, as he holds his dog Mel at his home in Belford Roxo, near Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, December 9, 2020. Educational inequalities in Brazil have only increased during the pandemic, as remote classrooms force students to depend on resources at the house, widening the gap between the haves and have-nots. “For my course, which takes a lot of reading, I need a better computer than the one I have. But some people don’t even have a computer,” Luther said, noting the range of challenges. for disadvantaged students forced to study from home. “Not all phones are good enough to work, and not everyone has a phone … or enough internet data to download their readings.” REUTERS / Pilar Olivares

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Recent events in Rio have underscored the even greater challenges that Luther faces as a black man.

In May, police stormed Jacarezinho, a poor community in northern Rio, in a raid targeting the Red Command drug gang. The shooting that lasted for hours killed 27 men in the neighborhood and an officer, making it one of the deadliest police operations in the city’s history and prompted a backlash from rights groups humans.

Luther, who has two sisters living minutes from Jacarezinho, joined a demonstration in Rio the week after the deadly raid, taking advantage of the official anniversary of abolition in the country to protest police violence against Afro-Brazilians .

“NO to genocide against blacks”, could be read on the sign of a demonstrator.

Luther said he lived in constant fear of police violence and was keen to stay off the streets in certain areas at night.

“Even if I was rich or very famous, I would still live in a black body in a city, a state, a country where black people seem expendable,” he said.

More than three-quarters of the nearly 9,000 people killed by Brazilian police over the past decade were black men, according to Human Rights Watch.


Despite the threats, Afro-Brazilian culture continues to thrive in Brazil as it has for centuries.

Twice a week, Luther goes to a local “terreiro” to practice Umbanda, a religion derived from the spiritual traditions of West Africa. Dressed in all-white clothes with pearl necklaces hanging over his chest, Luther participates in dances, songs, and rituals with other believers.

“It connects me to my ancestors,” he said.

Popularized in Rio in the 1930s, Umbanda, like Candomblé, the Afro-Brazilian religion, has its roots in the transatlantic slave trade, which brought up to 5 million slaves from Africa to Brazil – 10 times the number brought to the United States.

Those who sought to practice their rituals without being harassed by Europeans mixed their native traditions with elements of Catholicism, creating syncretic religions now practiced by more than half a million people in the country.

Brazilian churches often serve as community hubs, like the one where Luther took a free college prep course in 2017, setting him up for PUC-Rio.

Upon graduation, Luther says one of his goals is to begin teaching college prep courses in low-income communities, opening the door for the next generation of aspiring students.

“I want to give back to other young people by allowing them to hope it is possible,” he said.

(See the related photo essay here)

Reporting by Pilar Olivares and Jimin Kang Editing by Brad Haynes and Lisa Shumaker

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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