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Former Brazilian Model Turned Beggar Stirs Debate on Racism

Categories: Latin America, Brazil, Citizen Media, Ethnicity & Race, Human Rights

Tall, blue-eyed and wrapped in a blanket while roaming the streets of Curitiba in the south of Brazil, Rafael Nunes, a former Brazilian model (now known as the photogenic beggar of Curitiba) has gained international attention after his picture and story went viral on Facebook and Twitter.

Rafael, aged 30, ended up on the streets because of crack cocaine addiction and his story [1] was only revealed after Indy Zanardo, a tourist, was approached by Rafael and asked if his picture could be taken. After uploading it onto her Facebook wall [2] [pt], Indy Zanardo explained that:

Este rapaz chegou ate mim nas ruas de Curitiba e me pediu se eu poderia tirar uma foto dele e eu perguntei para que, ele me respondeu: Para colocar na “radio” quem sabe eu fico famoso :) … Na “radio” eu nao posso por mas aqui no mural do meu Face sim, e ele sera famoso entre meus amigos.

Photo by Indy Zanardo on Facebook [2]

Photo by Indy Zanardo shared 54,000 times on Facebook

This guy came to me in the streets of Curitiba and asked if I could take his picture, so I asked what for, and he answered: to put it on the “radio” who knows I may become famous :-)… Although I cannot put the picture on the radio I can put it on my Facebook wall and he will be famous among my friends.

Besides the general reaction to his good looks and his sad drug addiction story, the debate on Rafael’s case has grown into a racism-oriented discussion about how Brazilian society only reacts with indignation to situations of social exclusion when those affected are white and ‘European-looking’.

Although Brazilians are one of the most racially diverse [3] societies in the world, the top of the country's social economic pyramid [4] is still widely occupied by white Brazilians and most social indicators connected to education, access to health-care and employment overwhelmingly privilege this group.

Blogger Robson Fernando Souza from consciencia.blog.br [5] [pt] argues that very few people would have reacted in the same way if the case was that of an Afro-Brazilian beggar:

Em outras palavras, para nossa sociedade, não é normal ver em mendicância e miséria um branco de aparência europeia. Para ela, brancos merecem muito mais do que isso. Mas, por outro lado, negros nas ruas pedindo esmolas e implorando por dignidade é considerado algo mais que normal.

In other words, it is not normal for our society to accept a white person with a European aspect living in homelessness and misery. For us, whites deserve more than that, while a homeless black person begging for money and dignity is considered something normal. This is already tradition.

Fatima Tardelli, who blogs with Bule Voador [6] [pt], argues that Brazil’s models of beauty are based exclusively on white patterns (i.e. fair skin, blue-eyes, straight hair) a clear sign dangerously ignored by society, that there is a hierarchical perception of race in Brazil. As an example of this distorted perception, she states that:

Outras pessoas em vários portais mostraram-se assustadas com o fato de um homem branco ‘bonito’  ser mendigo, chegaram a dizer que era golpe de marketing ou viral. Alguém já pensou do porquê desse ‘susto’?

Several people in the social media [sphere] have appeared shocked by the fact that a white and “handsome” man could be a beggar, and many even argued that the whole thing had to be a marketing move. Has anyone considered the reason “why” people are so surprised?

“Hung - Dreams burned by inequality. São Paulo-Brazil.” Photo by cassimano on Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) [7]

“Hung – Dreams burned by inequality. São Paulo-Brazil.” Photo by cassimano on Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Another sign of this social denial is that the discussion on Twitter has revolved mostly around the fact that Rafael should be on a fashion show rather than on the streets, while very few picked up on the underlying social theme that renders a white blue-eyed homeless guy a sensation while there are thousands of black and mixed race beggars in the country that are “invisible” to the eyes of society.

On Twitter [8] [pt], journalist Jéssica Batista (@jessicabatista [9]) ironically pointed out this double-standard:

O mendigo de Curitiba foi pra rehab. Legal. Mas só pq era branco de olho claro e todos ficaram com dó. CLAP CLAP CLAP

The Curitiba beggar went to rehab. Cool. But everyone felt sorry for him only because he was white and blue-eyed.  CLAP CLAP CLAP.

Of course, it is positive that the social media’s reaction has helped to shed light on Rafael’s individual drama and might very well give him the opportunity to start over after he was sent to rehab. However, as Fatima Tardelli and other social media citizens have pointed out, the degree of surprise and indignation reactions regarding his situation, when most of the time people completely ignore issues related to indigents and their personal dramas, hints to a bigger social problem.

At its basis is a historical acceptance that race and poverty are mutually inclusive and thus “acceptable” if one is black, instead of being perceived as the product of centuries of social exclusion and narrow-sighted state policies that only recently have started to consider the question of race and inequality in a country where more than 51 percent [10] [pt] of its population are considered of African descent.