We all have that happy place which we escape to in moments of grief, anxiety, exhaustion, or fear. We close our eyes, we settle ourselves, we let our imagination transport us to somewhere that is not here, not now.
I have many happy places scattered across the globe, some idyllic paradises, other cosy corners, but there is one which remains to be the happiest of them all: São Bernardo do Campo.
It is a suburb in the state of São Paulo, Brazil, where my family lives, where my father was born and raised. It is an alternative version of home. It is a dream I long for most of the time, a distant reality of my childhood, a place inhabited by my late grandparents, my uncles and aunt, their dogs, their food, their stories. My younger self used to visit São Bernardo do Campo often on family holidays. For me, it is the homebase for family reunions and endless feasts. It is a place of eternal celebration, my father and his Australian family returning once again. Each time we arrived, we walked straight into a hug, then were placed proudly at the dinner table, where recollections of the past and current life updates piled up before us.
São Bernardo do Campo is not everyone’s happy place, not even the locals’: it is, to be honest, quite a privilege to be able to call it my happy place, to not be at the mercy of Brazil’s terrible economy, of the country’s corrupt politics, of the crime and poverty that still thumps brutally at the heart of the country.
The municipality of São Bernardo do Campo was founded in 1553, originally named Vila de Santo André da Borda do Campo de Piratininga, and is historically considered the first Brazilian settlement built away from the sea. The ancestral heritage of its population is heavily influenced by the flux of Italian immigrants in the 19th century, then the large arrival of Japanese immigrants in the 20th century. Today, São Bernardo do Campo is the second-most populous suburb of São Paulo, the population made up of mostly Afro-Brazilians and Luso-Brazilians.
In the 1960s, when the metal industry boomed, São Bernardo do Campo became known as Brazil’s Automobile Capital. The former anti-military dictatorship president of Brazil, Luiz “Lula” Inácio Lula da Silva, became a union steelworker in some of São Bernardo do Campo’s many automobile factories, solidifying his politics. While my own father was growing up under a military dictatorship, Lula was organising major labour strikes and union activities. In my visits to São Bernardo do Campo throughout the 2000’s and 2010’s, I glimpsed remnants of Brazil’s Automobile Capital as I drove past the sprawling Volkswagen factory again and again.
Within São Bernardo do Campo, my family lives in a small area called Jordanópolis. The muggy mornings are filled with the birdsong of yellow bem-te-vis and drives to the local bakery at the top of the hill to collect fresh pão de queijo and pão francês for breakfast. Low cement walls lining the roads are tattooed with graffiti and business advertisements, phone numbers to call and street art to make a statement. The suburban houses are all protected by tall, metal gates, their tops either pronged with steel spikes or shards of broken glass.
My family’s house is a safe haven among the gritty bustle and cement surprises of São Bernardo do Campo. While eating my breakfast or chatting with my relatives, the howl of a car alarm could suddenly whine relentlessly, my sister and I peeking out a window at the top of the house to watch the action. Out of this same window, on another occasion, we watched the police round up a gang of suspects against a concrete wall, their hands in the air, the crime unknown to us. I will never know the full extent of São Bernardo do Campo’s underbelly, but I know that my family has been robbed countless times, my uncle’s car stolen, my vovó’s house broken into. I remember the boom of a gun one morning, and my dad remarking, “Oh that’s not a gun, that’s a firework, signalling that the drugs have arrived.”
Despite the danger that the residents gate themselves against, my own vovó being a loyal owner of countless guard dogs throughout the years, São Bernardo do Campo has an undeniable sense of community. On mornings of the feira (local market), vovó would take my sister and I by the hand and walk us through the suburb, greeting neighbours along the way, showing off her visiting granddaughters, making remarks about this and that. Everyone was friendly, everyone knows who’s who.
The markets themselves were always a treat to experience: long rows of stalls selling towers of bright, ripe fruit, their sweet smell perfuming the sticky air. We ambled slowly down the stalls as vovó bought bags of spices and vegetables, my sister and I sweating through our clothes. Vendors sold bundles of counterfeit Havaianas and handmade crockery. At the end of the winding road of produce was a shady area where we drank bottles of sugar cane juice and ate cheese pasteis as big as our faces.
As I reflect on my memories of São Bernardo do Campo, I notice that I owe my love for the place to my family. Perhaps, when I say São Bernardo do Campo is my happy place, what I really mean is that being with my family is my happy place. Nevertheless, my family is inextricable from that beloved suburb; they go hand in hand. One does not exist without the other.