It’s Hard to Be a Saint in São Paulo

Stories and scenes from Brazil’s largest city

Founded by Jesuits in 1554 on a vast, fertile plateau near the Atlantic coast, São Paulo has historically drawn large numbers of opportunity seekers. In the nineteenth century, Italians, Spaniards, Portuguese, and Germans came to run its vast coffee plantations. Then, when the coffee economy began to decline in the early twentieth century, the newly industrializing city drew waves of immigrants from Japan, the Middle East, and northeastern Brazil. By 1940, São Paulo was considered Brazil’s economic engine, with a population that had increased by a factor of thirty, to almost 1.3 million, in just under six decades.

Another seven decades on, the figure is 11 million. Rapid growth has combined with the consequences of poor urban planning, military rule, and municipal corruption to cause deep instability. The United Nations Human Settlements Programme estimates that a third of the city’s inhabitants now live below the poverty line, and as the city’s economy begins to shift again — this time toward the service and technology sectors — São Paulo’s lower classes find themselves increasingly marginalized, taking refuge in ever more drastic living situations.

Some stay close to the centre, creating vertical slums in the thousands of abandoned buildings scattered throughout the city core, while more than two thirds of the populace lives in favelas on the outskirts, facing appalling sanitary conditions, overcrowded schools, and rampant crime.