Before discovering the street newspaper OCAS, Pilar Ferreira had spent her life cleaning properties in some of Brazil’s wealthiest neighborhoods. When she started cleaning at 8 years old, she also discovered a passion for the arts.
“I read ‘Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves’ and decided to write a story. My mother’s boss came into my room, saw my papers on the floor and said that I was writing too much. Then she made sure to keep me busy. She said that to write was to laze about, and that it was time for me to get a job. She made me wash dishes that were already clean.”
At the time Pilar lived and worked with her mother, a cleaner for an exclusive private members club in Belo Horizonte.
“[The boss] tore everything up ... said, ‘Get to work, blackie, you’re aiming too high.’ This phrase has haunted me all my life, and today every time I take part in a literary project, a recital, I remember this. It was complete nonsense.”
Having landed her first paid cleaning job at 14, experience was certainly on Pilar’s side, yet she earned a reputation for being difficult and struggled to find a permanent job. Disputes with her employers were always based on labor issues because “some things I just would not accept.”
Pilar completed basic education at a university in São Paulo through a course for deprived adults, but outside the classroom she was still having difficulty securing work. Money was running low and she was eventually evicted.
She was crying in the doorway at the Museum of Art of São Paulo when she saw a man with a bundle of magazines under his arm. “I saw that guy handing out magazines, and I went over and asked him how I could get a job like that.”
The man’s name was Cláudio and he worked as an OCAS vendor. He told her about the organization and together they went to its headquarters in Brás, where Pilar received her orange vest and a pack of 10 magazines. It was a Monday morning. On Wednesday she went back for more.
São Paulo’s theaters, museums, bookshops and universities became Pilar’s prime selling spots. On good days she manages to sell up to 30 magazines at four reals per copy. From each individual sale, Pilar keeps three reals, and with the remainder she buys more magazines. “In one of the family homes I learned how to speak English, and the tourists buy quite a lot. There were periods where I didn’t stop working until one in the morning. I had to make the most of the people coming out of the cinema and theater.
“The shift in my type of work was drastic. I gained responsibility for my working hours and my earnings. Selling the magazine, I met artists, actors, singers and lots of very nice people. I showed them my poems. They often give me free tickets for shows, invitations to plays. All of this keeps me going.”
“OCAS turned my life around,” explains the vendor, who is now an evening performance artist, poet and novelist.
She first published her poetry in OCAS. She then gained exposure in anthologies, blogs and exhibitions. Pilar is particularly enthusiastic about her book “Unacademic Words,” published in 2009. “I didn’t go to university, but living on the streets inspired me to produce, in that work, what I consider to be worthy of postgraduate level.”
Pilar is also involved with other organized groups and movements related to women, black youth and housing: “For me it is empowering. People need information.”
She also dedicates a great deal of time to photography classes, African dance and itinerant performances of erotic poetry. “I love it”, she says. “It is a kind of erotic and sensual poetry, it is not pornography. It’s different, like the Marquis de Sade or [Portuguese poet Manuel Maria Barbosa du] Bocage.”
After eight years with OCAS, Pilar managed to rent the house she lives in today with her children. “We have money to eat and pay the bills, which is more important. … I don’t hanker after wealth, but I would really like to buy a house. And I think it is going to happen through OCAS and my arts."