As some of you know, I am Brazilian. I lived in the state of Rio de Janeiro until I was sixteen, when I relocated to London.
A couple of years ago, on a visit back, I found myself incredibly bored on a Saturday night in a grotty suburb called Duque de Caxias with my best friends Binho and the stunning Fefeli and her then (grotty as I can’t describe)boyfriend. Desperately seeking thrills, we decided to gatecrash someone’s party.
Already drunk, we were met with a frosty reception that bordered on comical. I really couldn’t have cared less as being around any people, even of the obnoxious and grotty type, worked as a buffer zone between me and the grotty then-boyfriend. My reaction to their disparaging comments at that point was to play guitar and sing even louder, but my companions felt less and less at ease as the minutes progressed.
It was at this moment that a sympathetic man took pity on us for the wretched treatment we were made to suffer for our boredom. Like the player who had been holding his best card to his chest until the choicest moment, he called us girls to the side and asked:
- How would you two like to visit the biggest brothel in Rio?
- When?!!! Now? How?! What do you mean, the biggest brothel in Rio?
- It’s called the Vila Mimosa. I can drive us there, it’s not too far. There are plenty of bars there, we can have a good time and we won’t have to put up with anymore shit from these arseholes.
Our sense of adventure had suddenly been turned up a couple of notches. The biggest brothel in Rio!!! With visions of a decrepit colonial mansion with a crumbling pink facade, or a warehouse on a disused factory site, we began to ponder escaping from the worst party we had ever attended. Satisfied that our fellow attendees were not going to warm to us anymore than they had already done, the five of us pack into this guy’s VW Beetle and set off on our wild escapade.
As we approached the borough of Sao Cristovao we drove past the Northeastern Flea Market, our driver turned into a street on the right, and after a while turned left. A Military Police Car was blocking the road, and we were told to pull over to the side. At this point our driver(who, may I add, we hadn’t met before the party)panicked, and decided to reveal he has a *small quantity of weed* in one of his pockets, and that we would basically have been screwed if he got searched. Knowing there was no way of discarding this through a window, the then-boyfriend suggested us girls could hide it in our bra or knickers, to which our outraged companion interjected:
- Are you fucking stupid or something? That’s the first place he’s going to look. We’re not in the Zona Sul, ladies, he will stick his finger everywhere without giving it a second thought!
Frozen with fear, our illusions of ethical treatment crumbling beneath our trembling feet, we put on the sweetest, most wholesome expression we could possibly muster in that state of forgotten sobriety, and fortunately it seemed to work. After having his documents inspected under torchlight, our driver was given permission to proceed.
Finally we parked up somewhere, and wandered out through the streets lined with streetlamps like inverted fluorescent fingernails; bars playing loud music and people spilling out, while Rio goths(a somewhat different breed to London goths)loitered around the corners looking menacing. And then, we are there:
We take a left and then a right(I dont really remember the order), and suddenly we are on a traffic-free cobbled street, packed solid with people. A woman walks out across the street into a bar, wearing nothing but a see-through red thong and high heels. Eh?
You may be surprised by my shock, considering us brazilian girls seem to think nothing of wearing impossibly tiny swimwear in broad sunlight; however, you may be surprised to know that topless sunbathing is illegal in most beaches, and frowned upon in a good proportion of the places where it is permitted. Furthermore, it was a chilly night in May. My London-toughened sensitivity to low temperatures still demanded a couple of warm layers.
Keeping our hands locked around our male companions’ arms with a grip of steel, we proceed to enter the dizzying labyrinth of gaudy neon-lit makeshift bars, where more and more women in various states of undress parade themselves upon the crowd that we have soon come to identify as 99.999…% male(i.e. my friend and I were the ONLY ‘unprofessional’ women there).
Some of you may laugh, having visited other sanitised prostitution areas as the Red Light District in Amsterdam. My shock came mostly from having an insider’s knowledge of Brazilian culture. This was no ordinary place designed for the attenuation of male lust: This was the place some of the poorest, loneliest and most desperate men of Brazil came to enjoy their Panis et Circensis as they received their miserable wages. The women who dangled themselves between the metal bars of the two or three-storey constructions lining the alleyways were not glowing with the fire of sensuality which is the stereotype of our nation; these were women of all ages, from girls who frankly did not appear to have conformed to the 18 years rule the Vila insists it subscribes to, to middle aged females who wore the physical marks of having borne many children whilst suffering the strictures of destitution. Just as you may walk down King’s Road on a Summer’s day and observe the radiant glow of incredibly attractive people who have obviously had a supermodel for a mummy and a hedge fund manager for a daddy and benefited from an optimum diet from conception, you may perceive the opposite on the weathered, beaten, ugly faces of people who have struggled for survival from the time they came from a half-starved agricultural labourer’s sperm. You can tell the difference from the people who were loved and cared for from the moment they were born to the people who came when there was no more affection or money to go round.
And still we stumbled drunkenly through the fanfare. Taking in the spectacle with our inebriated eyes wide open. The driver dude points out that all the prostitutes are squaring in their gazes at us suspiciously. Among those streets where every artery was clogged with men whose vacant eyes seemed to devour them, our fully clothed forms stood out like sore thumbs. Apparently it is pretty unusual for women to visit, a fact that probably accounts for my not being aware of the existence of this flagrant, unapologetic mecca for the sexually starved underwaged brazilian male until this point. We were reminded of this continuously as group upon group of roudy punters circled us two girls and shouted:
- E’ essa!
Ehhh, in case you were wondering, this is not a place I would advise an unaccompanied female to visit.
Speaking of the men for a minute: There were THOUSANDS of them. THOUSANDS. They were of some of the most humble origins in the country: lorry drivers, builders, pubescent young men from the favelas. There was something about the look in their eyes that I can’t quite put into words(I saw it expressed later in the work of photographer Hanspeter Schneider, more of which to follow). If any of you have ever been victims of violent crime, you may be aware of the instinct of peril your attackers instilled in you just before they made their move; this was in some way comparable, a ‘zoning into prey’, a search for the target. Evidently, it wasn’t as aggressive as a rudeboy kicking you in the face: It was the facial expression of absent human empathy. A vacant, but sinister gaze.
The lascivious, sexually aggressive, coarse persona of the puta seems convincing to the customer who has no desire to engage with the person underneath. A more sensitive observation reveals that the persona is just that; sheer performativity, an act. These are the women who will call out to men on the street as they walk on with their children in tow, will throw themselves at tourists with hands cupping a bollockfull. They make themselves obvious at a beach party amongst other scantily clad, gyrating women by dancing harder, ever more obscenely. They place themselves at the very margin of society, subjected to the attacks of the confusing canon of Brazilian morality which retains the ideals of chastity forever upheld by Catholicism whilst simultaneously sexualising women from infancy. These women are object of scorn and disgust, of schoolboy jokes and violence. But going there, seeing them perform, made me curious. What brought these women to this place? Who were they when they left, at the end of the night, once they could drop the act?
I became determined to find out more about the Vila Mimosa. There is very little information about it on the internet, and whilst I have come to realise that it’s a subject for schoolboy locker rooms, no man I’ve met so far admits to actually having sex with one of the Vila girls – it is something friends would never let die down. One of the materials I did find, however, was a coffee table fashion book, shot by Hanspeter Schneider, called, would you believe, Vila Mimosa.
Basically the guy spent some time in the vila, scouting prostitutes for a fashion shoot where they wore Agent Provocateur lingerie(with the tags still left on, I bet he thought it was a really witty idea). The photography in the book is gritty and fairly raw, and did not annoy me much per se, apart perhaps from some shots that are highly stylised. What really cocked me off was an email sent by one of Schneider’s assistants which is published at the front of the book. It made the place look like subversive fun, like the women were free, like saying ‘the time you had a copper badge flashed in your face and an AK47 elegantly put to your stomach’ is something that should be glamourised rather than addressed for the barbarity it represents.
Anyway, my reason for posting this is that I am going for a short holiday in Rio next month and I intend to visit the Vila again, this time sober, and see if I can interview some of the girls. I will keep you informed.