“Should be required reading in every classroom.”Judith Malina, founder of Living Theater
Carroça is the Portuguese word for carriage — that is, a wheeled vehicle for conveying people, often drawn by horses, and designed for comfort and elegance. Curiously, in Brazil this word also refers to the ramshackle carts that some human beings are compelled to use. These are the collectors of recyclable materials, or just “collectors” — the thousands of informal workers that scavenge, carry, and sell reusable supplies to local junk shops or recycling co-ops.
Wherever there is unemployment and waste, they will be found. In São Paulo, which lacks selective garbage collection, they are responsible for 90% of all the city’s recycling. Yet no official support or protection to collectors has ever existed. Since their source of income is considered trash by many people, they are called all sorts of derogatory names, such as idle, homeless or lazy. Even though they help clean the city, some consider them a social problem.
How to bring visibility and respect to these marginalized citizens? By means of a marginalized, invisible and disrespected art. In Brazil, graffiti is considered a crime against the environment, but it was a graffiti artist, and not a politician, who first called attention to the important role collectors played.
Mundano began as a tagger, then he became an “artivist” — that is, an artist working for political ends. He began writing messages on carroças such as “proud to be a collector,” “recycle your concepts” and “my car doesn’t pollute.” This became his life project, so that over five years he traveled to many countries, decorating around 160 “carroças.”
However, what he could achieve working alone was limited, so he gathered friends and supporters together to dream up a bigger initiative. That’s when Pimp My Carroça was conceived — a social parody of MTV’s popular show Pimp My Ride, in which real people got to have their old and run-down cars fixed up and personalized. The Pimp My Carroça project was submitted to a crowdfunding platform, where 792 sponsors contributed over $30,000.
Pimp My Carroça culminated in an event in the historic center of São Paulo. Dozens of volunteer artists were on-hand to “pimp” collectors’ carts: fix and improve their structure, add safety devices such as rear view mirrors and reflective stickers, and, finally, decorate the carts with colorful, critical messages.
While their carts were being “pimped,” the participating collectors were offered free meals, haircuts, health check-ups and therapy sessions. They also received an official T-shirt made of recycled materials and, when needed, a pair of glasses. Parades and music concerts created a cheerful atmosphere, showing that civil society was finally fighting for the acknowledgment of collectors.
The day closed with a Carroceata (a play on the Portuguese words for carts and demonstrations): the collectors marched to City Hall with their carts pimped out, where they read the “Pimp my Carroça Manifesto” demanding fairer conditions for collectors and denouncing the lack of recycling in the city. Between the original event in Sao Paulo and a follow up event in Rio de Janeiro, about 70 collectors, nearly 300 volunteers, and 90 graffiti artists participated.
The use of graffiti and humor were public engagement strategies that successfully “pimped” the otherwise boring topics of recycling and social inclusion. The Pimp My Carroça action created a new interest in creative activism in Brazil, and made the collectors of recyclable materials and their role much more visible to Brazilian society.
When Mundano and others occupied public space to take care of collectors and their carts, they created a space for imagining another possible world within the harsh reality of a big city. Through the whole day, the negligence and mistreatment faced by the collectors on a daily basis were replaced by generosity, recognition, and care, proving that just going ahead and creating the world we want is often the best way to address an injustice.
The goal of the action was to make the collectors visible. This initiative was not only designed to make Brazilian society see collectors, but to understand the difficulties brought on by their being “invisible.” The happening helped Brazilian society realize the importance of the collectors’ contribution to city life, and in turn, to bring recognition to their struggle.
Not only did the collectors know more about Sao Paulo’s waste disposal problems than any other group, but depending on what official measures the government might decide to take to address the city’s lack of recycling, collectors could easily be affected and lose their sources of income. That’s why Pimp My Carroça recognized and prioritized the authority and leadership of these informal workers in discussing real solutions to the city’s garbage problem.
From the beginning there was a concern about how the action would be interpreted by the broader public, and the way the media would present it. In order to ensure that the point of the action was clear, activists themselves transformed footage into a mini-documentary, Pimp My Carroça: São Paulo + Rio de Janeiro, which had subtitles in Spanish and English, and which has been viewed by tens of thousands of people in Brazil and worldwide.