São Paulo, January 2014

Suddenly everyone is talking about rolêzinhos.  Out of nowhere, they have become front page news. But what are they?  Apparently they are just large groups of young Afro-Brazilians from the periphery meeting in shopping centres, arranging the time and place via social media.  So why all the fuss?

Everyone finds it completely normal for middle class teenagers to hang out in groups at shopping centres, why shouldn’t teenagers from the periphery do the same? Yet their appearance in the temples of consumerism, apparently just wanting to have a good time, to meet friends, have a drink, an ice cream, to buy a T-shirt, has led to panic, police, violence and drastic measures. Some shopping centres even closed down, like medieval castles pulling up their drawbridges, to prevent the hordes of unwelcome consumers.

Sociologists are having a field day, analysing the new phenomenon. Is it a form of flash mob, just a brincadeira (a bit of fun), a wish to vandalise, or is it a political demonstration, a social movement, a racial protest?

Credit The GuardianProfessor Jesse Souza says the rolêzinho is seen as a threat because it breaks through  demarcation lines which are implicit, although illegal, in Brazil’s real but unacknowledged system of apartheid.  It is the poor pretending they don’t know their place. In his opinion this confers a political character to what are superficially brincadeiras of young people from the periphery. They are threatening class frontiers.

Professor Valquíria Padilha, another sociologist, says: “They are passing through an invisible wall.”  She sees the rolêzinhos as attempts to break through the barrier of invisibility to which these young people are subject in a class society. Shopping centres, she says, are consumer bunkers for the wealthy, from which the poor are expected to be excluded. The fact that some of the poor have acquired more purchasing power in recent years does not mean they have acquired the right to share the same spaces with the rich.

Everyone has been talking about the rise of the new middle class in Brazil, the millions who have moved up a step on the social ladder, and can now afford to buy white goods, smart phones, to travel by plane.  But while they have become consumers, they have not necessarily become citizens, with the same right to come and go anywhere they please. This is apparent in the complaints from middle-class travellers at airports – they’re so overcrowded now, all sorts of people are travelling!

Some analysts blame the situation on the lack of leisure facilities and cultural spaces in the periphery, which means that shopping centres – which offer cinemas and snack bars as well as shops – are often the only alternative. Public investment in leisure facilities, culture, parks and museums is heavily concentrated in the centre.

Whatever the reasons behind them – and there are probably many different, overlapping ones – the rolêzinhos have highlighted the widely ignored question of social and racial discrimination, Brazil’s elephant in the room.

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Veteran correspondent and regular LAB contributor Jan Rocha writes about life in São Paulo and Brazil