Marrocos is a visual diary of the experience of the social, migratory, economic and urban crises that impact São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, with a housing deficit of 230 thousand homes that affects 2 million people. This essay documents life in a place rejected by society and occupied by those who have been neglected by the authorities: people who have found that illegally occupying properties is the only way to exercise their basic right to housing.
Located between the splendor of the Sala São Paulo opera house and the modern architecture of the Praça das Artes art museum, Marrocos is a decaying giant which was designed, in the 1950s, to be São Paulo’s most modern skyscraper. On its first floor lies what remains of Cine Marrocos, once the most luxurious cinema in Latin America.
After been abandoned for more than thirty years because of the Brazilian economic and urban crises of the 1980s, the building was occupied in 2013 by a homeless association that fights for housing rights. This kind of movement has become very popular in São Paulo, where the downtown area alone over 100 edifications are abandoned and the average rent is R$ 1,689,00 (522,00 USD), in front of a minimum wage of R$ 937,00 (290,00 USD.)
Despite its projected use as a luxurious office building, three thousand people – many of whom are immigrants or refugees from 27 countries – have transformed the structure into makeshift apartments. This former commercial tower has become a modern-day Tower of Babel, a vertical favela, where sometimes we listened to and spoke several languages in a single day alone.
We spent months negotiating our way into the building, but as soon as we were inside we found that the space, being illegally occupied, was undergoing a repossession process and that all of its residents would be on the streets in little more than 30 days. By that time, we faced a big challenge, with only two options in addressing it: accept that there was not enough time and quit the project, or help the building’s occupants remain in their homes and guarantee them more time.
With the help of NGOs, some of our images and videos reached the hands of the courts. Judicial processes were thus temporarily suspended and we were granted approval from the occupiers to photograph their lives, and the time with which to do it.
As we went up each floor, meeting the people and understanding why they had chosen to live in a place like this, the new stories were revealed reflected a vertical cut of all the social problems that afflict Brazil.
Among the almost three thousand residents’ stories, few were so impacting as Jonathan’s, the eldest of a four-child family. After his younger brother died by falling out of a window while alone at home as his mother was out working on the streets, Jonathan became responsible for watching over his siblings. Traumatized, the family moved into a windowless apartment and Jonathan’s mother removed him from school, putting him in charge of taking care of all the other children since she needed to work.
The most populous and richest city in South America, São Paulo is a main destination both for Brazilians from different states and foreigners from all over the world searching for better living conditions. Many South Americans, especially from Peru and Bolivia, come to Brazil to work in the illegal textile industry.
Split among many apartments, we found a Peruvian family’s clothes factory, in which each member was in charge of a production stage. From buying and stocking the fabrics to sewing and distribution on the black market, all the workers were directed by Nancy, the family’s boss and matriarch. Because of Marrocos’ cheap rent, it was more profitable for them renting many apartments than a large shed where everybody could work together. The average rent paid for the homeless association was R$250,00 (80USD).
Many Africans have come to Brazil escaping from regional conflicts, and inside of the edifice was a Congolese Protestant Church. Charle Mulambo immigrated only a few months ago and speaks few words in Portuguese, but when preaching, he speaks to hundreds in both Lingala and French. Every Sunday during his services, the chuch inside of the building becomes the focal point of the Congolese community in São Paulo.
After months of near-living with the inhabitants, on one of the few days in which we weren’t photographing the Marrocos, police invaded the place and arrested the entirety of the homeless association’s leadership. They were accused of being involved with the country’s largest criminal organization, the Primeiro Comanda da Capital (PCC) – a kind of local mob. According to the investigation, at night (the only period of the day during which we were not photographing) the place was used as a logistics base for Brazil’s largest drugs consumption and sales point: Cracolândia, only a few blocks away from the building.
We were subsequently warned that suspicions had been raised about us being the informants of the police, and that our lives could be at risk. At the same time, we found out that we had been investigated by the police, who did not understand how two “gringos” had been fully accepted by criminals. We were in the eye of the storm, and for safety reasons, we stopped working on the project but kept on watching the conclusion of the repossession process, which was finally resumed due to the building’s association with the PCC.
Few weeks later, the Marrocos building became empty once again. The people who used to live there been forced to leave by the authorities. Most of them moved on to dwellings exactly like the ones they’d previously lived, further perpetuating the vicious cycle where abandoned buildings are occupied by people who do not have a place to live and are subsequently emptied due to political or economic interests – a perpetual rationale, which leaves infinite square meters empty while thousands of people lack a decent place to live. Brazil has 6 million people without a place to live, and 7 million empty or useless properties.