Childhood Friend of the President

Erik

Hearing first-hand stories about how famous adults acted as children and teenagers is always fun. I recently got such an account about a former Brazilian president.

Let me explain. On the way from João Pesso to Olinda, Mike and I hopped an alternativo, or unregistered cab. The owner of our hostel assured us that it was safe, but even so, being greeted at the bus station by a horde ofalternativo drivers shouting out destinations was a little intimidating. I was relieved to find out that there was a third passenger in our cab to Olinda, a Brazilian woman who must have been in her mid-seventies.

Maria Elena, as she introduced herself, whiled away the two-hour trip by telling me bits and pieces of her life: her husband had been in the navy, her eight children were successful professionals and business owners. The most interesting story she had, though, was from her childhood.

Maria Elena started by pulling out her identification card to show me that her birthplace was Garanhuns in Pernambuco, the same town that Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva grew up. Lula, as he is known throughout Brazil, had a long journey from growing up next door to Maria Elena to serving as president of the republic from 2003 to 2011. Because of the lack of educational opportunities in their small interior town, Maria Elena still can’t read or write well. Brazilians also poke fun of Lula for having a level of literacy much lower than that expected of high-ranking politicians.

President Lula
Lula is one of Brazil’s most popular politicians of all time.

Now, though, Lula is one of the most popular political figures of our time, partly because his terms coincided with a huge economic boom in Brazil, and partly because he instituted massive social welfare programs like Zero Hunger (Fome Zero) and the Family Allowance (Bolsa Família).

Returning to Maria Elena, she went so far as to say that, when the neighborhood kids would play together in the early 50s, Lula would make speeches and hold votes. The Brazilians I’ve talked to about this say that there’s no way she was telling the truth, but I like to believe it. It’s such a perfect picture: the seven-year-old Lula gathering friends in his front yard for a town hall meeting.