Postcard — June 24, 2014, 4:44 pm

Below the Beautiful Horizon

Futebol and family in Belo Horizonte during the opening week of the World Cup

On the opening day of the World Cup, I helped my brother Ramon deliver groceries in the suburbs of Belo Horizonte, Brazil’s third largest city. Driving his boxy new truck with one eye on the road, he thumbed through a batch of receipts to find the address of a home in a neighborhood where milk cows wander the streets, occasionally bringing traffic to a halt. The back of the truck was stacked high with red crates full of beans, cookies, cooking oil, laundry detergent, rice, and other staples that cost more today than they did last month.

When we arrived, Ramon’s client let us inside, and we unpacked her groceries in the kitchen while she and her daughter stood in front of a TV, watching the World Cup opening ceremonies. Dancers dressed as trees, flowers, and soccer balls performed on a bright green pitch in São Paulo for an overwhelmingly white audience. If we could finish our deliveries in time, we’d make it home for the opening match between Brazil and Croatia.

Ramon was giddy with anticipation, not for the game, but for the birth of his first child. In just four days his wife Cristiane was scheduled to deliver a daughter by cesarean section at a nearby public hospital. They married last year, and their lives have never been busier. His freelance driving and her cake-and-candy business have afforded them a house in a neighborhood full of family and old friends. In the evenings and on weekends, they prepared the nursery.

The baby would be born at a tense moment for Brazil. Few here in Belo Horizonte will be able to attend a World Cup game in their own city, adding insult to seven years of hasty preparation plagued by wasteful spending and broken promises. Last June, more than 50,000 people took to downtown streets during the Confederations Cup, to grieve the hundreds of millions in public funds committed to projects that were never finished, or that never broke ground in the first place.

On the way to our next delivery, we drove past signs of the unfinished projects, and of the lack of basic services in many neighborhoods: A hospital that was supposed to offer some of the best services in the country, operating at half capacity after years of delays. A nearby stream brimming with litter that the sanitation department had yet to pick up. A web of unpaved, unlit streets.

“People out here are frustrated,” Ramon said. “They work hard. They’re paying taxes like everyone else. Why can’t they get the roads paved?”

It seemed to be more a question of priorities than of money. On a delivery to a nearby favela, we passed a shiny new military-police car parked at the bottom of the hill. “Para inglês ver,” Ramon said. For the English to see.

All day we passed boys flying kites in the streets, celebrating the first day of a long break from school. It was a familiar scene for Ramon, but one I’d only seen as an adult. I was adopted as an infant in 1981 and grew up in rural Oregon. He was born almost two years later and grew up here as the country transformed from a military dictatorship to a burgeoning democracy. We met for the first time in 2006, and since then we’ve been making up for lost time on Skype and during my visits, staying up late to swap stories, watch YouTube clips, and improve my lumpy Portuguese.

By late afternoon, most of the boys had packed up their kites to go watch the match. We knew it was time for the coin toss when drivers all around us started honking. Ramon joined the racket and tuned the radio to the local news, which was reporting on demonstrations in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and just a few miles away in Plaça Sete, the historical heart of Belo Horizonte, where that night vandals would overturn a police car and strike a Reuters photojournalist in the head with a rock. Yet despite the turmoil in the streets, most folks around town barbecued as we did, donning yellow jerseys and pouring cold beer and going bonkers when Neymar scored Brazil’s first goal of the Cup.

Saturday night, the family gathered at Ramon’s house for the baby shower. We feasted on hot stew and cold drinks while Cristiane sat beside a mountain of diapers and displayed gifts of baby clothes for everyone present. The eldest women in the room were children the last time Brazil hosted a World Cup, in 1950, and they’d raised their own families during the two decades of dictatorship that followed. The youngest children in the room knew about those years only from history books with other chapters focused on the electoral process and freedom of speech.

The next morning, President Dilma Rousseff published a brief op-ed advising Brazilians that soccer transcends politics. She wrote of spending the 1970 World Cup in jail with other dissidents. When the tournament began, she said, many of her cellmates refused to root for the Seleção, fearing that a win for Brazil’s national team would only strengthen the dictatorship. Rousseff wrote that she’d felt no such compunction, and by the time Brazil had sealed its win, everyone in the prison was rooting for the team, too. The editorial was part of a huge government effort to turn the tide of public opinion, a PR campaign to accompany the military one in the streets.

Photograph by Chris Feliciano Arnold

Photograph by Chris Feliciano Arnold

On Monday afternoon, four days after the 2014 World Cup opened, Luana de Souza Santos Feliciano was born at a public hospital near the northernmost stop on the metro line. Visitors were allowed the next day. I arrived during the second half of Brazil’s match against Mexico. In a quiet waiting room, dozens of visitors gazed at a muted television overhead, leaning forward in their seats. We heard cheers and groans from a room down the hallway whenever Brazil attacked the goal.

Only one person was allowed to visit the maternity ward at a time, and for only a few minutes. When my turn came, I found Cristiane and Luana healthy and hungry. Ramon had recorded every moment of the delivery on his camera and proudly showed me a picture of Luana just after he’d given her a bath.

Back downstairs, as the other visitors took their turns greeting the baby, Ramon and I watched the final minutes of the match on the waiting room TV. When it ended in a 0–0 draw, there was commotion from the room down the hall. A clutch of doctors, nurses, and orderlies emerged from the break room and scrambled back to their stations.

“And there you have the health system in Brazil,” said Ramon as the P.A. resumed its regular announcements. “Now the hospital can function again.” 

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is the recipient of a 2014 Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts.

More from Chris Feliciano Arnold:

Postcard July 8, 2014, 1:40 pm

World Cup Boom and Bust

Will a four-game stint as a World Cup host city improve life in Manaus?

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Ashley arrived for her prenatal appointment at Black Hills Obstetrics and Gynecology, in Rapid City, South Dakota, wearing a black zip-up hoodie and Converse sneakers.1 To explain her absence from work that morning — a Tuesday in April 2015 — she had told a co-worker that she was having “female issues.” She was twenty-five years old and eight weeks pregnant. She had been separated from her husband, with whom she had a five-year-old son, for the better part of a year. The guy who’d gotten her pregnant was someone she’d met at the gym, and he’d made it abundantly clear that he wanted nothing more to do with her. Ashley found herself hoping that the doctor would discover some kind of fetal defect, so that her decision would be easier. She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. “Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.”

In the exam room, she perched on the table with her feet crossed at the ankles, her blond hair brushing the back of her pink hospital gown. “I don’t know what’s available for me here,” she told her doctor, Katherine Degen, who sat facing her on a stool. “I figured nothing.”

 Some names and identifying details have been changed. 

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The baby was due in November, when Ashley, who was a nurse, hoped to be enrolled in a graduate program to become a nurse practitioner. Getting pregnant as a teenager had forced her to put that dream on hold, but she had thought that she was finally ready; she had even submitted her application shortly before the March 15 deadline. For the first time in her adult life, Ashley felt as if her plans were coming together. Then she missed her period.

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Ashley arrived for her prenatal appointment at Black Hills Obstetrics and Gynecology, in Rapid City, South Dakota, wearing a black zip-up hoodie and Converse sneakers.1 To explain her absence from work that morning — a Tuesday in April 2015 — she had told a co-worker that she was having “female issues.” She was twenty-five years old and eight weeks pregnant. She had been separated from her husband, with whom she had a five-year-old son, for the better part of a year. The guy who’d gotten her pregnant was someone she’d met at the gym, and he’d made it abundantly clear that he wanted nothing more to do with her. Ashley found herself hoping that the doctor would discover some kind of fetal defect, so that her decision would be easier. She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. “Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.”

In the exam room, she perched on the table with her feet crossed at the ankles, her blond hair brushing the back of her pink hospital gown. “I don’t know what’s available for me here,” she told her doctor, Katherine Degen, who sat facing her on a stool. “I figured nothing.”

 Some names and identifying details have been changed. 

“Big, fat zero, unfortunately,” Degen said, making a 0 with her fingers. The last doctor who provided abortions in Rapid City retired in 1986, three years before Ashley was born.

The baby was due in November, when Ashley, who was a nurse, hoped to be enrolled in a graduate program to become a nurse practitioner. Getting pregnant as a teenager had forced her to put that dream on hold, but she had thought that she was finally ready; she had even submitted her application shortly before the March 15 deadline. For the first time in her adult life, Ashley felt as if her plans were coming together. Then she missed her period.

It would be too difficult to attend school as a single mother of two, Ashley knew. She had made an appointment for three weeks from now at the nearest abortion clinic, in Billings, Montana, 318 miles away. But just a week and a half ago, her husband had said he wanted to get back together and offered to raise the child as his own. Was it a sign that she was meant to continue the pregnancy? As a rule, Ashley approached her problems with resolve. She was capable and tough; she liked shooting guns and lifting weights. She kept track of her stats and checked off her goals as she achieved them one by one. Yet the dilemma before her had shaken her confidence. She leaned back and turned to watch the ultrasound screen. The black-and-white image danced. A sharp, fast thumping emerged from the machine. As Degen removed the wand, Ashley wiped the corner of her eye.

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"She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. 'Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.'"
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