The People Who Live on the Hill by Melissa Holland

An old friend of mine from Oakland recently married a woman from Brazil. They lived in Rio de Janeiro with her son from her first marriage for a couple of years, until last year when he brought them both to live here in the East Bay. He has recently been posting online about the current economic and political turmoil happening in Brazil, and, after a few brief message exchanges and some online investigating, I began to realize that the social situation in Brazil is not so far removed from our own here in the States.

Brazil’s population is approximately 47.6% European heritage, 43% mixed European and African, 8% African, 1% Asian, and 0.4% indigenous, creating a rich and ethnically diverse culture. Similar to the United States, the African, mixed heritage, and indigenous populations are for the most part marginalized and live in poverty while the European and Asian population enjoy a higher quality of life. There is, of course, a middle ground where these two sections of society are forced to interact.

I recently moved back to Oakland after living overseas and on the east coast for several years. My neighborhood in Florida was full of a lot of white, middle-aged (and older) people who looked a lot like me. I now live in what is known as a “transitional” area of Oakland, meaning that as the cost of housing continues to skyrocket in San Francisco and the peninsula, older houses in my neighborhood are being bought, renovated, and flipped to middle-class workers who can afford a mid-six figure house with a nice yard and a decent commute into the city. But there is still a large portion of the population whose families have lived in the neighborhood for generations. Up the hill from us are houses on large tracts of land with stunning views of the San Francisco Bay Area that sell for a million or more, and down the hill below us are houses with chain link fences, bars on the windows, and security dogs barking in the yard. But our little neighborhood is a relatively safe community. We lock our doors at night but I rarely see broken glass on the street and any suspicious activity is reported quickly and discussed extensively among the neighbors. There are many families from various ethnic and economic backgrounds who politely interact with each other. I’ve noticed, over the past couple of years, that those of us who walk our dogs in the neighborhood used to cross the street to avoid each other. Now we’ve started to learn the names of each other’s dogs and occasionally introduce ourselves to each other. Greeting my neighbors by name gives me a good feeling and helps me to feel grounded in my community.

The best part about my neighborhood is its diversity; I can find rare spices and teas, snack on halal chicken and fresh salad with a side of pita and hummus, bring home award-winning barbecue ribs, buy perfectly ripe avocados at the supermercado, get my car detailed, and of course get a third wave artisinal cold brew – all within the space of a few blocks and without breaking the bank. In most of these transactions, I’m being served by people of color who probably live close to the bottom of the hill. But I’m also helping local business owners to develop thriving businesses in my neighborhood that directly support all of us who live here, no matter what color we are.

You may not be familiar with the concept of “social apartheid,” and if you’re lucky you will never feel its effects directly. It’s about keeping the disadvantaged part of society separate from the advantaged. Social apartheid is common in Brazil and it has been going on there since the early twentieth century. It is difficult for the people living in poverty to move up, and in Brazil as in America, it’s mostly the non-white population that ends up being marginalized.

The recent political upheaval in Brazil’s government removed President Dilma Rousseff from power. Dilma wasn’t perfect but her administration was working to create positive change by providing the disadvantaged with access to social services and education so that they could move up the ladder. Now the power has reverted back into the hands of the white patriarchy. Some say this will be good for business in Brazil; that the dark days of economic upheaval and political corruption are ending and that the new regime will create a stronger, more market-driven economy.

I hope this is true, but when I look around my little corner of Oakland, a city that is nationally infamous for its violent crime but also known for its ethnic diversity, extensive parks and recreational areas, museums and art galleries, and a population that is “hella” proud of where they live, I wonder if Brazil will ever be able to truly thrive as a divided nation. I take to heart the motto of the environmental movement: Think Globally, Act Locally. Positive change can happen when we start small, learn to accept each other as we are, celebrate our diversity, and get to know each other’s names. Then hopefully we can begin to lift each other up as a community so that we all feel safe and happy, no matter where we live on the hill.

Melissa is a former Peace Corps Volunteer (Latvia 1998-2000) and her coffee experience includes working as a barista, roaster and café manager. She is currently a member of the Inbound Traffic team here at Royal and coordinates the logistics of incoming shipments.