Squat Thrusts

The Prestes Maia building was once home to the largest concentration of squatters in Latin America. Condemned and abandoned for 12 years, the once-glorious skyscraper became an infested shithole.

May 2 2009, 12:00am

Words and Photos By Coletivo Garapa

The Prestes Maia building was once home to the largest concentration of squatters in Latin America. Condemned and abandoned for 12 years, the once-glorious skyscraper had become a shithole infested with roaches, rats, and criminal activity among the widespread squalor of downtown São Paulo. In 2002, 468 displaced families, members of a group known as the Downtown Roofless Movement, decided it would be their new home. Over the next five years, they cleaned things up and transformed it into a sort of experimental community center with a library, artist workshops, and educational facilities. In 2006, it was revealed that the original owner owed over 5 million reais in back taxes and that the property would be repossessed. After a long and impassioned struggle between the residents and evicting authorities, the building was cleared out and sealed with concrete blocks on June 15, 2007.

A few months earlier, many of the families who occupied the Prestes Maia had moved to another address near the city center. In its golden years, the building was known as the Hotel Santos Dumont; however, it had been closed for over a decade by the time they began to live there. Eventually, it became the residence of 120 families—many of them nordestinos (migrants from the Northeast) who undertook its renovation in an attempt to make it habitable. We visited the old hotel to speak with its current guests, whom most of São Paulo doesn’t want to meet or acknowledge.

Maria do Carmo, better known as Vó (“Grandma”), lives in the house that was once occupied by the hotel’s concierge: “My great-granddaughter is missing. She ran away from home with a friend. Her grandmother dreamed the girl had drowned in a waterfall, but we still believe she is alive. Her mother is pregnant again, and this is how we keep on going around here. It’s not easy to live in São Paulo—it’s a rich city but also full of poverty. I have relatives living under the Minhocão bridge facing hunger, cold, and fear. It’s better to live in a squat than in the streets.”

Cacilda da Silva: “I rented a tenement on Avenida Rio Branco, but there was a flood and I lost everything, including my clothes and furniture. Me, my three kids, and my husband moved here because someone we knew got us this room. Today, my husband is unemployed but does odd jobs here and there. We’re at least able to put a little something together.”

Roberta Sílvia Guimarães Dutra and Arthur Guimarães Dutra: “When my son was admitted to the hospital, no one believed he was going to live. The doctors even threw away a piece of his skull because they thought he was dead. Now he has to go through skull-replacement surgery. He also needs a wheelchair, because he has a back problem from not having strength in his legs anymore. All this happened because of my ex-husband. It had been seven months since we split up, but he wouldn’t accept it. Then, to get to me, he came into the house, shot my son, shot my mother, and then killed himself. He didn’t want to do anything to me. He wanted to leave me suffering on my own. But God is fair—he kept my boy alive, and my mother... there’s nothing wrong with her today.”
Ivaneti de Araújo, Downtown Roofless Movement (DRM) coordinator: “Once, I was invited to a conference abroad to present the particulars of DRM. When I came back, my husband had painted the apartment and written ‘Eu Amo Vc’ (‘I Love You’) on the walls. It’s nice to come home and see something like that, especially for us who have spent so long fighting for housing, our space, and our rights.”