The Violent Life of Bruna Veríssimo: An Experimental Ethnographic Biography of a Homeless Brazilian Youth
Tobias Hecht, Social Anthropology
Research Grant, 2001, 2002
Interpretations of trauma tend to revolve around incidents that have a clear beginning, middle, and end—rape, torture, imprisonment, and combat, for instance—even if such experiences can reverberate indefinitely in the lives of survivors; yet, what if violence is not so much an event but one of the few constant features in a life? What, for instance, do the relentlessly violent and violated lives of Brazilian street children tell us about the societies—and the larger world—in which these young people live? How would violence look from the vantage point of a child? And just how might one go about uncovering that vantage point? This project has aimed to investigate these questions through experimental techniques of research, observation, ethnographic engagement, and writing.
Bruna Veríssimo is one of the few surviving, healthy members of a generation of street children I came to know while conducting ethnographic research in the Brazilian city of Recife in the early 1990s. She began living in the street at the age of nine, where she supported herself through begging and prostitution. Despite never having attended school, Veríssimo taught herself to read and write by studying street signs and culling the trash for newspapers, magazines and books.
Females and those assuming a female identity appear far more adept in the context of Brazilian street life of surviving conflict, if not of avoiding it.
Following a chance encounter with her on a return visit to Recife in 1999, by which time she was twenty-three, I taught her to keep an ethnographic notebook and to conduct ethnographic interviews. We ultimately worked together intensively for six months during 1999 and four months during 2002, studying both her life story, the violence that devastated her generation, and the social world in which, precariously, she lives.
Born biologically male, Veríssimo assumed a transgendered identity from the age of nine, living as a transvestite. One of the principal findings of the research concerns the interface of violence and notions of gender. Females and those assuming a female identity appear far more adept in the context of Brazilian street life of surviving conflict, if not of avoiding it. Other findings concern methods of researching violence over the long run, in particular the usefulness of multiple, complementary, and collaborative forms of ethnographic engagement.
The first published piece resulting from this research is a chapter in a book, Minor Omissions: Children in Latin American History and Society (ed. by T. Hecht). A book manuscript is currently under review and an essay for another edited book is being written.