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  • Writer's pictureMiguel Villalobos


Updated: Dec 16, 2019

Luana, 15, holds her daughter Maria Vitoria hours after she was born (Recife, PE). (Photo: Michael Jerome Wolff)

Originally Published 14 July 2012


Luana looked as if she had been tumble dried after her twenty-four hours of labor. Her hair a ragged black mop and her eyelids fluttering out of sync, utter exhaustion flattened her frail body to her bed in the maternity ward. Six other fatigued women raised disinterested eyes when I walked through the door, but Luana’s faint smile to me was one of profound alleviation and delicate triumph. My own smile was merely the external flare of an intense electrical current pulsating from head to toe: the impulsive, convulsive joy of fatherhood, temporary and at once measured, for I am not the nor a father. I only said I was to get past security.

And as no one seemed to doubt my claim to fatherhood when I first stared through the incubator window at the little light-skinned baby, I lived this lie for two days, constantly jolted by a bizarre sensation akin to sense of pride and purpose. A pleasant, if fleeting, illusion.

Maria Vitoria was born at 4:16 p.m. on July 10, 2012. Her real father, 16-year old Edivan de Freitas Alves, was shot dead two and a half weeks earlier.

The following morning, the murdered boy's diabetic father, a man known as "The Pirate," struggled into the maternity ward on his peg leg to visit the newborn. He insisted on naming her Edivania in honor of his deceased son. But his middle-aged bitterness was no match for Luana’s adolescent gall. During labor, Luana had made a promise to God to name the baby after the Virgin if all went well, and it did. “Edivania is an ugly name, anyway,” she grumbled at the severe man before her. After unsuccessfully attempting to force a mother-daughter pose for a photograph, the Pirate grunted angrily and left the ward without saying goodbye.

“He’s an asshole,” she spit as the door closed. “He used to beat Edivan all the time, and now he thinks this baby is his.”

A few minutes later Maria Vitoria started to cry, as babies do, and Luana lifted its tiny head to her breast, just as natural as the rain that fell lazily outside the ward window. Something then happened. Something changed. A light hit her, went through her, radiated from her and flushed back out into the world and unto me. She smiled to the sky. My shutter clicked. Something greater than light was captured.

I am human. I am moved by the meaning we invent for symbols and stories to shelter so that these may in turn distract us from the despair of emptiness. I photographed your husband in his mortal pose, and felt my soul eclipse into death. I now photograph your smile over the child he left you, and my soul shutters speedily back to life. I invent this meaning and feel it. Luana, I am human.

Family of Femmes

Back at her home in Santo Amaro favela, twelve women spanning four generations await Luana’s arrival with a surprise: neighbors and friends all chipped in to buy a magnificently pink crib set, aglitter with all the adornments a newborn’s family could dream of.

Life goes on.

Luana and her family the day after her boyfriend Edivan was killed. She is two weeks away from giving birth to their daughter. (Photo: MJW)

There are no men left in the Dos Santos family. Zuleide and Maria are great grandmothers in their mid-40s. One husband died of liver failure, the other shot dead in his home. Their daughters Patricia and Isabel are both in their early thirties, and each have several children, ranging in age from little Marisa of two years to Luana who will turn sixteen this October. One of Patricia’s ex-husbands pays a pension that supports most of the family, while Bolsa Familia covers the rest. Isabel, Luana’s mother, lost two of her husbands to violence. Luana’s father was murdered when she was five years old. Branca, her 13-year old sister, lost her father shortly after she was born. The other three fathers of Isabel’s children have legitimate families to feed, and so chose not to be bothered with more fatherly tasks.

While it is genetically rare to produce all female offspring, the lack of fathers and father figures is normal in Recife’s favelas. A recent survey indicated that 73% of households in the city’s favelas are headed by women.

The Dos Santos women had lived in two adjacent homes in Santo Amaro favela until the night Luana’s fiancé Edivan was shot to death in the front corridor of one. Since then they huddle together in the two bedrooms of the second house, sleeping on mattresses leaned to the walls during the day to make space. Luana refuses to step foot in the other house, and meanwhile the Dos Santos are looking for a renter for both. They want to escape the memories. “It does no good to remember,” they recite again and again the recipe for muddling through.

School is out, and the days are spent in and around their home watching novelas, painting finger nails, cooking, cleaning, waiting, receiving visitors, chatting endless nothings, entertaining pipe dreams, and acquiescing to much lesser fates. There is spunk and perk in the skip and jump of little girls, and there is fire and flare in the loins of pubescent teens. Mothers dream of being thin and desirable again to men, and grandmothers in bikini tops smile the grin of those who know they never lost it. Day in, day out. Time drags the willing and the unwilling alike across the fields of aging, and lends no ear to their giggles and cries. Necessity mettles with dreams and doings, diverting paths and forcing others to repeat themselves. A 13-year old brings in cash from a man of sixty suffering from impotence. A 15-year old widow declares her love for an American man whose frigid hands she warmed in hers during a theatrical cult of the Universal Church. Tragedy and joy weave constantly in and out of the monotonous fabric of existence. These are not the infernal pits of les miserables, nor is it the carefree paradise of poverty. It is only the maddening complexity of humanness.

A Delicate Balance

Today I hoped to interview Edivan’s parents in their home, but I was advised not to go there. Rumors were spreading in the neighborhood that Luana had already found a new man, a wealthy white American who might marry her and take her away from poverty forever. Edivan’s father let it be known that he had no love for this pompous foreigner, and nothing good in these bloodstained alleys awaited the man if he were to stick around.

I felt a strange tension in the air. People in the streets had stopped making eye contact. Clouds shifted restlessly as if trying to speak something out of breath. It would not matter that I am innocent. Cultures were clashing. Reason is a luxury, and luxury is scarce. In an instant I packed my rucksack and departed.

Twenty minutes later an old digger kindly walks me towards the shady far north end of the Santo Amaro cemetery to Block A/23 C-05, where a sand placard washed half away by the rain exposes illegible scribblings of Edivan’s name, his date of birth, and his date of death. And then we are left alone again.

I did not know him while he was alive.

My lens descends over the boy as I adjust my shutter speed and flash bulb. He looks calm. Asleep. Click. Morgue workers politely ask me if they can remove the body. Women and children wailing outside, I nod. The gray bag swallows him so quickly.

I only knew him as my brother. That is the reason for everything I have done in all my life.

Edivan on the night he was murdered (Photo: MJW)
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