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RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – Thanks to an award-winning documentary “Lixo Extraordinário” (“Waste Land”), Sebastião “Tião” dos Santos, a 33-year-old collector of recyclable materials from Brazilian garbage dumps, has experienced two moments of international recognition.
The first was at a London auction in 2009 where his portrait sold for £28,000 (US$43,000). The second was at the 2011 Oscars in Los Angeles, Calif., when the movie in which he was featured was nominated in the Best Documentary category.
“I thought I would never again experience such a special time in my life as I did with ‘Lixo Extraordinário’ and everything that happened as a result of it,” Tião says.
Tião was wrong.
Earlier this month, he and three other Brazilians traveled to England to carry the Olympic torch through the streets of Liverpool.
Chosen by a sponsor of the London Olympics, all four Brazilians share humble beginnings and inspiring life stories. In England, they were presented as a symbol of a new Brazil.
In addition to Tião, the Brazilian torch carriers are Rene Silva, a blogger and resident of Complexo do Alemão who gained fame for tweeting about the 2010 police occupation of his community; Marcos André França da Silva, who overcame extreme poverty and today helps prepare underprivileged youths for the job market in the state of Pernambuco; and 14-year-old soccer player Eduarda “Duda” Hubner.
The Olympic torch was lit on May 10 in Greece and was on its way to London – a journey in which it will be carried by 8,000 torchbearers. The group includes star soccer players David Beckham and Didier Drogba, Will.i.am from the hip-hop group the Black Eyed Peas and Princess Anne, daughter of the Queen of England. The torch will enter the Olympic Stadium on July 27, where it will ignite the Olympic Flame.
“I didn’t carry the torch alone: I was there representing thousands upon thousands of trash collectors, an invisible people,” says Tião, who is now one of the leaders of Movimento Nacional dos Catadores de Materiais Recicláveis (National Movement of Collectors of Recyclable Materials).
Each torchbearer carries the torch about 300 meters (984 feet), and Tião certainly made the most of every meter, as he zigged and zagged across the street to greet as many spectators lining the sidewalks as possible, much to security’s chagrin.
“The world stopped and all I could think about was everything I’ve been through in my life,” he says. “It was unforgettable.”
Reporter from a favela
Blogger Rene Silva, 18, also was deeply moved. Silva created the news website Voz das Comunidades about the Complexo do Alemão when he was 11.
When the police occupied the favela Complexo do Alemão, Silva told the residents’ side of the story through Twitter. These days, he has almost 35,000 followers, works as a consultant for the popular novelas on Rede Globo, the country’s major TV network, and as a radio reporter. He’s also been offered journalism scholarships by five private universities in Rio.
“I am very happy to have represented my community and Brazil at the Olympics. I see that my work has been successful,” says Silva, who had never previously traveled abroad. “At times like these, I feel anything is possible, regardless of your roots.”
Silva led the way for the Brazilians with his relay through the streets of Southport before departing with a replica torch, just like the other torchbearers.
“Now, we are going to make a video with various people from Complexo do Alemão carrying the torch to try to share some of the excitement I felt in England,” Silva says.
Despite being in the spotlight, Silva doesn’t envision himself working for a major newspaper. Instead, he aspires to recreate “Voz das Comunidades” in other favelas throughout Rio.
“My idea is to train correspondents and have them develop their own sites in other communities,” he says.
Eduarda “Duda” Hubner has been playing soccer since she was 6. She was discovered at the Coca-Cola Cup 2011 while wearing the team colors of Volta Redonda, a city in the northeast of Rio de Janeiro. Duda’s team won the Cup and she was the second-leading scorer with 22 goals.
Her soccer skills allowed her to try out for the Swedish club Tyresö FF, which is also Brazilian star player Marta’s team. Duda was selected and should start training in Sweden before the end of the year.
“My dream is to play for Seleção Brasileira and one day be as good as Marta,” Duda says. “I was very happy to participate in the torch relay, and maybe someday I’ll be in the Olympics wearing the Brazilian jersey.”
From Pernambuco to Liverpool
Marcos André França da Silva, from Pernambuco – a state in poor Northeast Brazil – suffered hardships as a child. He lived on the streets of the capital city Recife and saw friends recruited by drug dealers.
Today, Silva, 28, is an instructor at Coletivo de Chão de Estrelas, an organization that prepares youths for the job market.
When the torch was passed to him, Silva danced the frevo, a dance style native to Pernambuco.
“Though it was a short-lived moment, it will always have a special place in my heart,” he says. “I am privileged.”