Words matter

Although on the team of Words Matter, I decided to look at some numbers.

by Ricky Toledano

I threw myself on the floor of my house when the machine gunfire started – once – in an instinctive reaction, because I immediately knew from the thunder around me, and the whistling of the bullets through the leaves of the trees in the garden, that the battle was not the normal, everyday, more-or-less-distant gunfire I had grown used to after so many years living above the unending war to control drug trafficking in the favelas below me in one of Rio de Janeiro’s most picturesque and folkloric neighborhoods. Actually, that’s a lie: the insane reflexes we only discover with gunfire threw me down on two other specific occasions that I remember, but they were nothing like that evening when I was trembling on the floor, just under open windows with their majestic view of the city. I was so paralyzed by the fear of an imminent ricochet that I couldn’t even crawl to the kitchen where I would have been safer. I stayed pressing myself into the floor, listened to the sound of the cascade of water falling from the top of the house. They shot up the water tank and pot-marked the exterior stone walls. Down below me, past the trees in a world so close I couldn’t see it, they don’t have the luxury of stone: those bullets ripped through their clay bricks like paper. I know. I heard their screams.
I have always refrained from telling that story, and some other darker ones, in English, to foreigners, for two reasons: firstly, I simply cannot explain Brazil in English (the words for the barely explicable only come to me in Portuguese, and I greatly admire the journalists who manage!); secondly, after more than 20 years here, I am so Brazilian and love this country so much that I have long since adopted the local custom of never belittling my country, washing our dirty laundry in front of guests, even when speaking the truth.
That said, this week I am beside myself, and on the outside looking in on another country I thought I once knew. I am looking at a picture of a little girl, who I would guess is about six years-old. I cannot see her face because she is doubled over in agony with her face in her hands, heaving in tears, because her parents were just arrested and taken away from her for being – I brace myself for the ridiculous adjective I wrote about – “illegals”.
In one moment, she is alone and without guardians, and there is no plan for her and many others like her.
What is even more sinister and inconceivable is that there really are those taking pleasure in their torture, or this would not even be happening. They are the same people who see no need of punishing the gentry that has profited from the labor of “illegals”, such as the little girl’s parents, who have only ever kept quiet and done their work, taking no one’s job, hurting no one – unlike some native sons.
This news comes on the heels of yet another week of horrendous gun violence in the US, which included a mass shooting by a white supremacist in El Paso, who obviously targeted people much like that little girl’s family, people who are brown in color and/or whose first language is not English. Then there were more shootings in Dayton. My hometown of Chicago had what has become a normal summer weekend with 47 shot and seven dead, but “[b]lack and brown life being taken by gun violence is not something America has been concerned about for a long time,” said the local pastor. I would correct him: It has never been a concern. The same way it has never been a concern here in the favelas, around me, just outside my window.
So tonight I decided to look at some numbers, even though I’m on the team of those that think words matter, unlike some friends and even some family who decided not to give any value to the words of the then-candidate Trump when he called my father – a proud American who was born in Mexico – a “rapist” and “murderer”.
In an unfortunate world where we have no choice but to relativize the unacceptable, what you might find to be the alarming rate of gun violence in the US is just a pittance compared to Latin America. I wish Brazil only had the US rate of 4.43 gun deaths per 100,000 inhabitants. It doesn’t: Take 21.68.
Then I looked at the rates from the countries where the families of many refugees and immigrants – like those of the many little children put in cages while crying when their parents are ripped away from them – are currently coming from. Ready?
El Salvador, 42.11; Venezuela, 42.15; Guatemala, 29.61; Honduras, 24.66.

Those are much higher rates than those happening outside my window, which means – if it were me in a less fortunate world and with a daughter – I would definitely run the risk of leaving all that I have ever known, walking through the forest, across mountains and deserts to seek refuge from all that firepower and knowing I would have to turn my daughter over to be raped one day, anyway. That would also mean that you should please know that I tried my best – I tried everything – if you were to find my daughter and me floating face down in the river we couldn’t cross.

I almost forgot. The detail. The most important detail. Guess who is making a lot of money with all this violence?

Cover picture by Ricky Toledano. Graffiti mural is by one of Rio de Janerio’s most well-known street artists, Cazé.

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A native of Chicago, Ricky Toledano has lived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for over twenty years as a writer, translator and teacher. [a]multipicity is multi-lingual collection of reflections through the humanities.

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