Pitta, Celso 19(?) (?)–
Celso Pitta 19(?) (?)–
Mayor of Sao Paolo, Brazil
In November of 1996 Celso Pitta became mayor of the third largest city in the world. He was also Sao Paolo’s first elected black leader. The city, which is both Brazil’s and the South American continent’s largest, is home to over ten million people within its limits; with the inclusion of its outlying metropolitan areas that figure reaches 16 million—and blacks make up the largest segment of this multiracial society. Until recent years, however, both Sao Paolo and Brazil remained colonial in thought, with few people of color reaching prominent positions in society; and more often than not, the ones that succeeded were lighter-skinned than the majority. Yet Pitta—whom one journalist wryly noted seemed to “get blacker every day”—and his election as leader of Brazil’s cultural and commercial urban center marks a new era of change.
Pitta was born Celso Roberto Pitta do Nascimento, and educated in the United States. An economist by profession, he formerly served as Sao Paolo’s budget director/finance secretary in the previous mayoral administration of Paolo Maluf. Pitta’s connections to the longtime mayor stretch back years; he was once the accountant for Maluf’s country farm. Brazilian mayors wield distinct political power and are often prominent national figures due to the country’s relatively ineffectual political parties. Maluf was interested in campaigning for the presidency and did not stand for election in 1996 as the incumbent; Pitta was his chosen successor instead. The election in the fall of 1996 was essentially a struggle between Maluf and his political nemesis, President Fernando Henrique Cardoso; a victory for Pitta would mean a vast well of support for Maluf’s future political ambitions. In a runoff election, Pitta faced onetime mayor and Workers’ Party leftist candidate Luiza Erundina, and won with 57 percent of the vote.
As the Sao Paolo’s first elected black leader, Pitta attempted to introduced a new era of thinking centered around the idea of “personal responsibility.” In order to draw his constituents more directly into the issues that negatively affect their city, the mayor’s new campaign asked them to take the initiative, and speak freely of the goals they would like implemented. A direct manifestation
At a Glance…
Born Celso Roberto Pitta do Nasclmento.
Career: Accountant on an estate farm; served as Sao Paolo’s budget director/finance secretary; elected mayor of Sao Paolo in November, 1996.
Addresses: Office—Presidente da Camara Municipal, Sao Paolo, Sao Paolo, Brazil.
of this was Pitta’s drive to lessen drunk-driving incidents: for the first time, the Breathalyzer device to measure blood-alcohol content would be used. Twinned with this theme of personal responsibility was Pitta’s drive to improve the quality of life for Sao Paolans: the need to protect and beautify the environment was addressed in another first, fines for littering. Among the more serious issues of crime, unemployment, and housing in the city—nearly 20 percent of Sao Paolo’s citizenry live in substandard dwellings—Pitta was working toward moving some of the bureaucratic stranglehold on the state and national level down to more amenable local control, which would also make the city’s administration more answerable to their fellow citizens.
Pitta also planned to seriously crusade at the state and national level to change law enforcement authority: at the time of his inauguration, Sao Paolo’s police force was under the control of the state of Sao Paolo, of which the city serves as capital; Pitta hoped to have it transferred to the municipal level. He compares his reformist goals with those of New York City, which saw a positive change in quality-of-lif e issues under a new mayor in the 1990s. Yet Pitta and his plans for Sao Paolo are not without detractors. Some black activists assert he is an assimilationist who does not address the particular needs of his race; one black journalist called him the “invisible man,” according to Christian Science Monitor reporter Howard LaFranchi.
In Pitta’s Sao Paolo, blacks remain the majority of its underclass, but as in other large Brazilian cities, race relations are somewhat unusual. To its credit, Brazil has long promulgated itself as a melting pot—in the nineteenth century it was described as the world’s truly first mixed-race society—and over a hundred different gradations of skin tone are recognized with descriptive terminology. There is a high degree of social mixing between blacks and whites, for instance, and interracial relationships are common; Pitta himself is married to a white woman. Conversely, a black consciousness is still in its relative early stages. Apartment buildings have separate elevators for their (generally) black workers; on one well-publicized occasion, reported LaFranchi, a black woman visiting a luxury hotel was assumed to be a prostitute.
Sociologists assert that Brazilian blacks once seemed to fit the stereotype of the old-fashioned, silent minority, and for years agitation for civil-rights concessions was almost nonexistent. Sao Paolo’s legislative assembly saw the election of its first black only in 1988. Yet there is also little racial divide in voting patterns—in comparison with a multiracial nation such as the United States, observed LaFranchi, “where black candidates can generally count on the black vote[.] Brazilian sociologists say this is not the case in their country. This absence of a race-based political identification is hailed by some as a sign of an integrated society, while condemned by some black activists as a sure sign that blacks in Brazil remain ‘Invisible.’”
Pitta’s electoral victory in Sao Paolo was a further accomplishment given another unusual and archaic social constraint—many Brazilian blacks who achieve success or middle-class status are generally lighter-skinned, but Pitta is dark. Washington Post correspondent Gabriel Escobar noted that this seems to have made him “a living affront to the palette theory of mobility. Merely broadcasting his face sends a powerful message to a segment of the population that is short on role models who are not athletes or musicians,” Escobar wrote. In writing of Pitta and Sao Paolo’s new mayoral administration, the journalist also noticed “a new consciousness about race” in Brazil since the Eighties. Evidence of this change can be found in popular culture—a soap opera will feature a black female lead for the first time, and there is a new magazine, Raca Brasil, aimed at the middle class that uses black models, which is considered extremely progressive. Discussions on affirmative action have arisen, and there is a newly-created Institute for Research on Black Cultures as well as a presidential commission on race relations.
Pitta’s more concrete plans for Sao Paolo include pushing for full implementation of a new health-care system for the city’s poor; he is also overseeing a lauded public-housing project called Cingapura, which is eliminating some of Sao Paolo’s worst slums—“the idea is to provide new, decent housing where people already live, so you don’t uproot their community,” Pitta told LaFranchi in the Christian Science Monitor. Certainly his training as an economist will help maintain financial order in the southern hemisphere’s most thriving city. A busy schedule keeps Pitta away from the press opportunities maximized by his predecessor—one leading newspaper went so far as to print a mock-up of a children’s game inviting readers to search for their behind-the-scenes mayor. Pitta is impervious to such wisecracks, and has his own goals for Sao Paolo clearly in sight. “Since I was a child, I was taught that you can overcome any situation that seems to be against you,” he told the Christian Science Monitor, “if you are competent, able, and aware of what you are seeking.”
Christian Science Monitor, February 28, 1997, p. 1.
New York Times, November 16, 1996.
Salt Lake Tribune, November 17, 1996.
Washington Post, December 15, 1996, p. A35.
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