As the world marvels at the shiny soccer stadiums from Rio to Recife, a working class hero dons a mask and cape and battles for the people.
Sweat drips from the black-fitted latex mask that Eron Morais Melo bought on eBay. His face covered, he takes command of Rio Branco — one of the busiest streets in downtown Rio de Janeiro — standing atop the aisle of orange and white construction barriers that reach more than halfway up his six-foot-two frame.
Raccoon-like eyes — the result of a five-minute paint-job that morning — peek out as black circles through the mask’s designated eyeholes. It would all blend together if it weren’t for the intensity of the thirty-three-year-old’s eyes, an intensity gained from Rio’s street battles.
Melo stands atop the checkered dividers as oncoming buses nearly graze his back. His velvet cape, fastened with safety pins, is draped over his broad frame, covering his homemade shoulder pads and touching down near the top of his dark shoes. A cutout of the iconic Batman symbol crosses his chest and a faux-golden belt provides the only color to his homemade costume.
Kids run up to Melo; cariocas (locals) know him and photographers love him. As buses go by filled with commuters — relieved from work at lunchtime to ease traffic congestion before World Cup games at the nearby Maracanã stadium — Melo turns to the people on the buses behind him. They slide open their windows for a better look and reach out. He grabs hands and high-fives. There are some boos but it doesn’t faze him.
Melo is standing today with SEPE (Sindicato Estadual dos Profissionais da Educação — or the State Union of Education Professionals), a group of unionized teachers from Rio’s public schools who have been on strike since May 12. Teachers hold up signs calling for better working conditions and salaries, and protesting against the more than $11 billion price tag Brazil spent to host the World Cup, the costliest in the event’s eighty-four-year history.
A few hundred people have gathered today, closing down city streets. Many of them are teachers, like thirty-three-year old Rio native Flavia Rodrigues, who holds down two part-time jobs at different schools. Rodrigues works in the resource room at one school, teaching special needs children, who she says are largely forgotten in this society. The school does not provide any material for them and she has been waiting since last year for promised tablets that would help her autistic students with reading.
For many teachers like Rodrigues, these kind of empty promises have ignited a desire to strike, and Melo has vowed to fight for them.
* * *
“If he is the Joker, I’m Batman,” Melo says, speaking at his home in Marechal Hermes, a small working class neighborhood in Rio’s Zona Norte, or North Zone.
Melo is talking about Eduardo Paes, Rio de Janeiro’s mayor, and a viral spoof that lampooned Paes by depicting him as the Batman villain, robbing residents via exorbitant bus ticket prices. The spoof inspired Melo to create his homemade Batman costume — painted and assembled from past Carnival street party outfits, and join the massive protests that lit up Brazil last June.
The catalyst was a ten-cent hike in public transport costs. What started as demonstrations in Brazil’s largest city of São Paulo quickly reverberated across the country and erupted as more than a million people nationwide took to the streets to protest corruption, poor public services, and lavish spending for the World Cup and 2016 Olympics. Bloody clashes broke out between protesters and police officers. Demonstrators criticized the heavy-handed response from officers, while the police blamed the escalation on protestors who set fires and broke into buildings. São Paulo’s Avenida Paulista and Rio’s Avenida Presidente Vargas — main avenues in both cities — became cornerstones of protest routes and symbolized the new social movement riding in the air.
“I felt that something new and different was happening,” Melo says. “I felt we were making history and entering a new moment, a new phase in the country.”
Melo’s pride for his country carries over into his eyes, but the level of anger seeps to the surface within seconds. His face changes, revealing a flash of that Batman persona and his commitment to fight for justice. Melo talks on end about all the people who need help, from the gym teachers who don’t have enough soccer balls to go around in their classes to the classroom teachers who buy and stock their own school supplies. Melo attends almost all of the protests, always dressed as Batman and usually carrying a double-sided sign with one side carrying a message written in English and the other in Portuguese. His latest reads: “It doesn’t make sense to be the soccer country if there’s no health and education. SOS ☹ Brazil.”
“Batman brings great messages and provokes many feelings, such as hope and justice,” Melo says. “My message is: come to the streets, fight for your rights, fight against an unfair system that dominates us.”
Melo’s Facebook page contains updated tracking his continuing battles. Every time he goes to a demonstration pictures are added by others before he even has time to take his phone out from his black pouch.
Quick to put down any notions of being a leader, Melo says he is an independent peaceful protester and doesn’t belong to any group, such as the scarf-clad anarchist “Black Blocs” who often clash with the police.
“I can be a symbol in the protests and this brings me a lot of responsibility,” he says. “But I am not a leader.”
Melo says he avoids confrontations at the protests but has been arrested twice in the past year. He talks about a May 28th protest with teachers on Avenida Presidente Vargas, when he was hit on the head with police batons.
Pictures from that day show him holding onto a blood-marked sign reading, “A Educação Vale Mais que a Seleção” — “education is more worthy than the Brazilian national football team.”) His mask is removed and blood drips down his face; the cutout of the Batman symbol on his t-shirt now set to a background of red.
“On the same day that my head was injured, I went alone to the hospital and as soon as I got discharged I came back to the protest,” Melo says. “I never give up.”
His personal life, however, has taken a bit of a hit. His wife, Aline, is his biggest supporter, but it is tough for her, particularly when protests are marred by violence.
“It is not easy being Batman, though my wife helps me a lot and is very patient, and I always try to balance everything, to always pay attention to the family,” Melo says.
Brazil’s version of Valentine’s Day, known as Dia dos Namorados, fell on the same day as the World Cup opener. A full day of protests were planned, including morning demonstrations through the city center and alongside FIFA Fan Fest — an outdoor venue broadcasting live World Cup matches on Copacabana’s beach. That morning, Melo made sure he got up and served Aline a Valentine’s breakfast in bed first, then was out the door in thirty minutes, dressed as Batman.
* * *
The day of the opener, with the kickoff to the World Cup just a few hours away, drum beats tap into the cobbled, wraparound streets of Rio’s 300-year-old Lapa neighborhood. Melo stands behind concrete barriers at the intersection of Avenida Mem de Sá and Avenida República do Paraguai. He looks into the array of flashing lights from the cars of military police that string past him as helicopters hover above.
Two-story colonial houses known as sobrkrados serve as peeling, watercolor canvases for graffiti. Gamblers and prostitutes once dominated the depilated buildings in this newly revitalized neighborhood, but elements of its seedy past are sometimes still visible. Melo breaks away from the crowd of about a thousand and stares out at a Roman-style aqueduct built by slaves to transport fresh water from the sprawling Santa Teresa hills overlooking Lapa. Its forty-two double-tiered arches were recently given an airbrushed white makeover for the world’s stage.
Adjoining the arches is a square filled with people from all walks of life: Women from favelas swaying to rapid-fire beats in short skirts, foreigners soaking up their first authentic samba experience, cerveja vendors selling beer, street musicians moving to their own tunes, and party-goers from Rio’s wealthier neighborhoods.
Melo pauses and looks out. For a person who is a staple of the protests, he also has many moments where he breaks away and runs off alone — finding spots where he holds his sign up and stands on his own. Wherever he ends up, people find him.
He cuts across the square to the edge of the arch. There is a deep, patchy hill that leads to an entryway of one of the bridge’s tiers. Grass turns to dirt as he makes his way up. A few street cleaners look at him with curiosity.
Melo takes a few steps and holds onto the edge of a column. Bags of clothes and garbage with a few mounds of blankets lie in one of the half-arches, evidence of a homeless person’s leftover bed. His leg crosses the corner of the arch in a swift move. Between columns, he gets a break and walks until he reaches the part where he has to scale up once again. Melo does this until he reaches the middle of the famed site. By the time he is halfway across, the square is already filled and the cameras flash up at him.
Following him, several Black Blocs in hoodies and face-covering scarves flock around Melo for the picture-worthy moment. Suddenly, everything changes. Loud eruptions break when the police throw tear gas bombs. The crowd disperses, people running amid the lingering smell of pepper spray and gas.
Melo is already gone, having climbed back off the white arches before the scene unfolded.
* * *
Nearly five and a half weeks into their strike, teachers continue to pound the pavement on June 18. Drums beat to funk carioca (“Rio funk”) — the sound born from the city’s favelas, or shantytowns — filling the area in front of the historic Palácio Tiradentes where Rio’s legislative assembly sits. The building, with an imposing façade and huge dome, is flanked by Corinthian columns and sculptures. It has been the scene of several demonstrations, its wide staircase and half-circular ramp offering a public stage for the protesting teachers.
At the street corner outside, a man with a Rastafarian beanie cap leads a circle of teachers in singing a famous funk carioca song, “Eu só quero é ser feliz” — “I just want to be happy.”
As the chorus fills the air Melo moves in sync with the singer, waving his cape around. His body sways back and forth, his arms in sync, as his feet tap against the concrete. Melo closes his eyes and sings the words, a loud voice rising above the crowd:
Eu só quero é ser feliz / Andar tranquilamente Na favela onde eu nasci É / E poder me orgulhar / E ter a consciência / Que o pobre tem seu lugar
I just want to be happy / Walk calmly in the favela where I was born Yeah / And being able to be proud of myself / And understand / That the poor have their place
As the music breaks, teachers start grouping together in front of the assembly building.
“The fight of teachers gives me inspiration to fight for a better education; a better country,” Melo says. Standing at the side of the ramp, he looks over and sees that the group is ready to move and he follows suit, running to catch the red banner at the front.
* * *
Two days later, it’s nearly lunchtime as Melo tries to flag down the 378 bus home. He has spent another morning at Palácio Tiradentes, where teachers have congregated since eight a.m.
The crowd has now scattered to the umbrella-clad vendors lining streets corners, yielding to the smell of deep-fried foods and the Brazilian renditions of hamburgers and hotdogs. Others head to buffet-style eateries nearby, while some stand at the curbside landing station for bus passengers.
In one hand, Melo holds onto a blue plastic bag, hastily knotted. It holds the famous mask, damp from his morning’s work. A pack of roasted peanuts he just bought peaks out between the fingers of his other hand. Melo alternates between picking out peanuts from the bag and glancing down at phone pings coming from the small black utility belt that loops across his right upper thigh.
While he waits for the bus, Melo plays catch-up on his phone, which is remarkably crack-free, despite bouts that have involved tear gas, stun grenades and police officers wielding batons.
Hailing a bus, he walks all the way to the back and takes one of five empty seats in the last aisle. He leans his head onto the rigid, faded blue seats. His eyes start to close and he says that the ride home often stretches to an hour, so it gives him time to nap.
As quickly as traffic breaks it switches back to bumper-to-bumper. This pattern continues, a roller-coaster ride that sends Melo flying out of his seat several times. Each time, he laughs and goes back to sleep.
* * *
Back at home, Melo’s Batman cape has been replaced by a short-sleeve white laboratory coat. He is in a tiny room on the top of his small, two-story house. There are two seats and a wooden desk that make up his prosthetic teeth-making workstation.
Always drawn to assembling and constructing, Melo was introduced to the profession by a friend of his father. After completing a two-year vocational course, he has made teeth for the past twelve years. He is continually fascinated by the idea that his job can help someone smile.
Large Captain America and Wolverine figurines, both still in their packaging, are stacked on a shelf, topped by a miniature Brazilian flag and surrounded by many smaller action figures, including several Batman ones. A long table outfitted with a simple sink sits all the way in the corner, a place for the messier portion of his work, done with stiffening agents to finish the teeth.
Melo squeezes a droplet of rubbing alcohol into a small white candle held by a grey metal holder. He lights it under a non-flammable bowl and a slab of red wax melts. A sliver tool becomes a paintbrush and he adds the red to the white cask of teeth. He is careful, applying it on delicately, pausing at times to let it dry.
Later he brings the creation to the sink table, where the red gums for his teeth have dried. He moves with precision, mixing a flour-like material in a small bowl with water, using it to cover the mold of teeth. Each step flows into the next one and in between drying and setting times, he answers the pings coming from his phone.
Melo comes and goes in this room, making his own hours and working around a full plate of protest activities. The adjacent room — which he jokingly calls his bat cave — contains all his costume-making materials, including two Batman masks sitting on Styrofoam model heads.
* * *
It’s a Saturday morning just a few days later and the world’s flags converge on the boardwalk of Copacabana Beach, but it is the green and yellow that dominates since Brazil is playing today. Brazilians and tourists alike start picking out their viewing spots for the day’s games, broadcast here on a giant screen. Melo is with about 100 protestors just off the beachfront.
Alongside him is forty-five-year-old artist Carlos D. Medeiros, better known as Batman Pobre or the “Poor Batman.” Batman Pobre actually joined the protest movement before Melo. The two met during a demonstration last fall, and often bump into each other at protests but there is no hero vs. hero rivalry.
“The people need to go to streets,” says Medeiros. “If someone has the courage to put on any type of suit to fight for justice…the people need to have the courage with or without fantasy to do the same.”
While Melo goes the traditional route, Medeiros has fashioned his costume out of plastic materials — mainly black garbage bags — because they are sustainable and reusable, he says. The Batman symbol is drawn on his bare chest and a large overflowing black bag hangs loosely down his back, serving as his cape. He wears a swimsuit and has ears amassed with layer upon layer of black plastic, heavily exaggerated into antennae-like ears.
At one point, Melo stands on the small rooftop of a public works building along the median traffic divider. Photographers follow him and he picks a corner where he spreads his arms out, so his cape becomes even more eye-popping against the oceanfront view.
“We are different people and we do art in different ways,” Medieros says. “He has great courage to make things that I don’t have the courage to make in the streets — like climb over the bus. He plays the role very well. He is really a Batman.”
* * *
On June 30, Melo is back on the steps at the Palácio Tiradentes. But this time, his black mask, velvet cape and leather shoes are absent. Instead, he wears a stenciled Batman t-shirt with jeans and brown sneakers.
“I am Eron today,” he says.
As he walks to catch Bus 378, Melo munches on his peanuts and checks his phone, moving his head up every time a bus passes. A moment later he runs to the street and hails a bus that almost snuck by him. He makes it to the last aisle of seats, where his eyes flutter and shut momentarily. The old bus crosses into traffic-clogged Presidential Vargas, then passes Rio’s City Hall. The area in front of the building is now empty, the teachers who have gathered here many times in the last few weeks are now gone. The strike that lasted forty-seven days is over and the teachers did not receive much. Some will get just R$22.17 (about $10) for the six weeks they were on strike, along with raises that are much smaller than what they were seeking.
“It was a bad ending,” Melo says, looking out from the bus.
“But,” he adds. “The fight is never over.”
* * *
Tracy Lee is a freelance journalist from New York, currently covering a series of human interest stories in Brazil.
Cole L. Howard is a freelance photographer and photojournalist, as well as a member of the National Press Photographers Association. His photos have been featured in publications such as commondreams.org and The Santa Fe New Mexican.