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May 17, 2007

Written on 5/9/7


You may have read about the lixeiros in Porto Alegre in some of my entries from 2004, when I was living in Brazil.  If you didn’t, here’s a quick description of what a lixeiro is:


A lixeiro is literally a trash picker, someone who goes from house to house in the afternoons and evenings before trash days in order to salvage any potentially reusable or recyclable items such as jugs, jars, cans, etc.  In Porto Alegre, the lixeiros go around on small horse-drawn carts, their scrawny horses sweating profusely as they pull their owners’ scavenged loads up and down Porto Alegre’s hilly neighborhoods. 


You might not believe me if I were to tell you that there were lixeiros in Philadelphia, too, but there are.  Last night while I was at my student’s house, a rickety pick-up truck came to a stop in the median across from Leo’s curb side and proceeded to pick through the “trash” that Leo had piled there from his basement, which he had cleaned out the day before.  As we watched, the lean man picked out anything made of metal and loaded it onto his flatbead, which was already half filled with broken folding chairs, a kids’ bike, old chandeliers, and other random scraps.  Understanding the value of these items to the man, Leo went outside to inform him that he had more metal in the basement than he could take, as well as an old washing machine and refrigerator that he’d been planning to get rid of.  Together, my students and the lixeiro—a small gentleman with rough skin but kind eyes—loaded the appliances onto a dolly and then the flatbead while I trailed behind with the metal scraps. 


I’ve noticed similar pickups before driving along Roosevelt Boulevard.  They’re identifiable by the tall, metal fences that the lixeiros install on either side of the flatbead so as to allow them to pile their treasures high—as high as about 6 or 8 feet, judging by the gap between the top of the lixeiro’s head and the top of the fence when he stood on his flatbead to load the items Leo had given him.  I had seen these pickups before, but I hadn’t known what they signified; I had thought that they were simply people moving items around, or perhaps taking rubble to the dump—never had it occurred to me that people were making a living off of trash picking here in the same way that many do in underdeveloped countries.  I know that many poor Philadelphians pick trash in the suburbs in search of otherwise unaffordable items such as microwaves and bicycles; but the lixeiros aren’t picking trash for their own personal use—this is a business for them.


There may be such a thing as the “developed” world and the “underdeveloped” or “developing” world, but the boundaries aren’t by country, as economists and geographers delineate them—they’re by class.  There is a underdeveloped world right here in our own back yard.


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