Christ the Redeemer overlooking Rio De Janeiro. Wikimedia Commons

Generated By a Gaze

In Belo Horizonte, a woman led from Italy to Brazil by Fr. Giussani’s embrace, long ago. Today, we find a soccer school, nurseries, and children becoming educators. Her house is well known and passersbys even make the sign of the cross when they pass.
Silvana Ninivaggi

There’s a reason this city is called Belo Horizonte. From the roller-coaster roads crossing the favela, immense landscapes open out and, overhead, clouds like watercolors move along. We’re on our way to Mass, the only fixed moment in Rosetta’s day, at 7:15 in the morning. Well, fixed in a manner of speaking, because she follows Fr. Pigi Bernareggi, who celebrates each daily Mass in a different little church in the bairro, the neighborhood. After Mass, she shares quick greetings with Mass goers and those who’ve come just to exchange a few words with her, Donna Rosa, as she’s known in the favela. Rosa Brambilla has “Brianzolan” blood, out of northern Italy, but by now she’s more Brazilian than the Brazilians.

Small and strong, a smoker of the worst brands of cigarettes, she has lived here for 42 years. She was 17, working as a ceramist when, one Sunday afternoon, at a party, she met the Movement. “I didn’t love my life. I began to love it and to love myself when Fr. Giussani looked at me. He bet on me that I wasn’t a nothing.” Since then, she’s carried in the back of her diary a flyer with an invitation to an outing in the mountains, with the sentence, “How can we have fun? Paying attention to ourselves and others.” She looks at this faded paper as if it were the dearest thing to her. “Everything that has happened here in Brazil is born of the yes said every day, even at parties and outings. The yes of every instant, the same then as now, has given greatness to these 40 years.” In 1967, she set off to help Fr. Pigi, who’d been a missionary in Brazil since 1962. Today, she lives in a house in the Primero de Maio favela, and this is where we return right after Mass, because at 8:00 she has breakfast with her guests.

The Child You Weren't Expecting
People of all kinds, coming and going. The second floor of her home is dedicated to them, and the door is always open. Rarely is Rosetta alone: in August, she’s had as many as 20 guests at once. These days, there are two students, Elisa and Costanza, then Serena and Mirella, all Italians who’ve arrived here from different roads. The word of mouth that brings so many people to Rose’s house began in 1995, when Gabriele, a Milanese who worked in the stock market, made a vow to Our Lady to dedicate a month to volunteer work. He arrived here and lasted only 15 days before returning to Milan, but with the memory seared into his heart. A year later, with friends and colleagues, he collected about $60,000 for Rosetta’s work and, since then, has returned annually.

At 8:50 am, Rosetta’s grey Fiat Palio is loaded, and we’re off. Her day is full of appointments, but they don’t follow one after the other, like following an appointment book; the journey is more like an intricate zigzag. Sooner or later, you reach all the places, but the how is up in the air. Rosetta’s day is decided by what happens, by those she chances to meet. Along the road, an acquaintance needs a ride to transport a heavy pack, or she passes in front of a friend’s house and knocks on the door to find out how things are going and to say hi to the kids. Each journey is a surprise and an expectant awaiting. We enter Jardim Felicidade, the neighborhood born through Fr. Pigi, who battled the federal government for two years to enable these 4,000 families to leave the favela. Now they have housing and land, and have chosen this name for the neighborhood. You can see why. A gate covered with drawings opens onto the courtyard of the nursery school. Rosetta hurries off because she has a meeting with the directors. This is the second center for children established as part of the Obras Educativas Padre Giussani, directed by Rosetta (and founded thanks to AVSI support), a series of structures in the northern part of Belo Horizonte that welcome 1,150 children and adolescents. There are four educational centers, the Virgilio Resi Sports Center, the Novella Hospitality House, and four nursery schools, including this one in Jardim Felicidade, around which the Alvorada Center has formed. Its new director, Lucio, who has a background in the seminary and in pastoral work, met Rosetta and began working with the parents, then the children, and then with young adults... “In the end, I didn’t even have time to respond when Rosetta asked me to direct the Center.” He stayed there, as you would before a child you weren’t expecting but who arrives. At the Alvorada Center, he works with children of all ages who come from the favelas of the neighborhood, 80% of whom have no father. “Having men among the educators is very important, so the children can see that there are men who are capable of listening and hugging,” says Lucio, leading us from office to office to show us the photos of children who have made the entire journey, educated from nursery school onwards, and who now are educators of other children.“In recent years, living conditions have worsened because of drugs.” Children begin dealing drugs at the age of nine or ten, trying to survive the wretched life of the favelas. “This is why, after the nursery school, we started the first day center, where today there are 200 kids engaged in various activities. Then the need for accompanying them further emerged.” So the “Jovem Trabalhador” program was begun to help 140 minors prepare work. There’s a break for coffee and suddenly the hall fills with educators and staff; it looks like a little citadel. Looking at these people who are working now, smiling, committed to what they do, you’d never imagine the stories behind them. It’s a miracle before your eyes.

From a Stadium to a House
Upstairs, there’s the sound of music: the children’s choir formed by the new teacher, Vivian, is singing. As soon as Marco Aurelio shows up, all the children jump on him as if he were their dad. For 10 years, he’s been following the classes in the itinerary of musical activity, using instruments of all kinds. The children begin to speak through learning the nursery school songs. On the ground floor, in a small workshop, there’s Cleber, the carpenter, who, with great patience, builds wooden toys–trucks, horses, frogs, and rabbits with wheels. He brings the finished toys to the next room, where the children paint and package them, guided by Simone, who was the first child enrolled in this nursery school, at the age of four, pulling along like a rag doll her little brother, who now is the director of the artistic workshop.
From behind a wall, children emerge, walking in line rhythmically: it’s a capoeira lesson. Diego and Igor teach the movements and the somersaults of this old slave combat dance. “It’s one of the most eagerly awaited moments of the week,” they recount, “together with the theater courses.” And soccer. In the beginning, the Center had a ramshackle cement field, but today they have a soccer school for 300 children and a regulation size field with artificial turf in perfect condition. Everybody is proud of this field, the gift of an Italian benefactor. Coach Alessandro is Italian, too, having left the beaches of Rimini 10 years ago to live here. He saw the old stadium bleachers demolished to make way for the Novella Hospitality House, which today hosts 10 children removed from their families; 6 educators take care of them in shifts, with Graça, who lives with them, sharing meals and sleeping there. “The children couldn’t be surrounded by constantly changing faces; they needed one face that was always there,” says Rosetta, who has finished her meeting. She continues, “Nothing here was born of a project. There wasn’t a program. It was the response to a need that slowly emerged.” This is precisely how it is when she leaves her house in the morning and “the day is built responding to the needs and unforeseen things that come up.”

Before heading out again, there’s lunch, and the living room is transformed into a cafeteria. Everyone sits down. The children are vivacious but self-possessed: “When they go to the doctor, people are amazed at how well behaved they are,” recounts Silvana, who was the director of the school, but now works as the cook. A cook was needed, so she changed her job. “But it’s the same identical thing; it’s always the point of reference,” says Rosetta: “Here, the person who cooks and cleans is the first teacher.” Director or cook–there’s no difference.

Papai do Céu
Educating is sharing the gusto with which you do things, communicating a life. We’re going to a shop to buy some crayons. Do you want to come?” Rosetta fixes her gaze on a child loitering around her, and quickly another joins, and then another. She’s incapable of saying “no” and the car fills up. For them, a ride in the car is like going to the amusement park. She brings them wherever she has to go, even to funerals. They’re used to seeing a murder victim lying on the ground like a dead chicken, until the police come to carry him away. “Instead, they discover that the people return to the arms of God.” To the Papai do Céu, as they call Him, the Father of Heaven.

With the full car, we go to the Creche Etelvina Caetano de Jesus, a return to the origins. It was the first nursery school born with Rosetta, in the Todos Os Santos parish. Here, years before, Fr. Pigi had welcomed the families whose shacks had been destroyed by the strong summer rains. In the midst of the nothingness of the favela, a community was born. They began courses in upholstering, pattern cutting, sewing, and embroidery; they organized literacy courses for adults, catechism, and traditional festivities. An outpatient clinic was built. Then, in 1979, a woman of the community offered the only space she had. Under a yellow tarpaulin, the first 50 children were welcomed. In 1987, this nursery school was born. Elena is the pillar, the director for nineteen years. Like all those who work in the Obras (today there are 150), she’s there because of a friendship: she’s one of the first children Rosetta and Fr. Pigi encountered. Her mother had 18 children, “all with the same father. They spent 52 years together,” she is proud to say, because she knows it’s something exceptional. “First, the social fabric and culture were such that the problem was to respond to their poverty,” she says. “Today, there’s terrible cultural poverty. The mothers need to be taught affection, care for the child. The method that Rosetta taught us is to look at the children in their uniqueness. It’s not just a matter of teaching the rules of good behavior: it’s taking them by the hand, full of a love that opens to reality. It’s caring about their destiny.” It’s a journey, one that can’t help but involve the mothers as well. In most cases, they are the child’s whole family. “When a mother is in a difficult moment,” recounts Elena, “we ask her to come give us a hand, to help the cook or the educator. Serene shared life is the beginning of a change in the life of a mother, because she sees a hope.”

A Life that Waits
We head back home, with Rosetta fuming about the drivers who are too slow, and then stop to visit a family. In the narrow streets, she has to navigate a slalom course between the people sitting on the sidewalks and the children playing on the ground. Finally, we reach Rua Faraday, where Rosetta lives. She still remembers finding “that rose-colored shelf” repainted in the shack of one of the first families she helped. “It was the beginning of a love for self.” She starts cooking. She likes fixing food and her domestic organization is military-style. Her character is anything but docile, but she is interested in everyone. This evening as well, she has guests, like almost every evening. Her house fills with people and a vivacious conversation in Portuguese begins. Around her, she has gathered a varied world: people arrive who are needy for everything, but above all for an embrace. “It’s what we all need, the embrace of Christ. There’s nothing else that sustains life.” She’s seen the departure of friends with whom everything began, friends who were more than brothers to her. “They changed roads. I felt like the skin was ripped from my body. I was down on the ground, breathing dust. But I discovered that I can only rely on Him.” From outside arrive the sounds of the favela: dogs barking, children yelling, the sudden rumbles of engines. The houses are painted like collages, with leftovers of color, green-blue, orange, gray, signs of a disordered life, but one that exists, that asks and awaits. A passerby in front of Rosetta’s house pauses and makes the sign of the Cross, then continues walking.