Vita: Life in a Zone of Social Abandonment

Vita: Life in a Zone of Social Abandonment

Vita: Life in a Zone of Social Abandonment

Vita: Life in a Zone of Social Abandonment


Zones of social abandonment are emerging everywhere in Brazil's big cities--places like Vita, where the unwanted, the mentally ill, the sick, and the homeless are left to die. This haunting, unforgettable story centers on a young woman named Catarina, increasingly paralyzed and said to be mad, living out her time at Vita. Anthropologist João Biehl leads a detective-like journey to know Catarina; to unravel the cryptic, poetic words that are part of the "dictionary" she is compiling; and to trace the complex network of family, medicine, state, and economy in which her abandonment and pathology took form.

An instant classic, Vita has been widely acclaimed for its bold fieldwork, theoretical innovation, and literary force. Reflecting on how Catarina's life story continues, this updated edition offers the reader a powerful new afterword and gripping new photographs following Biehl and Eskerod's return to Vita. Anthropology at its finest, Vita is essential reading for anyone who is grappling with how to understand the conditions of life, thought, and ethics in the contemporary world.


“In my thinking, I see that people forgot me.”

Catarina said this to me as she sat pedaling an old exercise bicycle and holding a doll. This woman of kind manners, with a piercing gaze, was in her early thirties; her speech was lightly slurred. I first met Catarina in March 1997, in southern Brazil at a place called Vita. I remember asking myself: where on earth does she think she is going on this bicycle? Vita is the endpoint. Like many others, Catarina had been left there to die.

Vita, which means “life” in Latin, is an asylum in Porto Alegre, a comparatively well-off city of some two million people. Vita was founded in 1987 by Zé das Drogas, a former street kid and drug dealer. After his conversion to Pentecostalism, Zé had a vision in which the Spirit told him to open an institution where people like him could find God and regenerate their lives. Zé and his religious friends squatted on private property near downtown, where they began a makeshift rehabilitation center for drug addicts and alcoholics. Soon, however, the scope of Vita’s mission began to widen. An increasing number of people who had been cut off from family life—the mentally ill and the sick, the unemployed and the homeless—were left there by relatives, neighbors, hospitals, and the police. Vita’s team then opened an infirmary, where the abandoned waited with death.

I began working with people in Vita in March 1995. At that time, I was traveling throughout several regions of Brazil documenting how marginalized and poor people were dealing with AIDS and how they were being integrated into programs based on new control measures. In Porto Alegre, I interviewed human rights activist Gerson Winkler, then coordinator of the city’s AIDS program. He insisted that I visit Vita: “It’s a dump site of human . . .

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