The world economy may be going to hell in a handbasket, but you wouldn't know it in Maria Irece da Silva's tiny cosmetics store in the impoverished favela of Jardim Carumbé. "The rich talk about the crisis but the poor don't mention it," says Da Silva, whose business helping women look good in a country where style always trumps substance is booming. Not even the worst recession in memory has stemmed the flow of shampoos, lipsticks and nail varnish from the shelves of her tiny beauty-aids store. "I am doing really well here," says da Silva, waving goodbye to more two satisfied customers. "I sell 500 reais [about $200] a day in cosmetics alone."
Da Silva's store is quite literally a hole in the wall, but it is packed to the roof with hair gels, conditioners and treatments, junk jewelery, and endless trinkets and beauty products that adorn even the most naturally beautiful Brazilian women. Her success confirmed by the steady stream of customers who nip in and out highlights two truths about today's Brazil. (See pictures of Sao Paulo's ad-free streets)
The first is as obvious among the sensual dancers who wow the crowds at carnival or the thousands of ordinary women gracing the country's beaches on any given today as it is among the glamorous models dominating the world's catwalks: Brazilians rich and poor, black and white, young and old, all share a firm conviction that nothing is more important than looking good.
"Brazilian women simply have to look good and cosmetics are the first investment they make," said Mirian Goldenberg, a Rio anthropologist who has written a slew of books on Brazil's body culture. "If they don't invest they lose out in all ways of life. The body is a capital good, a way of social ascension. A women who is fat, or who doesn't paint her nails or lets her dark roots show is seen as being dirty and lazy. In Brazil, looking good is a question not just of beauty but also of hygiene."
More important, perhaps, is the second truth revealed by the robust turnover at da Silva's favela beauty shop: Even as the economies of Europe and the United States are in the grip of a painful contraction, Brazil's is expected to keep on growing, by as much as 2% per annum. Brazil's governments are not known for sound economics and prudent fiscal management, and the hyperinflation and debt shocks that ravaged the nation in the 1980s are a vivid and frightening memory to many who live in the world's 10th biggest economy. Still, high employment rates, successive increases in the minimum wage and a nationwide assistance program that has given billions of dollars to the poor, has helped keep Brazil's domestic demand strong. "The Brazilian economy, after suffering in the last quarter of 2008, is already showing signs of recovery," said Finance Minister Guido Mantega said recently. "I think that we are going to finish 2009 with positive growth."
That comparatively bright economic outlook is no surprise to da Silva, a rotund 35-year old whose infectious smile and breezy personality make her a natural in sales. She started selling cosmetics as a drug store assistant 20 years ago, but even after quitting to sell door-to-door she knew she could go further. A small loan of around $300 from a bank in 2003 gave her the capital to open her own place and she was soon turning a profit and borrowing more. Three months ago, she moved to a larger premises and began to diversify her inventory of products.
"Food and cosmetics," she said sagely, pointing to the row of grocers, butchers, clothes shops and beauty salons across the road. "You can't go wrong selling them. Women won't leave the house without lipstick."
Although da Silva says sales remain strong, she does see one crisis-related problem on the horizon. A regular fixture in the community, she knows most of her customers personally, and she extends them small amounts of credit, scribbled down in a small notepad. But unemployment is rising, and she believes not everyone will be able to pay her back as before.
"That's one big difference," she said. "I must be owed 10,000 reais (around $4,000) but since the president went on television and said Brazil was going to be hit by an economic crisis, more and more people are putting their cash under their mattress. Of the money I am owed, I reckon I won't get 1,000-1,500 of it back. Before, I got it all."
Still, the probability of losing out on some of the money she's owed doesn't dampen da Silva's spirits. For now, the crisis remains a abstract idea, and redundancies and recession are tomorrow's problem if a problem at all. Today, what matters most to many is staying fit, remaining presentable and being happy. And on that score, her outlook is decidedly bullish.