In the Universe of Beauty
: : : eSter
“It’s going to rain,” Ester says, as we sit down on a concrete step between
a row of motorbikes and a sparkling white police jeep parked at the foot of
Vidigal, a favela in Rio de Janeiro. It’s a winter day in July, and the lush vege-
tation behind us seems out of place in the cool air. It’s been a few months
since I’ve last seen Ester, and she starts to bring me up to date on her job
search. With one hand I reach around in my backpack for my tape recorder
while nervously shooting a glance at two military policemen looking over
at us with a bored expression. She tells me she has just completed a course
at one of the tiny private universities that have sprung up around the city
called “shopping mall colleges.” “They are everywhere now, in the poorest
peripheries; they even have one in a metro station.” Ester took a course in
administration at the cheapest one she could find. “My dream is to work
with numbers,” she says.1
Ester is polite and mild mannered, which contrasts a little with her husky
voice. At twenty-six, her somewhat resigned manner makes her seem older
than women her age I know in the Zona Sul—the wealthy South Zone and
home to Rio’s famous beaches. Her straight hair is dyed the color of honey,
almost the same hue as her bronzed skin. While talking later about a new
government policy of racial quotas she describes herself as morena, a term
that can mean both brunette and brown-skinned. I met Ester through her
former employer, Dr. Eduardo, a young plastic surgeon with a private prac-
tice in the beach neighborhood of Leblon, an upscale cousin to the now
somewhat seedy Copacabana.2 Ester worked five days a week in Dr. Ed-
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