I was once at a dinner party in the United States not too long ago, when a guest asked me a simple, straight-forward question: “Is that guy with the beard still the president down there in Brazil?”
The guy with the beard.
I chucked, and answered, no, the bearded guy is no longer president. It’s now a woman. The guest, who admitted to not following Brazil news that closely, gave me a quizzical look and then I think the conversation quickly moved on to the weather or something like that.
Lula da Silva and his famous beard when he was president of Brazil [Getty]
Brazil’s former president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, has been an iconic figure in Brazilian life for decades. And so too has his famous, bushy beard. So much so that some person in another country who barely knows what language is spoken in Brazil knows the bearded guy.
That is why millions of Brazilians were shocked late Wednesday when Lula’s institute released photos of the former president, his beard and close cropped hair gone.
Lula da Silva shaved his head and beard in preparations for more cancer treatment. Ricardo Stuckert/Instituto Lula
Lula da Silva’s wife, Marisa Leticia, was seen in the photos shaving her husbands trademark facial hair as he prepares for chemotherapy in his battle against recently diagnosed throat cancer.
Lula’s beard were symbols of who he was a rare breed in politics: a man from a truly authentic working class background who famously went from shoe shine boy to president.
When Lula became president in 2003, some suggested he cut his beard. “Perhaps it wouldn’t be presidential during the group photos at the G20 Summits or in Davos,” some people likely whispered to the president privately.
No way, Lula said. Won’t even consider it.
Lula da Silva ended his presidency as not just any president.
When he and his beard left office on January 1, 2011, his approval ratings were in the mid to high 70 per cent range - and in some parts of northeast of the country where he was born, his approval ratings were often in the 80-90 per cent stratosphere – prompting US President Barack Obama to once (only half jokingly) quip that Lula might be the most popular politician on the planet.
Lula's wife preparing her husband for his cancer treatment. Photo: Ricardo Stuckert/Instituto Lula
He certainly led Brazil through her greatest period of economic growth and poverty reduction, ever. And as Brazil stepped up to the stage of worldwide prominence the last decade, Lula da Silva and his beard were front and center.
Does anybody in Brazil remember Lula without a beard? I doubt it.
Put simply: Lula without a beard is like Rio without the famous Cristo Redentor statue. Or Rio without a carnival. Or Sao Paulo without an endless skyline of skyscrapers.
It's like waking up one morning to the news that football has been ruled unconstitutional in Brazil. Never gonna happen.
Brazil changes, but those things don’t.
Lula’s prognosis on cancer is good. By all accounts, it’s a winnable battle.
He is spending his days resting at his home outside of Sao Paulo. But all his public appearances the rest of the year have been put on hold.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, also battling cancer, recently said in early 2012 he wants hold a summit of all the Latin American leaders who have stared down the cancer: Chavez, Lula, current Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, and Fernando Lugo of Paraguay.
Here in Brazil, social media is going haywire with the photos of a Lula without the hair.  When I first saw the pictures, I was going to immediately tweet it. But I admit, I hesitated a few minutes, honestly thinking it could be a fake. He looked so different.
“Is that really him,” I thought to myself as I squinted and leaned into my laptop screen to get a closer look.
Unfortunately it’s not a fake, and neither is cancer.
Next time I am at a dinner party in America and someone asks me about the “bearded guy in Brazil,” I am not quite sure what to say anymore.
Follow Gabriel Elizondo on Twitter @elizondogabriel