My Brazil Person of the Year

Mayara Vivian is one of the leaders of a protest movement that rattled Brazil to its core in 2013.

She’s 24 years old, studies geography at the University of Sao Paulo, has butterfly tattoos, and works nights as a waitress in a bar in the popular Vila Madalena neighbourhood of Sao Paulo.

She’s Mayara Vivian, and she’s my Brazil Person of the Year for 2013.

Mayara is one of the leaders of the Free Fare Movement in Sao Paulo. The MPL – as they are known by their Portuguese acronym – is the youth-driven group of activists that took on entrenched political interests in South America’s largest city to have a 15 cent bus fare hike reversed. It was.

She won. The entire Free Fare Movement won. The six million people in Sao Paulo who, like me, ride the bus, also won.

But it wasn’t about 15 cents. It was about much more. Pent-up angers and frustrations by a large cross-section of Brazilian society demanding better health, education, an end to government corruption and wasteful spending, among just a few.

But Mayara and the MPL Sao Paulo were crucial because they lit the match that sparked the bonfire of nationwide protests that charred Brazilian politicians of all stripes.

The big winner in the end? Brazil itself.

Sao Paulo is historically the place in Brazil where protests take root, simmer, and then take off. Conquer the streets of Sao Paulo, and the rest of Brazil is then given the nod to follow along.

Back in June, when this country was awash in protest, a flurry of local media stories tried to figure out who was behind the Free Fare Movement in the city. Eventually, because Mayara was one of the de-facto spokespeople, they ended up focusing on her, something she downright despised.

“The media tries to personalise the group in order to empty the movement,” she told local reporters back then. “I am a normal girl like any other girl, or like any other normal guy. I am only one person of this movement of many people. I am nobody. This is what you can write.”

But Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff didn’t think she was nobody special. On June 24, in an attempt to douse the protests engulfing her country, the president met privately with Mayara and five other MPL leaders in the presidential palace in Brasilia.

President’s ‘photo-op’

Mayara sat just to the left of Rousseff around a square table.

The college student with butterfly tattoos found herself sitting in the office of the leader of the world’s sixth largest economy with the president basically asking, “What can I do to make you happy?”

Was it Mayara’s highlight of the year? “No,” she told me later. “It was basically used by Dilma as a photo-op.”

When Mayara and her other movement leaders left the meeting with Rousseff, a mad frenzy of journalists engulfed them outside the front entrance of the presidential palace wanting to know what was discussed.

I was in the middle of it, trying to shove my microphone through the mass of elbows engulfing Mayara, when I looked up and from the window near Rousseff’s office saw her aides, some dressed in suit and ties and others in dresses and heels, clicking photos of the scene below with their smartphones.

It was surreal, and perfectly captured how the youth movement had at that very moment turned Brazil upside down.

To me, Mayara represents Brazil’s 2013 Generation Y protest. There are 55 million Brazilians between 18 and 33 years old, many of whom took their megaphones to the streets and started something that their parents and grandparents later joined.

As I wrote in July, “How I Missed Brazil’s Revolution,” I walked past people like Mayara too long, without stopping to take time to listen to what they had to say. Two words: Never. Again.

Social media revolution?

In hindsight, it would be easy to say Mayara represents Brazil’s “social media revolution.” But when I recently met up with her for a nearly two-hour chat in between her classes at the university, I noticed something odd. The number of times I saw her check Twitter or Facebook on her cell phone? Zero.

Remember that next time you hear about a “huge” protest in Brazil being “organised” on social media.

Speaking of which, everyone seems to be asking variations of the same question: Will there be protests during next year’s World Cup in Brazil? I am tired of being asked, and of trying to answer something I admit I don’t have an answer to.

So I asked Mayara.

She shrugged her shoulders, seeming to indicate it’s a question journalists are more worried about than actual protesters themselves.

She said there are better questions people should be asking.

“Tourists will come to Rio to drink coconut water and watch girls in bikinis on the beach in Copacabana,” she told me. “But we have to think critically about what the World Cup is bringing to our country. What did it bring to South Africa? Who benefited from it?

“The groups here in Brazil that have something at stake, or have something to lose or that will be left out, they likely are going to mobilise again to protest,” she said.

Some people pick a pope as their person of the year. Others pick presidents.

I pick Mayara Vivian – and, to a larger degree, her band of youthful protesters who led the little bus fare movement that went big, and for several weeks in June rattled a country to its core.

The aftershocks are still trembling below the surface.

Follow Gabriel Elizondo on Twitter @elizondogabriel