An annual street festival running since 1926, the Festa de Nossa Senhora Achiropita happens on every weekend in August in the Sao Paulo neighbourhood of Bela Vista. This area alongside the business district of Avenida Paulista is also known as Bixiga. Debates about the origin of this name (bladder? smallpox? balloon?), the exact boundaries of the district, the origin of the largest population group (Calabria? Naples?), the claim to be Sao Paulo’s best night life district (or is it Itaim Bibi? or Vila Madalena?) suggest a lively and disputatious local culture. During Festa, Rua 13 de Maio is crowded with sightseers, loudspeakers blaring Italian popular songs (“Volare – oh oh – cantare – oh oh oh oh”)

Rua 13 de Maio, any weekend in August

The street decorations glitter in the floodlights, the crowds crush into the open street between the stalls. Many are selling the legendary fogazza. It’s described as savoury stuffed pizza dough fried in oil – the stuffing may be spicy cheese or meat. There were more people queuing on the street for it than there were passers-by. Going into the church of Nossa Senhora Achiropita seemed a more inviting prospect.

“Not by bread alone”

Communal life has always been important in Bixiga. An immigrant area, Italians became the dominant group early last century. Their influence can be seen in domestic and street architecture, cuisine, local music and especially in the church and its social welfare provision.

Nossa Senhora Achiropita supports local charities with the proceeds of the Festa, organises food for the destitute, creches, an educational service, and Afro-Brasilian-style worship in the church.

The venerated Madonna hails from Rossano in Calabria , an area famous for its marble and alabaster. Sao Paulo was given special permission to dedicate a church to her.

Italian-style social life is thriving here too. Restaurants and bars or cantinas abound. It’s as though a slice of Italian village life  has been transported to Sao Paulo entire.

Cafe des artistes …

Some have been here longer than the Festa itself.

Named for the town near Naples, established 1907, and proud of it

Visitors to the Festa seem subdued, queueing numbly for food in lines behind barriers, pounded into submission by the exuberant sound track, its lyrics lustily sung by stall holders. Strangely, there are no musicians to be seen. At intervals along the street, security guards keep a watchful eye on the crowds from elevated platforms. Bixiga has a reputation as a safe neighbourhood, and clearly wants to keep it that way.

At the top of the street, on the edge of the Festa, young sex workers and their pimps drink a mixture of soft drink and cachaca (sugar cane spirit) around a portable music system. Past the police barriers at the bottom of the street, a slightly wilder festa can be found. Two musicians sit playing inside a makeshift structure – cage? stage? Floodlights and follow-spots on the balcony of a three-storey building opposite illuminate a group of performers beside the musicians.

Street theatre musicians

Actors, both men and women are dressed in flamboyant white gowns, and they wear radio microphones, their dialogue broadcast far and wide. They are followed by a camera-woman. What she shoots is projected onto the building opposite the floodlights.

The performers declaim, playfully stop the slow-moving traffic, and move through the crowd, disappearing and re-appearing while the camera follows them. A red balloon escapes and floats into the night. A bursting red suitcase stuffed with red clothes is carried tragically away. I’m told the target of their satire is the political class. I haven’t seen multi-media street theatre like this since the 1960s.

Their street their theatre

And in the church, another kind of theatre. It’s a riot of brightly painted colours simulating coloured marbles, a humble echo of the richly decorated Catedral da Sé de São Paulo in the same parish, of which the mosaics, the marble and even the organ are the work of Italian artisans between 1913 and 1954. Nossa Senhora Achiropita could well have been their local church.

Carved marble cartouche, one of 16 around the altar, Catedral da Sé

A pair of folk musicians sing a well-meaning but mournful-sounding duet with guitar accompaniment – some things seem the same the world over. A well-spoken priest describes Achiropita’s history and mission, moving seamlessly into a Christian service in the comfortably full church.

Interior, Nossa Senhora Achiropita, Bela Vista, Sao Paulo

And who is the miraculous Madonna, Nossa Senhora Achiropita, invoked in the service? Appropriately in this minor miracle of a painted building, she is the subject of a wall painting in the Rossano Cathedral, a Madonna and child “supposedly discovered in the cathedral plaster and not painted by human hand” (Wikipedia), hence ‘a-chiro-pita’. From this perspective, the humble Achiropita seems as impressive as the mosaics and statuary of the capital’s Cathedral close by.

The work of 20th-century Italian artisans, Catedral da Sé