Near to where I first lived in São Paulo is an old house that I would frequently walk past, the sole survivor of a street of fine residences long since knocked down and turned into apartment blocks in the well-heeled neighborhood of Higienópolis.
The house appeared abandoned although an indeterminate number of aggressive dogs patrolled the grounds. I vaguely remember hearing that what was obviously a very valuable piece of real estate was tied up in a judicial dispute over a family inheritance, a not uncommon tale among the São Paulo elite.
This dispute exists but the house’s full story is far more interesting and darker and has caused a sensation in Brazil after being told by Folha de S.Paulo reporter Chico Felitti in the podcast series The Woman in the Abandoned House.
The woman is Margarida Bonetti who lives in what has turned into a near ruin in the years since I walked past it. Bonetti is the local eccentric with a refined accent but wildly unkempt appearance and is nicknamed “the witch” by some of her neighbors. Living in the area Felitti thought she might make for an interesting story, a sort of Higienópolis take on Gray Gardens.
What he ended up discovering is that Bonetti is indeed a scion of the city’s old elite but also a fugitive from justice in the United States. She had fled ahead of a trial in which her husband Renê was convicted of maintaining a live-in slave whom they brought to the US with them in 1979 when Renê, a satellite engineer, moved there for work.
The victim — poor and black — had worked for Margarida’s family since childhood and was “gifted” as a going-away present by her parents. For decades the victim worked without pay, being frequently beaten by Margarida. In a stylish Maryland suburb, she was forced to sleep in a windowless basement room in a house where the fridge was kept locked to keep her out of it.
The Bonettis also denied her medical treatment. When she was finally rescued in 1998 after a concerned neighbor tipped off authorities she had to have a number of stomach tumors and her uterus removed. Unable to speak English and illiterate she was even unable to tell investigators her own age as she was unable to read her identity papers.
Renê eventually did prison time in the US, where he still lives. But under cover of returning to Brazil for her father’s funeral Margarida got away before she could face trial. One of the most eye-opening revelations in the podcast is that her neighbors knew all about the case in the US, with local media fully reporting Renê’s trial and her own escape in 2000. Even so, she has lived unmolested for over two decades in one of Brazil’s wealthiest neighbourhoods.
A masterclass of journalistic podcasting, Felitti’s gripping narrative provides a window on to wider Brazilian society where there are still well-off white people who exploit the labor of poor black women, often in conditions analogous to slavery 134 years after Brazil became the last country in the Americas to abolish the institution.
As is typical of many people accused of keeping domestic servants in slave-like conditions Bonetti tried to portray herself as a do-gooder, telling Felitti that the victim she abused for decades was a “childhood friend” and little more than a “large child ”, making it look like she kept her around out of charity. A US court found otherwise and the rescued victim now lives there quietly, telling Felitti she does not want to ever have to think of the Bonettis again.
As well as throwing renewed light on an evil phenomenon that if not prevalent in Brazilian society still happens far too often, the podcast has also had a material impact. Authorities report they have seen a spike in reports of cases similar to the one in the podcast.
Felitti appears to have helped break through the indifference or reticence that is necessary for such cases to occur in plain sight.
But he has also since found out that Brazil’s authorities were informed by their US counterparts of Bonetti’s flight from justice but failed to prosecute her, even though her victim was also Brazilian.
Now that crowds of onlookers congregate outside her house recording videos for TikTok, Bonetti is protected by the statute of limitations, a clear beneficiary of the bountiful privileges Brazil bestows on rich white people.
Still, her family finally seemed poised to resolve the dispute over the inheritance and force the sale of the now infamous property to a cultural institution. Soon the Woman in the Abandoned House could find herself homeless.