From Shoeshine Boy to General: A Story of Achievement and Bravery
In March 2010, when the most recent promotion of officers took place in Brazil, one general’s journey in particular stood out. Expedito Alves de Lima, who started as a shoeshine boy in a military unit in Rio de Janeiro when he was just 10, was among the recently promoted generals. To get to know a little more about his fantastic story, Diálogo spoke to Gen. Expedito.
DIÁLOGO: Could you tell us a little bit about your childhood in Paraíba and why you went to Rio de Janeiro?
Gen. Expedito Alves de Lima: I was born in 1955 in Paraíba. I am the fifth child among seven siblings. My parents were poor farmers from that region, which was hit very hard by a lack of rain. At one point my father went to Brasília to work in construction jobs in the city, and later to Rio de Janeiro. Back in Paraíba, he decided to permanently move us all to Rio de Janeiro. Sadly, in the middle of 1962 he left his legitimate family to live in an informal union with another woman, after which he disappeared.
DIÁLOGO: How were you admitted as a shoeshine boy in the Social Center of the Santos Dumont Regiment?
Gen. Expedito: I started working as a shoeshine boy near the place where I was living in Rio de Janeiro after I built my own little wooden box and obtained the necessary equipment — brushes, polishes, dyes and flannels — with the proceeds from the sale of discards from the offices of a local bus company. Shortly after, around 1966, while going to elementary school, I heard that I could work as a shoeshine boy in the paratroopers’ barracks, as long as I was authorized by the Social Center [CESO] of the Santos Dumont Regiment, a military organization of the Airborne Division Core, the current Parachute Infantry Brigade.
Along with two other colleagues who were also interested, I went to the CESO, where I obtained authorization to work in those barracks. I then started receiving frequent advice, encouragement to study, and material help from the officers and Soldiers.
DIÁLOGO: How did you decide to pursue a military career?
Gen. Expedito: My interest in a military career started very early on, gradually getting stronger starting when I was 10 years old, when I first started working at the barracks. I also spent time with some children of military personnel, who went to the Ginásio Estadual Presidente Getúlio Vargas middle school with me and talked about pursuing a military career. In mid-1971, talking to Sergeant Venício, I mentioned that I would finish middle school at the end of that year but was not sure whether I could continue studying. He talked to me a lot about the Army Cadet Preparatory School [EsPCEx] and later on gave me an application and instructions for the admission exam. After passing the exam, I studied there for three years, consolidating my decision to pursue a military career with my subsequent enrollment in the Agulhas Negras Military Academy [AMAN], graduating in 1978.
DIÁLOGO: How did you advance in your career? And what were your challenges and most difficult tests in this advancement?
Gen. Expedito: I sought to advance by always making an effort to do what I understood was best for the institution, although it required many sacrifices, both personal and on a family level. Despite being recently married, I served in a Category 1 Special Garrison, and I also accepted all invitations to take on new responsibilities, particularly to become an instructor. Undoubtedly, the challenge of starting my career was the hardest and most decisive of them all. Once the hurdle of the admission exam was overcome, very early on came the isolation from family and friends, in the middle of adolescence, in order to study at the EsPCEx and the AMAN, besides the initial difficulties of being a cadet who could not swim.
DIÁLOGO: What were your greatest accomplishments?
Gen. Expedito: I consider that one of my greatest accomplishments is having passed the admission exam in 1967 for the Ginásio Estadual Presidente Getúlio Vargas middle school, which back then was one of the best schools in Rio de Janeiro and which, although I could not afford a preparatory course or review classes, provided me with the necessary foundation for another major accomplishment: among over 7,000 candidates trying for 235 openings to enter the EsPCEx in 1971, I passed the admission exam. I obtained other important accomplishments during the course of my career, such as three nominations to become an instructor at the AMAN and two to become an instructor at the Army Command and General-Staff School.
DIÁLOGO: Did you have further contact with the officers from the time when you worked as a shoeshine boy? What were their reactions? What about yours?
Gen. Expedito: On some later occasions, I met officers and Soldiers whom I knew from back when I worked as a shoeshine boy. In all these situations in which we met again, their reactions were always very emotional, of clear pride and satisfaction in seeing me conquering each step, moving up through the ranks. Whenever I saw any of them, I always showed them my gratitude and recognition for what they had done for me, and above all, for the valuable friendships that were solidified and strengthened as time passed.
DIÁLOGO: What lessons can you draw from your experience?
Gen. Expedito: My life experience, culminating with my recent ascension to the rank of general, unequivocally proves the democratic character of the Brazilian Army, which offers equal opportunities to all entrants, regardless of origin, race, religion or social status. The healthy environment I enjoyed during my childhood, still as a civilian, in the barracks, besides motivating my professional choices, certainly protected me from the negative influence of bad company, some of which was to be found in the neighborhood where I used to live.
DIÁLOGO: You are a role model for millions of young people. What advice would you give to those who are thinking about following in your footsteps?
Gen. Expedito: If my example can be used positively by young people today, I would like to emphasize the importance of listening to one’s elders, those who obviously want the best for us; and of being alert to not let oneself succumb to negative influences; to learn to live today with a well-defined set of life goals for tomorrow and for the future.
DIÁLOGO: What are the characteristics of a good leader?
Gen. Expedito: I would highlight, among the main characteristics of a good leader, professional merit, which is strengthened by the experience acquired with time; the ability to set an example, as a reference to be followed; presence, a fundamental action that provides more knowledge through strengthening ties and interactions with subordinates; and credibility, without which no leadership can be sustained.