How much would you pay for the little sticker and stamp pictured?
Well, yesterday Eric paid R$4.00 for one that looks just like it. And he paid it 14 times.
"Authentication" is a big deal here. Everything needs to be authenticated. And the place to go to get something authenticated? The cartório. And even if it were exactly like the notary system we have in the US, I can count on one hand (um, with one finger, actually) the number of times I've needed to have something notorized.
A contract that you sign to get paid R$19 for editing a couple pages of English text? Not valid until you've been to a cartório, put your signature on file there, had someone take the signed contract to said cartório to pay them to place a sticker, stamp, and signature on it to verify that the signature is, indeed, yours. (And then repeat the process for each other signature on the contract. And there are a lot of cartórios in the greater Belo Horizonte area.)
The translation of your Iowa Driver's License which is on very official-looking stationary, signed, stamped, and raised-sealed by the approved office which did the translation? Not recognized as real until it is stickered, stamped, and signed at the cartório. Never mind that the person "authenticating" the document doesn't speak, read, or write English, has no idea who this translator was, wouldn't know a fake driver's license if you presented them one, doesn't even take a look over the original driver's license and compare it to the translation . . . so long as you pay the money, they place a sticker, stamp, and signature on your document confirming it as honest, true, and legal.
And it goes beyond just authenticating random documents. From the information I've received, the cartórios keep up with registering birth certificates and death certificates. They officiate weddings and issue marriage certificates (even if you have a church wedding, you aren't legally married unless you go have the civil service (and, of course, pay) at the cartório.) Ownership of everything from land to businesses is registered with the cartório too, from what I understand.
Yesterday Eric waited over 40 minutes to have 14 pages authenticated. It was totally packed in the hot, stuffy, un-air-conditioned, slightly run-down cartório office. There were roughly 30 people ahead of him in line. Once his number was finally called, it took, literally, 3 minutes for a woman to "authenticate" the 14 copies he had. (We needed authenticated copies of our visas, driver's license translations, and some other documents. 14 pages which each needed a sticker, a stamp, and her signature, all done in 3 minutes: you can guess at how closely she compared the copy (which Eric had previously made and brought in with him) to the original before signing it as legitimate.) And then he was told the charge would be R$56.
So based on the fees they charge, how busy every cartório we've ever seen stays, how many things must go through the cartório to be legal, and the actual amount of time/work that goes into what they do, Eric and I decided we should move here permanently, open up a cartório for several years, and then retire young and be beach bums for the rest of our life.
Oh, but here's the thing. Just any ol' person can't open up a cartório. Only certain families are given that privilege.
Now, my understanding of the whole system (which admittedly isn't that great) is that it started back when Brasil was a colony of Portugal. The king at that time granted permission to certain families to open up these cartórios to manage record keeping of things like births, deaths, marriages, land ownership, etc. Eventually, Brasil was granted independence from Portugal. But the cartório system (and the list of families allowed ownership of these very lucrative businesses) remained. Or rather, remains.
I think it's a little mafia-like, with the whole "family" thing and all. But when we've discussed the similarities with friends down here, they tend to laugh, shake their heads at the silly gringos, and agree that the system is kind of crazy, but assure us that it is quite "necessário". To which we, in all of our American challenge-the-system thinking, ask "por que?"
I think people get really, really tired of us always asking why!
(Of course, like I said in the beginning, my understanding of the system isn't exactly perfect, and maybe I have some facts wrong - in which case I welcome clarification and correction!)