SAO PAULO, Brazil — A look of raw hurt filled Jose de Paula Neto's eyes as he talked about the pain of growing up black in Brazil.
First came the sad childhood selling candy to support his poor family, then his mother's death when he was 11 years old. He spent his teens raising his siblings alone and married at age 15.
Fast forward two decades later, after he had overcome the odds and became a successful singer and TV personality. He was leaving a fancy restaurant, where he'd just received an award, when a white man mistook him for a valet and handed him a set of car keys.
" 'I'm waiting for my car, too,' I told him. After I got into my car, I cried; I couldn't hold it back."
De Paula has turned that pain into a fight against what he sees as an unjust society rigged against Afro-Brazilians. The 36-year-old has been one of Brazil's few black celebrities to speak out on race issues.
In 2005, de Paula made his boldest move yet and launched TV da Gente, or Our TV, Brazil's first channel targeting black viewers. The station is struggling to survive, but de Paula says it's needed in a country that is half black but appears almost completely white on television.
"The networks put an (black) actor there, another one there and say that everything's fine," he said. "Their tactic is to give visibility to a few while forcing invisibility on millions."
His many critics have accused him of aggravating the country's racial divisions by focusing on black audiences. The row over TV da Gente may have cost de Paula his long-running variety show on the Record network, canceled last summer.
"Television shouldn't be for whites or for blacks," said Ali Kamel, executive director of news for the media giant Globo's broadcasting wing. "If in a country like this he can't find success, it shows there is no interest in a black channel."
Such skepticism has haunted the channel since its start.
Unable to find Brazilian backers, de Paula sank millions of his own dollars and brought in Angolan investors. Still, government regulators wouldn't give it space on the airwaves and cable providers wouldn't carry it.
Few Brazilians see it. Advertisers have stayed away. Running out of money, de Paula moved production in January from the southern business center of Sao Paulo to the predominantly black city of Salvador in northeastern Brazil.
Adyel Silva, who hosted a talk show on TV da Gente, said the station's troubles have disappointed many black actors. But she believes de Paula has broken through a barrier.
"Netinho wanted to be on TV all his life, and he got his dream," she said. "And when he saw a chance to start this channel, he did it. I hope he's smart and gets it right, but he's already made a statement."