From Dave Zirin's newest book, Brazil's Dance with the Devil: The World Cup the Olympics and the Fight for Democracy, available now.
The entrance to Vila Autódromo stands awkwardly at the western edge of the dusty racetrack's parking lot. Eight hundred to 1,000 families live here, wedged into a sliver of land between the racetrack and the highway. We are there on a Sunday, so many people are at home. Families and groups of friends are out walking in the dusty road. Others are out working on their houses. People lounge in front of their homes as radios play. Kids play soccer with balls made from rolled-up socks.
There is a building with a corrugated roof, removed somewhat from the road, emblazoned with a large hand-painted sign that announces it as the Community Association. It resembles a ramshackle schoolhouse. The building is divided into two small rooms divided by sheets of plywood. There is a makeshift bookshelf, with an assortment of law books as well as classics like Don Quixote and King Arthur. Inside is one of the Community Association's directors, Jane Nascimento. Jane is not tall, but she conveys reservoirs of strength, with a presence that belies her size. Her curly hair is cropped close to her head. We chat with her in the entrance and she is casual and amicable, in jeans and a V-neck sweater, leaning against the doorframe. I ask her how the community feels about the coming Olympics, and she floors us by telling a story—in very straightforward, matter-of-fact language—about two elderly residents who died from worry that they would be evicted. "Everything was put into their homes. The thought of being moved and leaving it all behind was too much."
At the back of the neighborhood association headquarters are a chalkboard and roughly twenty mismatched chairs. This was, remarkably, the planning area for the actions that brought Rio's Olympic-industrial complex to its knees. The back of the room is stacked with maps and diagrams: plans and counterplans for Vila Autódromo. Theresa and Jane show us a diagram, the Plano Popular for the Olympic site. Jane tells us it was developed by residents, in conjunction with architecture and planning students and faculty from Federal Fluminense University and the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. This plan would maintain the community in its current location.
Then she turns the table on us and asks if she can film me as I ask her questions. This matters because part of how Vila Autódromo, and many of the favelas, are saving themselves is by using social media. They are posting as much as they can online about the movement and their supporters, as well as publicly documenting every time they see the police, the military, or the developers sniffing around their homes. Jane describes herself as "a major social media person." To lead a community movement in 2013, you have to be, since social media has become the favelas' lifeline to the outside world. "We want people to know that we are alive," she says. "We feel that our community should be known. We want to document it all somehow. We are trying, using videos, using photos, using the Internet, using social media."
Then we walk the streets. The amount of care people put into their individual homes, as well as the homes of their neighbors and friends, is immediately visible. There are a number of small, narrow, slightly lopsided homes adorned with intricately constructed fences and decorations. A few families have self-paved driveways for cars, fences and gates for their driveways, and even second-floor balconies where people sit to look out onto the street. All of the homes in Vila Autódromo have electricity and running water, and there are old-fashioned lampposts with streetlights. There is even trash collection twice a week. At one corner, there is a striking red stucco house decked out with carefully tended plants. This is not every home—there is clearly a kind of economic diversity in Vila Autódromo. In its very cramped quarters, some narrow rowhouses are incredibly well-kept, with small satellite dishes and fresh coats of paint, while others are in absolute disrepair.
What is also noticeable on this scorching hot Sunday is that soccer is being played around almost every corner. We see five young boys playing on a rutted dirt pitch. As we talk, the ball bounces around on the uneven ground and flies back and forth through the air. Interestingly, though there is also a small soccer field, it sits empty while children play in the streets. Later on this scorching day, the shirtless kids run to the front of the building to take deep drinks from a hose and splash each other with water. As we walk, Jane Nascimiento keeps up a running commentary, in her soft voice, about everything we are seeing. It's true: every brick has a story. Something about seeing the children, however, causes her voice to rise and her body language to become more visibly animated. She tells us:
"What really hurt was that the mayor [Eduardo Paes] made it clear that impacting us was an open, stated objective of the plan. We were the target. He wanted to get rid of us. The disrespect, not even speaking to us, just stating it as an objective. But every day since, we have grown as individuals and as a community. This community has a history of fighting against evictions. This is nothing new for us. So we got together and we decided to organize and to fight. People in the favelas often don't know that they have rights. We try to inform them of that. When they learn that they have housing rights, they get very excited. It creates a sense of indignation—especially among the youth. It is true that this long fight has pushed some people to want to give up. They are tired. They want to move. They are not happy. Our job in the Community Association is to make sure people know why we are fighting. No one can be forced to resist, but people also need to know that resistance is an option."
Jane says that their other job is to cut through the lies local officials spin about the "benefits" of taking the mayor's deal and moving to government housing. "There's a lot of uncertainty around the promised public housing," she says. "Some people see it and say 'this is better than what I have now,' but there are a lot of hidden expenses that people don't know about. There are service fees, taxes, and moving costs that they are not told about before they sign the deal. I think that people who move usually don't understand this and won't end up staying because of it. And the city doesn't have a plan for what happens then." Then she says something very stark, but true: "Only the social mobilization has prevented people from being removed at gunpoint." She makes it very clear that any repression will be met with resistance. She is also sober about the fact that exposure, social media, and trying to shame the government into doing the right thing will only get them so far:
"Even with TV cameras and media, it doesn't mean that city officials wouldn't be violent with us. The evicted communities are often evicted with tear gas while TV cameras are rolling. It doesn't stop it. The reason they treat us this way is because of this view that they promote that sees all favela residents as criminals. That's how they see us, and they respond according to that. We recently went to deliver our Plano Popular to the mayor, and they closed the gates on us as if we were some kind of threat. . . . We waited for four hours outside the mayor's office, and finally he met with us, for one hour.
"When he arrived, he showed up with eight police officers by his side. . . . It was a meeting that produced nothing. He accused us of being there as a political stunt to impact the mayoral elections. He belittled the university people who came with us. He finally promised us another meeting—in forty-five days. We were outraged."
Dave Zirin is the Sports Editor at the Nation Magazine. He hosts Edge of Sports Radio on Sirius XM and co-hosts The Collision on WPFW with Etan Thomas. Brazil's Dance with the Devil: The World Cup the Olympics and the Fight for Democracy is his eighth book about the intersection of sports and politics. You can follow him on Twitter @EdgeofSports.
Photo credit: Getty