What It's Like To Live Inside A Rio De Janeiro Favela

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From Dave Zirin's newest book, Brazil's Dance with the Devil: The World Cup the Olympics and the Fight for Democracy,available now. We'll be running excerpts throughout the World Cup.


With the advent of the World Cup and Olympics, Rio has become ground zero for a speculative real-estate boom that would make the San Francisco Bay area blush. The real-estate tycoons and construction magnates are looking up to the hills and envisioning that land developed: a Rio without favelas. Normally, Brazil's stringent laws would prevent this from happening. But the World Cup and Olympics have created "states of exception"—think eminent domain on steroids—that allow politicians to declare settled laws obsolete. Using any possible pretext—drugs, crime, environmental hazards—they can state that, with so many foreign visitors and heads of state coming to the country, they have an obligation to higienizar (clean out) the favelas to make the nation "safe" for the World Cup. This new reality, where people's homes become fair game, has massive implications for residents across the country—but particularly in Rio. Inequality in Rio, though it improved in so many parts of the country, actually worsened under Lula. In 2011, Brazil's statistical agency, the IBGE (Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística), released the findings from its 2010 census, which stated that 22.03 percent of the 6,323,037 residents of Rio de Janeiro live in favelas—what the report refers to as "substandard" and irregular housing communities. Although the city's total population grew only 3.4 percent, the favela population has grown by 27.7 percent over the last decade.

In 2014, even though the official line is that race is "not an issue" in Brazil, it is the descendants of slaves who not only make up more than half of the nation's population, but also are the largest group in the favelas. Brazilians of African descent live shorter lives, make less money, have more difficulty finding employment, and are more likely to be among the ten thousand people killed by police over the course of the last decade. As Bryan McCann writes:

Black favela residents have faced particular hurdles in achieving civil rights, and persistent racism does explain part of the stigma against favela residents. . . Black residents were inevitably concentrated more heavily in the substandard, precarious urban spaces effectively reserved for those without full rights: Rio's favelas. Furthermore, their blackness reinforced dominant understandings of these as zones beneath the protections of law and guarantees of citizenship.


The difference with the United States, and this is immediately visible upon walking the favela streets, is that the favelas aren't segregated: there is no "black favela," "white favela," or "Indian favela." Intermarriage is very frequent, and 30 percent of households in today's Brazil are multiracial. Yet racism is so persistent that it is not uncommon to hear com- plaints about "too many" people of African descent on the public beaches or in the malls. This has led to organizing campaigns where groups of black Brazilians numbering in the hundreds walk as one into malls, their very visibility a statement of protest.

The favelas are perhaps best known, and most notorious, for their history of poverty and violence—mostly to those who have never set foot inside of these communities. My own experience in the favelas is that they feel far more open and friendly than many of Rio's wealthier neighborhoods, which are defined by gated communities and a militarized police force. This experience is not uncommon. According to a poll taken by the nonprofit group Catalytic Communities, 79 percent of people who had heard of Brazil's favelas—but had never actually set foot inside them—had a negative view of them. However, 72 percent of people who had actually visited the favelas came away with positive feelings. Count me among the 79 percent who had a negative view, equating favela with "slum," before I was able to see them for myself—and among the 72 percent who turned around after experiencing them for myself. My negative views were formed by a concern that some have romanticized the poverty in which people have historically been forced to live. Having reported from the townships of South Africa and the south of Chile, I know that poverty in the Global South is nothing anyone should paint in pretty colors. The favelas of Rio, however, are a different and very specific kind of community.

When you walk up a hill into a favela, you are entering a different world. Of course, it depends on the favela, but the contrast is more than a hillside community on top of wealth. It's the difference between an open community, where people are generally friendly, hanging out on stoops, and ready to talk, and a sidewalk where people are rushing to work, eyes straight ahead, clutching their bags. I spoke with Theresa Williamson, a city planner and executive director of Catalytic Communities, a nonprofit that works with communities in Rio's favelas to distribute real images of their lives and to challenge the myths used to justify residents' expropriation. She said:

"You need to start, first of all, by exploding the connection between the favelas and criminality. At the height of the drug-trafficking explosion last decade, the drug trade and attendant realities were practiced in less than 50 percent of favelas. Even in those communities, we are talking about less than 2 percent of residents directly involved. Obviously the community has connections indirectly. There's a lot of money flowing because of drug trafficking, so indirectly a lot of people benefit, you could say. But most of those people don't want that. That's not their choice. It's the money that's flowing in their community. No one mentions that the reason favelas exist in the first place is because there's no his- tory of affordable housing."


In the twentieth century, after the 1888 abolition of slavery, "squatting," or building on unused land without authorization, was most city dwellers' only option in a land dominated by oligarchs. To this day, Brazil has some of the most extreme concentration of land ownership in the world; until the late 1980s its land inequality was the worst in the world. Some individual Brazilian families own swaths of land bigger than some European countries. Brazil is also one of the most urbanized societies in the world, with a higher percentage of the population living in the cities than we have in the United States, and it went through this process of urbanization earlier than the United States did.

Indeed, the idea of "squatting" assumes that land has always been private property—but for most of human history, people have simply built homes where they could. As Gisela, who lives in Vila Autódromo, put it to me, "There is this assumption that we're squatters. We joke among ourselves, every one of our ancestors squatted. They didn't buy it, it's a process. People have to find a way to survive." Or as Theresa Williamson put it: "The assumption internationally, but in Brazil especially, is that these are unknowable, dangerous, precarious communities. All of these negative assumptions ignore huge [positive] qualities in these neighborhoods."


The most derisive, stereotypical ideas about the favelas exist within Brazil itself. In my visits, I've found that middle-class Brazilians take pride in having never gone up the elevators, tramways, or stairs into these communities. They take pride in their families' historic blindness to the favelas whose entrances lie mere yards from some of the city's central thoroughfares. They discuss the favelas, especially incidents of violence—the more lurid the better – with their eyes wide and a shake of their heads. But they do not reckon with their reality. To be clear, I do not want to seem like I am in any way underselling the very real poverty there. But the same questions that plague the rest of Brazil— education, health care, employment—are the questions for the people of the favelas.

One thing that was immediately obvious when I visited the favelas was the amount of care, personal ownership, and dedication that residents put into developing their own small spaces. They invest every cent they earn into their homes and often do the construction themselves, in collectives. People in the neighborhood gather to build, setting aside a Saturday to help a neighbor put on a roof or put up walls. "I've personally watched a community form from scratch and watched how they took an area that was wetlands—it was full of water—and literally filled it in with construction debris," said Theresa. "They put stakes in the water. It was just amazing. And they do it collectively, and then they put up tables where they serve food in the evening and they have a community toilet for everybody in the beginning . . . but literally within a few months, they were putting in plumbing. Squatting and building on land can be seen as far more effective than finding a place to rent."


If there is a kernel of hope for the favelas in the context of the World Cup and the Olympics, it is the number of foreign journalists who will make their way to Rio—which provides an opportunity to introduce them to a different perception of favelas than the stereotype of lurid places that require a bulletproof vest to enter. News organizations like the BBC and the Guardian will set up permanent base camps in Rio for the duration of both events. Given the stranglehold of the IOC and its exclusive broadcast partners over the actual content of the Olympics, all those journalists are going to have to cover something. Expect a great many special reports on these communities. As favela residents themselves have learned, their number-one tool in fighting expulsion has been the use of cell-phone cameras, the Internet, and social media to bring the demolitions and police incursions to the view of the world. They need to do this because the main media outlet in Brazil, Globo, has no love for the favelas, even instructing its reporters to arrive only with an armored car and a bulletproof vest, regardless of the nature of the favela they are visiting.

Visibility is the favela residents' greatest ally. It is for that reason above all others that I was welcomed so warmly when I entered the favelas to talk to people about the possibility of expulsion. This was particularly true in Vila Autódromo.


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