What exactly do you think of when you imagine what Rio de Janeiro? Do you think about the miles of beaches that stretch across Copacabana and Ipanema? How about Christ the Redeemer, one of the world’s seven wonders? Do you think of caipirinhas, coconuts, and Brazilian churassco? You might- and while all of those things are staples in Rio’s culture, you might also consider the Cariocas living in comunidades, better known as favelas.
Rio is characterized by a great wealth gap and divide between the rich and the poor, despite their geographical proximity. The favelas dot the skyline of Rio de Janeiro. They are scattered throughout the city, even at the end of those white sand coasts in Ipanema and Copacabana. The bottom of Coroa even borders the street in Santa Teresa that I call home. There are separate pockets rising up the hillside in almost every direction, nearly as frequent as the high-rise apartment buildings in the wealthy areas of town. In fact, the favelas are home to approximately 1.4 million people, which is about twenty two percent of Rio’s 6.4 million population. Let me put that in perspective for you- Tennessee and Rio have a roughly similar population, but the amount of people that live in the favelas in Rio is more than twice the amount of Nashville’s population.
As you can imagine, what makes this problematic is that the favelas are often characterized by extreme poverty that results from a corrupt social structure. In the past, the local and state governments have tried to prevent the many favelas from growing any larger. However, rather than fostering social programs that attempt to alleviate poverty and support the community, the government instead denied favelas access to basic human resources-such as clean water and electricity. As such, the modern image of the favela has become one characterized by unsanitary living conditions and complete marginalization from other areas in Rio. This denial of resources stems into many other social institutions as well, as documented by the lack of economic and educational opportunities in the favelas. Consequently, people living in the favelas are often forced to create their own sense of social security. In part, social isolation in the favela has fostered the rise of a social and economic structure that is primarily dependent on a drug industry run by local cartels.
What’s important to remember here though is that this particular image ignores the strong sense of community, resourcefulness, and optimism that exists among the members of many favelas. While violence and poverty, as well as police brutality and corruption, is very alive and active in and around the favelas, you will find so much more among the hearts and minds of the people who have, more often than not, lived there their entire lives. Take Silvinha, who has lived in Sao Cristovao her entire life and chooses to share her artistic knowledge and experience with members of the community. Take the children at Emarca, who willingly show up everyday to play soccer, take dance classes, do arts and crafts, and learn English. It doesn’t take much to look beyond the traditional image of Rio and see what exists on the other side. In the same vein, at least for me, it doesn’t take much to break down the traditional image of the comunidades and see what really exists there.