Sunday, March 2, 2014


Nathalie Davidson

Santa Marta in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
I grew up using the word “favela” to describe the run down neighborhoods I would see in São Paulo. “Favela” as a term does a great job in enforcing the division between good and bad, us and them.  We would pass the “favelas” and my Brazilian mother would tell me not to look. Like most middle-class families, our car had tinted windows to protect us from the outside. Although no one could see us, my mother kept me away from the windows telling me it was rude to stare.    
One of my first lessons in Portuguese class was on the politically correct way to say “favela.” People who live in these neighborhoods prefer to call them comunidades. The direct translation for “favela” is a slum, a word filled with negative connotations and violent implications. Comunidades directly translates to communities; a positive word that recalls images of happy families coexisting in a neighborhood. “Favela” has now become a loaded term recalling images of anger, drug violence, and poverty.  “Favela” is different from derogatory terms that people know they’re not supposed to use. The move away from the word is a relatively recent idea spurred by the people from the communities. Like any other derogatory term, it’s probably going to be a while before people understand why the word should not be used.  
Class distinction plays a far bigger role in Brazil than race distinction. Hearing wealthier people or people who don’t belong to these communities call them “favelas” was my entire life until I went to Brazil after I turned 21. We left São Paulo when I was 5 and moved to Uruguay because of my father’s job. It wasn’t until I was 9 that we left South America to fulfill our American dreams in Miami. I wanted to study abroad in Rio de Janeiro because the only version of Brazil I knew was through the tinted windows of my childhood in São Paulo. The only time we would pass these communities in Sao Paulo was when we would drive to the airport. The people with the best views of these communities are those who live on the top floors of the highest buildings. The class lines are never quite as striking as when you’re in the penthouse of a fancy apartment and look out to see flickering lights of the people below you. 
There’s a stronger divide between communities and neighborhoods in São Paulo than Rio de Janeiro. The design of Rio is vastly different. The communities are still on the edge of the city but they developed on the hillsides of Rio’s mountains, bringing them closer to well-to-do neighborhoods and making them harder to avoid. You can’t just look away from these communities when you’re in a car or pretend they’re flickering lights from your penthouse. They are these massive entities, forming their own neighborhoods, filled with culture, art, music, and hardworking, fun loving, people.
The best experience while abroad in Rio was befriending the kids from the Tabajaras community. The kids and adults from the Tabajaras hill would come down to our office, located right by their community, and we would teach English. In return, they taught us a lot about Brazilian culture in Rio de Janeiro. We helped them build their costumes for carnival and they taught us how to samba, a feat I have yet to conquer. When they deemed us gringos worthy of dancing with them, we danced all night at their carnival parade – we ended up winning the competition and this carnival season, Tabajaras has the opportunity to make it to the biggest carnival competition in Rio. The families and taught English to would always invite us to their homes, their local church for a Sunday service, and any type of event happening up on their hillside. I wanted to visit these communities while I was abroad because I wanted to prove my mother wrong; these aren’t people you can just ignore.
My mother’s friends from Brazil were shocked when I told them I became friends with local kids and visited their homes. The prince would never befriend the pauper in Brazil. There’s a huge stigma associated with the communities in Brazil, it’s unheard for Brazilians who live in better neighborhoods to visit or befriend people who live on the hills. I’m afraid that this stigma that is so prevalent in popular media in Brazil is already becoming the norm in global media.  There’s a lot of tension surrounding these communities as Brazil is put under the media’s microscope. American and British newspapers are sounding more and more like fraternity brothers as they freely speak about the communities in Brazil and group all the people living in these neighborhoods with drug lords and thieves. It would be completely foolish of me to try to say that all of the communities are pacified. Certain areas of Brazil are still incredibly dangerous and I’m genuinely concerned for the welfare of the country during the World Cup and the Olympics.  Many of Brazil’s population including myself took to the streets to protest the events in June. The media is focusing on the issues of the stadiums not being built and the crime rate against foreigners instead of focusing on the real issues at hand: the failing education system, the crumbling infrastructure in communities, and the lack of health care.
The communities have become a huge draw for foreign tourists because of the fascination of the drug culture portrayed in movies like City of God as well as the astonishing views from the top of the mountains. From this fascination grew “favela” tours, as if the people in these communities were animals at a zoo – solely there for entertainment and humiliation. Only gringas and gringos participate in these tours, they’re often under the impression that the money they paid for the tour will be donated to helping these communities improve their situation. There’s this underlying belief that the observer is superior and has a moral responsibility of saving this “favela.”  The tour can be motivated by the desire to do good and learn but there is always the added bonus of taking a great photo to brag to friends later.  
The people in Brazil who live in these communities are trying hard to get rid of the word. One example is Complexo do Alemao, one of the biggest communities of Rio de Janeiro. The Complexo became popular after one of the Brazilian novellas began filming there. Favela tours became wide spread for those interested in the thrill of visiting a supposedly dangerous neighborhood. With so much attention people placed on this community, the people began a newspaper to report on daily activities specifically focused on police brutality and gang violence.  They were quick to use their popularity to better their situation by getting the government’s attention and asking for help. The newspaper is called Voz da Comunidade – the voice of the community. They never refer to themselves as living in the “favela.” The term is an insult for these communities who are working hard to improve their living situations.
Sensational newspaper headlines, hysterical news reports, and mass produced Hollywood films belittle these communities filled with real people who call these “slums,” home. We begin seeing these people because we’re fascinated, but not necessarily because we’re invested in change. You stop thinking of the individual people inside the favela but instead of collective trash, as if they are part of Brazil’s problem that the country is trying to hide under the rug. 

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