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Brazilian Favelas and How Foreigners Should Treat Them

So, if you’re reading this post you may be thinking “what the heck is a Favela?” Well, if you ever want to or are thinking of soon visiting Rio de Janeiro, favelas are am important part of Brazilian culture to be aware of. First things first, a favela is first and foremost a neighborhood. These are informal housing situations where early immigrants, and later freed African slaves, build their homes in order to be close to their work when they had nowhere else to turn. The closest English translation to the word Favela is “slum”, but realistically favelas have grown so big and have become such cultural hubs, a slum doesn’t really encapsulate the whole picture. Rochina, the favela feature in this picture, is the largest favela in Rio, housing almost 300,000 people according to Wikipedia, and butts up right next to Rio’s wealthiest neighborhood, Leblon. In total, about one third of Rio’s entire population live in favelas, totaling about 2.47 million people!

There is an incredible contrast between the dense, seemingly chaotic streets of a favela to the quiet high rises with doormen not even a mile away. The people of Rio live such different realities from one another in such a close proximity that favela life has contributed to why Brazilians are more classist than racist. To be able to show your wealth and move down the hill to Zona Sul is huge for someone who cares about their role in society. I’ve had teachers in my university tell me that they have never stepped foot in a favela their entire lives because of their reputation and fear. Now, notice I said move down the hill, this is something really unique about Rio because in almost any other city plan, you find that the wealthy people are the ones who move up on hills or away from the city center because they seek more privacy. This isn’t the case in Rio because when the migrant workers were setting up shop, everyone that was already in Rio lived in the valley. So, in order to still be close to work but not get punished for squatting they took to the hills, hence why some of Rio’s poorest get the best views of the city. The hierarchy of favelas works in the same way as well, with the houses that are more expensive closer to the base, or mouth, of a favela.

Now, you may be wondering about the people of the favelas. “Are they all drug lords?” you might be asking, and the obvious answer is no. Drug trafficking does play a major role in how stable a favela is, but the majority of people living there are lower to middle class families who are the servicemen, salespeople, and economic base of the city. It is true that Favelas have a bad reputation and are what many foreigners think of when they hear of the bad things that happen in Rio, but throughout my time here, I cannot tell you how many times I have heard people say that they feel safer walking around a favela at night than in Copacabana.

For many years, the Brazilian government refused to even consider Favelas as legitimate meaning there were no mail delivery systems, medical centers, or schools inside. The government saw favelas as things, or problems to be solved, instead of cultural hubs or neighborhoods. Throughout the years, there are have been several social housing projects to try and relocated the people living in favelas to the outskirts of the city. But, by not incentivizing the people or reimbursing them for their significantly increased travel time, the people simply moved back and now rows and rows of identical homes no longer are inhabited. In addition to social housing, an increase police presence inside favelas has in many ways backfired. By having police attempt to pacify a situation, they simply add to the gunfire and may very well mistake a panicked, innocent teen as a guilty dealer and shoot him on the spot. So many inhabitants of favelas feel less safe when the police are around because they feel that with them, their voice is lost and they are susceptible to more persecution simply based on where they live.

Having a lack of funding and support also hurts favela people because when there is a disturbance of the peace and either the drug lords are fighting amongst themselves or battling the police, roads in and out of favelas are shut down. For city wide strikes, like what is happening right now, many bus routes and mainlines to and from favelas are cut off or suspended until the strike is over. This means that if a person can’t get to work, for a day or a week, then they forfeit pay and will need to find another way to make ends meet.

I’ve had the personal experience of walking around one Favela in Botafogo called Santa Marta and was lead by a cultural guide named Shayla, a woman who was born and raised in Santa Marta. She made it very clear to us that it was not a classic favela “tour”, as most companies do in Rio and make it seem as though people living in the favelas are zoo attractions, not human beings. We were advised against taking pictures inside the favela, as a sign of respect, because the line between public and private space runs very thin. Public space quickly becomes private once someone simply opens their window due to the high density nature of the neighborhood.
My very first impression of Santa Marts was that it was full of color, music, and happy people. Neighbors were stopping to talk to one another and say hi on every corner as samba music gently drifted upward. The formal road stopped relatively quickly once inside, and beyond that were many concrete steps. Once off the main street it was very quiet. The space was like a hidden pocket that held more secrets than the rest of the city, one that had more tales to tell. Wires crisscrossed overhead to form geometric shadow patterns and there was somehow the occasional plant or tree wedged between the compact concrete spaces. It was dirty on the sides. Mud and garbage filled tiny corners and under forgotten spaces. Occasionally, discarded laundry water would run down makeshift channels and we saw many animals wandering the space. Art popped up on walls everywhere to both brighten the space and show political views of the people.

Once we climbed all the way to the top (which was a hike I tell ya), we got to watch the sun set behind the mountains and it was just calm. Children came to walk with us to the top and started flying kites, shop owners stopped to chat before they closed up for the evening. A sweet dog came nudging around my ankles to have a tummy rub and I just couldn’t refuse him. People looked you in the eye and there was a pretty obvious respect for people’s property. As a newbie to Rio when I experienced this, the reality that I knew down on the main streets was so much different from that in which I was experiencing in that moment, it blew my mind! To think that people’s perception of favelas is so saturated with violence, saddens me. I treat favelas with great respect, but as an outsider I also understand that favelas are not necessarily my place.

Recently, there has been a trend of foreigners vacationing, living, and even buying property in favelas which, granted, does sound like much more of a cultural experience in Rio. After all, you see a more authentic life and get a glimpse into the heartbeat of the city, but when gringos do this it throws off the equilibrium of the favela. Housing, for so many people in Rio is so expensive and the growth of favelas is not encouraged, so to buy property or to take space away from someone else, who may have worked very hard to get there, is a precarious thing at best. I highly encourage everyone who visits Rio to get inside a favela, but you need to check the situation within each before you enter, and please don’t go alone. Each favela in Rio is so different but always treat them with respect and understand that there are layers and layers of cultural context you simply will not understand. Favelas are a unique physical space, but carry so much cultural weight, that having too many clueless gringos there just many make things messier.

If you’ve been to a favela or have questions, please please please tell me in the comments!

Next to read: Another Patagonia Guide

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