Gringolado: Simon Keegan
My first impressions of Brazilian favelas came through the media. I was still living in the United States, so newspapers, films, music, and the internet were my only sources for Brazilian culture. I spent a great deal of time focusing on all things Brazilian throughout college. Yet, despite the depictions of violence and crime, I was intrigued.
When I finally made it to Brazil for the first time, I was an exchange student living in Salvador, Bahia. I lived with a host family that employed a lovely young women who happened to live in a favela. After establishing a firm friendship, she invited me to go meet her boyfriend and his family. When I arrived, the atmosphere was calm and tranquil, yet, the architecture suggested that it was indeed a favela. Still, there were no drug dealers. There was no crime. No violence, at least as far as I ever saw. What I did see were working class families. Children playing in the dirt road. Papayas growing next to the electrical lines. And we were only minutes walk from the best beaches in Salvador!
After this first experience, I knew the depictions I had scene in films and newspapers was not sole true. I had seen otherwise, and decided not to allow the fear created in such violent depictions of the favela scare me away.
That is, of course, until I got to Rio. If you have ever landed at their international airport you know that to get to the zona sul you have to drive by one of Rio’s largest favela complexes. The favela is right there, staring you down as you head south on the highway. For a second I thought to myself, “Holy shit where am I? We’re not in Kansas anymore!” I seriously considered jumping on the next plane back to Salvador.
Then, of course, you hit the Zona Sul; Jardim Botanica, Lagoa, and Gavea. The favelas give way to green mountains, the palm trees tall and growing in force. I most definitely sighed a breath of relief when I realized that my first glimpse of rio; the favelas and industrial waste, would not be the only backdrop to my Rio experience. What a comfortable realization.
After residing in that comfort for a number of months, I realized it wasn’t as comfortable as it could have been. Granted, the beaches were nice and the people were beautiful. But, it wasn’t that community I had seen in the favela in Salvador. It wasn’t that drinking beers in the sun while playing cards in the middle of a dirt street with all your neighbors kinda fun. The sterile lifestyle of the Zona Sul was not the cultural experience I was looking for. The friendships weren’t as warm, nor were the bonds that I formed. My neighbors didn’t even talk to me in the elevator. I never even met the guy who lived across the hall.
That whole time, Rocinha was staring me in face; I lived in Sao Conrado. The richest of the rich living next to the poorest of the poor. My curiosity abounded, yet, it was intimidating. Eventually, my hunger overran any fears I might have had and I ventured in for some good eats. Sao Conrado is completely unlivable for a guy who wants to walk out the door and grab some food. But, Rocinha was there for me, and provided me with countless X-tudos for about a dollar apiece.
In the end, you realize, favelas are working class communities. Granted they contain controversial elements. Yet, who’s fault is it if there has been established a parallel power structure? It is exactly this fact that favelas and their populations have been so long ignored by civil society and government agencies, that they have developed a need to defend and provide for themselves. It is too bad that to an extent they have done it “by any means necessary.”
Still, one of the number one misconceptions of the favela is that there is no law. This is false. In fact, favelas have complex systems of enforcing civil codes. Peope seem to think that with the drug dealers comes lawlessness. This is not the case. Favelas are not places without rules. Granted, sometimes crudely enforced; the population does not live in a state anarchy. Crimes like thievery are not tolerated. And the rule is typically obeyed religiously by all.
My experience in the favela had much more to do with community than violence. People say hello. Everyone knows everyone else. They all know each others business, but, for the most part keep it to themselves. They party together. They cry together. More than anything they live together. Everyone knows everyone else’s struggles. And most do their part to help their neighbor. Respect is highly valued, and people typically offer it to one another freely without too much judgment or condemnation. When you are there you are reminded, we are all just human, all just humans in this life together.
To me, that is a beautiful feeling; a beautiful experience to have. To be in communion with others has no other comparable feeling in the world. No false pretense. Just human to human interactions at their purest.
That is what I found there in the favela’s of even Rio de Janeiro, some of the most violent places in the world by some standards. Granted I never experienced any violence, I just experienced a lot of very compassionate folk.