This is by far the most difficult aspect of Brasil to write about. Its a little long, sorry, but I had to get it out. If you read this and are interested about more of the dynamics of favela life, City of God (linked below) is a good film to watch.
I heard a lot about Favelas (Brasilian shantytowns) before coming to Brasil. Infact it was the favelas that frightened me most when deciding to go to Brasil. 1/3 of Rio’s people live in the favelas on $175/mo. to feed on average, a family of eight. Favelas are not public housing projects. Generations ago the poor with no place to go went in packs taking brick and clay to public parks and built makeshift homes. Upon the mountains as you sit on the wealthy Ipanema beach you see the brick buildings built upon one another rising on the hills in the distance.
Each favela is a mini unofficial government with its own leaders that the government does not control. We visited two favelas in Rio and our professor had to sign treaties with the favela leaders to allow us in. The trip was optional because favelas can be violent and dangerous. Entering without a peace compact, you can be assured your odds of leaving alive are close to nil.
Despite the violence, favelas have complex laws and consequences. For example in one favela if two women are caught fighting their heads are shaved. If a husband beats his wife he is beat. However if the crimes occur outside the favela, the criminal has a safe haven for reprieve within the confines of the favela. If a criminal comits a crime in the city and then escapes to the favela the police can’t just go in to arrest. They must report to the leader who they want and only if the leader allows, they can enter. If in the unusual circumstance the police forcibly enter, the favelados have a firework sytem set up that you can hear late at night as each resident lights a firecracker as the police drive by and the fireworks travel up the hills as the criminal can run knowing the path of the police cars.
The dwellers of the favelas are not considered citizens of the country that they have lived in for hundreds of years. They are the equivalent of undocumented migrant workers in the US, but they are Brasilian. The millions who live there are not counted. Their lands do not exist on official maps. There are no utilities such as water, electricity and sewer for them. (though curiously they have them) How do you expect someone to care about the robbery or theft they commit when they know that they are people who don’t count. What lengths might you turn to in your desperation to be seen?
I taught in low income schools in the US. They had much less than their counterparts a few street over in a better zipcode. Yes they had an unequal playing feild with not enough resources and not enough opportunity. But the key is “not enough”. They had something. I had no idea what “not enough” was until Brasil. The children of the favelas do not have a chance. At least my students have school. At least they have scholarship opportunties and loans for the truly motivated. Sure its not fair but my goodness at least there is some hope however faint.
The children of the favelados have no hope. It does not really trouble most. As one Brasilian student said in class “we need someone to clean our houses. I don’t want to.” In Brasil, to go to college you have to take an expensive entrance exam. You have to study- a lot meaning it requires time away from working to sustain your family. Lets say you pass- no loans. no scholarsips. Maybe a partial one but how does that help someone with nothing? I asked some of the leaders of the NGO’s (Non government organizations) we visited and asked them about the work they were doing and how many of the hundreds of kids they go through how many go to college. Ten years, 100’s of children and they could only recall two.
At the NGO’s we visited I met children of the favelas. They were found sleeping on the streets and brought to the organizations where they have beds, food, and basic education. They are taught skills and are given love. It’s amazing how just a little care to a child is like water to a wilting flower. The children of the favelas are the most incredible children I have ever met in my life. They are beautiful. Joyful. Gifted. And that is what hurt the most.
I cried after seeing the children. The little boy with the flower apron washing dishes and laughing as I took his picture. The girls in pink tutus crowding around me and asking questions. The little boys sitting at the computers in the NGO, particularly the little sweetheart with huge plastic glasses magnified to make his eyes seem wide eyed and curious. If life had been different, if circumstances.. its a crime in itself to not allow children with so much intelligence and desire and drive to not have the chance to rise above their cirumstances.
For now, they are invisible people.