308: What Is a Favela? – Part 1

“I was absolutely delighted to be contacted by the Manchester School of Samba (Mssamba.wordpress.com) when they copied the previous Post on ‘Theology of land’. I visited their exciting site and decided to claim this piece on favelas for Zingcreed.” Peter Turner

WHAT IS A FAVELA? – PART 1

I decided to write a series of blog posts about the favelas here in Brazil, specifically Recife, and our experiences with the people who live in them. I’ll be sharing my personal experiences and opinions as well as a few pieces done by the FavelaNews organization. My objective with these posts it to educate people about the favelas in Brazil and to help remove some of the prejudices we might have about these neighborhoods.

Community of Cidade de Deus, Recife

For many people who have never visited Brazil, the only reference they may have to these places is from movies such as “City of God” or seeing some brief clips from the World Cup coverage. In this sense, it becomes difficult to understand what a favela is when no personal experience or connection exists. This allows for prejudices or stereotypes to permeate a person’s thinking and we begin to see the favelas only for the problems that exist within them. It is equally important to not overly romanticize the favelas because they are still places that are in need of improvements to the quality of living. If we can start seeing those that live in the favelas as people and not just as their problems, then we can better find solutions to improve the future of these communities. 

Disclaimer: Favelas come in all different shapes and sizes and no two are the same. They vary within a single city and across the entire country of Brazil. The favelas that I’m mostly referring to here are those of Recife, in the Zona Norte area. I’m also an outsider to these communities. I’ve been visiting them a few times each week and working with a few social projects, but I am still by no means an expert nor a resident. These are just my opinions and observations.

Brief History

Rio favela historic photo

Favelas have existed in Brazil since the late 1800s, the first starting in Rio de Janeiro. Coinciding with the end of slavery (abolished in 1888 in Brazil) and urbanization, large numbers of people moved from the countryside to the cities. Often poor and seeking work, these migrants had few options for places to live and they began building makeshift dwellings on the outskirts of Rio, often on the hillsides. In the first half of the 20th century, industrialization caused the favelas to expand extremely rapidly around urban centers. Unfortunately, many cities chose not to extend electricity, running water, or sanitation to these areas. As economic opportunities in Brazil shifted to other locations, residents in the favelas were left without job opportunities and were unable to leave the favelas. Conditions worsened in these areas. While under military dictatorship from 1964-1985, the government attempted to eradicate the favelas by building public housing projects and displacing hundreds of thousands of people. Many of these projects were poorly funded and poorly executed, thus leading to their failure and eventual transformation back into favelas. Stricken with extreme poverty and neglect from the government, the favelas became a haven for drug use and trafficking in the 1980s, leading to the decline in their reputation. In the past two decades, efforts have been taken to diminish the control of the drug traffickers in many favelas, however there is still violence either between rival gangs or in regard to a debt that is owed, sometimes as small as R$10. As of 2010, over 11 million people of Brazil’s 200 million person population resided in favelas, exemplifying the immense inequality in the distribution of wealth in the country with the world’s 7th largest economy. (Thank Wikipedia for the dates!)

Definition of “favela”

Defining what “favela” means is not easy. When you put the word “favela” into Google Translate, it comes up in English as “shantytown” or “slum.” I’m not a particularly big fan of these definitions because “shantytown” references the physical structures of the area and fails to consider the residents, while “slum” has a very negative connotation, again with strong reference to structural components and hygiene. Every favela is different and even within a favela, one street may differ greatly from the next, so this concept of “shantytown” or “slum” falls very short of accurately defining a favela.

Therefore, I believe that first and foremost we need to start with the word “community” when we define a favlea, because that’s what a favela really is; a community of people who live and work and socialize among themselves. This seems to be one of the components of a favela that is so often forgotten by non-residents. The media in Recife dwells on negative aspects of favela life, such as drugs and violence, and consequently we forget that in its most basic sense, this is a community of people with a shared experience of living together within a defined location.

Giving a voice to the people of the favela

Giving a voice to the people of the favela

The next word that has come up often in our trips to the favelas of Recife is “periphery.” This is a word that favela residents often use to define themselves and their experiences within the greater society. (However, this is not necessarily an opinion shared by everyone in the favelas.) After much contemplation, I think the use of this word is best interpreted as the periphery of the mind, the mind being that of society. Some favelas might be physically located on the margins of a city, but it is the way the favela is imagined by non-residents that gives this word its significance. Many non-residents base their knowledge of these communities on biased and negative news reports and they often only encounter the favela residents when those people leave the favela to sell goods or work in other parts of the city. From this perspective, the residents of the favelas are coming from an “outside world,” entering into the “center” temporarily, and then returning to the outside, or periphery, at the end of the day. The non-favela residents may have little to no accurate information about daily life in the favelas and therefore categorize them in their thinking as outsiders to society, on the periphery. The group Pé no Chão, that I’ve been observing in the favelas of Arruda, holds a public performance every two weeks called “Eco da Periferia,” or “Echo of the Periphery,” where they show people the beauty and art that comes from the favela while passing on positive messages and bringing themselves into the center spotlight to be seen and heard. This is helping to educate the mainstream Recife population about the beauty of the culture and community in the favelas.

I hesitate to put out a definition of the word favela in fear of critique and conflict, but I will say that my opinion of the favelas I’ve visited in Recife, Pernambuco, is that they are dynamic communities of people, though often misunderstood and marginalized in the thoughts of non-residents.

Coming next

In the next blog post, we’ll take a look at FavelaNews’s recent project “O que é favela,” or “What is a favela,” to hear from some of the residents themselves what it means to live in a favela.

FavelaNews Graffiti in Cidade de Deus

 

 

A Janela Aberta

I decided to write a series of blog posts about the favelas here in Brazil, specifically Recife, and our experiences with the people who live in them. I’ll be sharing my personal experiences and opinions as well as a few pieces done by the FavelaNews organization. My objective with these posts it to educate people about the favelas in Brazil and to help remove some of the prejudices we might have about these neighborhoods.

Community of Cidade de Deus, Recife Community of Cidade de Deus, Recife

For many people who have never visited Brazil, the only reference they may have to these places is from movies such as “City of God” or seeing some brief clips from the World Cup coverage. In this sense, it becomes difficult to understand what a favela is when no personal experience or connection exists. This allows for prejudices or stereotypes to permeate a person’s thinking and we begin to see the favelas…

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