Let the favelas talk

News from Rio’s favelas is largely about armed confrontations between drug traffickers and police, but most of the inhabitants have very different stories to tell about their lives.

When his parents had trouble finding even rice and beans to feed their children, Renato Santos, 32, took a decision. Not right away. He got drawn into the drug business by a good friend, Rafael, who had been dressing fancily lately and had been carrying quite a lot of money. Renato was 18 years old.

“He asked me to join him at a favela near Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro’s wealthy southern beach district. It was Christmas time. My father, who was a truck driver, hadn’t brought home any money for quite some time. My family wouldn’t be able to celebrate Christmas the way we like to do, with a lot of food and presents. I spent the day there with Rafael. I didn’t have to do anything. But at the end they gave me 500 reals (nowadays almost £100 or €136). Because of the risk I had taken to be with them. I was happy to buy all the Christmas stuff and told my parents that I had earned the money as a guard at an expensive club in Copacabana.

“From that moment on I started working with the drug dealers and earned 700 reals a day. In the beginning we didn’t shoot. We just ran away when the police was coming. It was all settled. They were paid not to bother us too much. But later they wanted more money and things got tough. Sometimes I couldn’t leave for a whole week because of the shootings.”

Leave the business

During the last confrontation with the police Renato took a decision. “I was hiding in the bushes and the police were coming up. They could find me any moment. I prayed to God to save me and three metres from where I was they turned around and walked down hill again. Then I promised God to leave the business.”

That’s not as easy as it sounds. Gang members know too much and stepping out is seen as betrayal. “I am quite a nerd, you see. I wanted to go back to school and find a job. My luck was that my boss was considering the same thing, ” Renato explains.

So he went back to his own favela, Vila Cruzeiro, in the north of Rio. Renato is a slender but strongly built man with a friendly face and blue tattoos on his arms. “I wanted to be a sergeant in the army, and applied for it. I had done my military service already. I liked it. But in that period, the government cut army spending, so the door closed. It was my second disappointment. The first had been football. I went to Flamengo (one of Rio’s most important teams), but I couldn’t stay because I had no money for food and proper clothing and equipment.”

Renato’s third try will be to be a professional rapper who can make a living with his music. He grins a little shyly about it.

Armed men

Of course it wasn’t easy to pick up his old life after his short, five months’ career as a drug dealer. Lack of money would be the problem, as always. “You don’t learn anything good there and 80-90% of my friends are dead or in jail. But I found out I was not registered in any police or justice system. That was very important. I finished school, I had lots of jobs in supermarkets, gasoline stations and also as a street vendor. Six years ago I started to rap with a relative of Marcelo D2. He’s a famous rapper in Brazil. And this weekend we’ll start to record a clip in Vila Cruzeiro.”

Renato Santos lived for 28 years in his favela, Vila Cruzeiro, but is now living with his wife Celí and her two children from a former marriage in Praça Seca, a lower middle class neighbourhood, also in the north of Rio. He met her in the supermarket, where he works in the meat section. Celí was horrified when she got out of the taxi in Vila Cruzeiro the first time and saw armed men – drug dealers. She’s afraid to go back, but Renato would love to show her around. He misses his favela. There are lots more of people who never want to leave their slum, despite all the problems it may have: bad sewage, bad garbage collection, bad schools, drug gangs, corrupt police. But the favela is also full of colour and life.

Locked up

He laughs: “Johnny Walker came to Vila Cruzeiro to make a commercial clip. The police were horrified. They said: ‘Why don’t they go to the Christ or the Sugar Loaf? That’s at least beautiful!’ There’s movement, there’s life in the favela. And here..” He opens the curtains of his living room window. “Look. There’s only walls and windows with bars. We live locked up here. In the favela everything is open and people know each other.”

In the meantime, Praça Seca is becoming a dangerous place because the police hunted down the drug gangs from the surrounding slums. The chance you will be robbed is bigger there than in Vila Cruzeiro. In 2008 Rio’s police force started the pacification programme, aimed at banning the drug trade in the favela and thus making it a safer place. Before then, the police only entered the slums for certain operations. But now, since pacification onwards, a couple of hundred slums in the city have been occupied by a so-called UPP, a pacification police unit.

Stunning views

In May, energy services were installed in these slums. The inhabitants were used to getting their water and light illegally. Now it’s formalised and they have to pay for it. Certain favelas, especially those that are close to the fancy Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon areas, have become popular with foreigners. The most well-known are Rocinha and Vidigal, which both boast stunning views over the hills in town and the ocean beneath.

So prices have gone up. Some people can’t afford to live in their favela any more and are moving to less fancy and often less safe places. Fixer and photographer Jean Ribeiro in Rocinha knows of a neighbour who was offered 300,000 real (almost £58,000 or €82,000). “For him it was an incredible amount of money. He had never seen this in his life. He accepted it immediately, but now he has a problem. The money is almost finished and he didn’t find a proper place yet.” His humble home was transformed into a hostel and the new owner is doing fine, according to Ribeiro.

María das Neves Soares, 50, who works as a cleaning lady in seven homes in wealthy areas in Rio, has organised her life quite well. “My home is my own and I have a bank account,” she says with visible pride. “One of my ‘madames’ offered to support me! She gave me the money to buy my home.” Little by little she has managed to improve it and make it a comfortable and cosy place with two little terraces where she can sit and enjoy the wonderful view.“’Evil is not in this place, it is outside. Here you don’t get robbed in the street, you get robbed over there. It’s quiet here, we all know each other and the drug traffickers are in other parts of the favela. Nowadays we don’t have to go out of the favela to go to a bank or a shop. Everything is here.”

If she had the money, would she go to wealthy Copacabana? She laughs out loud: “Nooooooo, they would never accept me barbecuing on the balcony. That’s forbidden. And everybody lives in gated communities and you don’t know your neighbours. You know, poverty in Rocinha doesn’t mean hunger. Poverty means that people don’t care about their surroundings and throw their garbage everywhere.”

Das Neves says she is living her dream. She has only two big frustrations, one of them a deep pain that makes her big smile fade for a short moment. Her mother used to beat her up, which is why she left her home region of Paraíba in north-eastern Brazil to try her luck in Rio. The other frustration is one of her neighbours, who has already broken into her house three times and stolen money and equipment. “It’s no use to go to the police, they can’t be trusted and I’d have really big trouble with my neighbour afterwards.”

Handcuffed to a hospital bed

There exists a deep distrust between the police and the favela dwellers. The former consider the latter bandits and the latter are convinced that the former are corrupt, don’t respect them and are too trigger-happy. Many inhabitants die or are wounded by police bullets during the shoot-outs with the drug gangs. According to the latest statistics, police in Brazil shoot six people a day on average, mostly young black men in the slums.

One of the victims was a young guy in Vila Cruzeiro, Edson Souza, a former trafficker whose siblings claimed he had left the business and was unarmed at that moment. The police said he did have a gun, which is why he was shot at and ended up in hospital handcuffed to his bed. He was badly wounded and lost his right leg.

The people in Vila Cruzeiro were outraged about Souza’s case, as they were in Rocinha when bricklayer Amarildo Dias de Souza disappeared in 2013 after being questioned by the police about his alleged participation in drug trade. Amarildo has never been found and in Rocinha the rumour runs that his tortured corpse was thrown in Rio’s Guanabara Bay.

“Foreigners often have more respect for people in the favelas than Brazilians do,” says Santos in his living room in Praça Seca. “Brazilians are more prejudiced. People in the favelas are supposed to be black, criminals and poor. The favela is nowadays a slaves’ shelter.” His wife Celí admits: “We have a way of rebuking someone and tell him he looks like a favelado: when he uses vulgar language, when he puts the music too loud.” Santos adds: “We all live in the same town, but we don’t know each other. If you live in Vila Cruzeiro and look for a job, you’d better say you live in Nossa Senhora da Penha (of which Vila Cruzeiro is a part and doesn’t only consist of slums) and not Vila Cruzeiro, because the employer will think you are going to rob him.”

When he met Celí at the supermarket where he works, he didn’t tell her where he lived in the beginning. “I would have rejected him,” Celí confirms with a remorseful smile.

Not poor little creatures

Through his rapping, Santos got to know cultural producer and rapper Jonathan Macedo dos Santos, 32, who hails from another slum in the north, Cidade de Deus, well known because of the 2002 movie City of God . This favela has fewer hardships than Vila Cruzeiro because there are fewer confrontations between the drug traffickers and the police. It also offers more cultural activities, and at a higher level, than Vila Cruzeiro.

Macedo dos Santos and his friends organise poetry and rap events every week in Cidade de Deus, where people from the favela and from outside do mix. Culture indeed seems a means to unite and Macedo dos Santos is a firm believer in networking and exchanging experiences, with other favelas and outside of them.

One of the most illustrious inhabitants of Cidade de Deus is Dona Tuca, an 82-year-old painter, poet and samba text writer, who has won prizes for her songs. In her tiny living room, which is full of her paintings, she says: “I want to honour the black race with my texts. Samba is from here, from the favela!”

Tuca has raised four children and already has 10 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren. “They are nurses, teachers, there’s a neurosurgeon. They are not poor little creatures,” she exclaims. “One of my grandchildren wants to be a pilot. My family will make it possible. I don’t need anything myself, only good health, so what I can contribute for good education for my grandchildren, I’ll give.”

Tuca will be honoured for her poetry and song texts at a poetry event in Pedra da Guaratiba, the Guaratiba Rock, in the far west of Rio. She’ll exchange the simple skirt, socks and slippers she wears for a nice jacket, trousers and elegant shoes, and she’ll take the bus to the Guaratiba Rock with Macedo dos Santos and his friends, who are proud of her.

This article was published originally in the August 2015 issue of contributoria.com

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Wies Ubags (1962) werkt vanuit Brazilië voor oa het ANP. Ze is ook te horen op de Nederlandse en Belgische radio (vooral BNN, WNL en VRT).  Ze schrijft over ambitie in Latijns Amerika, in het klein en in het groot. Economische onderwerpen krijgen veel aandacht.