Brazil is famous for its iconic carnival festival, its talented soccer players, and its favelas. Originally, favelas were illegal settlements built by former slaves that originated in Rio de Janeiro. Favelas have proliferated throughout all Brazilian major cities and form an integral part of Brazil’s landscape. Even some of the world’s biggest superstars, such as Michael Jackson and Beyonce, have chosen Rio de Janeiro’s hill-slope slums to film their music videos.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Rio de Janeiro needed to undergo reforms to develop into a more modern city. The then-mayor of the city began to carry out extensive urban renovations in the city center, which included the expansion and opening of long avenues. During the renovations, several shanty towns were demolished leaving their residents homeless and forced to seek shelter in alternative locations. This resulted in the sudden and massive expansion of favelas on the hillsides of Rio de Janeiro. The word “favela” originally comes from the name of a tree found in the Northeast region of Brazil that is known to cause skin irritations after touching it.
There are currently an estimated 1000 favelas in Rio. About one Carioca out of four lives in one of the hundreds of slugs clinging to the hillsides of the Marvelous City. Built between two of the city’s swankiest neighborhoods, Rocinha is Brazil’s largest slum with an estimated population of 200 000 squeezed into less than five square kilometers. Santa Marta, Mangueira, Vidigal, and Complexo do Alemão are some of the other most famous favelas of Rio de Janeiro. Located on the city’s outskirts and famously depicted in the Oscar-nominated movie “City of God”, Cidade de Deus is one of the only slums of the city sprawling on a flat land.
In 1996, Michael Jackson sang “they don’t care about us”, as a reference to the longstanding governmental neglect faced by these communities. Favelas are inhabited by impoverished people who tend to have darker skin, many of them being descendants of slaves. Favela residents are often discriminated against for living in these communities.
Today, favelas are portrayed as lawless neighborhoods populated by violent criminals. The communities suffer from the stigma of being associated with numerous social problems, including extreme poverty, outbreaks of violence, high crime rates, drug trafficking, and unsightliness. Yet, most slum residents describe their lives as fulfilling. A survey conducted in 2014 in several slums throughout 35 Brazilian cities, stated that 94 percent of favela residents say they are happy. In Rio de Janeiro, the benefits of living in a community environment are many and acknowledged by the favela dwellers themselves. According to the same study, more than two-thirds of favela residents would not leave the favela even if their salary doubled. What good might there be in living in a favela?
In Rio de Janeiro, favelas are not only a matter of poverty; they represent a way of life. About eight out of ten slum residents are proud of living in a favela. These communities have developed their own economic ecosystem that makes money more profitable. For instance, one takes care of the other’s child; credit cards pass from hand to hand within the neighborhood. “This intimacy, this value of being together, this affection for your neighbor, this is something you only find in the favela”, states José Fernandes Junior, living in Rocinha.
Many inhabitants of the favelas prefer to be rich among the poor, than poor among the rich. Usually, utilities such as water, gas, electricity, telephone, and even cable TV, are acquired through makeshift taps called gatos, set up by the residents. Wi-fi credentials are also shared among neighbors. Contrary to what one might think, the youth living in these communities are more technologically connected than their counterparts living in downtown neighborhoods: as of 2012, nine out of ten favela residents under 30 could access the Internet. So, leaving the favela also means giving up an economic ecosystem that is beneficial and collaborative.
Besides, some of Rio’s favelas are set in a privileged location: they often offer jaw-dropping panoramic views of the city. For example, the Vidigal favela, overlooking Ipanema beach, has experienced a boom of tourism and the arrival of foreign residents due to its scenic sea views. Housing in Vidigal became more expensive than in some other parts of the formal city, which is the irony of the slums in Rio.
Every year, millions of Brazilian and international tourists converge in the Marvelous city to celebrate the world’s biggest party. Carnival holds a central place in Brazil’s national culture. And yet! Those most discriminated against in everyday life, the favela residents, rule the city for four consecutive nights to showcase the Afro-Brazilian heritage of the country. The clusters of makeshift housing that run up the city’s hillsides are the birthplace of samba music and Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival parade. The samba schools, representing some of Rio’s ordinary neighborhoods and favelas, parade through the Sambodrome. Their dancers, dressed in the colorful costumes they have carefully crafted over the past year, show the incredible organizational and creative talent that exist within the favelas. Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival would not be the same without the favelas’ joyful cultural influence.