West Virginia University College of Law, 2L
Tuesday, May 29, 2007
Day 18 – Reflection
It was around 10 a.m. as we piled into the vans and made the journey into what we were told by most Brazilians was a ?no-man?s land,? a place of chaos, poverty, and death. Every Brazilian I had spoken to in Rio and at the university at FGV thought us crazy for attempting to visit a favela. They would say things like ?Oh my god, you?ll get robbed or shot!? However, after a 40 minute van ride, here we were at the entrance to Rocinha (Rio?s largest Favela), and so far it seemed pleasant enough. We?re told that we will be making our way to the top of the Favela on motorcycles and then slowly walking down on foot to better immerse ourselves in the culture and the people. I choose the newest looking motorcycle, hoping that the driver would be extra careful so as not to damage his new ride, unfortunately he ended up being a speed demon zooming through traffic at break neck speeds racing the other motorcycle drivers.
As the landscape blurred by and in between utterances of prayers that I make it to the top alive, I couldn?t help but notice the large and industrious community before me. Every one was happy, working, and chatting. In a way it reminded me of when we were in Manaus (capital of Amazonia) back in the Amazon. There was less of the wealth and grandeur of downtown Rio, but there was still a thriving economy here. People were not huddled in fear and boarded up in their homes fearful for their lives, or begging on the streets.
We finally reach our destination at the top of the main street, looking down to see the favela sprawling out beneath us, a giant conglomeration of small brick and concrete buildings stacked precariously one atop the other like a house of cards as far as the eye can see. I get off the motorcycle and resist the urge to kiss the ground after having survived my death defying ride with ?speed racer? as I came to dub my driver. We look around and the first thing that catches my eye is an electrical pole with hundreds of jury rigged connections jutting out like the spokes on a bicycle tire in every direction. We quickly learn that though the people in Rocinha are poor in comparison to their neighbors in the city, they are extremely resourceful, finding ways to tap into the city?s electrical grid, and even creating their own water system and aqueducts utilizing the fresh water supply of the surrounding mountains and forest.
We begin to make our way from the main road into the heart of the favala entering through one of the side street. As we leave the main road we pass what I take to be a local man sitting by watching the group of bewildered tourists coming through. Our guide Luis later informs us that the man we had passed was in reality a look out for the ADA, the ruling drug gang in Rocinha, set up as an advanced scout in case of a police raid. Luis went on to tell us that during police raids the favela is often transformed into a war zone as officers begin to shoot indiscriminately. With that said one could feel the tension levels among the group begin to rise even as Luis assures us that precautions to guarantee our safety had been taken in case of such a scenario.
We begin to continue our walk and shortly most of the feelings of apprehension dissipate as we lose ourselves in the narrow alley ways of Rocinha. This was truly a whole other world unto itself, completed insulated and isolated from the rest of Rio. It seemed as if we?d entered a labyrinth with tiny streets and stairwells (not more then one or two shoulder lengths wide) leading in every direction. We pass countless people carrying all sorts of goods and supplies up and down the tiny streets. These are the supply chains of Rocinha, Luis informs us that this place is so isolated and cut off from greater Rio that deliveries here are impossible, yet the people here have a strong enough sense of community that they have created a delivery system all their own, ferrying everything from goods to mail all over the favela. We pass a number of pipes and crude sewers, once again we learn that the city does not provide water, sewage or trash collection for most of favelas, so once again the people have proven to be innovative, jury rigging their own sewage and drainage systems. Much of the public functions and maintenance in this small enclosed metropolis is run by a community association that hires and manages the administrative and civil affairs of Rocinha. It amazes me that even with all the stories of chaos and lawlessness that I was told prior to entering the favela I have seen nothing but order and civility among these people. I?m shocked to find that even the gun-toting gangsters great us with smiles and calls of ?relax? and ?welcome!?
As we continue our journey we meet the local artisans who create amazing pieces of art depicting life in the favela, Rio, and Brazilian culture in general. We even encounter many young children channeling their energies not into crime but into various art projects that they sell to the visiting tourists. There?s an abundance of children in Rocinha, many rushing to school with their orange school shirts on, and others peddling their goods to tourists. At one point we encounter a group of children no older then 6 or 7 making their way to school while carrying a mattress on their heads, and as they see us they politely stop and move to the side allowing us to pass through first down the narrow pathway. They smile brightly and call out ?good afternoon? in Portuguese. I can?t help but smile back at them as we pass by and watch them scurry on up the path behind us. It?s peaceful here in Rocinha, and in a sense I am reminded of all the places I?ve traveled to during my life and how life in Rocinha is no different from any country where people are poor. One learns to make the best of what they have and this is true for the people of Rocinha.
As we near the end of our walk I begin to reflect on the things I have seen, within the favela, the warm people, the innovative spirit, the bustling self contained economy, and the strong sense of community. During this moment of reflection, as we make our way from the inner regions of the favela and emerge onto the main street, something hits me. I had come to Rocinha with idea that the favela would be solely if not predominantly occupied by the Afro-Brazilian population. The Afro-Brazilian population seemed nonexistent in down town Rio, except for the occasional maid or janitor. As with most countries with race problems, I had assumed that the Black population was predominantly if not exclusively relegated to the favelas. However, during my exploration of Rocinha I was shocked to find that the favela seemed to be occupied at times by more white Brazilians than black Brazilians. I was perplexed by this, especially considering that Brazil has such a large Afro-Brazilian population, most living in poverty. This continued to puzzle me until I learned that even within the favela itself there is also an economic divide among the people. I discovered the Rocinha, due to its close proximity to downtown Rio and jobs, was a higher end real estate location in comparison to the other favelas further out into the country side. That meant that not everyone could afford to live within certain parts of Rocinha. It made me sad to think about what conditions were like in those far off regions and if all the negative remarks I had previously heard about the favelas referred to those poorer inner cities. I?d like to think and hope that much of the positive aspects and strong communal feel of Rocinha also exist in those inner regions and that in the face of poverty the people there have also found a way to thrive.
With those last thoughts running through my mind, we cross through the market place back to our waiting vans and look back one last time at Rocinha and its people. I wave goodbye and begin my journey from the shanty brick and concrete buildings of Rocinha and onwards to the tall towers of downtown Rio.