Living in the Biggest Favela of Brazil
25 Years Old, the Survived Age
York, a young Taiwanese volunteer and Crossing writer, shares her experience of living in Brazil’s biggest favela. Her interview with local young man Carlos tells a story of sorrow, toughness and pursue of hope.
25 Years Old, the Survived AgeBy York / Where is York
＂Come here first!＂
＂Tell me, what did you see?＂
＂Houses? Families? ＂Looking at the excess of dwellings over the hillside, I am not sure what he wants me to answer.
＂This is our reality.＂
It should have been me to ask the questions.
I invited Carlos, a new friend I met in Rocinha, to have a casual chat. Through this informal interview, I would like to explore the perspective of young generation on slums. We met at the classroom where he teaches boxing, located at the top floor of the gym on the main commercial street -Via Apia. Up there, the panoramic view of the big community is all at a glance.
I prepared some questions in advance, but once we met, I suddenly lost the idea about where to start.
He looked at me, smiled smartly, and then called me to stand by the window with him. We relied on the window frame, putting our visions from the bottom of the hill to the entire hillside. He pointed out the locations of the three UPPs for me.
＂Do you think that only three UPPs can manage such a big favela? Do our life really have peace?＂
＂In the community, we have to think about how to survive; outside the community, we have to think about how to behave.＂
While I was here for volunteering jobs in July, I tried Carlos' class once by a friend’s introduction. He seemed quite fierce in class upholding his position as a coach. Afterwards, we somehow became friends on Facebook.
Since the war in Rocinha began in September, I read a few of his Facebook posts and found out that in private, he is more like a poet with delicate feelings and meticulous thoughts.
During my one week revisit in October, I sent an message to him:＂You were born in this community and growing up here, right? Are you interested in meeting me and talking about your thoughts regarding favela and Rocinha?＂
He accepted my invitation generously. Throughout the entire interview, he always had a smile on his face, totally unlike the serious coach of whom I was afraid in the boxing class.
I knew he already has lots of thoughts to share, yet I was not sure where to begin or how to start asking, so as not to be over-sensitive or wounding.
＂Have you ever wanted to hide your favela origin? ＂
Before answering verbally, he pointed out the locations of his primary school and high school in the community, while the middle school sits out of here and in Ipanema.
＂When I was in middle school, I said I was from São Conrado. But nobody believed me! São Conrado is a rich neighborhood which doesn’t have kid as dark as me.＂ He slightly raised his arm to show the skin color. It is not too dark, yet the color of classic Carioca (nickname of Rio’s residents). And, it may already conform to the color of the poor.
Right next to Rocinha, São Conrados is one of the most expensive residential areas in Rio de Janeiro, with towering buildings blocking Rocinha's direct beach view. They seem a forever reminder to residents at the community: You people in favela are underprivileged, and people at the other side are super rich.
The rent for same flat size in São Conrado can be over ten times higher than the rent in Rocinha. However, the distance between them is only a few meters apart. Sharing the same metro station, they take their way from exit B and C while we walk from exit A .
We also share the same beach. When I saw some of the white-skinned and different style dressed folks on the beach, I dumbly asked a friend:＂Why don’t they look like people from Rocinha? Something on them are weird?＂
＂York, you forgot that rich people who live in São Conrado come to this beach as well.＂
Yes, even I myself forgot. Or, I chose not to see the ironic great gap between the rich and the poor right in front of my face.
Back to the interview with Carlos, he said he did not know the contrast between people before he left the community. In the big community, everybody lives the same, no distinction of skin colors, social classes, but once out of the community, he found out how special he is at the outside world.
＂The Fashion Mall in São Conrado used to be the most expensive department store in Rio. Now it no longer is, but you know, when I was little and wanted to get in and see, the staff and the bodyguard there showed that kind of face⋯⋯＂He did not go on finishing the sentence. There are no adjectives properly enough to describe it. Carlos just slightly grits his teeth with indignation.
＂Look down at those people walking on the street. Can you tell the difference on dress styles between some young generations and community residents?＂
＂Do you mean, they look more swag and stylish?＂
＂Yap, they're trying to look less like people living in favelas.＂
Favela dwellers do have a specific dressing style. Boys often stay shirtless or wear muscle shirts. Girls prefer tiny tank tops with hot pants in extremely colorful pattern. Flip-flops are widely used instead of shoes. Perhaps due to the funk culture, showing bums is popular and favored.
In comparison with the mainstream clothing trend of Brazil, the difference is subtle. Brazilian girls also like to show their body figures but may prefer high cut long dresses instead of hip huggers. They also like kaleidoscopic patterns and luxurious accessories but buy designs under brand names and low-key fashionable luxuries.
＂You know, living in favela is sad. In the community, we have to think about how to survive and out of the community, we have to think about how to behave.＂
At the inside, how to dodge dangerous areas, how to protect oneself under shootings, how to find an own way to grow up successfully; and then if lucky enough to become an adult, how to nurture the next generation is the following question.
On the outside, how to hide the favela origin, how to speak standard Portuguese instead of slangs, how to track the mainstream society and dress properly, how to practice gentle conversation in order not to be looked down; and how to prove oneself, not to be discriminated.
＂Until one day, I asked myself. How long do I want to hide my origin? What exactly do I not want to face?＂
Compared to the masses in the community, Carlos’ dressing and lifestyle are still relatively swag. He is keen on various martial arts including Jiu Jitsu, kickboxing and so on while his hobbies include skateboarding and surfing, not to mention his English and French are self-taught.
Moreover, what makes him more swag is about how he woke up from the mess of favela to honestly confront his own life background and the second-rate homeland.
25 Years Old, the Survived Age
＂In your generation, are there many people think like you?＂
＂Not so many, to be honest. Although I do hope all people can think like me, it is impossible. Many of my primary classmates join the gangsters. Some of them may guard on the corner of my home. When I pass by, I say hello to them, how are you, I am fine. Just like this.＂
＂The war started at September already killed many friends I know. They died because of working for the gang.”
＂In your life, what...what makes you so lucky that you could think differently than others?＂
＂Wait a minute, I need to ask you first: How old are you now?”
＂I am 25 years old this year, you too, right?”
Speaking of 25 years old, an old talk occurred to me. At my first time stepping into favela, the tour guide gave a brief introduction on a rooftop.
He said, most people in Rocinha cannot live over twenty-five years. It is the average life expectancy here. When people are young, they dream wildly to be a famous soccer player or to study and earn a fortune. They dare to dream until the cruel reality lands on their shoulders. And then, many choose to step on the risky way, joining the drug dealers to gain power, money and chicks.
Later on, I realized what tour guides said could not be totally true so twenty-five could be a number he casually made up. However regardless of true or false, the age of 25 has been deeply imprinted in my brain.
Right now at this moment, Carlos and I, sitting in front of each other, both are passing the age of twenty-five this year.
Fortunately to reach the expected age, the universe ingeniously put us two, who passed totally dissimilar lives, at one same point to interact: A Taipei girl who came from a faraway island and is fascinated by the big community; a Rio boy who struggled since the early age to survive and has taken chances to visit faraway lands.
About the war started in mid-September, we share the same sorrow.
Or in other words, I always feel sad when I stay in the favela from the beginning to the end. It is not easy and pleased to know the disadvantaged life. To see them being poor but happy is painful.
I try to understand their life and their world, but in fact, I will never truly comprehend their struggles.
My growth path is relatively luckier, and even ＂absolutely＂ lucky.
When I was struggling to finish my homework, at the same time Carlos might not be able to go to school due to shootings. When I was struggling with nonsense worries through adolescence, in the meanwhile Carlos just decided to learn Jiu Jitsu because there were many teenagers wanting to fight with him on streets. When I argued with my parents for meaningless matters, Carlos could not even have good conversation with his mother.
The Scars on His Forearm
As to explain why he is luckier, I thought Carlos would refer it to learning martial arts so that he could focus on sports, instead of other life threatening options. But he did not answer as what I guessed.
＂Because of my mom.＂
＂There are seven kids in total at my family. My mom raised us up all alone by herself since my dad left for another woman when I was very little.＂
＂And your dad...is he still in this community?＂
＂Oh yeah, he still lives here, with another five children, hahaha!＂
＂When we were little, we lived in a tiny terrible place with limited space. There were three rooms to accommodate the kitchen, dining room, living room and bedrooms. My mom punished us very often whenever she considered us not behaving well.＂
＂It's due to those punishments. She was preventing us from messing around. (not joining the gang.)＂
His repeated using the word punishment which caught my curiosity: ＂What do you mean by punishment exactly⋯⋯ well, do you know the word domestic abuse? Will you define it as domestic abuse?＂
Carlos laughed, looked around to find some similar clubs and to tell me what his mother would use to hit him and his siblings. Then he bent his forearm and showed some severe scars on the elbows:＂Look at these! All for defending my mom’s beat up.＂
＂I thought⋯⋯ these scars are from the boxing fights.＂
＂No, it's all caused by my mom. My older brother has even more and deeper scars.＂
＂Are you sure that you learn boxing is not for fighting against your mother?＂
I threw a very bad joke, but I just hoped to ease the tenseness of his childhood memories; he laughed a hearty laugh.
Stuck at such a hopeless life, I found that it’s easy for people to laugh by any kinds of jokes.
＂But I can already understand and forgive my mom. I thank her for raising me up, and I even thank for these beatings. She was under heavy pressure with feeding seven children as well as at her job. She is a white woman but very poor. Her colleagues despised her for this reason. The way they treated her was very⋯⋯ ＂ Once again, he did not finish the sentence but showed the face of resentment.
I became familiar with this expression of him.
The police as state apparatus and the upper class with arrogant attitude, they are enemies that people in favela fight against but would never win over.
We all want to pretend that there is no absolute badness in the world, trying to comprehend the ignorance of the rich and the helplessness of the police. However, to be at the position of second-class citizens, to witness families, friends and neighbors being humiliated and even killed, do these produce and accumulate hatred at heart? Are there unspeakable complex emotions toward it?
I Want Next Generation to Know
＂Do you personally think that volunteer projects or favela tours are helpful for the community? What is your attitude regarding them? ＂
＂I think they are good for sure because new generations can approach foreigners then get to know the world is bigger. The world is bigger than the community, than Rio and even than Brazil. They would see more possibilities. Simply this could create changes.＂
＂Here at favela, many people cannot imagine what will happen at three years, five years after. If one can imagine the future, he or she will be able to set goals for life. The daily life will be completely different. For example, I want to get much better in next five years, I may train my body regularly, memorize some English vocabularies every day, and then even not taking five years, my ability will be at another level.＂
＂But in the favela, it is not their fault that people can only think about tomorrow, and their vision can only stay inside the favela.＂
The low wages force people to worry about the next meal all the time. They hustle between home and working place every day to work harder and give care of children. When having little bit more money, they spend on some drinks with friends to relieve the stress. Relaxing with alcohol somehow seems to bring meaning to living this life.
Quickly passing day by day, who would have the energy and spirit to think about life goals? The future? Well, let’s hope first that tomorrow will arrive as okay as usual.
Residents cannot see and cannot imagine other kinds of lifestyles, as well as children's growth process. What can be done after growing up in the favela? To work as sweat labor and earn some coins? Or to gamble this life and become a drug dealer?
The majority of people born in favelas are trapped in favelas.
But if there are some stimuli signifying as hope, the next generation will be able to seize better opportunities. For example, those old stories that many football superstars came from favelas have already inspired many football dreams for kids in the community. Carlos wants to be a role or story model as well.
＂My biggest dream is enter the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) and win the gold belt. I want to take it back here and show to all the kids, let them touch it. I want them to know that dreams are possible to get true if you persevere.＂
＂Of course, in fact, I also know that this dream is a bit far away. I lack training resources here in Brazil. I keep thinking what I can do to adjust it⋯⋯＂
I do not know much about fighting, but looking at Carlos who talks about dreams with dazzling sunset behind, there is one thing I know for sure: Despite the UFC or whatever, after three or five years, his accomplishment then will still be a role model for children in Rocinha. Because his real dream is not only to fight at the league, but to realize his own vision in order to encourage others and empower their dreams.
Edited by Shawn Chou
Crossing features more than 200 (still increasing) Taiwanese new generation from over 110 cities around the globe. They have no fancy rhetoric and sophisticated knowledge, just genuine views and sincere narratives. They are simply our friends who happen to stay abroad, generously and naturally sharing their stories, experience and perspectives. See also CrossingNYC.
This article presents the opinion or perspective of the original author / organization, which does not represent the standpoint of CommonWealth magazine.