Favelas: what to preserve?

A world in a van

Para Favela: preservar o quê, clique aqui


There’s no direct bus to Copacabana, coming from Avenida Brasil at pedestrian overpass number nine, Parque União.  So what you have to do is take a  van. Except that getting to the van stop means risking your life.

“There are crackheads,” warns Jailson de Souza e Silva, Observatório de Favelas founder, “and they’ll go after you. They recognize the locals, and they’ll go after people who look like gringos.” He asks an employee to be a bodyguard. On the way, she says she thinks the government should put the addicts to work. “They could print t-shirts,” she suggests.

The Observatório de Favelas thinktank sits at the edge of the Complexo da Maré, a collection of 16 favelas and housing projects squeezed between Avenida Brasil and Guanabara Bay. Pacification hasn’t made it to the Maré. Souza e  Silva lived there seven years, and 11 more in a favela near Penha.

The van interior, almost totally occupied, is dark, cool, and soundtracked with samba. The AC is on and the windows are open, to catch the breeze of one of the last afternoons of the carioca spring. There’s almost no wait, but just as the van pulls out a black woman appears, decked in curves and  megahair. The driver, a solid man with round sweet eyes, stops, gets out, and lets her climb up to sit in half of a spot in the front seat, next to him and two other women.

But in less than a meter someone remembers that the police are on the avenue, out among the addicts, on motorcycles, with sirens and revolvers, like zombie herders– sending the devotees into diaspora. The driver stops again, the gorgeous woman gets out, goes around, and gets into the back of the van, to crouch next to the man you pay, the cobrador.

Ponto de van e de mototáxi

The sendoff spot for the van and moto-taxis

Co-author of the new book O Novo Carioca [The New Carioca] Souza e Silva is part of a group of thinkers and doers in Rio de Janeiro, who observe and encourage the rise of the so-called New Carioca. These are people, mostly young, who try make the most of the city. They crisscross it, making connections and friends, creating and participating in a range of cultural activities. Urban integration– and what the city will come to look like– say the book’s authors, depend a great deal on the new carioca.

According to Souza e Silva in an essay in the book, “… favelas are part of the carioca identity … the city has become known nationally and internationally partly due to the architectural, cultural and social importance of its favela areas. It’s crucial for Rio that the existence of this richness of landscape and cultural plurality be guaranteed”.

Jailson de Souza e Silva

A few meters ahead, past crackheads alone and in groups, some on the median strip, past the police, the van pulls over. The driver and the woman get out, she goes around, and returns to her half-seat in the middle beside him, in front. The samba blares. The trip begins anew, the van making its way onto an overpass above the avenue, to get to the side heading downtown. More crackheads come into view, below.

“We’re gonna stop for diesel,” announces the cobrador. No one complains, but the quasi copilot– muscular, in sneakers, tank top and bermudas, his head shaved except for a blond bunch of curls on top, apologizes. The driver wanted to fill up before, but there wasn’t time. The cobrador slides open the door and gets out to deal with the fuel. The gas station also sells empadas (little salty pie snacks), and through the open door the driver and the attendant trade funny remarks about empadões (big empadas) that an outsider is unable to decode.

A barefoot black woman in a purple bra and cheap elastic mini-skirt comes by, and begs at the empada counter. A one-legged man on crutches comes by.

Earlier, Souza e Silva said he never wanted to leave the favela. “It’s not true that people want to leave the favela. I’m the most concrete example. I only moved away from the favela– I had built a wonderful house in the favela– because the war made it impossible to bring up my son in the favela … if we were just my wife and I we wouldn’t have left, but bringing up a child with that, with stray bullets all the time, not being able to go out into the street, because there’s kids with rifles, and the police disrespecting residents– that’s what made me leave the favela. Where I lived we had sewage pipes, paving, lots of shops, a huge degree of solidarity among the people, intensity of life, partying, involvement, belonging, and more and more cultural activities.”

For an American born in a suburb of houses with yards to play in, grass to cut, and leaves to rake, the description of favela community life is familiar. In an American suburb, the neighbors know who’s ill, who needs a casserole, a ride, a visit. There, the state is more dependable than in Brazil — public schools are generally good, for example– but outside of large cities people live far from amenities. They depend on each other for support in times of need. Neighbors shovel snow from older folks’ front walks, canvass door-to-door for electoral candidates, drive people to church, babysit, walk dogs, water plants, and give out Halloween candy.

Pit stop

Pit stop

The carioca from the formal part of the city greets neighbors, doormen, delivery boys, market sellers, local merchants. He or she jokes, teases about a rival soccer team. He dances in carnaval blocos and goes to festa junina parties in the square. He shares the beach, beer, grilled chicken, pickup soccer. But rarely does he come together with neighbors to provide some necessity that is of general utility: water, power, shelter. In Brazil, those who live on the asfalto pay taxes, pay doormen, pay a builder, dogwalkers, and the maid– and life is sorted out.

In Brazil, the level of trust in the other is low, especially when the other is not a relative or colleague. But in the favela there’s more trust than is generally seen in the country as a whole, because there’s less inequality. The other is less different, less frightening, said Souza e Silva. And life is more public.

The van has a thermometer. In the panel above the megahair woman’s head, it shows more than 36 degrees. But the breeze is cool, the samba energizes, and Mara, the girl in the next seat, is negotiating transportation for a group in January with the driver, to Jacarepaguá. There’s a wedding. “Yours??” asks the cobrador, with a malicious smile. By his tone of voice and the plenitude of his facial expressions, plus his clothing, it’s easy to figure out he’s homosexual.

“Are you kidding?” exclaims Mara. “Me, get married in Jacarepaguá? I’m gonna get married at the Copacabana Palace!” She asks the driver how much he’d charge. He says he’s thinking. And he pulls into a bus stop. A man with skin wrinkled by the sun gets in, and stands next to the cobrador. At the next stop, the cobrador opens the door to reveal a blonde holding a large bag. She shakes her head no. The driver says there’s room. “Get in!” he urges, bending over the three women in the front seat so his voice will make it to the ears of his potential client. But she refuses.

“Now step on it!” says a passenger, as the van joins the flow of Avenida Brasil.

“I am,” answers the driver. “I have to be in Copacabana at two.”

Vans came into being in the nineties in Rio, as an informal response to a lack of transportation between far-off neighborhoods and central areas of the city. “Without the Copacanana-Maré van I don’t know what would become of us, people who circulate night and day building new forms to experience the city,” commented Souza e Silva.

Today, militias control most of the van business, and mayor Eduardo Paes is trying to infuse urban transportation with some degree of logic. To reduce the number of vehicles in the streets, buses and metro lines would make more sense. The issue isn’t that different from that of land use. There are already buildings in favelas.


“So how much?” asks Mara. “Twenty,” says the driver.

“Per person? It’s coming out of my pocket!” She fiddles with her cell phone and shows the girl next to her something, maybe a photo.

At the moment, four years after the start of pacification in Rio de Janeiro, as its many economic and real estate effects play out, there’s a lot of talk about preserving the favela, especially those in the South Zone. A growing number of young foreigners are setting up house in Vidigal, Rocinha, Pavão-Pavãozinho and Cantagalo. A short walk in any of these reveals sacks of cement, recently laid bricks. Life is safer in many pacified favelas. People invest, the city transforms. The barrier between formal and informal areas begins to blur a tiny bit.

What should be preserved, in these long-neglected areas of the city? “There’s a lot of confusion created,” Souza e Silva said earlier in his office at the Observatório, “in thinking, when you talk about the favela as habitat, that the point is to preserve the landscape.”

The landscape, even in the most cinematographic favelas, even where children now play safely in the streets and tourists will be having New Year’s barbecues, is still often ugly and smelly.

“Basic conditions must be provided: sanitation, power, water, sewage collection, trash collection, day care, education, cultural activities and community spaces,” added Souza e Silva. “The favela has to have everything you need to live with dignity in an urban center. Except that this doesn’t mean eliminating the favela,” he explained. “It means recognizing that the favela has a particular geography, that can be preserved just as medieval cities have been preserved… we can have different types of habitats, of urban structures, without the loss of dignity.”


And, supposing that the favela does get all this in the coming years– since the Morar Carioca program, partly supported by the Inter-American Development Bank, is in fact meant to bring all carioca favelas up to standard by 2020– what Souza Silva and other leaders from low-income areas of the city want to preserve is a lifestyle.

The cobrador tells Mara to put his phone number in her cell phone’s memory. “Now call me,” he instructs her. “So I’ll have your number.” The negotiating will take some time.

“Anyone going to the Aterro?” asks the driver. “Me,” says the girl on Mara’s other side.

“Is Largo do Machado good enough?”


“You getting married?” the cobrador asks again, like a cop trying to out a lie. “Only at the Copa Palace,” Mara repeats.

“Been a while since I’ve seen your girlfriend,” Mara’s friend says to the driver, fishing for information.

“What girlfriend?” he corrects her. “I’m married.”

Close neighbors: cobrador and passenger

The van passes by the defunct Leopoldina train station, the Sambodrome, and at last it pulls over in the Largo do Machado. The temperature has dropped a degree. The samba and the breeze both ease the heat. Mara’s friend gets out. Mara says she’s going to São Conrado, but she’ll have to get out before the Rio Sul mall and take another van, or a bus.

The passenger with the wrinkled face wants to pay  the cobrador his three reais. “When you get out,” the cobrador tells him.

Asphalt cariocas create and keep networks in their neighborhoods and in the city. The links between favela residents, said Souza e Silva, must be preserved. Often, they are the result of strong life experiences.

They must not be that different from the community links evident in the small American town of Sandy Hook, for example, recently hit by a terrible tragedy. Neighbors there, according to reports, thought it strange they’d never been inside the killer’s mother’s home. Because in much of the U.S., you go inside a neighbor’s house even if he’s not your friend. Taking such a liberty, and feeling the trust it implies, are part of American democracy.

In Brazil, such behavior could be considered intrusive. In the South Zone of Rio the most a neighbor will dare is to ask, with the utmost care, to see what a decorator or architect did with an apartment laid out exactly like his or hers.

“Recognizing that a favela is more than a landscape is to recognize these links,” concluded Souza e Silva.

The wrinkled man has come to his destination. The van stops, the cobrador gets out, the passenger pays on the sidewalk. “He doesn’t want to take the money before,” laments the driver. “He’s such a fairy.”


Not her wedding in Jacarepaguá

The van gets to Flamengo Beach, and several passengers step out, leaving more space inside. “Where do you work in São Conrado?” the driver, alone now in the front seat, asks Mara.

“At the Fashion Mall?” guesses the cobrador. It’s Rio’s most upscale shopping mall. She says yes. “What store?” he asks. Now he decides it’s time for everyone to pay. Money is handed over, change made.

“Armani,” answers Mara. The van goes through a short tunnel. As it comes out, Mara’s putting on a pair of sunglasses with an AX on the side. Soon the van stops, she gets out, and then a young man appears in the space of the open door, with top-of-head hair and tweezed eyebrows, a hand suggestively at his ample waist, one foot stuck out in front of the other for hip emphasis.

“Your brother?” the driver asks the cobrador. The passenger sashays into the empty front seat and the cobrador gets out with a wry smile to buy water for himself and the pilot.

While they drink from dripping blue bottles, the van arrives in Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro’s densest neighborhood. The sea breeze invades the windows; samba flows out. It’s 33 degrees according to the red numbers on the panel. The stragglers descend at the corner of Francisco Sá, and there goes the  Copacabana-Maré duo, heading into the U-turn, driving along the beach, back to Parque União.

About Rio real

American journalist, writer, editor who's lived in Rio de Janeiro for 20 years.
This entry was posted in Brasil, Transformation of Rio de Janeiro / Transformação do Rio de Janeiro and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Favelas: what to preserve?

  1. Zaida G. Knight says:

    Muito boa crônica, Julia. Capta o sentimento do lugar e ds pessoas. Trabalhei na Maré na década de 60, na Nova Holanda, Escola Armando de Sales Oliveira, se me lembro bem do nome, perto do Iate Clube de Ramos. Um outro mundo, outra época. Parabéns.

  2. ARvWD says:

    Good atmospheric writing, and snatched snaps too. Brits generally get this kind of thing


    so your blog provides an important counterweight. Thanks!

  3. As always Julian, a perceptive and personal account, written like an anthropologist viewing a vast and evolving terrain.

  4. Pingback: A Rio Bus Story – The deep background to the Brazilian Uprising | Rio Underbelly

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.