It's not a "Favela," it's a Community
Life in the Ghettos of Brazil
By Luis A. Gómez
Narco News Andean Bureau Chief
October 13, 2002
In this world, a favela is a favela… once and always the same… the same in India, Bolivia, Mexico or Brazil. It’s a place where the expectations of life, for dignity and justice, have indexes lower than those that can be measured by the intellectual myopia of the World Bank. And here, in the most industrialized city of the continent, with 18 million inhabitants in the metropolitan zone and its urban sprawl, this correspondent invites you on a tour…
Let’s go first to the 1960s, kind readers, to understand the history. We see a Brazil with a recently installed military dictatorship, it was literally a country in bankruptcy. Look at those men in dark suits and very light skin… they come from the north bringing money, investment and progress… the farms of this country and its wild jungle regions don’t produce enough products for the civilized world. But the men in black bring, in their briefcases, the key to paradise…
In the opening and closing of an eye, this region of Brazil becomes, like magic, an industrial center: autos, tractors, clothes, tires, sinks, electric appliances, oof… it’s impossible to count the dozens of factories that now occupy a country where, not to long beforehand, there were only houses, mansions, some roads and some haciendas nearby. Sao Paulo, once the capital of an American empire, a city with history and culture, will be until 1970 an urban area that was product of an economic miracle as impressive as that of Germany after World War II.
And thanks to the gringos dressed in black (almost all of them bankers and industrialists), thanks to military order, the first immigrants begin to arrive here to keep the chimney of production stoked.
Brazil: Mirror of the World
Before continuing this trip, pay close attention to the map in your tourist guide.
As you will see, with so much territory near water, along the Southern Atlantic, Brazil is ideal for receiving migrations from the entire world. This has happened. The Portuguese, of course, have come, and they brought slaves from Africa. The Italians, Japanese, Spaniards and Arabs, too… In recent years, Peruvians, Bolivians, and Colombians began to arrive. Our cities, all of them, as you can see, are populated by people of every color, size and shape. It can be said that Brazil is like one planet inside another… or like a mirror of this world.
There, each city is a smaller mirror that reflects the bigger one. Each neighborhood is yet another mirror. And each favela is too, and, well, it’s a mirror that’s a bit mistreated, that poorly reflects all the other mirrors… At present, Brazil has nearly 170 million inhabitants. And, properly, it’s not a poor country: the Gross National Product per capita was $7,625 U.S. dollars in the year 2000. However, as the government of the current president, the Social Democrat Fernando Hernrique Cardoso, recognizes, “for more than 500 years we have been a country marked by social inequality.” More than half of Brazil’s families live on less than $100 dollars a month.
But so that nobody worries, because this government has created various social assistance and security programs, like the Program to Eradicate Child Labor or that which counters sexual abuse of minors… thanks to them, some 50 million youths throughout the country have been able to leave the violent environment of the favelas behind and continue studying… Well, left outside of these programs are more than half-a-million kids, but nobody’s perfect.
The Brazilian favelas have names like City of God, Paradise-opolis, Heliopolis and others. There, power stays always in the hands of the mafias of narco-trafficking and organized crime…. We’ll continue with more of the general history in a moment, because we’re already near our first stop, Jaguaré…
Jaguaré: 24,000 Souls
South of Sao Paulo, there, look, on this beautiful hillside where the first houses made of old hardwood already come into view. These people who you see walking, with their old furniture and carrying their bags in carts, or on their backs, have come from all corners of Brazil. Some, you’ll be able to see, are black. Others are yellow or brown. Some have indigenous features… They’ve all come here to see if there is hope to keep on living. And when they have the opportunity, the enter the factories to work, or sell things in the street, or serve as laundry men and women. They work for the wealthy.
Pay close attention to how these people, without money or education, are populating the hill. The trees disappear from the ground. But they’re left at peace in the 1970s by the good military government, if they behave themselves and don’t become communists (for those people: jails, exile, torture and death)… And some services are brought to the neighborhood. Meanwhile, if they steal a little or begin to deal drugs, that’s not such a problem… In the end they continue and they keep on coming… including in Rio de Janeiro we have various favelas like this and they’re much bigger, a lot bigger.
In this sense, Jaguaré in the 1980s was, like almost every favela, a center for drug distribution, refuge of criminals and the home of many people who, although poor, worked honorably, but already not in the factories. The people of Jaguaré began to sell merchandise in the streets, to work cleaning sewers… This life, without security nor rest, puts them at the margins of the law, and the situation radicalizes quickly. That’s why the police of Sao Paulo began to crack down on them, to put them in jail for any pretext… the matter grows more difficult every day, because so many poor people don’t have, under the neoliberal economic schemes, any possibility of getting out of their misery.
That’s how it was when the Inter-American Development Bank (BID, in its Portuguese initials) decided to support the government of Brazil to improve the lives of the favela residents. In 1995, for example, the BID spend $180 million dollars for a program to improve the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and later, on July 10th, 1996, $250 million more for the favelas of Sao Paulo. The charity (at high interest rates) was applied but with poor results in Rio. In Sao Paulo, the then-mayor of the city, Paulo Maluf (do you remember this civilian who served in the military dictatorships? This past October 6th he was practically finished politically thanks to the good results of the elections), well, he took the money and constructed, for example, three buildings in Jaguaré that six years later started to fall down (due to the low quality of the construction materials), that don’t fit nearly one-sixth of the people. The major part of those resources were detoured to other matters and various pockets… and neither Rio nor Sao Paulo got better, really, the changes were not made at the root and today, they say, life in the favelas is worse than it has ever been before.
Twenty-four million people live in Jaguaré, 24 million souls in a space no bigger than four square kilometers (two square miles). The streets, where there are streets, are in disrepair, poor. Many of the houses are barely four walls of old hardwood. Some people, above all the shopkeepers of the barrio, have telephones and almost all the dwellings have electricity.
From this beautiful hill, look, today, at the factories and the large buildings of polluted Sao Paulo, trying to find its dignity anew, another path to continue living. “The people here don’t like it said that they’re living in a favela… To say that implies that they’ve lost their humanity… they don’t say it naturally, but with shame,” comments Paulo César Pereira, president of the Jaguaré Neighborhood Association, and a local political leader. Why? Because they’re poor? Yes, in part…
As one walks up or down the streets of Jaguaré, faces appear on some sidewalks, almost always looking with distrust. The streets go on for all sides and each plot of land doesn’t have more than four little houses in an area of less than 150 square meters. There is no potable water, and no full sewer system. The people, improvising, have created small drainage systems, many of them under open sky. In the streets, over the rocks or soil, the children play barefoot and semi-naked… And in the canals, another mirror, it is possible to find sympathetic-looking rats who fight for their rights.
As I told you before, kind readers, the favela is a poor neighborhood, like any other, violent and unhealthy. And Jaguaré, this small neighborhood, is like many others. Except, perhaps, for the fact that now Paulo and the leadership of the Neighborhood Association are fighting to give it a new face…
Paulo: “It’s not a favela, it’s a community.”
Paulo seems a little older than 40. He’s mulatto, thin and tall. His face is pockmarked and scarred. His short hair, wide nose, his expression, remind one a little bit of Carl Lewis, but unlike the athlete Paulo César Pereira always has a kind and peaceful look on his face. He’s a shopkeeper right now, “but I’ve worked in everything. I was a farmer, a worker, a street salesman and now I support myself with this store where I sell coffee, bread and articles for the home.” He’s the political leader. The people say hello respectfully and some children, coming home from school, kiss his hand affectionately, as is the custom with those who lead and guide.
Narco News: When did you arrive in Jaguaré?
Paulo: Personally, I moved to Jaguaré 12 years ago, but this community has a history that is more than forty years old, when the first migrants came from the North and Northeast of this country.
Narco News: And what is your role as president of the Neighborhood Association?
Paulo: Ever since I was elected by the community, I’ve tried to bring the works that we see have been necessary for more or less four decades. Not just bringing better services or regularizing others, like water and sewage, which people here only acquire clandestinely; but we’ve also succeeded, for example, in covering a huge and dangerous hole at the entrance of the community (this happened only a short time ago). And we’re trying to bring some social assistance programs forward, coordinated by a priest who lives among us with the help of volunteers.
Narco News: How many people currently live here?
Paulo: According to the most recent census, a very superficial census, there are 24,000 people in Jaguaré living in 7,000 family homes.
(Do the math, kind readers: 3.5 people per household on plots of roughly five-by-five meters.)
Narco News: And the problems of narco-trafficking and criminality?
Paulo: I would be lying if I told you that we had rid ourselves of crime or narco-trafficking in Jaguaré. But we have succeeded at changing some things and reducing the problems to minimum levels. There’s still consumption of drugs, but this problem is more or less the same, or much less, than what exists in the rich neighborhoods of Sao Paulo. Ever since I was elected as president, I’ve been able to reduce the crime rate by using various social policies of the federal government and City Hall: Now the young people of Jaguaré have better opportunities to stay in school, to participate in sports and cultural activities, and they don’t have as much time, as they did before, to think about dedicating themselves to illegal activities. I think that at this rate, as long as the people are working on other things, we will be able to speak, in a short time, of the disappearance of the drug problem.
Narco News: Then you are well organized… is there some political force that you identify with?
Paulo: We’re not well organized. But we need to be. The community has begun to unite to utilize the social programs of City Hall.
I imagine, by the way, because I don’t have the information, that the people feel that saying they live in a place called a “favela” is burdensome. When they speak this word they do it very shyly, hiding the word… They don’t like to say that they live in a favela… And I don’t think the way to raise the self-esteem of those who live here is to stop using the word. But, then, how to do it? Through the social assistance programs, and those like the “Barrio Legal” program of City Hall (in the hands of the Workers Party) whose first phase is the installation of basic sanitary systems. I believe that, starting with this, and electricity, and constructing parks and leisure areas, that the identity of the people who live in a place called a favela… the word “favela” is very heavy, it has its own mythology… it’s identified with drug trafficking, with crime… and since 99.9 percent of the people who live in the favela are workers, humble people, I think they don’t like to say that they live here.
Narco News: Pardon me, Paulo, but did you vote for Lula on October 6th?
Paulo: No, I didn’t vote in the first round. I will speak for myself, as Paulo, not as a leader of the community. I didn’t vote because if Lula had won in the first round he would feel too strong, he would have had too large a victory, and he would have had the ability to do a lot of things without consulting society. It think that a good government is one that puts all the decisions to society, that a good governor does what society allows and asks. That’s why I didn’t vote. But in the second round I will vote for Lula.
Narco News: Then, do you think that a Lula government will improve the situation in Brazil?
Paulo: I think there is a grand expectation that he will, and the possibility of an unprecedented improvement… but hopes are raised sky high for this, because Lula comes from the workers, he knows this world and the problems of the worker, so there are enormous opportunities for change. Now, this might or might not happen, but the expectation exists, because the great majority of the Brazilian people is of humble origin and Lula knows what is needed.
And so, we’ll leave Paulo to work now, in his shop and in his community. It’s been important for us to enter this world because, about thirty years ago, in the ABC industrial belt of Sao Paulo, in a favela just like this one, Lula began his struggle and it was his neighbors and his companions who gave the initial push to the Workers Party. If you like, or ask, we can come back to visit a favela, excuse me, a popular community… We’ll return to these places where, in spite of everything, life fights to bloom.
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