Slum Dunk

Slum Dunk

By Rodolfo Espinoza

As far as anniversaries go, although this one is a centenary, Cariocas
(Rio’s residents) would gladly skip it. This year Rio is celebrating
100 years of a way of life that around the world has become synonymous
with bad and squalid living: the favela.

Although there is no consensus about the precise time the first favela
appeared it is generally agreed upon that 1897 was the year the first
large one was started. It was in November of that year that 20,000 Northeastern
federal troops, who had fought and won the Canudos’s war against Antônio
Conselheiro in Bahia, were brought to Rio and left on the docks without
a place to live. Tired of waiting for the government’s bureaucracy, which
couldn’t find them a house after having promised them one, they just took
over the closest hill in a neighborhood known as Gamboa, to build their
improvised shacks.

The military men called the place Morro da Favela inspired by the name
of the hill where they had camped before launching their offensive against
Conselheiros’s jagunços. Both hills had in common an abundance
of a nettle-like shrub that burns the skin when touched and whose name
is favela. Not everybody, however, believes that such a plant was
present in the hill. Historian Sônia Zylberberg, author of Morro
da Providência: Memórias da Favella (Providence Hill:
Memories of Favella), considers this version very unlikely. Zylberberg
points out the big difference between the soil of Bahia’s arid backlands
and Rio’s fertile land. The historian says that the name of favela might
have been given to the place by the semi-slave women brought by the soldiers.

Still another version for the name’s origin—one that is told among the
older residents—is that the troops planted in the area favela’s
shoots brought from Bahia. They didn’t grow in the new habitat, however.

Zylberberg also disputes the notion that Morro da Favela was Rio’s first
favela. According to her, there was already at least another important
shantytown—since then razed— at Monte Castelo.

A few years later, the area had its name changed to Providência,
but the name favela had acquired a new meaning. Started inside a
jungle, the Favela da Providência, as every other shantytown today,
is a maze of dingy little buildings, one crowded next to the other, and
whose walls many times don’t let you know where one house ends and the
next one starts. Favela da Providência stands as a ghost in the heart
of Rio with a privileged view of downtown’s high-rises and as a too-close-for-comfort
reminder of the Fourth World living side by side with the First World.
Although the name favela originated in the settlement started by
the Canudos soldiers, other Carioca (from Rio) families had already
occupied the hills around town as a way of living affordably and close
to downtown.


Mem de Sá, in 1557, after expelling the French who had created
Antarctic France, moved Rio’s headquarters to Morro do Castelo. The move
to a hill wasn’t only strategically sane, due to foreign invaders who would
eventually come back, but also a health imperative since the flatlands
were littered with swamps containing a fertile soil for epidemics.

As Sônia Zilberberg, author of Morro da Providência:
Memórias da Favella (Hill of Providence: Memoirs of Favella)
tells us, the Catholic Church continued this hill-bound trend by building
their churches and convents on the hills. In the 18th and 19th centuries
the hilly area around Rio had also become the most sought after refuge
for runway slaves, who established their quilombos (for-blacks-only
independent towns) there. With the abolition of slavery in 1888 more blacks
joined in, but the migration to the hills by rich people also increased.
Despite the high cost of building on the hills and the difficult access,
the wealthy established ranches to flee from a downtown that had become
too noisy, too busy, and too filthy for their tastes. One of the favorite
places for the well-to-do was São Cristóvão.

In 1893, the hills’ population got a big boost after the city decided
to demolish an infamous cortiço (slum) known as Cabeça
de Porco (Pig’s Head), a complex inhabited by 4,000 people. Some 20,000
houses were evacuated around the same time by Rio’s mayor Pereira Passos.

Historian Mílton Teixeira places the start of Rio’s favelization
in the years following the 1888 law liberating the slaves. Few people
living on Morro da Providência today know about the history of their
hill and there is very little left from those pioneer years. On the top
of the hill there is a wooden cross that is illuminated at night and a
dilapidated chapel which has been declared a national monument since 1986
by the Patrimônio Histórico. An image of Christ, which according
to legend was brought by the soldiers, has disappeared. But the place still
has an old cross from those times.

At the beginning of the century, there were close to 100 shacks on Morro
da Providência. By the ’20s this number had increased to more than
800, and in 1933 they were already 1,500. According to the 1991 census,
Favela da Providência has 2,895 residents living in 727 shacks.

The place has had its share of fame mainly through headlines on the
newspapers’ police pages. In 1968, 50 people died after a landslide caused
by rain. In 1989, eight people allegedly part of a drug gang were killed
by the police there. In 1991, the most famous drug lord of Providência,
Ednaldo da Silva, the Naldo, and his gang tortured and killed detective
Regina Coeli da Cunha. Naldo was murdered a few months later.

But Providência was also theme for escolas de samba’s (samba
schools’) enredos (plots) and the set for director Humberto Mauro’s
1935 film Favela dos Meus Amores (Favela of My Loves), which was
lost to a fire in the ’40s.


In the year of its centennial, residents from the former Morro da Favela
have the same complaints as people from other hundreds of favelas in
town. They want their trash picked up, their sewer connected to the city’s
sewer system, their potholes fixed, and the frequent shooting wars stopped.
But nobody wants to admit that they have a problem with drugs, at least
not inside the favela, where the shack’s walls seem to have ears.

The city’s administration has promised several improvements for 1998,
but Providência’s residents would like them to coincide with their
100th anniversary. Among the improvements that are part of the project
Rio Cidade are street paving and removal of 200 houses that are in the
path of mudslides.

"Despite everything, we are very proud of being the first favela,"
Aurora Conceição Parreira, president of Providência’s
Residents Association declared recently. Curiously, in its bylaws, the
group created in the ’60s, refers to their neighborhood as Morro da Favela.

Music, literature, and art are not alien to the favela. Much
of the samba that has been composed for generations is from these inspiring
hills. More recently, favelas were also the inspiration for books
like Cidade Partida (Divided City) from journalist Zuenir Ventura.

Director Nélson Pereira dos Santos made his 1955 neo-realist
Rio 40 Graus (Rio 104° F) inside Rio’s favelas. Orfeu
Negro (Black Orpheus), the 1959 Oscar winner masterpiece by French
director Marcel Camus, was inspired by and filmed in a favela. The
film was based on the book Orfeu da Conceição by Vinicius
de Moraes and Antônio Carlos Jobim. It was also in the ’50s that
Antônio Callado wrote its favela-inspired novel Pedro Mico.
In the ’60s, five directors combined their talents to produce Cinco
Vezes Favela (Five Times Favela) a five-episode film on the travails
of a shantytown.

The favela continues to inspire a new generation of filmmakers.
Murilo Sales’s just-released Como Nascem os Anaw6kx (How Do Angels
Are Born), however, tell of a place from which romanticism and bohemia
have long gone. A favela portrait nowadays necessarily includes
drugs, shooting wars, plenty of blood and abject misery.


If favelas have been in the news lately as the cradle of samba,
sanctuary of funk, or the set for Michael Jackson’s, Spike Lee directed
videoclip They Don’t Care About Us, more often than not they have
been the set for natural tragedies such as mudslides or police massacres
as the one in Vigário Geral in 1993.

Today, 17% of Rio’s population lives in favelas. There are at
least 600 of them with populations varying from a few dozen people to 50,000
or more. And though nowadays they are accepted as an integral part of the
city, these shantytowns have always been prime candidates for demolition.
Only recently has this policy changed.

According to historian Mílton Teixeira, all urban planning for
Rio until 1977 contemplated a day in which every single shantytown and
slum—considered urban cancers—would be destroyed, with their residents
being removed to residential complexes outside the urban area.

Only in 1968, with the urbanization of Favela de Brás de Pina,
the town’s administrators found out that improving living conditions in
already established communities was a more effective and practical way
of eliminating or at least abating the blight. The eradication of favelas
had become a very traumatic experience for those having to move: people
who would be displaced far away from their jobs, children taken away from
their schools and friends they were used to. Some people have been living
for decades in what it is called a slum, but they call it home. Despite
all of this, between 1960 and 1975, Rio’s authorities removed 137,774 people
from more than 80 favelas. For the most part, they were eyesores
too close to the best neighborhoods in town.

According to Rio’s Iplan (Empresa Municipal de Informática e
Planejamento—Data Processing and Planning Municipal Company), the number
of favelas increased from 134 with 337,412 residents in 1960 to
372 and 717,066 inhabitants in 1980. The latest IBGE’s (Instituto Brasileiro
de Geografia e Estatística—Brazilian Institute of Geography and
Statistics) census, in 1991, revealed that the population of favelas
had increased to 962,793 residents spread over 573 shantytowns.

As Iplan’s architect Ricardo Ferraz noted alarmingly, in an interview
with Rio’s daily Jornal do Brasil, "From 1980 to 1991 there
was an 8% increase in the population of the city as a whole while among
favelados this increase was 34.5%."

In Brazil as a whole, there is a lack of 5 million residences. Around
25% of this deficit is in the southeastern part of the country, which is
also the nation’s richest region and where 17.9% of the population lives
in less than inhabitable quarters.


Since the end of April, the residents of Rocinha, often presented as
the largest Latin American favela, with an area of 722,480 m²
and 42.892 residents, according to Iplan/Rio (the population data is from
the 1991 Census), are cable-ready, joining a revolution that had been reserved
in Brazil up to now for some privileged individuals from the upper middle
class. Initially, through TV Roc, they will be able to see 33 different
channels paying as $64 for installation and $32 a month. Before the end
of the year they will have their own community channel. For the same service
in other neighborhoods the price is $180 for installation and a monthly
fee of $53.

The Argentinean group responsible for the venture has invested $3 million.
Their goal is to have 10,000 houses cabled in five years. Initially, the
service will be offered to around 2,000 buildings on the foothill, where
commerce is concentrated. Sales people and cabling technicians were recruited
among Rocinha’s favelados themselves.

Rocinha started in the ’40s, after a group of squatters took over the
land. As with many favelados, Rocinha’s residents don’t have a deed
for the lot and the house they live in. The area was a ranch that belonged
to Frenchman Don Castro Guidon. Portuguese and French immigrant bought
lots when the property was subdivided in the 1920s. The company responsible
for the sale of the land, however, went bankrupt and the irregular occupation
of the area then started.

Their population boom occurred in the ’70s with the construction fever
in Barra da Tijuca, a neighboring high-class area. More recently, people
from northern slums have moved there so they could be closer to their jobs.
Since the beginning, the growth of favelas has paralleled that of
job opportunities.

According to the Associação de Moradores da Rocinha (Rocinha’s
Residents Association) their favela has 200,000 residents. Much
more conservative, the latest IBGE’s census, from 1991, puts this number
at a little less than 43,000. Census data farther reveals that Rocinha
has 11,900 residences with an average of 3.7 rooms per house. The residents’
average wage is very low: 67% of the families have a head of the household
making less than $250 a month. However, it’s common that more than one
person contribute to the family’s budget. More than 94% of the residents
have running water and trash collection is made in 91% of the houses. Only
57% of the buildings, however, are linked to the public sewer system.

Thanks to the effort of the residents, who have organized themselves
into associations and clubs, Rocinha today enjoys a better living standard
than most other favelas. Among other amenities, the shantytown has
five schools, a modeling agency, two free health clinics, 25 butcher shops,
12 video rental stores, a FM radio station, a samba school, a soccer team,
a taxi stop, a hotel, a bank, two post offices, a telephone center, a small
claims center and two police stations. Maybe that’s why rental of a one-bedroom
house might cost as much as $250 a month uphill and $500 when closer to
the foothill. There are also several community-oriented services such as
nurseries and clubs financed by NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) and
religious organizations. The Centro de Formação Profissional
(Professional Education Center) for example has been a success. It has
80 students learning computer skills at night courses with the help of
six computers and three instructors. Funded with a grant from a Swiss NGO,
the computer center is proud today of being self-sufficient thanks to the
$25 to $35 monthly fee it charges from its students.

"Rocinha’s residents love to have everything," says Jorge
Luís Nascimento da Silva, who has lived there since 1970, and is
the administrator of the 27th Administrative Region in which Rocinha is
included. "It would be difficult to find a house without a videocassette
recorder and 70% of the residents have a credit card," he adds.

Rocinha still hasn’t benefited from Rio’s Favela-Bairro program, which
is re-urbanizing several favelas. The effort had been limited up
to now to medium-size favelas with no more than 10,000 residents.
This started to change in May when Rio’s mayor Luiz Paulo Conde and Caixa
Econômica Federal’s (the federal government savings bank) president
Sérgio Cutolo signed a contract to re-urbanize Jacarezinho favela,
a shantytown with 48,000 dwellers. Caixa is contributing $12.3 million
to the $17-million project. Work should start next year and it will include
building, repairing and enlarging houses, besides the paving of streets,
sewer services, and electricity. The Favela-Bairro program today attends
to 73 communities. Next in line for the same improvements are the favelas
Rio das Pedras, Vila Vintém, Complexo da Penha, and Complexo do


While living conditions have been improving for favelas south
and north of downtown Rio, the city still has thousands of people living
in much more abject sets mainly in the west zone and hidden from the population
behind the rich neighborhoods of Barra da Tijuca and Jacarepaguá.
Many Cariocas have never heard about some of these places that came
to the papers’ front pages recently after March’s torrential rains, which
left 39 people dead in the area. This is where Cidade de Deus is located—on
the news recently after an indiscreet camera showed policemen beating and
extorting money from peaceful passersby—a complex of eight favelas
including one that goes by the suggestive name or Ratolândia, land
of rats. Blasted by mudslides, Ratolândia’s residents noted not without
irony that they were transferred to that area after the killing floods
of 1966. At that time, they were told by authorities that the transference
was a provisory one. Community leaders believe that there are from 40 to
50,000 residents in Cidade de Deus alone. When the subject is favela
statistics, official numbers and reality always seem unreconcilable.

According to Iplan/Rio, Jacarepaguá has 67 favelas with
a population of 54,019 people. Leaders in the area, however, talk about
400,000 people, which seems exaggerated. After the rains, this year, reporters
of Jornal do Brasil visited the region and in one week discovered
15 communities that were not catalogued by Iplan/Rio. This flagrant omission
lead us to doubt other Iplan data such as the number of shacks in the area
connected to sewer service (65%) or that only 20% of residences use the
so-called gato (cat), clandestine connection to the electricity
poles. In some places like Rio das Pedras the police rarely appear. To
maintain a semblance of order, merchants get together and pay for their
own police. These armed men are often vigilantes acting as a death squad
that delivers summary justice.


Many people in Rio have given up their hope that they can solve the
shantytowns’ problems or that they will be able to hide the favelados,
and decided not only to live with it but also, sometimes, to make a
profit out of it.

Many middle-class youngsters go up the hill every weekend for the animated
funk balls of the favelas. For years now, tourists and locals alike
have joined the escolas de samba in their quadras for rehearsals.

Nothing new, however, in this rapprochement between the shantytown and
the town proper. "To discover the favela is the latest rage,"
Carioca writer Annibal Bonfim noted in 1927. Fifty years later,
another writer is trying to prove that this still holds true. André
Fernandes, a twenty-six-year-old former missionary, has used his first-hand
experience inside favelas to write the soon-to-be-published Guia
Rio Favelas, a different tourist guide with numbers and stories of
Rio’s 50 largest slums. For this work he also used the statistics from
the IBGE and Iplan/Rio and articles published in newspapers during the
last few years. The book will tell not only about what buses to take, and
what clubs and commerce there are in a given favela, but also the
names of past and present drug lords and where to catch the most lively
weekend funk ball.

In an interview with the daily Folha de São Paulo, the
author talked about the danger of people trying to get in favelas
dominated by drug dealers, in which a sentinel lets only known people in.
"You need to adopt a secure way to visit a favela," he
advises. "I would like to see people not behaving as if they were
in a zoo, but willing to experience something different, a place where
there is fear, but also interesting things to do." He suggests that
people try to contact the community associations before entering the favelas.

Riotur, Rio’s tourism authority, has already included a sanitized official
tour of the favelas in its city guide. The so-called Favela Tur
goes through two shantytowns in San Conrado, on the south side of town:
Rocinha and Vila Canoas.

Some people have gone so far as to move to the favela to feel
more secure. Probably the most illustrious favela resident is senator
Benedita da Silva who lives in a shantytown with her husband, city council
Antônio Pitanga and her stepdaughter, model and TV star Camila Pitanga.
They live at the Chapéu Mangueira favela, in Leme, in the
south zone. "At first I was afraid," said Camila in an interview
with Jornal do Brasil, "I wasn’t sure I would be secure here."
After some time in the neighborhood, she said she was feeling more secure
than in the down town.

Lawyer Ilton Cândido Fonseca, 35, is an another example of someone
preferring to have a house inside a favela. Fonseca left a two-bedroom
apartment in Humaitá, a middle-class neighborhood, for an address
at the Mangueirinha favela in Botafogo, in the south zone or Rio.
Two years ago, he paid $4,500 for a lot in the area and then spend more
than $30,000 to build a three-story house. "Here there is no noise
and I am close to everything," he tells those who doubt the wisdom
of his choice.

For sociologist Herbert de Souza, better known as Betinho, an activist
for the poor, the distance between the population of the hills and the
flatland is a recent phenomenon: "Before, the rich and the middle-class
people were proud of having friends on the hills and taking part on rodas
de samba (samba parties)," he says.

In some areas, the rivalry between the favela and the city is
very acute. Some residents of apartments in the south zone of town fear
continually for their lives even when inside their buildings. On Nascimento
Silva street, in Ipanema, a residential complex right next to the Cantagalo
favela installed bullet-proof glass in its windows. Psychologist
Mary Ladeira, a resident there, complains about the devaluation of her
apartment. "I have worked hard to be able to buy a three-bedroom apartment,
but if I sell my property today I can’t afford even a one-bedroom apartment
with the money I would get." The building manager is also very distressed
with the situation and has started a movement to create an association
for those who live in the foothills of the favelas. She wants to
see favelados and non-favelados getting together to improve
their way of living." Both sides have been abandoned by the authorities,"
she complains.

Sometimes, the reality of the favela is so overwhelming that
you cannot take it and still live to talk about it. Last year, for example,
the IBGE abandoned the two buildings it owns in the heart of Mangueira,
the neighborhood that gives its name to the favela and the world-renowned
escola de samba (samba club). While IBGE’s workers are brave enough
to go up the steep hill to interview in loco Mangueira’s residents for
the Institute’s annual census, they couldn’t take anymore the nerve-racking
shooting battles between local rival drug rings.

Working in the last floor, the 13th, didn’t bring any extra security.
IBGE’s management knew it was time to move when the national technical
coordinator’s room, on the 13th floor, was hit by a stray bullet. Without
takers to rent the place, the two IBGE buildings stand silent and bullet-riddled
as a testimony of a town that still has much to do to fairly wear its sobriquet
of cidade maravilhosa (marvelous city).

The Tree in the Root of All

Jatropha phyllacantha is another name for favela, a plant
that is also known as faveleiro and mandioca-brava (wild
manioc). The plant grows mostly in arid, sandy soils. The favela is
a shrub from the spurge (Euphorbiaceae) family that can reach 50 feet.
It has white flowers and its seed is edible. In the Northeast, the favela’s
dry leaves are fed to cattle. When green, the leaves can cause hives. The
burning sensation brought by contact with favela was described by
writer Euclides da Cunha on his masterpiece Os Sertões (The
Backlands) from 1902.

Gauging Poverty

A study done by Iplan-Rio’s Information Nucleus and Residential Studies
using data from the 1991 Census shows a big economical gap between the
favela and the formal city and also among the shantytowns themselves.
From Rio’s 5,480,780 inhabitants, 941,704 live in favelas. There
are 566 shantytowns, with the 15 largest—with more than 10,000 residents—making
up for 26% of the favelado population. The 362 favelas with
populations below 1,000 people represent only 15% of all favelados.
While Rio’s average population density is 4.366 people per square km, this
number rises to 36.076 per square km inside the favelas. There is
a diminutive percentage of favelados (0.61%) making more than $1200
a month, while the immense majority (72.33%) earns less than $240 a month.

Some comparisons

between city and favela

………………………..City …..Favela

Monthly salary ……$701 …$205

Residents per house..3.5 ….3.98

Rooms in the house ..4.8 …..4.06

Making $1200 or +..0.61%. 15.1%

Making $240 or less.35.5% ..72.3%

15 years of school …..1.07%..16.7%

Illiterate people ……….6.1%… 15.36%

Inadequate sewage ….8.9% ….36.74%

Inadequate water …….3.9% ….15.41%

Bad trash collection…..4.3% ….21.23%

In praise of

favela’s life


Gilberto Gil

Iá iá kiriê, kiriê, iá iá a,

Iá iá kiriê, kiriê, iá iá a,

Iá iá kiriê, kiriê, iá iá a,

Iá iá kiriê, kiriê, iá iá a,

A refavela revela aquela

Que desce o morro, e vem transar

O ambiente efervescente

De uma cidade a cintilar

A refavela revela o salto que preto pobre tenta dar

Quando se arranca

Do seu buraco

Pr’um bloco do BNH

A refavela, a refavela, oh!

Como é tão bela, como é tão bela, oh!

A refavela revela a escola

De samba paradoxal

Brasileirinho pelo sotaque

Mas de língua internacional

A refavela revela o passo

Com que caminha a geração

Do black jovem, do black Rio

Da nova dança no salão

Iá iá kiriê, kiriêm iá iá a,

Iá iá kiriê, kiriêm iá iá a,

Iá iá kiriê, kiriêm iá iá a,

Iá iá kiriê, kiriêm iá iá a,

A refavela revela o choque

Entre a favela-inferno e o céu

Baby blue rock

Sobre a cabeça

De um povo chocolate e mel

A refavela revela o sonho

De minha alma, meu coração

De minha gente, minha somente

Preta, Maria José, João

A refavela, a refavela, oh! como tão bela, como é tão
bela oh!

A refavela Alegoria, elegia, alegria e dor

Rico brinquedo de samba-enredo

Sobre medo, segredo e amor

A refavela, batuque puro

De samba duro de marfim

Marfim da costa de uma Nigéria

Miséria, roupa de cetim

Iá iá kiriê, kiriêm iá iá a,

Iá iá kiriê, kiriêm iá iá a,

Iá iá kiriê, kiriêm iá iá a,

Iá iá kiriê, kiriêm iá iá a,


Iá iá kiriê, kiriê, iá iá a,

Iá iá kiriê, kiriê, iá iá a,

Iá iá kiriê, kiriê, iá iá a,

Iá iá kiriê, kiriê, iá iá a,

The refavela reveals that one

Who goes down the hill and comes to enjoy

The sizzling mood

Of a scintillating town

The refavela reveals the jump that the poor black man tries to make

When he gets out

Of his hole

Into a BNH (Housing National Bank) block

The refavela, the refavela, oh!

How pretty it is, how pretty it is, oh!

The refavela reveals the paradoxical

Samba school

Brazilian by its accent

But talking an international language

The refavela reveals the step

With which walks the generation

Of the black youngster, from black Rio

Of the new dance in the hall

Iá iá kiriê, kiriêm iá iá a,

Iá iá kiriê, kiriêm iá iá a,

Iá iá kiriê, kiriêm iá iá a,

Iá iá kiriê, kiriêm iá iá a,

The refavela reveals the shock

Between the hell-favela and heaven

Baby blue rock

Over the head

Of a chocolate and honey people

The refavela reveals the dream

Of my soul, of my heart

Of my folks, only mine

Preta, Maria José, João

The refavela, the refavela, oh! how pretty it is, how pretty it is,

The refavela Allegory, elegy, joy and pain

Rich toy of a samba plot

About fear, secrecy and love

The refavela, pure drumming

Of samba hard as ivory

Ivory from the coast of a Nigeria

Misery, satin clothes

Iá iá kiriê, kiriêm iá iá a,

Iá iá kiriê, kiriêm iá iá a,

Iá iá kiriê, kiriêm iá iá a,

Iá iá kiriê, kiriêm iá iá a,

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Jeffrey Sachs, director of the United Nation’s Project of the Millenium, affirmed yesterday that ...

Brazilian Army Recovers Weapons Stolen by Drug Traffickers

Brazilian Army headquarters in Rio de Janeiro (Comando Militar do Leste) reports that they ...

Brazil’s Tourism Minister Wants to Ease Visa Requirements for Americans

The Amazon is considered one of humanity’s greatest natural treasures, but tourism in the ...