I’ve long been a critic of favela tours, for any number of reasons, few of which are likely unique: it objectifies the poor; it is voyeuristic; it reinforces a so-called “First World”/“Third World” dichotomy that objectifies both the poor and those in “developing countries” (a term as loaded and barely better than “Third World”); it fails to connect local poverty to broader national and global issues and economics; it rarely provides tourists an opportunity to hear the voices of those who live in the favelas, instead relying on tour guides to “interpret”; and they fail to connect local poverty to broader national and global systems that allow for such poverty to exist and that often implicate and involve the tourists themselves, be it directly or indirectly.
In an attempt to perhaps placate and alleviate some of the guilt the (relatively wealthier) tourist may feel, some favela tours insist that the money made from the tours goes back into the community. However, they rarely provide any concrete data or evidence of such reinvestment, any long-term programs designed to address the fundamental socioeconomic inequalities that lead to favelas in the first place. The end result is you have a number of tourists who have likely spent thousands of dollars to travel to places like Rio de Janeiro, Cape Town, or Mumbai in order to gaze upon people who likely don’t make that much in a year. The analogy to people going to the zoo to see animals is as obvious as it is uncomfortably fair.
It was for these reasons I had always insisted on never going on a favela tour, or on any other form of poverty tourism. So how did I end up on a favela tour?
In spite of my promises, I in fact reluctantly found myself on a favela tour last week as part of a school trip. It had been planned as part of the trip, and while my objections remained, I also thought it unfair to preemptively make that decision for the 22 students who were going on the trip. If push came to shove, I’d rather the students go see the tour themselves, and come to their own conclusions. Additionally, since the trip had already been paid for, I figured I’d go; I’d been critical enough of favela tours for theoretical reasons, but perhaps going would allow me to offer a more thorough understanding of the ways such tours operate.
The short version: my general critiques still stand, but with a more detailed understanding of both the more beguiling and subtle problems of favela tours, as well as some rather grotesque examples of the overt objectification and dehumanization of the poor that makes up poverty tourism.
It was rather problematic from the very beginning. Our group was split into two vans with sometimes-differing messages (more on that later). In my van, we were accompanied by a woman who did not live in the favelas, while a favela-resident drove us around. She talked, but not once did we get to hear his voice, his account of life in the favelas. Already, others were speaking on behalf of the favela residents, and it was clear that, no matter how closely her own interpretations and narration might hew to those who live in favelas, we would never have a way of knowing it.
As we drove to the first favela (Vilas Canoas), she insisted that favela residents “are poor, but they are happy people,” that “they work hard,” that “poverty isn’t misery,” and so on. Yet within five minutes, she also said that, as the younger generations begin to get a better education and gain access to better jobs, they are leaving the favelas. It seemed rather clear in the guide’s own narrative that, however “happy” and “hard-working” they may be, the broader social stigmas, the living conditions, and the ongoing lack of basic political rights in favelas (what Brodwyn Fischer has referred to as a “poverty of rights”) was leading many to leave. Some might see in this a sign of social mobility in Brazil, but the fact remains that favelas continue to grow, reflecting ongoing and wide socioeconomic disparities in Brazil.
Additionally, the narrative in the van of favela residents’ happiness and ability to work hard struck me. I’m not sure how many tourists would think they weren’t hard-working or happy. There is probably some tendency to associate poverty with misery and lack of agency, but in general, her narrative seemed in some way not to be designed so much to address our own concerns (we had very few opportunities for questions, something I think, perhaps cynically, was not an accident). Rather than directly addressing anything I’d heard students say, she seemed to be addressing views and attitudes that I had heard Brazilians say far too frequently in my year and a half of living in Rio de Janeiro. Put another way: she wasn’t necessarily addressing our concerns, but what she thought our concerns were, based on how other Brazilians often view and talk about favelas.
As for the tour, upon arriving at Vilas Canoas, we walked through winding little pathways, no wider than 3 feet, between people’s homes. This was the first moment of direct discomfort, as we were walking past people just living their lives, able to see into many people’s homes, effectively ogling the impoverished “Other” without any chance to communicate with favela residents as people. For all of the negatives of favela tours, this was also perhaps the most “educational” element for me; it is one thing to read about the spontaneous, improvised, and close-knit space in favelas, but it is another thing to witness it. Being there, at least I was finally able to better understand favelas spatially.
In spite of a veneer of education, however, our presence did seem highly disruptive, whether we wanted it to be or not. Based on at least some residents’ faces, we were not entirely welcome there, and our tour guide confirmed this, pointing out that, while some thought the tours were good, others “do not like it,” a point that she seemed to brush off and never returned to. (In the other van, they were given a similar line, albeit delivered more aggressively, with the guide basically saying that some favela residents don’t like the tour, but too bad.) We then went to a “school,” which, while educational in function, was little more than two “classrooms,” one a small, poorly-lit room and the other, a covered alcove. This was particularly distressing, as we’d been told that the money from the favela tour went specifically to this “school”; again, there was no quantitative evidence to illustrate that, and it was hard to tell looking at the classrooms and the teaching materials exactly where the money went. Additionally, it was quite clear that we had interrupted the classroom, and one of the teachers seemed particularly annoyed as the students suddenly diverted their attention to us, performing for the tourists. We didn’t stay long, but I did not envy the teacher, who was trying unsuccessfully to restart the lesson that we had interrupted; as we left, it was clear he was going to have to further divert his lesson to try to settle down a room of about 5 now-very-energetic children.
From there, we went to Rocinha, the largest favela in Rio de Janeiro. As we drove from Vilas Canoas to Rocinha, the tour guide talked more about conditions in the favelas, why they were there, and why the problems persisted. In finding causes for the problems, she always came back to the same problem that Brazilians regularly turn to: politicians. Citing corruption and disinterest, according to her, the problems in the favelas could be traced back to politicians. Yet this again only frustrated me, for it failed to place poverty in its broader national context; with politicians the sole factors for favelas’ problems, it exculpated all other Brazilians. Politicians certainly have contributed to problems in some ways, but the ongoing social prejudice against favelas, the systemic forms of racism in Brazil, the widening gap between rich and poor during the military dictatorship, the dispossession of land and unemployment of peasants, and the effects of the “Green Revolution” all contributed to both the migration that led to favelas’ growth, and to the ongoing marginalization and “poverty of rights” that in no small part define favelas. Far too often I heard middle-class Brazilians speak in overtly racist and classist terms about the favelas; yet blaming “the politicians” for everything seemed to ignore society’s broader implicit involvement in the marginalization of the poor in urban Brazil.
In Rocinha, students got to see the hustle and bustle of the city’s largest favela – markets, people in the streets, construction workers. In other words: things that mark any part of any major city. Though my tour guide was not quite so crass, the tour guide for the other group apparently asked why students weren’t stopping and just taking pictures on a regular street in Rocinha, and this seemed to cut to the core of the problem with poverty tourism. Here we were, on a street that looked no different than any other part of the city in terms of its activity; and yet students were expected to take photos here, because it was a favela, and thus, “different.” The very nature of the tour was designed to highlight differences and to treat people living in one part of the city as something to be photographed, observed, remarked upon, over people in other parts of the city. In short: it was reifying differences and objectifying the poor without making any sincere effort to either undermine narratives of favelas as “other” or point to broader processes that may create socioeconomic inequalities.
As we drove through Rocinha, the tour guide talked about the UPPs, or Pacifying Police Units. This led to another highly problematic narrative. In discussing the rise of the drug trade in the favelas, the tour guide said that it was because “there was no government” in the favelas, that the Brazilian state had failed to consolidate its presence in favelas. This is a narrative that has a particularly limited vision of “government.” Since the late 1960s, police operated as “death squads” in the favelas, going after alleged “criminals.” By the 1980s, the violence between drug gangs and police officers grew dramatically, and even when I lived in Rio in 2006-2008, headlines regularly told of “raids” in which police went into the favelas and killed 13 “traficantes” (“traffickers”), only to later learn that the victims were elderly women at the grocery store, children going to school, or other favela residents who often had nothing to do with the drug trade. Certainly, the police, both military and civil, are arms of the government; yet according to her narrative, it was only now, with the UPPs, that the government was trying to establish itself in the favelas. In short, the “government” had been in the favelas for over 40 years, but in a militaristic sense; yet this did not register in her narrative as “government” presence. She did not make the police pure heroes, pointing out that a few had been arrested recently for working on the side for drug gangs. However, when a student in my group asked if corrupt police were prosecuted in Brazil, she simply ignored his question, remaining silent until we got off the bus. Rather than get into the unequal justice system in Brazil, the ongoing culture of impunity among police forces that dates back to the military regime’s 1979 general amnesty and before, or society’s quiet willingness to tolerate police abuses against the poor, she simply stopped talking.
After that, it was a relatively mild denouement. We went to the top of Rocinha, where we were able to enjoy two rather spectacular views of the city from a top of a mountain. The tour guide pointed out how even those in the favelas had incredible views (though I couldn’t help but wonder if they’d trade it for greater incomes or greater rights as citizens). After a little time to take in the view, our favela tour ended.
I had gone on the tour in part because I wanted to better understand the mechanisms and particulars of how favela tours operated and what metanarratives they provided, but I also wanted to see what the students saw. Afterwards, we met with students, and to their credit, even going in “blind” about the broader questions of poverty tourism, many of them clearly felt uncomfortable with it. They offered their own cogent analyses, and if anything, came away with a better understanding of the issues of poverty tourism than with the issues behind poverty in Brazil itself.
I’m aware of the question of whether there can be an “ethical” form of poverty tourism. I’m still not certain, but one thing I kept thinking throughout the favela tour was how much I wanted to hear their voices, how, rather than having an interlocutor from a middle-class neighborhood, I wanted to hear what favela residents had to say about their own experiences, their own views, their own role in society. I’m still not certain there could be an “ethical” favela tour, but having one that was begun by those who live in favelas, letting them speak, and ensuring that the money does actually go back to the favela seems like it would at least be a better alternative than the way tours such as ours operate now.
Ultimately, there is probably little here that is new to overall critiques of favelas. There may be something to be said for personally experiencing one and understanding just how those critiques play out in practice, but if anybody is wondering if they should also go, I can’t help but think: there are far better and more productive ways to address inequality in the world.
Last night marked the second and final night of the major parade of samba schools for Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro. While Portela and União da Ilha stood out for their performances on the second night, it was Salgueiro samba school, which paraded on the first night with the theme of indigenous origin stories from around the world, that took the Gold Standard for best samba overall school this year (which collectively considers the theme, song, costumes, dancing, floats, and execution of the parade overall). However, União da Ilha won the award for best storyline/theme this year, and Viradouro won the A Series on Sunday, meaning next year it can parade in the grande spectacle that takes place on Monday and Tuesday. Photos from the first night, including Salgueiro’s parade, can be found here.
And for those who think this is some random bacchanalian festival (a belief that the photos alone should demonstrate is otherwise), it’s worth noting that Portela had a change in its directory last year when it was revealed that the samba school was about US$7 million in debt. Such a figure reveals both the cost of participating on the grandest scale of Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro, and why winning is important not only for cultural pride (though that’s certainly the case), but also for economic reasons (via sponsorships, greater donations, etc.).
G.R.E.S. Mocidade – Celebrating the state of Pernambuco and its contributions to Carnaval
G.R.E.S. União da Ilha – A focus on the symbols and cultural products of childhood
G.R.E.S. Vila Isabel – A look at the cultural “DNA” of Brazil
G.R.E.S. Imperatriz Leopoldinense – A celebration and commemoration of Zico, one of Brazil’s best and most famous soccer players
G.R.E.S. Portela – The history and culture of the city of Rio de Janeiro
G.R.E.S. Unidos da Tijuca – Ayrton Senna, the renowned Brazilian racecar driver who died in a crash 20 years ago
It’s that time of year again in Brazil – Carnaval. Last night marked the first night of the major parades in Rio de Janeiro, where, beyond the stereotyped vision of women, there were remarkable floats, songs, dance, and pageantry. As in the past, below are some photos from the first night of the festivities (with the samba schools listed in the order they processed), along with the themes for each school. The photos demonstrate the richness and complexity of the design, floats, and costumes that mark Carnaval each year. [And for those who read Portuguese, you can learn more about all of the schools and here samples of their songs here.]
G.R.E.S. Império da Tijuca – The influence of African instruments in Brazil]
G.R.E.S. Grande Rio – Maricá, a coastal region in the state of Rio de Janeiro
G.R.E.S. São Clemente – Favelas and their cultural influence and creativeness
G.R.E.S. Mangueira – Popular festivals in Brazil
G.R.E.S. Salgueiro – Origin stories from a variety of cultures from around the world
G.R.E.S. Beija-Flor – José Bonifácio de Oliveira Sobrinho, a director of TV programs in Brazil
In an unusual story, rappers and hip-hop artists in Brazil are rallying in response to a law that seeks to regulate their art. Politician (and former soccer star) Romário proposed a bill that would regulate hip-hop professionals, including MCs, DJs, graffiti artists, and others, requiring them to take professional training courses in government-recognized technical schools. In response, hip-hop artists in both Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo (two of the main hubs of Brazilian hip-hop culture) have begun to meet to discuss ways to combat the law, and a group on Facebook has also formed in protest of the law.
The problems with the law are numerous. Brazilian hip-hop is inherently a cultural form of the favelas, the poorest areas of urban centers like Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Its lyrical content and production values reflect and relate the experiences of life in the favelas, where state violence, racism, and socioeconomic inequalities are tragic facts of life. By targeting just hip-hop, and not other Brazilian music forms (such as bossa nova, samba, or other styles), Romário’s law is inherently replicating prejudicial laws that disadvantage the favelas, in this case targeting both those from the favelas who produce art and the art that expresses life in the favelas itself. While Romário’s defense is that he just wants to let the “true artists” of hip-hop benefit, rather than just anybody claiming to be a hip-hop artist, there’s still the question of who gets to define authenticity among hip-hop artists; by requiring “legitimate” artists to receive governmental training, the law would attempt make the government the main legitimizing force in determining what constitutes “art” – a highly problematic proposition by any metric of artistic production or for cultural autonomy. Fortunately, Romário has accepted a group of hip-hop artists’ invitation to meet with them to discuss the law.
Hopefully, for the reasons outlined above, it will not pass, and right now at least, it’s hard to see why it would pass. Still, the fact that it exists reveals ongoing ways that favelas continued to be negatively targeted and persecuted in ways that other sectors of Brazilian society are not.
-Peru has launched its biggest exhumation ever, as it tries to find victims from the violence between the Shining Path and the Peruvian state between 1980 and 2000.
-Peru is not the only country exhuming victims of violence. In an attempt to find two missing police officers, forensic scientists in Mexico got more than they expected when their search led to the discovery of 64 bodies buried in mass graves in Jalisco and Michoacán, with the bodies showing signs of torture and indicating they are the victims of ongoing violence between cartels. In spite of the discovery, the two police officers remain missing.
-In the wake of a close election and allegations of electoral fraud, Honduras will hold a recount after thousands took to the streets in support of Xiomara Castro, who allegedly lost the election to conservative candidate Juan Orlando Hernandez (who got 37% of the total vote) and whose husband, former president Manuel Zelaya, was removed from office in a coup d’etat in 2009. The recount comes amidst outsiders’ observations allegations of chicanery and after Honduras’s electoral council was very slow to issue the data from the November 24 election, adding to suspicions of fraud.
-Rio de Janeiro governor Sérgio Cabral announced that he will leave office 9 months early after seeing his popularity plummet in the midst and wake of protests last June, when millions of Brazilians took to the streets to protest a number of causes, including political elites’ disconnect and corruption. Cabral himself became a particular target of that anger in Rio de Janeiro.
-The bad news for governors is not limited to Brazil. In Mexico, former governor of Tamaulipas Tomás Yarrington faces charges in the US of having ties to the drug cartels while he was in office during his 1999-2004 governorship.
-Costa Rica closed a probe into the 1984 bombing that killed 7 journalists and Nicaraguan Contras and wounded 20 more people, after forensics revealed that the attacker died in the late-1980s.
-Mexico’s Senate has approved electoral reform that would allow reelection and would strengthen Congressional power in the face of executive power even while approving President Enrique Peña’s efforts to increasingly privatize the state-run PEMEX oil company in Mexico.
-Francisco Flores, the former president of El Salvador for the conservative ARENA party, is under investigation for the misuse of upwards of $10 million that Taiwan donated to El Salvador during his presidency, money that apparently never made it to its intended institutional destinations.
-Finally, in Brazil, Guaraní indigenous leader Ambrosio Vilhava, whose struggle to help protect Guaraní land was documented in the 2008 film Birdwatchers, was found stabbed to death after his father-in-law allegedly killed him. While the circumstances around his death remain unclear, the fact remains that his death marks the loss of an important activist and leader in Brazilian indigenous mobilization.
In the early hours of the morning on this day twenty years ago, police in Rio de Janeiro murdered eight street children on the steps of Rio’s Candelária Cathedral in what came to be known as the Candelária Massacre.
Official violence in Brazil is nothing new – indeed, the use of brutal forms of both direct and indirect violence against the racially and socio-economically marginalized in Brazil can be traced back to slavery itself. Although Brazil abolished slavery in 1888, like the United States, it did little to address the greater political, social, and economic inequalities that left free blacks at a greater disadvantage within society more broadly, and the poor (and often racially “darker” within Brazil’s own complex matrix of race and ethnicity) faced ongoing challenges. For example, when authorities decided to renovate Rio’s downtown in the 1910s in preparation for a visit from the Belgian royal family, they forcefully displaced the poor who lived along the mountainsides in downtown, relocating them to the city’s periphery, a pattern that has continued into the twenty-first century, as hundreds of favelas now dot the city’s surroundings and mountains where upper-class high-rises cannot be built.
Even while Brazil’s poor continued to be marginalized within the cities, their numbers also grew considerably, and not just through basic population growth; between 1930 and 1980, the rural-urban populations saw a complete inversion, as Brazil shifted from a 70% rural population and only 30% urban population in 1930 to only 30% rural and 70% urban populations by 1980 (even while the total population in the country grew from around 35 million in 1930 to nearly 120 million in 1980). This growth in cities like Rio only added to the strain on the poor, as the growing numbers of rural migrants to cities were unable to find adequate-paying jobs in a glutted market and the favelas only grew. By the 1960s, as the growing urban poor faced dim prospects, neglect, and poverty, they tried to survival any way they could. Many, especially children and mothers, would beg in the streets, even while the drug trade took root in the favelas, providing means to wealth to many who otherwise were completely shut out from economic improvement in Rio de Janeiro.
Unfortunately, the inequalities facing Rio’s urban poor were not limited to economics. Police also regularly targeted poor neighborhoods, employing increasingly brutal tactics to stamp out “crime”. Already by the late-1960s, police death squads were openly operating in the favelas, killing “criminals,” often extrajudicially. Though reports of the death squads appeared in some of Brazil’s more popular magazines, the fact that the victims were poor led many in the middle- and upper-classes to turn a blind eye, blithely accepting the police’s accounts of events and disregarding conflicting reports from the favelas themselves. Indeed, in the context of the military dictatorship (which had begun in 1964), the repression in the favelas increased, and while middle-class students and parents mobilized to defend human rights for university students and “political prisoners”, they were notably silent when it came to favela residents who were labeled “criminals.” The distinction was notable – the political prisoner/criminal dichotomy created a sense that those university students and activists were unfairly persecuted, while those in the favelas legally “deserved” their fates.
By 1985, the military dictatorship had left power, and with it, political and police persecution of middle-class activists had faded away. Sadly, the same could not be said for the urban poor, as police activities and the operation of death squads and paramilitary groups continued to operate, often killing dozens of “traficantes” (dead favela residents who in death were labeled traffickers, regardless of whether or not they were tied to the drug trade or criminal activity) and arresting numerous others, creating a massive strain on Brazil’s already-overcrowded prison system. As had been the case in the 1960s, the middle- and upper-classes, along with the media, continued to accept police accounts of violence at face value, never considering the ways in which the police repression and violence that they had associated with the dictatorship had continued in the favelas. Additionally, Brazil’s 1979 amnesty, which pardoned political prisoners and state agents guilty of torture or murder alike, had further reinforced a culture of impunity, giving the police a greater sense that their actions against the poor would go unpunished (a belief that has sadly persisted well into the 2000s, in spite of some judicial attempts to rein in extrajudicial violence, attempts that have been met with more murders of officials investigating such crimes).
All of that set the stage for the events of the wee hours of the morning on July 24, 1993. Facing these socioeconomic inequalities, neglect, and even abandoned by their own families, thousands of homeless children tried to eke out an existence any way they could, begging in the streets in popular tourist districts or in the business districts where foot traffic was heavy, and finding shelter where they could. One such place was Candelária Church, in the heart of downtown Rio. The church became a popular place for street children to gather, providing some space for rest as well as a place for socializing among those who shared similar plights. Of course, being at the church did not mean that they did not face persecution; police regularly harassed them. Then, on the evening of July 23, the police arrested one youth who had taken shelter there for sniffing glue; indignant, some of the other children threw stones at the car. The police left, saying they would get them sooner or later, a threat they regularly made to the children. Around midnight, cars pulled up to the church where around 72 children were resting. The cars opened fire on the unarmed children, wounding several suddenly opening fire on the unarmed kids, leaving eight dead. The youngest was 11; the oldest was only 20.
At first, authorities did little, even while the news spread worldwide and led to international pressure for an investigation. Yvonne Bezerra de Mello, a social worker who worked with the children and the person who first arrived to help the children on the night of the 23rd/24th, tried to bring attention not just to the murders, but to the broader challenges and violence street children faced. Brazil’s slow legal system began to move, charging several police officers with the murders. Some of the survivors served as witnesses, but still faced violence for their willingness to speak out and identify their attackers; indeed, in 1995, police kidnapped 1993 survivor Wagner dos Santos, shooting him four times; though dos Santos survived this second attack, nobody was arrested for it.
Ultimately, the trial led to conviction of three police officers. In 1996, courts sentenced Nelson Oliveira dos Santos Cunha to 261 years in prison for his role in the attack; in 1998, Marucos Aurélio Dias Alcantara received a 204 year sentence; and Marcos Vinícius Borges Emanuel ultimately received a 300 year prison sentence in 2003. Yet in 2013, not a single one of them is in jail; Cunha and Alcantara have been released, and Emanuel was pardoned. Though his pardon has since been overturned and he is once again wanted, he remains free.
The survivors of the attack were nowhere near as fortunate. By 2003, just 10 years after the massacre, only around twenty of the 64 survivors was still alive; many had died violently, be it at the hands of the police, gang wars, or other ways. In perhaps one of the most tragic and highest-profile cases, in 2000, survivor Sandro do Nascimento took passengers on the Bus 174 line hostage after a robbery gone awry (events recaptured in the powerful 2002 documentary Bus 174). As Brazilian media and bystanders flooded to the scene, worsening the situation. As the scene was broadcast nationwide, Nascimento said he did not want to kill anyone, and that he was a survivor of the Candelária massacre. Around 7:00 that evening, he descended the bus with Geisa Firmo Gonçalves as a hostage. A police officer approached to apprehend Nascimento, opening fire and hitting not Nascimento, but Gonçalves; the shot immediately killed her. In the pandemonium, the crowd that had gathered, thinking Nascimento had fired, moved to lynch him. Police prevented a public lynching and took Nascimento to the back of the police car, where, before millions watching across the country, they suffocated him to death, finishing what they had failed to do to him in 1993. The officer who killed Gonçalves was acquitted; not a single officer was even charged with Nascimento’s murder, reinforcing the social inequalities in which the murder of Brazil’s poor could go unpunished.
Though Brazilians today recall the deaths of the eight killed on the night of July 23/24 1993, the broader issue of violence against the urban poor remains ignored. Indeed, Mello, the social worker who first worked with the children who were victims in 1993, estimates that there have been over 170,000 street children killed in Brazilian cities in the last thirty years, and their deaths go unpunished. And so, while we remember the eight children who died that night and the survivors who have since died in poverty (and often violently), the socioeconomic inequalities, legal weakness, and culture of impunity that defined the events of July 24, 1993, continue in Brazil even today.