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According to Tereza Onã, from Maré’s Memory and Identity Nucleus (NUMIM) of the NGO Redes da Maré (Maré Development Networks), another striking feature of Nova Holanda is that it is constituted by a majority black population. Aware of this, Onã formed a team of female black researchers to investigate Maré’s local memory as tied to issues of gender and race. The meetings between the researchers and long-term residents of Nova Holanda became known as “Tea with the Grandmothers.”
“Nova Holanda has a history that the rest of the city needs to know about; it is the community with the largest number of black residents in Maré. It’s no coincidence that in Nova Holanda we have such a tense relationship with the police,” says Onã, who has coordinated this oral history work for the past four years.
The documentary As Griots da Maré, directed by Diego Jesus and Tereza Onã in 2016, is one of Tea with the Grandmothers’ first outputs. The 15-minute film, which contains the narratives of female Maré residents, is available on the Olhares da Maré Film School’s (ECOM) channel.
As Griots da Maré - YouTube
“They still don’t have a clear idea about what a griot is,” observes Onã. “I call them griots, but they do not see themselves as such yet. This griot thing has to do with history, with the memory of our blackness. My dream is for them to look in the mirror and say, ‘Wow! I’m a griot!’ This is still under construction. [This work] is a way of giving visibility to them. I’m only here because they’ve been here before me. For us, black people, our ancestry is fundamental. We are in 2019 and the history of the Negro in Brazil still hasn’t been told.” Based on Law 11.645/08, the research team has been discussing memory and identity in Maré. In traditional African culture, griots are the guardians and storytellers of their communities.
On May 30, gathered at Tea with the Grandmothers during the “Abdias Nascimento, the Art of a Warrior” exhibition, held at the Maré Arts Center until June 15, the grandmothers Tereza (52), Durvalina (88), Eva Iara (59) and Maria Augusta/Aidê (95) shared their experiences.
Dona Durvalina, who features in The Griots of Maré, tells us that she was born in the neighboring state of Minas Gerais and has a large extended family in Maré: “I have five children, 16 grandchildren, 32 great-grandchildren, and six great-great-grandchildren. If I have a birthday party, just my family will be enough to fill the party,” she says, laughing. From the group of grandmothers, Dona Durvalina says she already knew Aidê: Maré “was a community where everyone talked. This is no longer possible today, but I know all my old ones.”
Maria Augusta, known by all as Aidê, is also a native of Minas Gerais state but arrived in Maré when she was 12-years old after the removal of her family from the Morro do Querosene favela. She remembers a fire that took over her house many years ago: “My dear, the house caught fire. It was really sad. I was sleeping when I heard a tchiii-tchiii sound. Then they knocked on the door: ‘Aidê! Aidê! The house is on fire!’ Girl, when I saw that, I went crazy. But thank God, it was all repaired and everything is back in its place,” recalls Dona Aidê, who started going to the Grandmas’ Tea at the invitation of her daughters. “I wouldn’t leave the house. I would only leave to go to the doctor’s and to my daughters’ house. They told me to come and I liked it.”
Eva Iara, who migrated to Maré from São João de Meriti, on the outskirts of Rio proper, shares that she has a twin brother named Adão. That morning was her first Tea with the Grandmothers: “Today is my first time and I enjoyed it. Every time she [Onã] would come by, she would invite me, but I was too shy. Then she said, ‘Leave this shyness and come.’ I liked it, I’ll come more often from now on.”
Onã, who is also a grandmother, states that “there is a history of Maré that only they know.” The meetings also carry out joint actions with the Lima Barreto Popular Library at Redes da Maré, and the Muda Maré environmental education project, including visits to the nearby Piscinão de Ramos pool and workshops: “We need to know Maré better. Those who live in Piscinão say that that they do not live in Maré. This group intends to reduce that distance.”
Besides the group of Nova Holanda residents, Tea with the Grandmothers has another nucleus in Vila do Pinheiro, also in Maré. All in all, there are 12 long-term female residents participating in the meetings: “It is not yet a project. We do not have funding, in fact, but we cannot stop the meetings,” says Onã.
The next step is to collect stories about Maré’s healers, or rezadeiras. “Tea with the Grandmothers is an embryo of this. We will create a project about the healers starting from their stories, and another about the folia de reis festivities in Maré from their stories,” says Onã. With their still unknown stories, the healers mark the narratives of several of Rio’s favelas. They are stories that come from the city’s South Zone favelas as well, from old-timers like Nega Vilma in Santa Marta, Dona Binha in Pavão-Pavãozinho and Cantagalo, Dona Alzira in Vidigal, and Dona Orosina Vieira in Morro do Timbau (Maré).
Miriane Peregrino is a researcher, community journalist, and teacher with a Master’s Degree in literature from the State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ). In 2013, she created the Literatura Comunica! (“Literature Speaks!”) literacy project, which is active in schools, community libraries, and cultural centers. Born in the interior of Rio state, she has worked in Maré since 2013.
This year saw protesters return to where the march first gathered two years ago, in an area known as the divisa (division) that marks a conflicted border territory between rival armed civil groups.
The divisa is home to both a local square known as the Peace Plaza, full of playground equipment for local kids, and a residential building filled with bullet holes. Over time, the windows of the building have shrunk in size as residents renovated for safety, including reinforcing their walls to three times the normal thickness.
This building became the location of an artistic intervention as part of the day’s acts. Members of the Maré Crew and Nata Familia groups filled and covered bullet holes, replacing chipped paint with graffiti and stencil art.
At Peace Plaza, organizers held a revitalization and gardening event, planting saplings around the square.
The day’s acts also contained a protest against the suspension of a Public Civil Action suit the Rio’s Public Defenders Office had previously filed on behalf of Maré civil society groups. The action had sought to establish requirements around police operations conducted in Maré, but was suspended by Judge Regina Lucia Chuquer de Almeida Costa Castro, who argued that “Methods for facing [organized crime] are part of the responsibilities attributed to the State Governor, his Security Secretariat, and the Police Secretariats.” Forum members considered the suspension a major step back. Pedro Strozenberg, ombudsman for the Public Defenders Office of the State of Rio de Janeiro, remarked that the Defenders Office is preparing to appeal the decision.
The Public Civil Action was requested by the Public Defender’s Office in 2016 following a violent police operation in Maré. The action required the police to present a plan for damage reduction during police operations (which was never completed), while also requiring the presence of ambulances during operations, the gradual installation of cameras and GPS apparatuses in police vehicles, and the adoption of a communication protocol between authorities, health posts, and schools. According to Flavinha Cândido, an educator from Maré, the Public Civil Action was “flimsy cover, but it was cover nonetheless, a minimum guarantee. When the judge suspended it, she said that the State could continue killing us, putting an end to our health.” “We are surviving here, rather than living. But Maré has a name, and that name is resistance,” she added.
The children from the Not One Less project, an educational support project at Redes da Maré designed to improve reading and writing skills, also presented, leaving their message: “patience has ended, enough violence.”
Members of the local cultural circle, Roda Cultural do P.U. (for Parque União, one of Maré’s 16 favelas), also performed. Performer Erickão said the day touched him specifically because he was born and grew up in the divisa. “The intervention that we need is cultural intervention,” he rapped.
According to the cultural circle’s other members, their collective has stopped functioning due to a lack of sound equipment. The same week of the march, the group had held a mass cleaning and revitalization event around the square where they hold their events and announced an upcoming benefit event to raise money for new equipment.
Other activities included a capoeira circle, activities for kids, and a community photography exhibit.
On Saturday, June 29, Verdejar, a socio-environmental organization located along the edge of the Complexo do Alemão favelas in Rio de Janeiro’s North Zone, held an event to celebrate the environment in and of the Serra da Misericórdia (the largest patch of remaining forest in Rio’s highly populated post-industrial North Zone) with food, music, short films, and games designed to engage the senses. The day’s festivities showcased the results of Verdejar’s most recent phase of green work which began in 2014.
Some of the day’s festivities took place at the Luiz Poeta Cultural Center in Engenho da Rainha, named after the late Luiz ‘Poeta’ Euz, Verdejar’s founder. Poeta began planting trees in the 1980s and eventually reforested the surrounding area, ultimately founding Verdejar (literally, becoming green), in 1997. Since then, the group has dedicated itself to keeping the Serra da Misericórdia forested, raising ecological awareness among community members and fighting for strengthened environmental protections from the City.
The Serra da Misericórdia spans 27 neighborhoods in the North Zone and thanks to Verdejar’s efforts, was once designated to become a public urban park with hiking trails, courtyards, and bike paths for environmental education. Rio’s City Government abandoned the project in 2014, as then-Mayor Eduardo Paes, the very person who had signed off on the project four years prior, scrapped plans and pulled away millions in investment. All that is left of what would have become the Leopoldina urban park is a lone bike park spanning 2.5 acres of the area.
The Serra’s designation as an Area of Environmental Protection and Urban Recuperation (APARU) in 2000 does not preclude private quarry companies from operating in the region, and event organizers report that dynamite is often detonated less than 1,000 meters away from residents. The explosions have created dust clouds covering several neighborhoods, leading to allergies and respiratory problems within the communities. The destruction of springs and other bodies of water has also spawned a large heat island.
It was in this context of environmental degradation that, since 2014, Verdejar has sought to focus on youth participation and education in preserving the memory of the territory, showcasing photos and videos of ongoing projects. Photos taken for the exhibition ‘Olhares da Misericórdia’ a few years prior were shown as well as two short films by students, ‘Verdejantes’ and ‘Caixa Limpa,’ produced with the support of Cineserra and CIEP Federico Fellini Educational Center.
Activities took place outdoors, featuring tents dedicated to environmental awareness. One tent taught participants to fashion flowers and other decorations out of plastic bottles (above). Another (below) guided blindfolded participants on a barefoot walk over leaves and soil before having them sit to soak their feet in pools of water, all the while being fanned by a large palm leaf. By exposing participants to their natural surroundings and engaging them with the environment, event organizers hoped to rebuild a sense of belonging among the local community.
A professor from Verdejar’s Environmental Theater and Memory course ran another area, showing participants how to create small bottle necklaces with bits of rock, earth, and plant inside. For the professor, the necklaces helped keep wearers cognizant of the environment around them, “carrying a little bit of earth with you at all times.”
The day’s food and beverages, meanwhile, were produced locally. Event organizers served up a meatless menu, featuring banana bread, mango chutney and salada maluca (crazy salad, not unlike cole slaw), all spiced with a sense of environmental and cultural importance.
Cariocas were not the only ones present at this event, either—Susana Soledad Alegria Sepulveda, a Chilean tapestry artist who moved to Engenho da Rainha a few years ago, arrived in search of ideas for her own environmental projects. Sepulveda, who has lived and worked in Rio’s artistic community for several years, is currently working on a tapestry depicting the history of the Rocinha favela, located in the city’s South Zone.
Against a national backdrop of deforestation in the Amazon, recurring mine disasters, and an unrelenting trend of environmental disasters across the city of Rio de Janeiro, events like this one offer hope. Verdejar has stayed busy since the City’s abandonment of the Misericórdia project in 2014, and it shows. The legacy of Luiz Poeta lives on in Rio, encouraging all of us to move with the choreography of our natural environment in a positive way.
For the original article in Portuguese by Angelina Nunes published by Agência Pública click here for the series and here for the article. Photographs by Ana Lúcia Araújo. This is the third article in a four-part series produced through Agência Pública’s journalism grants contest focusing on hunger in Brazil in partnership with Oxfam Brasil.
“We have to get out of this condition of poverty,” says a resident who learned how to make a nutritional mix to fight hunger.
Jorgina Ferreira Vieira’s left eye is opaque gray in color. She says she lost “her eyesight from a tree branch” and then added, rather awkwardly, that “in fact,” the father of her eleven children gave her a beating in the house and she was hit very hard on the same side of her face as the injured eye. He then disappeared.
With blindness came never-ending headaches. Even so, she gets up every day to look for a way to earn a living for her family. At the age of 46, Viera has one grandchild and lives in a house in the middle of the forest of the Pedra Branca State Park, in the area of Quilombo Cafundá Astrogilda in Vargem Grande, a neighborhood in Rio’s West Zone.
The word “hunger” is never uttered. She repeats that she “had a difficult period” and had a “hard life with many difficulties.” She uses the past tense to erase the times when, in the absence of milk, she would put a little water with sugar in the baby’s bottle or, on better days, water from boiled manioc—this was meant for the older children. She has lost count of how many times she skipped meals to feed her children: “And if I have to today, I will.”
The difficult days were a repetition of her childhood with twelve brothers and an alcoholic father who would go out and leave her mother to feed the children. Without money, they would collect green papaya in the garden to make stew, and bananas to fry or cook. The vegetables that they planted replaced the meat, a luxury that their dishes never included.
The only way to arrive at Viera’s house is to climb 45 minutes up a steep dirt road full of holes and rocks where cars cannot pass. The coming and going of local residents is sometimes interrupted by horses. It is a local custom to walk around with a machete. With a laugh, a gentleman explains that it serves to frighten the little animals that can appear.
Viera lives on the top of a hill where you can hear the sounds of cock-crowing, birds, and a waterfall. It is there, after walking over stones, that one arrives at what she calls “my shack.” Out of the four rooms, two are made of bricks and the others of plywood. All are painted light green.
Through the solidarity network in which Viera lives, Pastor Paulinho helped to build her house, a Catholic church would donate a basic food basket, and from others, she would receive clothes. “I have much to be thankful for. Many helped me, cumadi.” And she apologizes, laughing, for the sudden intimacy: “Sorry, I call everyone cumadi,” a slang version of the endearing term comadre, for a female friend.
She recalls that before she had the wooden house, she lived in a house made of cloth for at least six months. It was an improvised house that consisted of wood covered with pieces of fabric. When it rained, the leaks made it impossible for the family to sleep.
Today, her children are either working or studying—except one who stopped attending school, which is why she lost her Bolsa Família welfare benefits. Under the program’s rules, if a child is out of school, the family is excluded from receiving benefits. To re-enroll, she would need to register her younger children again.
At the moment, Viera is working as a housekeeper—or in any other job that comes up—to make money. Her former boss, she says, is also unemployed. She travels the distance that separates her house from the streets of Vargem Grande by foot, carrying her shopping bags and even gas cylinders. Viera finishes her sentences with a smile, saying that today, her life is better than it was during her childhood and defining herself as “a fighter.”
In the yard, a small space is filled with cabbage, a banana tree, and a guava tree. She complains about the lack of land to keep a garden. She remembers that during her childhood, her parents and grandparents lived partly off the land. As did their neighbors—relatives and descendants of the first quilombolas. Caring for the land was part of daily life for those who lived far from the “asphalt,” or formal city. In the middle of the forest, much of the food came from what was planted. Manioc, which fed the younger children, is no longer grown. Today, time is divided between going up and down the road to look for a temporary job in a nearby neighborhood—”any gig” that enables her to put food on the table.
In the past, a vegetable garden also supported the family of Mônica Oliveira da Silva, 43. Alongside her seven siblings, she spent her childhood cooking bananas, manioc, and vegetables that were planted in the garden in the yard. Her mother, who was illiterate, stayed home with her eight children and her father did not always show up because he “drank too much.”
When she became pregnant at the age of 21, she left home and went to earn a living. She remembers that she would go hungry in order to give something to her children to eat: “[These were] hard times: lacking food at home, wanting to eat and not being able to.” Today, she has five children, each from a different father, two of whom have already passed away. One father helps with basic food baskets; the other wanted a DNA test and, as a result, is paying an allowance to his daughter. The fifth does not get in touch.
The planted fields of her childhood are no longer. She says that the animals eat everything and “people uproot whatever is planted.” She, therefore, takes her children with her to her housekeeping job to avoid leaving them home alone. There, they eat. She says with pride that her children do not beg on the street.
Her house is still under construction. Before, it was just a room and a bathroom; today there are four rooms and a balcony. One of the children sleeps in the kitchen, where there is a gas stove. Because of the difficulty in delivering the gas cylinder, she built a wood-fired oven on the porch. In order to be able to eat, she also makes use of the basic food baskets donated by the Catholic Church, where she attends catechism. Meals usually contain rice, beans, egg, and sometimes meat. She dreams of a better future for her children since her father took her out of school when she was in the third grade.
School and Its Lessons
Silva’s children attend the school at Quilombo Cafundá Astrogilda, where tutoring, crafts, and sports classes are offered. Teachers are volunteers. There is also a library that was built through donations, and a thrift store that sells clothing, shoes, and accessories priced from R$1-5 (US$0.25-1.25).
The school, opened in June 2018, is a project of Maria Lúcia Mesquita Martins, 56. Martins is the daughter of Natalina and granddaughter of Astrogilda da Rosa Ferreira Mesquita—the freed slave who, in the second half of the 19th century, sought shelter in the forest alongside her husband, Celso dos Santos Mesquita.
Astrogilda was one of the local midwives and also acted as a healer. She and her husband led, in the 1920s, a small umbanda religious center, which is no longer active. The quilombo, which was certified in 2013 by the federal Palmares Foundation, is located in the Pedra Branca massif by the neighborhood of Vargem Grande.
The school is located next to the bar and restaurant Tô na Boa, which has been operating for six years under the management of Martins’ daughter Gisele, Astrogilda’s great-granddaughter. The 33-year-old mother of four, two of whom are adopted, is also part of the quilombo’s solidarity network.
From her childhood, she remembers that the food was the result of what had been planted in the field. Plates would contain banana soup, Malabar spinach, and green papaya stew. “My grandmother used to plant. Today, everything has changed, and people have forgotten the importance of planting. Money was tight, but there were vegetables.”
Today, Gisele Mesquita Martins employs local young people and adolescents. “I see that we create opportunities. I do not want to see the younger generation get lost because they were not given a chance. Among the 23 people who work in the kitchen, in service and delivery, 90% are community members,” says Martins, who studied psychology but preferred to switch to a culinary course.
The path of education is Maria Lúcia Martins’ life project, who learned to read from her mother, dona Natalina, at home.
“We want to open a public library so that people can read books. Children receive additional tutoring in subjects in which they are struggling. But I have noticed that the main problem is literacy,” says Martins. She travels through the entire community, which consists of about 3,000 descendants of quilombolas. She worked in the Children’s Ministry, where she learned how to make “multi-mix,” a food supplement that she has distributed for free ever since leaving the ministry and starting her community work.
To make multi-mix, you need eggshell and cassava leaves, which are dried and roasted. Then you add wheat bran and mix everything together in a blender to turn it into a powder. “The multi-mix can be added to food or milk. We also sometimes mix it with the milk powder and distribute it to the mothers for the children’s porridge.”
Astrogilda’s descendants struggle for the preservation of their identity and culture. “We need to preserve our history. I say to my granddaughters: ‘Let’s plant, let’s make crafts.’ We need to get out of this condition of poverty. Sometimes, a vegetable garden helps a lot. Children need to get back in touch with nature,” says Martins.
Initiative: Vai na Web (“Get Online”) Contact: Website | FacebookInstagram | Year Founded: 2017 Community: Morro dos Prazeres (Central Rio) and Complexo do Alemão (North Zone) Mission: To promote community improvement through socially just prosperity. Public Events: Web and app-based platforms centered on education, social project financing, and activist-supporter articulation. How to Contribute: Volunteer for and donate to the organization, hire a graduate of the program, or sponsor a prospective incoming student.
Morro dos Prazeres and Complexo do Alemão exemplify the many geographic, demographic, economic, and cultural differences among Rio’s numerous favelas. Built on a 55-degree slope in the hills of Rio’s central Santa Teresa neighborhood, Morro dos Prazeres—home to approximately 10,000, according to residents—has few formal roads and is among the urbanized areas situated at the highest altitudes in Rio. Despite the neighborhood’s geographic proximity to downtown Rio, residents of Prazeres report poor access to stable employment, a scenario compounded by the area’s relatively limited local commerce and access to public transit.
Meanwhile across the city, in Rio’s North Zone, Complexo do Alemão is a complex of 17 favelas home to over 150,000 residents, according to local NGOs (in comparison with census data placing the population at 70,000). Although several prominent hills lay beneath areas of Alemão, large parts of the territory are flat. With a vibrant and diverse local economy, Alemão resembles a city within a city. Its location in Rio’s largely residential and lower-middle-class North Zone, however, places residents at a distance from many career opportunities with higher earning potential and training centers.
Working in the context of these two vastly different favelas, an ingenious and burgeoning organization has begun making an impact on the lives of hundreds of families. That organization, Vai na Web, runs nine-month-long programs that provide local youth with career-valuable skills in computer science, finance, and communications—fields that the organization has identified are lacking new professionals.
In contrast to other sectors that are seeing rising unemployment in Brazil, the demand for information technology workers is rapidly increasing, Vai na Web director João Silva explains. According to the Brazilian Association for the Promotion of Software Excellence, by 2020, the Brazilian economy will lack 400,000 programmers. Taking into consideration the precarious relationship between many of Rio’s working-class families and education and employment, Vai na Web’s courses are offered for free within the community and take only a few hours per week. This way, Vai na Web cuts the commute time and extra expenses that typically come with university attendance where such courses are offered.
The initiative not only teaches youth how to enter into the job market but also partners with businesses in need of skilled employees. Silva says that students are often able to find jobs with starting salaries “far higher than those of their own parents” after completing the nine-month program. According to Vai na Web’s website, upon course completion, 48% of participants return to their studies or enter university, and 55% are employed. Graduates have even found careers outside of Brazil, such as one young man who is currently working in Canada. Another graduate, Prazeres resident Evelyn Mendes, recently gave a presentation at Stanford University in California on the social impact app that she worked on as a contributing developer, Match4Action.
Silva states that “for each extra year of higher education, you can raise your salary by ten to thirteen percent.” However, Silva and his students maintain that few residents of either Morro dos Prazeres or Complexo do Alemão see this education as attainable and even fewer go on to achieve it. As a result, one of Vai na Web’s main objectives is to convince not only the youth in the program but their families and the community as a whole that the additional time spent in school is worth their while. Two years ago when the program started, first in Alemão then in Prazeres, “the people didn’t trust us,” Silva admits. This was largely because of the failures of previous social programs within the favelas “that promised many things but yielded very little.” Many families did not see the value in sending their kids to learn programming and other computer-based skills. “One of the kids, his mother, she didn’t believe that someone could make a living sitting in front of a computer all day,” Silva says.
Nowadays, however, word has spread and at the start of each semester, hundreds apply for the few dozen class seats available at each of the sites. Talented and driven youth from all over the city have begun to take interest in the program as well. While conscious of the need to continue to support the local community, Vai na Web has begun to bring in students from other favelas as well. One student studying at the Prazeres site lives in Bangu, located 40 kilometers away in Rio’s West Zone. To arrive at class on time, she must leave home four hours before class starts. The program typically takes in youth ages 16 to 29, but for the right candidates, exceptions are made. “One of our ‘youths’ is in their 40s,” says Silva, “and next semester we will have a student who is only 13.”
Although Vai na Web’s staff is small and mostly volunteer-based, less than 20 individuals in total, they are hardworking and heavily connected to other organizations located in Rio and beyond. Instituto Precisa Ser and 1sti are two of their main sources of funding. Class space and support come from Grupo PROA (Prevention Realized Through Organization and Love), in Prazeres and EDUCAP (the Democratic Space of Union, Coexistence, Learning, and Prevention) in Alemão. Though Silva himself is not a resident of either community, his professional and academic career has been wholly centered around development and advocacy for favelas, quilombos, and other communities. Silva has been working and researching in Complexo do Alemão since 2006.
When RioOnWatch visited the project, the end of Vai na Web’s semester loomed near and students in Prazeres were diligently working on their final projects. There was a feeling of pride and positivity in the classroom, students were open to sharing their experience with the initiative, and their goals for the future. “[This program] has allowed me to develop personally and academically,” proclaimed one student. “I want to enter the market as a programmer. I don’t really care where, but I want to program,” said Giseal, an older student in the program. “When I entered this program after high school, I didn’t want to go to college,” another student, Juliana, admits. But here, everything changed. “Now, I—and really, everyone here—have the chance to attend [college] at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation (FGV) on a 100% scholarship.”
The sentiment was similar in Complexo do Alemão, where the program is run at a larger site with a larger student body. Several alumni of the program were also present during the visit and were eager to discuss how the Vai na Web program has influenced their lives. Vitor, an alumnus who has returned to help teach programming, was emphatic: “Vai na Web literally brought new horizons [to my life].” Many students agreed. “I learned much more than I could have hoped!” proclaimed one of the youngest students in the class, reflecting on the program. “Vai na Web started everything [for me],” said Ana Luiza, a graduate from the program who, after completing an internship, is now working in computer science for a company in São Paulo.
Dealing with the various pressures that come with living in these communities can make completing assignments and learning challenging. Just finishing this semester was a challenge in both communities. In Prazeres, power lines were destroyed by the heavy rains in early April, sending staff and students scrambling to find a way to power their technology-heavy classes. In Alemão, it was unsafe to have students come to class for over forty consecutive days because of heightened gun violence between traffickers and police. The neighborhood saw 103 reported shootouts registered by monitoring body Fogo Cruzado in the first 100 days of 2019, the highest level of any neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro.
Silva’s view is that Vai na Web “doesn’t spend money on [charitable] social projects. [The program] invests in the transformation of youth in Rio’s favelas.” He explains that “when you raise up a community, you create a sort of wealth,” says Silva. This is not monetary wealth, but a socially just form of prosperity that comes only from the development of education, culture, health, and sustainability. Ultimately, Vai na Web aims to change entire communities by transforming youth into skilled professionals. The program may only reach a portion of the community, but “if you can impact five percent of the community, you impact the whole community,” explains Silva.
On Sunday, June 30, the third edition of the Maré Cheia Slam poetry battle took place at the Parque União Skate Park in the Complexo da Maré favelas, in Rio’s North Zone. Sillas Alves Nascimento, a resident of nearby Nova Holanda known in the local rap community as SL MC, was the first to arrive and sign up for the afternoon battle. “I always wanted to do slam because the lyrics are the most important,” Sillas said. “In rap, people also pay attention to the lyrics, but it’s more about finding the right beat.”
Little by little, crowds began to arrive, filling the square’s benches. Karoline Rodrigues, a resident of Vila do João, another of Maré’s favelas, said that it was her first time at the skate park and was the second slam competition that she had attended in Maré: “I always go to the Slam das Minas [women’s poetry slam]. I really like it. Then, when I saw this initiative here in Maré, I said to myself: ‘I have to go, I have to go!'” Rodrigues recalled that a work meeting had kept her from watching the first Maré Cheia Slam in March, held in Nova Holanda, but she caught the second edition held in nearby Vila do Pinheiro in April. “Usually, events happen in Nova Holanda, but in Pinheiro there isn’t anything. I said, ‘We really have to occupy this space,'” Rodrigues remembers. “So I think this idea of bringing the slam to the rest of Maré is really cool,” she said.
The event logo created by Matheus de Araújo, a poet and the slam’s organizer, shows a map of the favelas that make up Maré. “I tried to find something representative of all of [Maré’s] 140,000 residents,” said Araújo. “I first thought about stilt houses, since that’s how Maré started out. But I wanted something more current. Then I got the idea of the map of Maré because it’s really emblematic. Maré is a strategic point in the city of Rio—whoever comes in or out [of Rio] has to pass by Maré.”
Also on the day’s agenda was the launch of the newspaper Literatura Comunica! (“Literature Communicates!”) in celebration of the project’s six-year anniversary. The literary newspaper highlights reading groups organized around the work of writer Carolina de Jesus, compiling articles and testimonials, most of them authored by residents of Maré, Cerro Corá (in the South Zone) and Vila Autódromo (in the West Zone) who participated in activities related to the project.
Gabrielle Alves, a resident of Vila do Pinheiro, wrote the article “Education and Racism in the Work of Carolina Maria de Jesus,” featured in the newspaper’s first edition: “This was my first [published] article. So when I started, it was a huge challenge, a real battle, because I’m not used to this. I had written this text two years ago and when I read it again to publish, I felt like I could have done it in another way. I found it interesting because I had thought that I hadn’t evolved, that I hadn’t changed much. But at that moment, I realized that I really had evolved. I was able to take on other kinds of perceptions and to express myself in a way that I wasn’t able to before,” Alves recalls. “So, I wrote it a second time and felt more prepared when it came to constructing the text. The harmony that I had with Carolina de Jesus’ book helped. I think it was simpler, easier, because her language inspires our language as well.”
Gabriel da Matta, a teacher from the Machado de Assis pré-vestibular college entrance exam preparatory course in Morro da Providência, in Rio’s Port Region, told of his experience organizing reading groups with two other teachers in occupied schools in Rio in 2016: “Looking back at the pictures and remembering the events that happened, the schools where we worked… in Rio, Niterói, and São Gonçalo [in Greater Rio]… Even if it wasn’t a long time ago, it was a memory exercise too, it was really interesting.”
After the distribution of the newspaper, Maré Cheia slam masters Araújo and Rejane Barcelos introduced the competitors of the third edition: SL MC and Profeta MC, both of whom are Maré residents. At the first edition of Maré Cheia, poet Valentine from Duque de Caxias in the Baixada Fluminense won. At the second, Dudu Neves from City of God in the West Zone took the crown.
“Searching for peace, breaking barriers, MARÉ CHEIA SLAM!” Rejane Barcelos chanted with the crowd.
The winner of the third battle was SL MC, who won the poetry book Maré Cheia by Araújo as an award, as well as a place in the Maré Cheia finals to be held in September at the Herbert Vianna Municipal Cultural Center in Maré. The winner of this final battle will serve as Maré Cheia’s nominee for Rio de Janeiro’s state poetry competition, Slam RJ.
In Rio de Janeiro, slam competitions began in 2013 and gained traction in 2014 when the Literary Festival of the Urban Periphery (FLUP) organized the first edition of the Rio Poetry slam under the curation of Roberta Estrela D’Alva. In 2008, after an exchange trip to the United States, where she got to know the poetry battles called “slams,” D’Alva started the first slam in Brazil, called ZAP! (Zona Autônoma da Palavra, or “Autonomous Words Zone”) in São Paulo’s Pompeia neighborhood. From then on, poetry slams began catching on around the country. This form of literary competition was created by Marc Smith in a white working-class Chicago neighborhood, as Roberta D’Alva recounts in the 2017 documentary Slam: Voz de Levante (“Slam: The Voice of Uprising”).
Maré jumped into the slam circuit on March 24, 2019 thanks to the work of Araújo, a Maré local: “I came up with the idea, but I don’t do it alone. There’s also Thais Ayomine, Isadora Gran, and Rejane Camelô, as well as Patrick Mendes, who has been taking pictures for us at every edition.”
The Rainha do Verso (“Verse Queen”) Rejane Barcelos was born in Itaperuna, in the interior of Rio state, and has been living for a year and a half in Vila do Pinheiro. Barcelos traces her poetry roots back to when she learned to read and write. She contributed to the Brutas Flores (“Raw Flowers”) anthology and has launched several “zines,” including Reza Forte (Pray Hard), which will launch at the Paraty International Literary Festival (FLIP) this year. “I’m a black woman. So, a black woman can’t dedicate herself to only one thing. I do many things: I’m a cleaner, I’m a street vendor, I study Arabic as an undergraduate student at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), and anything else that comes up. I like to dive too,” said Barcelos, who is also one of the organizers of the Maré Cheia Slam.
Barcelos also announced a street poetry course, a workshop based on the slam method. The course is now open for registration and will take place at the Maré Women’s Reference Center (CRMM) in Vila do João twice a week. Registration occurs directly at the CRMM or personally with Barcelos via social media.
Araújo, raised in Maré’s Rubens Vaz favela, also studies literature at UFRJ but says that his relationship with literature began long before college—from the street, from literary soirees, and from slams. In 2016, he participated in FLUPP Pensa (“FLUP Thinks”), a six-month program in which writers visited public schools to provide workshops for favela youth leading up to the festival, and in January 2018 published his first poetry book, Maré Cheia, at the Maré Arts Center (CAM). “It had everything to do with the process of learning about myself, about social and racial issues,” he said. “I launched my book at CAM, here in Maré, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. This is where I was born and this is what I talk about every time I carry my word to [perform in] other places. It was only fair that my first steps happen here too.”
After his book launch in Maré, Araújo showcased his work in other favelas and also at the 2018 International Literary Festival in Paraty (FLIP). The book is prefaced by slammer Mel Duarte and was published by Multifoco Publishers. “Maré Cheia started as a book, but it’s charged with a concept: we must be the ‘maré cheia‘ [high tide] and overflow the banks of society. It’s a metaphorical relationship and I wanted to bring this into the slam too,” Araújo said.
The skate park also hosts the Roda Cultural do Parque União (“Parque União Cultural Circle”), which has been creating a buzz for the last two years. André Luiz Vasconcelos, one of the organizers of the Roda Cultural, also attended the Maré Cheia Slam: “For me, it is an honor to see this here in Maré,” Vasconcelos said. “I have known Matheus for a long time. We studied in the same school for awhile, and it’s an honor to see him diving into the knowledge of poetry too,” he said.
The Roda Cultural used to take place every Friday but has been suspended due to a lack of sound equipment. The group, however, is still active, promoting community initiatives on the weekends to revitalize the square. The Maré Cheia Slam also has no sound equipment and has to be realized without microphones and speakers. Anyone looking to get to know the projects better and give a hand may contact them directly via social media: Slam Maré Cheia and Roda Cultural do Parque União.
Miriane Peregrino is a researcher, community journalist, and teacher with a master’s degree in literature from the State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ). In 2013, she created the Literatura Comunica! (“Literature Speaks!”) literacy project, which is active in schools, community libraries, and cultural centers. Born in the interior of Rio state, she has worked in Maré since 2013.
Prior to 2010, residents of centrally-located Metrô-Mangueira in Rio’s inner North Zone were approached by government workers—allegedly to sign up those in need for Bolsa Família, a government conditional cash transfer program responsible for lifting millions out of poverty. Eager to receive assistance, many residents of Metrô-Mangueira “signed up, giving their personal information to the ‘social workers.'” Little did they know that this information-gathering mission was not for the purpose of registering families for the government program; rather, the sign-up process would commence the multi-year mass eviction of the community.
At this point residents began fighting for nearby relocation rather than distant displacement. Two MCMV public housing buildings initially intended for middle-income individuals that had recently been built nearby became the target. Residents’ revised resistance efforts paid off: from 2012 to 2013, 246 families moved into the housing complex called Mangueira I, and 217 were settled in the Mangueira II complex. Mangueira I and II are almost identical condominiums situated next door to one another, both at the foot of the larger Mangueira favela, famous for its carnival samba school. Meanwhile, the final 92 families were relocated to Bairro Carioca in Triagem, a lesser-quality complex located a few metro stops away, but nonetheless much more centrally-located than Cosmos or Santa Cruz. At the time, RioOnWatch was told by residents that those in Triagem had issues with their paperwork that resulted in their being the final ones settled.
Fast forward to 2019. Despite the brutal eviction process, Metrô-Mangueira still stands. Rumors that the site was going to be used to build a parking lot for the World Cup—or subsequently, an automobile park and leisure area for the Olympics—were never realized.
Meanwhile, the demolition debris left by the homes destroyed by City bulldozers were never picked up. And later demolitions were even more clumsy: breaking holes in the windows and roofs, tearing off doors, but not fully demolishing homes. As a result, there have since been three separate occupations of Metrô-Mangueira: the dilapidated houses still stand and continue to be occupied. In two cases the police removed new squatters from the community, and, though a number were evicted, the area still hosts a number of small shops.
Meanwhile, while residents of the nearby Mangueira favela walk through the area on a daily basis to reach the metro and train stations, many former residents, now in the Mangueira I and II public housing complexes, avoid the area as it serves as a daily reminder of the trauma of forced eviction.
After several years living in these public housing condominiums originally meant for a more upscale market, most residents are satisfied that Mangueira I and II are safer, have better access to public transportation, and are better connected to public services like water and electricity, than their old homes.
That said, many residents struggle to stay afloat. “People said that more and more bills would come. The bills didn’t arrive until three years after we got here. Before that, we thought that there wouldn’t be any bills. All that we had to pay were electric and gas bills and the condominium fee. The mayor told us that this is what we would pay. If you read all of the clauses [in the resettlement agreement], we are exempt from other bills—like property taxes, fire taxes, installments to pay off the apartment units. Why should we have to pay if the document that the City government gave us states that we are exempt from these bills? When a bill arrives, we become hopeless,” remarked Evalda “Val” Bezerra Alves.
Alves is describing an all too familiar phenomenon for evicted favela residents placed in public housing units. Favela residents who aren’t able to afford such bills are suddenly slammed with unexpected expenses that were not part of the resettlement agreement. This is not simply the unfortunate consequence of land regularization, however. It is broken promises—possibly never legally codified but nonetheless made at the outset—that characterize the dealings. Dealings made possible through the misuse of Brazil’s national MCMV housing policy which was supposed to assist those in desperate need of adequate housing. In the case of Metrô-Mangueira, a decades-old community with squatter’s rights claims that had resisted a brutal and drawn-out eviction, the MCMV housing was compensation for their resettlement. They had homes with rights claims and gave them up in exchange for the MCMV housing. Installments to pay off the apartments are in clear violation of this understanding.
Mangueira I and II Condominiums
The Minha Casa Minha Vida condominiums of Mangueira I and II were not originally built for the residents of Metrô-Mangueira, many of whom fall within Income Bracket 1 (earning zero to two times the monthly minimum wage—up to R$1600, or US$400 per month). Rather, the Mangueira I and II condominiums were intended for families that fall within Income Bracket 2—residents who make between R$1,600 (US$400) and R$3,275 (US$820) per month, or two to four times the monthly minimum wage. Led by residents like Alves and Madalena Aparecida de Assis—who now sits on the Mangueira II Condominium Council—the community’s resistance efforts were instrumental in guaranteeing the relocation of hundreds of families to the nearby site and this public housing that is considered better than other sites.
As a federally funded housing program, Minha Casa Minha Vida is not meant to aid in forced eviction; it is meant to help low-income people lacking adequate housing finance home ownership. The program assigns monthly payments based on the family’s income bracket. However, Metrô-Mangueira residents were supposed to be exempt from these monthly apartment installments because they already had homes, which were exchanged in effect. In short, they did not sign up for the program; it was forced on them. Nonetheless, in December 2018, residents began receiving yet another bill—this time, from Brazil’s state-owned bank, Caixa Econômica Federal. “[The bills] from Caixa started to arrive in December of last year—a bill for our apartments. You can see that the City was paying up until September, but after the City stopped paying… They sent [the bills] to us,” lamented Alves.
“We didn’t ask to leave. It was them [the government] who took us out of there. So we shouldn’t have to pay. That is what is right. They made a promise to us. After the new mayor [Marcelo Crivella] was elected, the City stopped paying,” Assis added. According to Alves and Assis, residents had been able to track the payments up until September 2018, when the City appeared to stop disbursing the funds. Alves and Assis report that they are now billed R$54 (US$13.50) and R$32 (US$8) per month, respectively, while some residents receive bills as high as R$100 (US$25) and R$200 (US$50). These amounts roughly correspond to the traditional Minha Casa Minha Vida amortization schedule (adjusted in 2014), whereby monthly installments are set to equal 5% of gross monthly incomes for families that fall within Income Bracket 1.
While this may not seem like much, it adds extra weight to the shoulders of the families in Mangueira I and II. According to Alves, she spends approximately 80% of her monthly salary on bills alone. And she knows that many residents have it worse off than her. According to Daniela Ferreira de Oliveira—an urban engineer from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) who surveyed a swath of individuals placed in Mangueira I and II and Triagem—a significant majority of those removed were women, and individuals between the ages of 26 and 39. Oliveira noted that a large portion of those evicted were young adults, and thus, individuals of working age. Of those workers interviewed, a majority had not completed the 8th grade, with 37% earning up to two times the monthly minimum wage and 53% earning between two and four times the monthly minimum wage. This puts 90% of the working residents squarely within Income Brackets 1 or 2. However, dividing total family income by the number of family members paints a more accurate picture: 49% have a per capita income between R$0-500 (US$0-125) and 39% between R$501-1000 (US$125-250).
The Impact of Evictions
While the residents evicted from Metrô-Mangueira are relatively better off than many evicted in the past decade in Rio, the aforementioned author comments: “Considering another sociospatial reality, the MCMV condominiums and all the service costs that come with them, this income ends up not being adequate enough.” Alves and Assis mirrored this sentiment and stated that specific families struggle more than others, especially in Mangueira I, which was completed first and which houses many families that had become desperate to leave Metrô-Mangueira due to the ruinous state the community had been left in. This desperation is thus both fruit of some residents’ historical situations of poverty and was exacerbated by the horrendous conditions left by the government when destroying parts of the community in an effort to push residents out.
“There are people here who don’t even have the means to survive. How are they expected to pay these bills? There are people here who receive less than one minimum wage and have children at home. They don’t even have enough money to pay for daily meals. The woman next door, for example, has three kids. Her husband works at the market selling fish. She only receives Bolsa Família. I thought that they had abandoned their apartment because the lights have been shut off. There are people who are selling their apartments for almost nothing. They are almost giving them away because they can’t pay the bills and are moving back to other favelas. I paid R$550 (US$140) last month in bills alone,” Alves reflected.
The situation points to the inefficacy of eviction as a public housing policy, especially when implemented in tandem with the federal Minha Casa Minha Vida program. It has been shown that MCMV can reproduce social inequalities and Metrô-Mangueira is an emblematic case. In an effort to “change the situation of vulnerability and offer more dignified living conditions to residents,” the government has, in effect, locked residents into a cycle in which upward mobility is nearly impossible to attain forcing many to live in poor conditions and others to move back to favelas and start anew. Without continued support or resources from the government, residents noted that their water tower, which holds water for Mangueira I and II and was donated by a partnership with the German government, is in disrepair. Residents were not trained in upkeep or management. The condominiums have solar powered water heaters as well, but the equipment relies on the expertise of outsiders instead of residents themselves.
The mayor plans to build several more MCMV condominiums in the Mangueira region in the next couple of years, some of which will house evicted individuals. Mangueira I and II arguably have some of the best outcomes when it comes to evicting residents to public housing: residents feel safer, are close to where they lived before, and have better access to public services. Nonetheless, even in nearby Triagem, an 11-year-old girl was hit by a stray bullet when fighting broke out between drug gangs and police. Other communities have experienced significantly worse situations in public housing being moved to the far West Zone—far from services, their old lives, and, in some cases, into regions controlled by vigilante off-duty police mafias called militias. Metrô-Mangueira exemplifies the difficulties faced by residents after eviction, even when authorities guarantee a “best case scenario.” The City would do well to fulfill its promises before breaking ground on new public housing in the area. As Alves described, summing up the residents’ situation: “Here, you have to work really hard. Nowadays, we cry when the bills come.”
In accordance with this growth, an example of community pré-vestibular course is the Invest Pré-Vestibular Course, founded in 1998 in Botafogo, in Rio’s South Zone, by alumni of the private Santo Ignácio High School. These alumni noticed a need among nearby favela youth for extra support to prepare for Brazil’s college entrance exam, the vestibular, and eventually, its replacement—the National High School Examination (ENEM). Over the years, nearly 250 graduates of the course have been admitted to universities, according to project manager Getúlio Fidelis.
This program is one of many free pré-vestibular programs in Rio de Janeiro that offer high-quality instruction. Beyond just the curriculum, the encouragement and support from teachers and volunteers can make a world of difference at this stage of students’ education, which can take up to a year or more.
For teacher Elis Costa, the experience has been unforgettable. “I’m eternally grateful and a huge admirer of these students, from whom I never ceased to learn. They say that I’m the teacher, but the truth is that I was the one learning from start to finish.” Costa taught literature classes at the Redes da Maré Pré-Vestibular course in the Complexo da Maré favelas, in Rio’s North Zone. According to records, the NGO has seen more than 1,000 students admitted to universities in Rio.
The courses facilitate learning, often because they share an important feature: their non-traditional format. With a focus on extracurricular activities, debates, and participatory classes, the courses stimulate interaction among participants. “I consider it a privilege to share an approach to teaching and learning in which the student and the teacher arrive at a point where the line between teaching and learning dissolves,” Costa stated.
Marcelle Lima, who studied at the Redes da Maré Pré-Vestibular course for eight months and now has a degree in public relations, passed the entrance examination and received a full scholarship through the ProUni program. Years have passed, but her memories remain. “In addition to the knowledge gained from the curriculum itself, what most surprised me was the psychological support offered there. I heard the stories of people who were able to [achieve their dreams] regardless of where they lived, and this really motivated me,” she said.
In the Morro dos Macacos favela, also in Rio’s North Zone, student Priscila Cristina, 18, dedicated herself to politics and sociology classes at the Vive Pré-Vestibular course. “In the beginning, I thought I was going to learn high school things, but I was wrong. I learned to see the world through new eyes and the teachers always believed in me. They would say that we belong at universities, that it’s our right,” she said. Priscila was accepted into the sociology program at the Fluminense Federal University (UFF) in 2019.
But upon gaining admission, students’ struggle is not over. After less than a month in office, the new Minister of Education Abraham Weintraub announced funding cuts to federal universities. However, in the midst of such uncertainty, free pré-vestibular courses continue to be an alternative for those who believe in education as an instrument of change.
Check out this list of several community-based pré-vestibular courses in Rio:
Community journalist Thaís Cavalcante was born and raised in Nova Holanda, one of Maré’s favelas. While working as a community communicator in Maré, she decided to study journalism in college and believes in the power of information to change the local reality for the better.
Introducing the final panel of the day on the topic of technologies, race, gender, and human rights in the Global South, UFF professor Andrea Medrado spoke about the e-Voices Guide for Practitioners on “Activism, Art-ivism and Digital Media to Reduce Marginalization” organized by UFF’s community-based learning Dissemina Project in partnership with e-Voices: Redressing Marginality, a network that explores how marginalized groups in Brazil, Kenya, and Syria make use of digital media to promote active citizenship and political rights. The handbook details the ways in which an international network of academics and activists focused primarily on the Global South can explore the theme of marginalization and how digital media can be used as a tool for marginalized groups to make their voices heard.
As Medrado explained, the e-Voices Guide for Practitioners draws on the experiences of activists, favela residents, and professionals who use media to combat marginalization. The guide discusses both the advantages and challenges that social media has brought to favela activists, focusing on two prominent social media groups based in Rio’s favelas: Complexo da Maré‘s Maré Vive and Complexo do Alemão‘s Coletivo Papo Reto.
Maré Vive was created in 2014 as a strategy to cover the military occupation of Maré ahead of the World Cup through the perspective of residents, using social media—primarily the group’s Facebook page—as a platform to share information and live updates on police operations in the community in order to keep residents safe. In the years that followed, Maré Vive developed into a platform where residents can also post job opportunities, accomplishments, events, and courses available to Maré residents. Similarly, Coletivo Papo Reto was created in Complexo de Alemão as a network for residents during times of crisis, originally serving to inform residents about the wellbeing of families affected by particularly devastating heavy rains in 2013 and to mobilize the community to gather and distribute food, clothing, and other basic goods to those affected. Over the years, the group developed into a broad-based network of citizen journalists and activists working to dispute mainstream media narratives, document police abuses, and share community news through the strategic use of social media.
These online media platforms have given activists, NGOs, and residents the opportunity not only to enhance connectivity within favelas on an unprecedented scale but also to connect different favelas across the city. Beyond Rio, the platforms have garnered international attention and successfully formed networks with organizations specializing in media technology and data security around the world, such as New York-based human rights organization Witness, a partner of Coletivo Papo Reto. These solidarity networks permit residents to continue their activism at a grassroots level as platforms created and managed by favela residents—guided by the principle of “for us, by us” (nós por nós, in Portuguese)—while also gaining the knowledge and resources of media and technology professionals who can help to protect activists’ personal safety.
Reflecting on the experiences of Coletivo Papo Reto and Maré Vive, the e-Voices Guide enumerates a list of lessons and strategies that have contributed to these groups’ effectiveness as community-based platforms with global reach:
Being genuinely grassroots
Local knowledge and relevance
Community media expertise
Everyday online protection
Getting into institutional politics
Likewise, the guide details the many challenges facing these activist groups, including “financial sustainability, a general mistrust of NGOs, a general mistrust of mainstream commercial media, professionalism versus authenticity, [a need for] more structure between initiatives, media regulation and competition, mistrust of the justice system, and surveillance.”
To address this challenge of connectivity among initiatives, one of the goals of the e-Voices network is to connect favela and other informal communities throughout the Global South through social media. Although there has been much activism to the end of promoting digital and face-to-face connections among favela residents within Brazil, taking these connections to the global level presents its own set of challenges. “These exchanges between countries of the Global South are truly rare. We don’t exchange, we don’t converse directly,” Medrado stated. To foster international connectivity, the e-Voices network seeks to “bring together academics, researchers, activists, professionals, and NGOs to exchange with one another.”
Another highlighted speaker at the seminar was Rio de Janeiro state representative Renata Souza, who is also a member of the e-Voices network. Souza spoke about the importance of digital media for favela residents not only to connect with activists, researchers, and promote their political and social rights, but also to assert their right to visibility. For residents of systemically neglected communities, social media can serve as an indispensable platform to make themselves visible and make their voices heard.
Souza also stressed the importance of social media and connectivity as a tool for favela residents to shape their own stories and portray themselves in ways that are beneficial to them and will help in their struggle for rights. “When people want to create their own stories, they need to be recognized—they need to be seen,” she stated.
For the original article in Portuguese by Elvira Lobato published by Agência Pública click here for the series and here for the article. Angelina Nunes and Claudia Lima contributed reporting. Photographs by Ana Lúcia Araújo. This is the first article in a four-part series produced through Agência Pública’s journalism grants contest focusing on hunger in Brazil in partnership with Oxfam Brasil.
Japeri’s mayor and City Council president are in jail, accused of involvement with the drug traffic. The municipality, which is also home to a golf course, has a homicide rate three times the state average.
The mayor was caught having telephone conversations with Breno da Silva Souza, the local leader of the drug trafficking faction Amigos dos Amigos (“Friends of Friends,” or ADA). He promised Souza—who is also in jail—to help remove police officers from the Guandu favela. In January of this year, the mayor was convicted for possession of a restricted-use firearm that was apprehended on the day of his arrest. The three-year sentence was converted into a fine and community service, but Moraes remains in prison as he was remanded into custody in the primary court case.
According to city councilor Helder Pedro Barros (Social Liberty Party–PSL), a political ally of Moraes, drug trafficking intensified in Greater Rio’s Japeri municipality starting in 2014 as a result of the deployment of Pacifying Police Units (UPPs) in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro municipality. The UPPs pushed drug trafficking factions Amigos dos Amigos, Comando Vermelho (“Red Command,” or CV), and Terceiro Comando Puro (“Third Pure Command,” or TCP) to the Baixada Fluminense, where they dispute power and territory.
Why would such a poor city attract three warring drug factions? One of the primary drivers is cargo theft, which increased in the region after the construction of the Metropolitan Arc, a highway intended to divert truck traffic from the capital. The project began in July 2014 and connects federal interstate highways to various cities in the Baixada Fluminense, including Duque de Caxias, Nova Iguaçu, Queimados, and Japeri.
In the Way of Trafficking, There Was a School
One trademark of violence is the continuous flux of students from one school to another. When a drug faction is expelled from its territory, family members and anyone who knew them disperse so as not to be killed. The new bosses move with their families and acquaintances to another area, but they are not able to maintain power for long and so they, too, are soon displaced.
The Municipal Secretary of Education did not release school dropout data, but teachers confirm that students frequently miss school in high-risk areas. The Governor Leonel Brizola Municipal School in the Guandu neighborhood—another area dominated by trafficking— had six empty classrooms in 2018, which could have accommodated 180 students in two grades.
Students drop out of school without requesting to transfer. The greatest dropout rates occur from sixth to ninth grades. According to the Secretary of Education, there was a decrease of 900 students in these grades alone in 2017 compared to the previous year.
Decreasing grade school enrollment is a national phenomenon stemming from dropping birth rates and an aging population. But in Japeri, violence exacerbates the decline: from 2013 to 2017, the number of students dropped from 25,158 to 22,159.
Courage and Abnegation
Being a teacher in Japeri requires courage and selflessness. Small successes—from maintaining the walls free of tagging to having three students among the champions of the Brazilian Public School Math Olympiad—become significant victories.
But class is interrupted when drug factions exchange fire with police or rival groups. This happens at all hours of the day, creating a tense atmosphere.
At two public schools, we found teachers who had been accosted by armed men and had their cars stolen by drug traffickers. There is a municipal preschool next to an abandoned house used by drug traffickers to torture victims, according to residents.
Drug traffickers block access to high-risk areas, meaning that public school employees can only enter schools in these areas with special authorization. “There are students who feel seduced by the drug trade, but our role is to show them that they can live longer, happier lives when they become good citizens. We seek to create projects that keep kids at the school after class. It’s better that they stay here instead of falling into the arms of traffickers out there,” said a teacher who preferred to remain anonymous.
The schools offer a snack and daily meal for students. Our reporting found that impoverished mothers ask for leftovers from these meals to feed their kids at home, and in doing so, ward off the ghost of hunger that haunts them.
Violence in Numbers
In the past four years, Japeri registered homicide rates up to three times greater than the state average. In December 2018, as state and federal governments celebrated a decline in murders across the country, Japeri saw figures far worse than the Baixada Fluminense’s average. The city closed 2018 with a homicide rate of 58 deaths per 100,000 residents, compared to 20 in the capital and 40 in the Baixada Fluminense. Only the neighboring municipality of Queimados had worse figures: 65 homicide deaths per 100,000 residents, according to data from the Rio de Janeiro Public Security Institute (ISP).
These statistics alone paint an alarming picture of Japeri, but residents’ lived experiences are even more terrifying. According to community members, murderers cut up and burn victims’ bodies to destroy evidence. In 2018, 37 people were marked missing in Japeri, a rate of 36 people per 100,000 inhabitants. In the same period, 33 residents per 100,000 of Baixada Fluminense went missing, and in the state, 28.
Another gruesome indicator is the number of deaths of on-duty police officers: four in 2016, 20 in 2017, and 47 in 2018, which corresponds to 45 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants. The rate is 14 in the Baixada Fluminense and nine in the city of Rio de Janeiro.
An Oasis of Hope
The pursuit of a future far from violence led adolescents to create makeshift clubs, from sticks and branches, and to use dog balls or even foosballs to play an unlikely sport: golf. The initiative stemmed from young Japeri residents who found work as caddies at the Gavea Golf Club in Rio’s South Zone.
Far from just carrying a 20-pound bag with at least 14 golf clubs, the caddy gives the golfer advice on how to best use the equipment. A passion for the sport led some caddies to organize their own games on a ranch in the municipality. In 2002, in an attempt to create a high-end space and attract business to a poor city, mayor Carlos Moraes—the one who is now in prison for his affiliation with drug trafficking—expropriated farmland with topography that is favorable to the sport.
To transform their dream into reality, the caddies worked together to clean the area, plant grass, and help create the Japeri Public Golf Association. Businesspeople who are fans of the sport donated equipment. The golf course stands out from its surroundings, butting up against a neighborhood with modest homes, precarious basic services, and the constant threat of drug violence.
To practice with the group, players must be enrolled in school and maintain good grades. Their families receive a bundle of household goods and the players benefit from the services of volunteer math tutors. The golf school once had 120 students, but today serves 80. According to Victoria Whyte, president of the association, partnerships with companies will allow the program to expand.
In this oasis of hope, 21-year-old Breno Domingos da Silva practices the sport. Silva has already won state championships in the amateur category, but to make it to the professional category, he would have to have a sponsor and invest in equipment that is far from reach. He is studying administration thanks to a scholarship and is his family’s greatest hope. His father, a 52-year-old painter, is unemployed—as is his 46-year-old mother. Many of the young people who passed through the golf association have not shared Silva’s same fate. Along the way, some were lost to drug trafficking.