High up on the hills above Rio de Janeiro lie clusters of houses, all crammed in so close together it seems impossible there could be space between them.
The poorest people of Rio live in these neighborhoods, called favelas. About 25 percent of Rio’s population lives there, according to Catalytic Communities, a non-governmental organization that works to help favela residents.
Many think of favelas as the worst parts of the city. The Brazilian government struggled to tame the favelas with police forces before the Olympic Games started, and visitors were warned not to enter when they came to Rio, according to media reports.
But its residents don’t feel the favelas create a problem in the city. In fact, they’re happy with where they’re living — for the most part. They don’t like the way people treat them, but they can’t do anything about it.
“I don’t like [the perceptions] because they don’t know the truth,” said Jefferson Cardoso, a lifelong resident of the Cantagalo favela. “But I don’t care, also. I live my life.”
The cheap housing and sense of community draws people to stay in the favelas, even if they may be polluted with drug dealing, other crimes and environmental issues.
“It’s like a normal city with infrastructure, education and health problems,” said André Luiz, another lifelong resident of Cantagalo. “The city is the main problem — not the people.”
When people enter the Cantagalo favela, which sits right on the edge of Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, they see a giant elevator tower that Luiz said was built to hide the favela from the public.
The government believes the favelas are an issue that needs to be fixed, and it began a pacification program years ago to bring the communities under government and police control, according to the U.S. Overseas Security Advisory Council.
The favelas popped up around 1888, when slavery was abolished in Brazil. The former slaves had nowhere to live, so they migrated up to the hills, according to the book, “Brazil: Five Centuries of Change,” by Thomas Skidmore. The government ignored the communities for the first half of the 20th century, but in the 1940s, the government started the process of eradicating them.
But since getting rid of favelas didn’t fix the lack of housing in Rio, the favelas continued to grow, according to the book.
As the favelas grow, the government continues its attempt to make them a safer place for residents and tourists. But the pacification efforts have only led to more deaths as police use violence and guns in their efforts to lower the crime rate in the favelas.
The government believes this will help the people who live in the favelas, according to media reports, but residents aren’t so sure if it will help.
WHAT IT’S LIKE TO LIVE THERE
Although the government is working to reduce crime in favelas, residents like Luiz don’t think they cause trouble in Rio.
“A favela is not a problem; it’s a solution,” he said. “We create a lot. Cultural things are born in favelas, like funk and samba … Others think the safest place is in the city, but I feel safer [in the favela] than on the outside.”
He says this because of the mainly unspoken and unenforced rules the favela lives by. For example, they can’t rob inside the favela or in surrounding areas, Luiz said. If they do that, the police may come, and people in the favelas generally don’t get along well with the police.
There is, of course, still drug dealing, crime and poverty in the favelas. Major drug gangs control organized crime in Rio and operate mainly out of favelas, according to the U.S. Overseas Security Advisory Council.
The reputation isn’t completely unfounded, but it’s not as bad as people think, said Gabriel Abreu, another resident of Cantagalo.
“People expect the worst when they come here,” Abreu said. “They expect to see people laying on the ground begging, and they’re very surprised to see it’s not.”
Often, when Luiz takes people to his home, they always say, “Oh it’s nice, but where do you sleep?” People expect so little from their homes, but the inside looks nice, he said, even if they may not look like much from outside.
“We may have ugly houses, but on the inside, there are flat TVs, king size beds and beers in the fridge,” he said. “Most people prefer to invest on the inside, not the outside.”
Outside of the houses in the favela, sets of stairs wind through, getting narrower and steeper the farther up they go. The road there lies unfinished and doesn’t reach to most areas of the favela, so residents have to carry everything up the stairs.
The buildings stack on top of each other, built close together. Some have colorful walls, others just plain brick.
Graffiti covers most of the walls, decorating what otherwise would have been bland concrete. Little shops, restaurants and bars peek out from crevices in the stairs or are carved into the wall. They pop up suddenly, almost always with people hanging outside, grabbing a cold drink or watching sports on TV.
But alongside that, kids act as lookouts for the drug dealers, Luiz said, and residents engage in shootouts with the police. Drug dealers and gangs remain a normal part of the favela, Cardoso said.
It’s not uncommon to see someone with a gun or hear gunshots, even though it can make people inside uncomfortable at times, said 12-year-old Raquel Sousa. She doesn’t mind living in the favela, but she dreams of moving out because she wants her mom to feel safer.
“There’s too many guys with guns, and [my mom] feels nervous all of the time,” Sousa said through a translator.
But all of that doesn’t keep the favela from becoming a tight-knit family, one of Luiz’s favorite parts about his home.
In fact, 85 percent of favela residents like where they live, and 70 percent said they would continue to live there even if their income doubled, according to a 2013 study by the Data Popular Institute.
Luiz moved out of the favela to Southern Brazil for about a year. But he moved back because he missed his life in the favela so much. The houses were bigger and prettier on the outside, but the inside was bland.
“The favela is much more simple. It’s better for me,” Luiz said.
AN UNINFORMED CULTURE
To try to combat these negative images of their home, Abreu and Luiz, along with many others in Rio, have organized tours of the favela for both tourists and locals. They do about two tours a week but more during the peak tourist times. They take tourists, locals and media through the favela, explaining everything they feel the media misses in its central storyline.
“[The favela] is a must-do tour of the city,” Luiz said. “First Christ [the Redeemer], and second for me is a favela.”
Abreu said the people who live in favelas know a lot about the city — after all, that’s where many of them work — but those in the city don’t know anything about life in the favelas.
“If they were curious about what’s up here, I think life would change in a positive way,” Abreu said.
Life inside a favela is so different and misunderstood that both Abreu and Luiz said many people didn’t even know what questions to ask them when they came for tours. They ask if it’s safe, then if they can take photos.
Many have preconceptions about favelas before they even set foot inside. Luiz asks them to forget everything they know and to enter with an open and clean mind.
When Carmen Dalla Rosa first came to Brazil from Berlin, Germany, all she knew about favelas was what she learned in school. She took for granted what teachers told her and what she read in books.
“I had the idea that a favela was something really bad and people were really aggressive,” Dalla Rosa said.
But when she visited a favela in Salvador, in northern Brazil, nothing matched up with her ideas. The people were motivated to learn English, and there weren’t people lying out on the streets, begging for money.
“People here [in Brazil] have a lot of prejudice against people in favelas,” Dalla Rosa said.
Luiz knows he can’t mention where he lives in a job interview, otherwise he probably won’t get a call back. And old ladies from the lower areas of Rio still hide their purses when they see people they know who live in favelas.
People who know the least about the favelas spread the most information about it, Abreu said, which contributes to the cycle of misinformation.
“Foreigners are getting to know about favelas before the locals are,” Abreu said. “People [in the city] just care about favelas when a bullet arrives in their apartment.”
Kara Berg is a Ball State University student and writer for BSU at the Games, a group of 50 journalism students traveling from Muncie, Indiana, to Rio for the Olympic Games. Follow them at bsuatthegames.com, @bsuatthegames on Twitter and Instagram, and BSU at the Games on Facebook.
Kara Berg is a senior journalism major at Ball State University, and has been obsessed with the Olympics ever since she can remember. She was a competitive swimmer for 12 years and loves the sport more than anything.