How Favelas Help Themselves

The Cantagalo-Pavão-Pavãozinho favela houses around 20,000 people in Rio de Janeiro. Around one-third of Rio de Janeiro's population lives in favelas located around the city. Rachel Brammer | Ball State at the Games

The Cantagalo-Pavão-Pavãozinho favela houses around 20,000 people in Rio de Janeiro. Around one-third of Rio de Janeiro’s population lives in favelas located around the city. Rachel Brammer | Ball State at the Games

When first entering Rio, one sees beautiful, colorful buildings built into the side of the mountain. These are the dangerous homes many suggest not entering.

From , the term “favela” is derived from a type of tree which grew, centrally, in the first favela. A favela is considered the “slum” of Rio de Janeiro.

The favelas are built into the sides of the mountains surrounding Rio. The city, however, does not wish to see the favelas, so the government builds staircases, elevators and buildings to obstruct the favelas.

The favelas aren’t filled with individuals who can’t afford a good house, a car, television or WiFi; instead, a favela is filled with people who live differently than others — they get their basic necessities with more steps, longer work days, longer nights with families, yet more honor in what little possessions they have.

When visiting Rio de Janeiro, one might hear “don’t go near the favelas”, “stay away from the favela people”, or “ignore the favelas.”  When walking into a favela, the houses are a bit run-down. There is garbage on the ground, and around 15 flights of stairs are necessary to walk to the top of the mountain.

“We know a lot about the city down there, but they don’t know anything about the life up here. I think if the people in Copacabana wanted to know about up here, things would change in a positive way,” said resident Gabriel Abreu, 26. “People [in Rio] just care about favelas when the bullets arrive in their apartment.”

Abreu, in reference to “the bullets,” means violence in the city is commonly caused by those who live in a favela, specifically drug dealers and other violent individuals.

Favelas, no matter, are full of spirited and lovely families just living their lives: They have homes, small stores, cars, television, phones and Snapchat.  The people living in a favela are regular people, yet they work longer hours, harder jobs, and live in a completely different environment than those who live in downtown off of Copacabana Beach.

Abreu and Andre Luiz, 27, both believe and have seen various projects started in attempt to better the favela community. A few examples include churches, Academia Norbe Arte (boxing classes), Favela Surf Club, Dangando Para Ma Dancarçar (ballet classes), Center for New Education, and Jiu Jitsu.

Each project defines and brings together the community, giving kids something to fall in love with, all while being organized by favela residents for favela residents.

“We have projects to teach and give people life lessons,” said Luiz. “We create a lot of the cultural identity in Rio: funk, samba and more.”

A study in August 2016 from the Ukiah, California Police Department shows that keeping children and teens busy keeps them away from crime-related activities. By building projects such as those stated above, the favela community is helping younger residents stay away from crime, drugs and alcohol by having them participate in activities instead. Resident Ursula Silva also agrees with this statement.

“I have friends who have gone the wrong way with crime and have died, but here is good. We have safe friends and a place to go,” Silva said through a translator about a percussion project she is involved in.

One individual in particular had his life changed within the favela. Mister Francisco Silva was 16 when he turned to drugs and gang work. At 33, he joined a percussion social organization that changed the course of his life. He soon began teaching percussion class to children, and he became a professional in 2005 after traveling to the United States to learn how to lead a social organization correctly.

“When I started being a criminal, the life expectancy was 24 years old. Now I am 47 and have a son and two grandsons,” he explained through a translator. “Brazil has a huge diversity of rhythms, and we all can enjoy it and learn it.”

Walking up the steps of a favela community can be daunting to an outsider: A new environment, what has been deemed a ‘dangerous area’, new people, and new lifestyles are noticed immediately. Upon talking with the residents, one would come to realize these people are just like anyone else — they have jobs, families, homes and interests. Each person, in every situation, is still a person similar to those surrounding them just facing different problems. Favela people are no different.

MadelineGrosh is a Ball State University student and writer for Ball State at the Games, a group of 50 journalism students traveling from Muncie, Indiana, to Rio for the Olympic Games. Followthem at, @bsuatthegameson Twitter and Instagram, and Facebook.  

Madeline Grosh

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