“They never tell the children not to go to samba on Sunday nights,” Michele said. “Just that they better not miss school on Monday!”
She chuckled to her wife Ali. We all sat at a deep blue plastic square table, with thin plastic chairs that all bent and sloped and we perched on the sloping street in the Santa Marta favela of Rio De Janeiro, Brazil.
Ali was from Colorado and was my oldest sister’s college roommate. I had gotten her email before arriving in Brazil and she arranged a small apartment, only two doors down from her own, for me to stay. She came to Brazil with the idea to teach English for five months, but after meeting Michele and becoming the first lesbian couple to be married in Rio, she has stayed for four years.
Santa Marta was the first favela in Rio to become pacified, which means the government came into the community to stop drug rings. We had been warned not to go into favelas and that even the police couldn’t help us if something happened. A friend even told me that their friend was mugged and woke up without a kidney on the streets of Rio. The media also portrays all favelas as a hellish place, which I’m sure some were and some still are.
Michele explained pacification was both good and bad. There was still crime in favelas, like any other part of the world. At this point, there was more crime outside the favelas than inside. Overall it was much safer and peaceful to live, but they were still waiting on promised government services that were never delivered.
There is no ignoring that many of the people in favelas are living in hard conditions: poverty in prominent in Brazil, the education is corrupt and violence is still an issue. For example, a favela in Salvador only has one school for over 13,000 inhabitants of the community and is struggling to survive. The children of the favelas almost have no chance of getting into an esteemed university, forcing them to be trapped in the poverty cycle. Even at the best public secondary school in urban Salvador, only four students got into a good university. The professor I spoke to was beyond ecstatic at the high number.
Despite the issues the favelas face, there is the most incredible sense of community, which I was able to taste while in Santa Marta. The community center was the samba school and everyone gathers late Sunday night. Grandparents sip beer out of clear plastic cups as they watch the kids rhythmically shake their hips and shuffle their feet to the samba music. One seven-year-old girl with dark skin, bright eyes, long braids and a hot pink t-shirt was one of the best.
Every year the community creates their own song and samba routines, all with the musicians and dancers from their favela. They practice all year to perform and compete at Carnival against the other favelas. That night, they were deciding which songs they would keep in their repertoire for the season. There was constant discussion and lots of cheering.
I was one of maybe only two white faces in the crowd. It was impossible not to stand out, but I felt included. People smiled and laughed, took a picture of me with my hosts and tried to teach me to samba. I failed miserably at samba.
Ignoring poverty and political issues in Brazil is impossible, but it is definitely not at all the kidney-stealing ghetto everyone was trying to intimidate me with. What the favelas may lack by American standards is made up with the music and laughter that constantly fill the streets. Their culture what makes them rich.