Much has been written about the crime-infested "no-go" zones that are Brazil’s favelas. But is there nothing more to the lives of their residents? During my month-long stay in several favela communities in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, I discovered individual stories that were more nuanced and hopeful than widely believed. While poverty forces them to live in these notorious districts, the vast majority of residents want to dodge trouble, and many dream to triumph over their hardships.
Beyond its alluring reputation for samba parades, semi-naked beach beauties and football royalty, Brazil is a dangerous place. Violent death occurs at an alarming rate and too often in the favelas. Even as Rio de Janeiro reveled in the Olympic spotlight in August, the body count continued and frequently during police-gang member shootouts in favelas. Among the dead, Hélio Andrade, an elite soldier of the national security force was shot by a drug-trafficker when he and two comrades simply took a wrong turn into Vila de João, a favela in the gang-controlled Rio housing complex of Maré, not far from Maracanã Stadium, the site of the Olympic opening-closing ceremonies.
Brazil recorded 279,592 intentional killings during a five-year period from January 2011. That surpassed an estimated 256,124 war victims in Syria in the same period, according to a recent Fórum Brasileiro de Segurança Pública study.
A lot of the bloodshed occurs in favelas, which fascinated this Japanese photo-journalist, initially from afar. I wondered: how do people cope amid such seeming lawlessness? A month-long visit to Brazil gave me the chance to find out, helped by a couple of local “fixers” (guide-escort), who took me into some of the reputed “no-go” (for outsiders) communities in Rio and São Paulo.
Favelas, where millions of lower-income Brazilians make home, are densely settled, many illegally, and typically found on hilly landscapes that are remote from basic public services, hence another characteristic - stinking zones of dumped, untreated sewage. Not all are dangerous places in which to live, or merely enter but drug and alcohol abuse and the violence, including murder, can happen in any favelas.
Law-abiding citizens abound in the worst favelas but due to poor finances, if not poverty, they have no choice but to stay. Just a few days before arriving at my friend’s favela in Sao Paulo city, for a two-week stay in his home, a local family man was shot in the chest and killed by two robbers when he was paying for a delivered pizza at the gate of his home. A local journalist told me it was the tip of the iceberg of lethal violence that goes unreported by the local media unless an unusual killing method, a significant number of dead, or an important person were involved.
To inexperienced eyes, favela streets can be like a jungle full of unrecognisable venomous creatures, even in the less-notorious settlements. I received a number of whispered warnings about ordinary-looking men blended into dark corners while apparently dealing in drugs. For instance, my fixer quickly moved me on when he noticed my attention was focused on a bunch of teens amid a fog of what seemed to be scented, burning grass. “Marijuana”, he murmured. Later, the local journalist was clear about the dangerous potential, wherever: “Whether you live or die is on their hands, if they don’t like what you’re doing, you will be killed.”
Such mercilessness seemed another world away, however, during my mostly carefree month-long stay and visits to five favelas. Instead, there were countless smiles from respectful, sensitive people who managed to beat our language barrier with eye contact and gestures to offer greetings and warm welcomes into their homes. They all, who feared crime, were striving hard, however possible, to achieve long-lasting happiness for themselves and their families. There was, though, a constant sense of underlying tension that was probably due to the illicit street activities these people notice almost daily from the corners of their eyes, and make sure to dodge.
Following are the stories of some unique individuals I met in the favelas. They are tales of edgy existence, with some real suffering, but they were not without hopes and dreams.
"They can't even understand how big the world is," says 34-year old English teacher Agapto Zanelatto of his fellow favelados (favela people). “Some people don't even have the chance to go to a shopping mall.”
In his well looked-after, two-storey family home in Santo André favela, southern São Paulo, Agapto tells how “nobody here” speaks English or travels to overseas and how, in his mid-20s that motivated him to be “different” and travel to Australia to study English.
“I made a very important decision at that time. If I hadn’t gone to Australia, I would never have had the chance to become the person I am now,” says the man who remembers spending all of his teens and early 20s in the favela in a constant struggle with the “basics” of life:
“Maybe you can’t even understand what it is to not to have water to take shower; not to have electricity to watch TV; and you don't have access to a telephone. If you want to take a bus to go to downtown, you have to walk at least 40 minutes. Living here is very hard. Every place is far away from here.”
For him, Australia was “paradise.” His three-times a week waiter’s job enabled him to eat well, go to parties, pay rent, have little money for himself and study.
“Man that’s incredible. Here in Brazil it would never be possible with that job type. (In Australia) you have public services and buses; you have security, education; you have everything you need and I was treated as same as anybody else there. Here in a peripheria (periphery, another expression for favela) we are treated like the border of the society.”
However, the trip, his first to an overseas country, was only made possible by selling “everything” he had - including his car and a 90 square-meter plot of favela land bought with the shared retirement money left by his deceased father.
Now, a typical day for Apapto - also a part-time university student of neuroscience and pedagogy - is hectic throughout, beginning with his early-morning battle to work through São Paulo’s infamous traffic snarls. From early afternoon until late at night he’s in in his book-lined bedroom, tackling endless academic tasks on his laptop. In winter, he strives under a blanket because he does not own a heater.
His bookshelves hold a rich variety of subjects, gathered through the years whenever he could afford it. “You can be at home but you can travel over a book … to England, to Australia, to Europe. Probably for many (poor) people, that’s the only way.”
That would certainly apply to his neighbours who take drugs, including the females, who often get pregnant during the weekend Baile funk parties.
Sadly, Agapto saw “a lesson” in his late, alcoholic father, who retired young due to a sudden development of ear disability and would pass out all day long on a couch in their living room, which stank of cachaça – Brazil’s most-common distilled spirit and made of sugarcane juice.
“He would get high and then sleep. When he woke up, he drank again, slept a little, and woke up to drink some more,” Agapto adds. However, it was Brazil’s musical “discrimination” that ultimately caused motivated him to change his life. Samba, Baile funk and Pagode – Brazil’s proudly exported music genres – are deeply rooted in Agapto, who played them on a guitar and cavaquinho during his teen years but, he says, are not highly regarded in the domestic scene:
“We (favela people) suffer judgment … especially for Pagode. It doesn't have rich lyrics (but) when you live in a slum you don’t have the chance to know (other music). You just listen to what people around you are listening to. The places you normally go play Pagoda and (Baile) funk.” So, he switched to MPB (música popular Brasileira) – Brazilian popular music - which generally has various Brazilian musical elements and often mixed with international music genres. This brought him a new circle of music friends who introduced him to books, movies and “many things I didn’t have the chance to know before”.
Now teaching English at private primary and high schools is monthly paid 3500 Brazilian real (US$1034), which is double to four times more than a typical favela person’s monthly income, and has a blunt explanation for a Brazil’s high crime rates.
“We have a so- unfair society,” he says. “People here don't have any chance to improve their lives (but) it doesn't mean they are less. You have to give chances, equal chances to everybody.”
“Look up to great musicians... This is my motivation,” says Lucas Freitas, with an unusual air of calmness for a 16-year-old, as he shares his path to his dream.
It is a wet Wednesday night and he is talking during a break in his weekly performance at central Rio’s fancy, book-crammed Livraria Arlequim café in Praça Mauá. Shortly before, the library-like silence had been broken by the complex yet elegant piano melody produced by this young resident of Campos Eliseos, northern Rio’s poor neighbourhood who aspires to be “great”.
Lucas started only three years ago to teach himself the piano by ear and improvisation. Lessons were unaffordable. His fingers are rather flat on the white piano keys but his tone is rich and amazingly sensitive.
“He is like a horse, a wild horse that must be tamed,” says Tomas Improta, an internationally recognised Brazilian pianist who has been rated “Brazil’s best” by Jornal da Música. Tomas has been giving Lucas free weekly lessons for months and likens it to starting a language with the alphabet, then words, and finally to creating literature. “He has such a great talent. This is the most important,” says Tomas.
Lucas says it all began at his neighbourhood church chorus, when he felt at ease and a “great will and connection” with music, which soothed the void left by his beloved mother’s death to strokes and heart attack three years earlier.
“My mother was a very special person to me. She always did her best to provide us with the best of everything. It was very hard but the music nestled me. When I play, I want to make people feel what I was feeling at that time.”
Lucas spends his weekends performing his pianica at Mauá square, near the café. It requires a five-hour return journey on buses and trains and his performances bring him 50 to 100 Real (US$15-30) per week. He ignores advice that he could earn much more by becoming a professional, such as an engineer or a doctor.
He prefers his musical dreams. One is to perform at “Blue Note Tokyo” – Japan’s famous high-end jazz venue and he believes it’s attainable, saying: “I’ve always looked up to other musicians because many of them led a hard life and achieved a better place. If they could do, why wouldn’t I get there, too?”
It is a crispy, windy night. On a dark, gravel path outside a local bar of São Bernardo favela in Sao Paulo, 28-year old Ednailton Pereira does his best to perform Capoeira, a martial art that combines with dance, music and acrobatic elements. It is one of Brazil’s most- exported cultures to the world.
While growing up in Bahia, the nation’s northeast state, Ednailton began capoeira training at age 12, only to quit after two years. “I realised that I needed to work, support my family… My father sometimes left home, disappeared, and I needed to get food to bring home,” he explains.The young teen did “everything” from growing onions, to selling ice-cream and bread, to being a drayman (a person who delivers beer for a brewery) and bricklayer’s assistant.
He says a purple-belt Capoeira fighter earns only a small amount of money, but those on lower levels gets nothing: “If you have to support your family… a weak family…Then, (you’re) stuck… You’ve got to work; there is no way.”
From the age of 16, Valdinei Cruz spent two decades swilling homemade cachaça, the sugarcane-based spirit. “I had nothing to do, so, (my life) was cachaça. What can I do?” he asks. Now aged 50, the Santo André favela bricklayer admits he “didn’t build anything” during life as he sometimes turned up to work, while at other times he vanished for days.
Eventually suffering convulsions, Valdinei was taken to a hospital emergency department, where he spent the next five days in bed, with the constant presence of his sister, who finally persuaded him into rehabilitation.
He was unexpectedly pleased with the outcome and recalls thinking, “Man, I’m done with cachaça. “I had a desire... But I’m not gonna drink this bitch … The best thing in my life was to stop drinking.” Then he adds, with a giggle, “It was only when I quit that I found my wife, got married and got this boy who is here by my side.”
Meanwhile, in her humble mini-deli atop Vidigal favela, which overlooks Rio’s Leblon and Ipanema beaches, 52-year old mother of five, Vida Rodrigues, bemoans a “whole system,” that gives no job opportunities top ex-criminals. Vida – which means “life” in Portuguese – tells how in order to protect the rest of the family, she used to off the “many” (drug) debts” of her cocaine and marijuana-addicted eldest son, Jimmy, now 30.
The former addict was twice locked up in jail, totalling 10 years, for robbing and mugging people at gunpoint and for stealing cars to afford drugs.
“It’s expensive. It (less than a gram worth cocaine) costs 50 Real (US$15),” she says.
Jimmy is now a “clean” family man and hard-working bricklayer with his own business but Vida says no door opened for him since finishing with jail and opening his own business was easier than looking for work. “Everyone in the (favela) community fears drug violence to return,” says Vida, who suspects the government had paid much-less attention to national security since the end of the 2016 Rio Olympic Games: “Due to (corruption), the country is bankrupt... Rio de Janeiro is bankrupt ... I just don’t know if the government would continue to budget for it.”
No favela bricklayer has health or life insurance. Nor do they bother wearing helmets when hanging onto the tip of favela buildings. “But that’s normal,” shrugs Vida, of the common job option in favelas that is also highly fatal.
And so it was when, on a slapping cold morning after a brief rain shower, that Valdinei Cruz and his assistant bricklayer start their day precariously atop a three-story building under construction in Santo André favela. With streaks of bright sunlight cutting through thick, drifting clouds, they fearlessly began detaching wooden boards that had defined the sharp edges of a concrete pour.
Transfixed on their efforts, while scurrying towards them through rooftop puddles, this writer almost trips over some iron frames sticking out of the concrete and came close to falling into a gap that would meant a long fall to certain death. Saved only by luck, I am reduced to a state of sweaty fright.
Valdinei later says his assistant, Marco, once had a similar experience, when he fortunately stumbled over some wood pieces he was supposed to have cleaned up.
Valdinei also confesses he has no plan for his family in the case of his work-related injury, or death.
“Oh man! I don’t even know how to answer,” he says. “I think about it every day…This is what I’m going to leave for them, look (pointing at his house and an empty property next).”
A decade ago, in Santo André favela, one slip changed forever the life of now 49-year-old Altair Roque. The former bricklayer was unusually working alone after giving some pocket money to his young assistant, his eldest son Junior, to attend a movie. Later, Altair was working on the roof of a client’s two-story home when his wife Cícera, now 46, saw him fall straight to the concrete ground.
“The bones of his arm were sticking out,” she recalls, at the jail bar-like gate of their home. “He was not breathing, so I started to shout, and then people began calling a samu (ambulance).”
The samu took 45 minutes to arrive because the complex favela streets are often non-locatable by GPS. Cícera explains an unconscious Altair was bleeding from his nose and ears, and his head had swelled and “turned black” due to internal bleeding. He was later found to have six broken ribs and a pierced lung. Cícera says he was not breathing and “like a broken egg.”
“Actually, he was dead if I hadn’t had the idea of slapping (on his back), because that was how his blood was released from his nose”,” she explained, in her calm, matter-of-fact tone of voice.
“He was coming back little by little. So I held him on the ground, the most I could until the samu came, but he didn’t (want to) stay there anymore. He wanted to go away.. I was shouting. I couldn’t let him go.”
After two-month of intensive care in Santa Casa hospital, Altair finally awoke but remembering nothing and no-one except his ex-wife and eldest son, Junior, from the previous marriage that ended 10 years before. To the once 76 kg man who had also shrunk to 36kg, “I wasn’t his wife ...” says Cícera.
His memories took “a long time” to recover, but never fully. He now loses his memory several times a day; so often completely forgetting the fire he has started and thus, burning a number of frying pans. Every day, when on the way to his daily social-worker visit, he asks the same question: where is his family taking him?
“We are together 24/7... Wherever I go, he goes... Unless, the children are home... he can’t stay alone,” says Cícera, who tells how, in his tremendous frustration, Altair is frequently aggressive.
“He throws whatever he has in hands…but I don’t let him touch anybody,” she says, of the daily dramas, while adding that Junior, now 16, will hold him tight, while a frown from his 10-year old daughter, Larissa “is enough for him to stop”.
However, despite their decade-long battles, the family bond has grown stronger, with Altair and Larissa now “really attached” and “always together.” But life is far from easy.
Disabled since the accident, Altair receives a government benefit equal to only the minimum monthly wage, but Cícera brings home the valuable earnings from her seamstress business and home pub which she opens a few times a week.
The blood clot left in the front of Altair’s head has potential to grow and cause a fatal stroke but an operation to remove it would risk paralysing his entire muscle as well as damaging his vision and hearing.
“We are hoping the clot won’t get bigger, but if it does, we need to force the other option,” Cícera says.
Altair, who was quiet during the interview, due to not remembering most parts, concluded: “I value life much more now. My life now is much worthy, as long as He (God) wants me to stay.”
Some people are willing to move – often from necessity - from favela to favela in the hope of a better life. Among them is Luciano Silva, 37, who moved to Santo André favela a couple of years ago from Pernambuco, Brazil’s northeast region.
A slender man whose body nonetheless strains against tight-fitting feminine clothes, he has neatly tied-up dark hair and a bright, rosy scarf wrapped around his neck when I first see him on a ragged favela road under a harsh midday sun. Soon after, he instantly agrees, with a big smile, to take part in a photo shoot and we follow by car as he walks to his tiny, one-bedroom home in an under-developed, muddy surfaced area of the favela.
There, still smiling but patiently so, he recalls a previous run of bitter, hurtful experience. “It’s everywhere, prejudice…being called viado (faggot),” (People calling) ‘There comes a gay, There comes a fucking faggot’,” says Luciano, who defines himself as a transvestite.
Brazil, seemingly a sexually free-spirited country, has been one of the world’s deadliest places for gay people for many years. In July 2016, Human Rights Campaign recorded 326 deaths in attacks on LGBTQ people in 2014, with transgender women and transvestites the most targeted, many of whom were brutally killed in stoning, suffocation and hit-and-run attacks.
Meanwhile, Santo André favela has been “a wonderful place” for Luciano, who says he has faced no discrimination or abuse and has enjoyed knowing “many irregular boyfriends” and homosexuals who “are not coming out of closet yet.”
“Oh…I adore my life, I love my life… I adore my life.” He gushes, while posing for the camera.
When nightfall makes a chill and icy wind, São Bernardo favela assumes a dim glow from the low-level electric lighting being turned on in a myriad of dwellings. There is a mass candlelight effect, and I feel suddenly nostalgic.
About this time, laughter emits from a tiny, open and humble hilltop pub where locals warm themselves with cachaça spirits as snooker games begin on an only pool table. The capoeira dance man, Ednailton Pereira, taps away an ancient, automated gaming machine as two bricklayers who have sweated all day on a renovation site, arrive with beaming smiles in their bright-colour collared shirts.
The pub owner, José Antonio Gomes, 48, is a wise man who acts like everyone’s father and busily cooks free sausage snacks for all-comers while his 16-year old son handles the bar. A former radio DJ in São Paulo, Antonio moved to this favela decades ago and has no regrets. “It’s a good place,” he says. “It’s respected by the people around here. We work and try to protect (our community). I know many responsible and hard-working people who are supporting their families.”
Ednailton, the capoeira man , was adopted by Jose when he landed in this favela a few years ago after he had searched from favela to favela for “better opportunities”.
“This favela is everything to me.
"Oh boy! I’m in love with this place," say Ednailton. "The simplicity of people touches our hearts, makes us stronger to fight and go ahead. When I was a child my teacher asked me what I wanted to become when I grew up. I said I want to be happy. I haven’t found the happiness I pictured but I'm gonna get there because I’m a fighter.”