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Revitalizing Rio de Janeiro

A view of downton Rio.

Photo: Robert Whitman

Cintia Luna, a community leader in Fogueteiro, walked me through her favela at sunset. She pointed out a half-built edifice that had been installed as a school 10 years earlier. “They paid for teachers, lunches, supplies,” she said. “But the doors were never opened. Where do you think the money went?” I asked if she was happy about the pacification. She put a hand on my arm. “Don’t say anything for a moment,” she said. We stood in silence, and then she explained, “There was never a moment when you could hear the wind like this. You’d have heard shooting, yelling all around us.” I asked if she was relieved that the gangs were gone. “This was a peaceful place for us even before the pacification. We were never afraid of the gangs, but we were afraid of the conflict between the gangs and the police. So now the people in the Zona Sul are happy not to have our gangs, and we are happy not to have as many of their corrupt police. It’s a compromise that gives us all a better quality of life.”

There have always been NGO’s trying to fix the favelas; now, people from the favelas are starting their own organizations. Luiz Carlos Dumontt and Dudu de Morro Agudo founded Enraizados, devoted to “cultural militancy”; their website gets more than 600,000 hits each month. Dudu is a rap star who teaches kids to produce music and videos as a way of keeping them from joining gangs. Enraizados artists make graffiti murals to beautify grim neighborhoods. The operation has established a “street library”: You find a book on the road, log on to the website stamped opposite the title page, and make a note of where you found it, whether you liked it, and where you’re leaving it so someone else can find it. The books circulate like this through the favelas.

Marcus Vinicius Faustini left the favelas to become an actor and theater director, but he’s now back there, helping kids to realize their dreams. I asked what his own dream was, and he said, “Democracy means that common people can invent their own way of life. For me, democracy and opportunity must be synonymous.” One of the kids I met in Batan, a pacified favela where Faustini is working, said, “I’m still afraid of my own future, what will happen after the Olympics, what will happen after the novelty wears off for these police. Because 300 meters away, the same old problems are happening, and they could come back here easily.” But I asked everyone I met in the favelas whether they wanted to move out to a “better” neighborhood, and the only ones who did were emigrants from other parts of Brazil. Those who were born in the favelas wanted to stay. Batan is in the northwestern end of town, which is to say the really ugly, poor part far from the beach; one of the kids I met there said, “If you could bottle the joy in this place, you could sell it in the Zona Sul.”

Vik Muniz has made a career out of examining these ironies; the film Waste Land shows how he befriended the garbage pickers who lived on what they could find in a vast dump outside Rio, and eventually made them partners in his art. “You meet somebody in New York, and they say, ‘What’s your name?’” he said. “And the second question is, ‘What do you do?’ In Rio, you get, ‘What’s your name? What do you like to do?’” Several people I met quoted Antonio Carlos Jobim, the musician who wrote “The Girl from Ipanema,” who once explained, “New York is great, but it’s a mess; Rio is a mess, but it’s great.”

The glamorous television star Regina Casé, the Oprah Winfrey of Brazil, received me in her extravagant mansion; she was wearing a flowing caftan, at least five pounds of jewelry, and a cosmetics counter’s worth of makeup. “I’ve been to North America and to Europe,” she said. “You have a pine woods. You have a grove of oak trees. Have you been in our Atlantic rain forest? You have a hundred kinds of trees, everything is growing on top of everything else, it’s all competing for the sun and the water, and somehow it all survives, more lush than anywhere else in the world. That’s the social structure of Rio, too. And just as our Amazon is providing the oxygen for the world, we make social oxygen here. If you don’t learn to integrate your societies the way we’ve integrated ours, you’re going to fail. In America, you have a lot of problems, a lot of injustice, a lot of conflict. You try to solve the problems.” She threw up her hands in mock horror. “In Rio, we invite all the problems to a big party and we let them dance together,” she said. “And we’re inviting the world to come here and dance, too.”

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