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Welcome to Rocinha, America’s biggest favela

Favela is the name of Brazilian slums.
In Rio favelas crawl on the hillsides, few meters away of the houses of the riches and the fancy beaches.

Marco has a beat look and a calm tone.
Better at easing you than the four M16s of the policia militar.
No need to tell him I came early and had already gone for a stroll and a peanuts popsicle.
Favela tourism has been steady in Rio for years.
Main customers are frightned gringos who had only seen favelas on Call of Duty.
The process of pacification has begun in 2008 looking to this year’s World Cup and the 2016 Olympics here in Rio.
The goal being reconquer this pieces of vertical land controlled by drug lords.
Bope’s skulls, the elite batallion, took Rocinha over in 2011, now the UPP, the police pacifying unit, rules here and in a bunch of other favelas around the city.
The process has brought even more violence and death into the favelas, as a mean of eradicating the druglords.
The process hasn’t been smooth, last case the kill of dancer DG during gunfight between police and drug traffickers in a favela near Copacabana. His death has caused further riots and protests few weeks away from the beginning of the world cup.
But in the pacifyed favelas you can even step out of the armoured pick up trucks of the organized tours and see the animals from close.


With Marco is more of a walk with a mate and as usual we are palest and tallest. He high-fives the kids and salutes the ladies by name and makes you feel home.


He is a volunteer for ‘il sorriso dei miei bimbi’ (my kids’ smile) an organization comparable to an ONG which has been operatin in Rocinha since 2002, led by Barbara Olivi.


It promotes four programs of education and social integration:
– primary school for kids from two to six;
– mentoring for problematic youngsters;
– alphabetization classes open to all ages;
– assistance to the poorest family and street kids.
‘Il sorriso dei miei bimbi’ targets to the every age in favela, where the life expectation is 52 years and malnourishment and diseases like leptospirosis still strike.
Estrada da Gavea is Rocinha’s spine. It climbs up the steep hill, tiny shops with painted signs on one side.Traffic is frantic and on the top you can see Ipanema and the lagoon.


From there the tiny streets unravel through the hills.
Lights doesn’t filter through the labyrinth of stairs and discharges.
You have to watch for electric cables and dribble dogshit.
Then suddenly the walls open on someones terrace you can catch some air. The light blinds you for a second but then you realize life is a struggle but they do have the best views here.
The trees grasping on the black rocks washed by the very blue ocean.


Great views but no sewage system in favelas, the drains are an open playground for rats.


Every father, when available, is carpenter, plumber and electrician of his own house.
Consisting of one room around fourty square meters for the whole, usually large, family.
Someone makes the monay but they’d rather upgrade their slum here than leave their garden, called rocinha in portoguese.
Things apparently run better since the pacification.
A state of calm was drugpins’ main aim too. Less crimes equals less curious cops around.
Today the police mantains the peace. People don’t walk around armed and the boca de fumo, where coke and weed were sold, do not exist anymore.
Movies tend to demonize favela as the beating heart of drug trafficking or romanticize it way too much.
As usual reality lies somewhere in the middle.
Cariocas, Rio’s inhabitants, do not understand how people end up here with all the beauties of the marvellous city.
But usually it is the same locals who do not feel safe using public transportation for fear of assaults.
According to 2010 census 100.000 people live in Rocinha, real number is probably twice that.
Over eleven milion people, 6% of the population, live in favelas all over Brazil
Understanding Brazil requires passing here.


Marco’s last ambitious project is ‘Garage de las letras’, favela’s first literary cafè.
Where youngsters can learn the skills of the hospitality industry, as of today one of their best chances in Rio.
Some catch waves down at São Conrado, but they dream with futbol.
I bump into Artur, walking barefoot but holding his cleats in his leap, and reminded me of myself when I used to go to sleep with my new Jordans.
Teenagers share the same fantasies even if in this side of the world you can see the bricks in the wall, the smell is acrid and makes you wonder how do they even dream here.
‘Il sorriso dei miei bimbi’ plays a fundamental role, even more important than providing instruction to these forgotten kids.
Here they teach how to live, first lesson being that there is a life beyond the favela and you can get out.
Second is not littering and another few habits we take for granted but no-one really explained here.


Favelados complain that crime has risen since the pacification process. Now that drugloards don’t rule anymore the criminals stay unpunished.
The delicate job of the UPP is to protect the population and interact with it to improve overall living conditions.
A long process that will see Rocinha’s next generation as its main character.
Graça a Deus, thanks God, as they always say here, they won’t grow with guns and drugs at open sight.

I hop on the minivan back to the glossy and predictable reality of Ipanema.
I scroll through today’s shots.
I see the white teeth of the kids.
The smile of the old men at the market, of the ladies outside the beauty salon e finally Marco’s while waving me from Niemeyer’s walking bridge.
Only background the multicoloured walls od Rocinha.


I look at sea.
I mind-travel to places where only cariocas landscape can push you.
Rio freezes you, usually on its higher grounds and makes you wonder whether it really is the most beautiful city in the world.
You think that you could live in favela, wi-fi works good and rent is dirty cheap.
I reincarnate in the literary cafe, steaming milk for a mixed audience of favelados, enchanted by the art of cappuccino.
The camera display goes-off bringing me back to my seat.
The blank screen reflects my smile.
It won’t be the last today in Rocinha.

Contacts: Marco’s blog

Short story of the term favela:
Favela is the name of a bush growing in the interior of the state of Bahia. It covered morro da favela, a hill in the northeast of Brazil where the free comunity of Canudos flourished under preacher Antonio Conselheiro.
The Portoguese crown felt threatened by the settlement and destroyed it in 1896 with one of the most gruesome military operations in the history of Brazil. Once back in Rio war veterans weren’t granted anything and had to move uphill. Their slums were called favelas.
Later in the years immigration from the northeast was common, specially in the seventies, and lots of people were employed in the big infrastructure works around Rio. Those workers ended up building their houses near their workplaces.

Surfavela (documentary);
Rio Breaks (documentary)
City of God;
Tropa de elite 1 e 2;

Do not miss:
Partying at Favela vidigal. Stay late for one of the best sunrises of your life.
Picture by Andre Mello