Into the favela Young residents see the problems, but also a good place that feels like home
AT SEA LEVEL
Daniel Silva stood in front of 20 youths on a Rio de Janeiro beach and began leading the warmup exercises. Others were already in the water, lying on bodyboards as they paddled out toward the 6-foot waves, then plunging down their steep walls into curling tunnels. One daredevil flung himself off the top lip of a wave into a helicopter spin. Another went airborne into a barrel roll, turning the bottom of his board toward the hazy morning sky.
The road behind the beach was lined with metal barricades for an Olympic bike race that afternoon. A half-mile northeast, the favela of Rocinha climbs the side of a mountain, a jumble of houses stacked like precarious piles of Legos. In Rio, a seaside metropolis of 6 million cupped by soaring mountains, the less money you have, the higher up you live. The city has more than a thousand poor neighborhoods, known as favelas. Rocinha (pronounced Ho-SEEN-yah) is the largest, with an official population of 70,000 residents, although locals say it’s well over 100,000.
This beach, named Sao Conrado, is Rocinha’s playground and refuge. Up in the favela, poverty, subpar schools and the narcotics trade create a volatile mix. Since Rio was awarded the Olympics seven years ago, security forces have killed more than 2,500 people in the city. During the first week of the Olympics, a security officer was killed when his truck made a wrong turn into one such criminal stronghold; police returned and killed two suspects.
But all is peaceful down here at sea level, where the Rocinha School of Bodyboarding is in session.
“Our lives inside the community are a little bit complicated,” said Silva’s father, known as Ley, who founded the school that has made him a local legend. “There is a lack of opportunities. But even with those difficulties, we use sports to overcome. So nothing bad happens to these kids.”
The students, ages 9 to 16, do jumping jacks, situps, pushups and stretches, then gather in a circle and hold hands to pray. “Lord, thank you for protecting all these amazing kids in this living sea,” Ley Silva said above the rumble of the waves. He finishes with the Lord’s Prayer, then blows the whistle that has become his signature. Like a flock of ducklings, the children follow Daniel and Ley Silva into the clear green waters of the Atlantic.
The elder Silva, 40, is a short, athletic man with tiny swim trunks and a love for the surfer adjective “radical.” He has been a pro bodyboarder for 25 years, and founded his nonprofit school in 2001. More than a thousand kids have come through the program, which is funded by a bodyboarding equipment store, a prep school in England, and occasionally the local government. Classes are held before and after school and on Saturday mornings. All participants are required to maintain good grades.
The sport of bodyboarding is easier than surfing because athletes lie on a short board instead of standing on a long one. At the professional level, competitors vie to perform the wildest aerial tricks and slip through the longest tunnels. But the pro sport is less popular than surfing and therefore far less lucrative, with top prizes at the half-dozen biggest events of about $5,000, and many prizes in the low hundreds.
“Nowadays our sport is in a tough moment,” said Ley Silva. “It’s really hard to live off this sport, due to the lack of sponsors and companies supporting the athletes.”
That doesn’t deter Daniel, 21. Neither do the high levels of bacteria and viruses in the water of Sao Conrado, which receives raw sewage from the neighborhood above. Daniel sees the life of competition and service that his father has created at this beach and the respect he earned by working at this serene doorstep to dangerous Rocinha. He’s determined to follow that path all the way to a bodyboarding world championship.
“That’s my dream and I’ll get there,” Daniel Silva said.
Paulo Barcellos, who won a world championship in 2000, watched Daniel Silva guide a youngster through knee-deep water. “With this school, it doesn’t matter if you’re good or not. Just finish this school, the discipline, it can help you get a job, you can be someone who works and has a family,” Barcellos said.
“It’s tough in Brazil. Most of the kids here, they live superclose to drug dealers. It’s easy to go the wrong way.”
It’s a 15-minute walk from the beach along the level streets of a middle-class neighborhood to Rocinha’s main entry point. Daniel Silva and his friend David Barbosa carry their bodyboards and flippers across a concrete footbridge, over a four-lane road, and into a dense mass of humanity.
Cars and motorcycles clog the narrow street. Apartments are stacked four and five high atop shops selling food, motorcycle parts, clothing, hair care, and every other necessity. Favela residents often add height to their structures as they are needed or affordable, creating an architecture of improvisation. Laundry hangs out of windows over the main thoroughfare, next to sprouting satellite dishes.
The young men turn off a main street, where an open sewer runs in front of storefronts, into an alley about 8 feet wide filled with pedestrians and cats. The street incline begins to increase. Overhead, a tangle of electrical wires runs from pole to pole, providing bootleg power in the absence of official utility service. It’s a cloudless day, but the sunlight barely penetrates this canyon.
Silva and Barbosa stop for water and chips at a grocery store near the intersection of an even smaller alleyway, down which one-bedroom kitchenette apartments rent for as little as 200 Brazilian reis per month, about $65. Silva, who is married with no children, lives in a similar apartment. He earns about $160 per month teaching at his father’s school, and plans to compete in several pro events this year. Barbosa, 18, lives with his mother and rides on the pro bodyboarding circuit. Last season he finished in the top 16 in one series of events, and two local companies have started to sponsor him, paying for some gear and travel.
“It all began as a hobby,” Barbosa said. “As time went by, we realized it could be a profession.”
Silva and Barbosa are proud and protective of their favela. They say they have everything they need in Rocinha, especially friends and family.
“I thank God for the life I live,” Barbosa said. “You’ve got to have money to live in the city … To live humbly, that’s the most important thing in the favela.
“Of course there’s danger, but it’s not like people think,” Barbosa said. “The favela is a place of humble, low-class people, you know? And it’s good to live here because everybody knows each other.”
Jesse Washington observes Rocinha by motorcycle
Class in Brazil is like race in America, a marker that can stifle opportunity.
Portuguese colonists arrived in the early 1500s. Brazil imported more than 4 million enslaved Africans, more than any country in the world, many of them through Rio’s port. Brazil was the last Western nation to abolish slavery, in 1888. Many ex-slaves started their lives anew by building makeshift homes in what are now the favelas.
Today, people of all races live in Rocinha – black, white, and just as many in between. Brazilians like to say there is no race here – everyone is Brazilian – because of acceptance of intermarriage, and because there were never laws to segregate black people. Brazil has dozens of adjectives to describe ethnicity and skin tone. You can see a swirling array of racial mixtures throughout Rocinha, and on the faces of Silva, who has dark skin and loosely curled black hair, and Barbosa, who looks European except for the faint tinge of brown in his skin.
Beyond the confines of the favela, no matter their color, Rocinha residents occupy the lowest rung of the social ladder. Most work in jobs that require little education – housekeepers, janitors, nannies, doormen for high-priced apartment buildings. Brazil’s best universities are free, but it’s almost impossible to pass the entrance exams without attending an expensive private secondary school.
“Since we live here in as a community, there’s no such thing as color inequality, be it black or white,” said Luis Gomes, sitting outside his tiny, two-chair barber shop next to the tiny grocery store. “But it’s a needy community, so we face prejudice from the policemen. Due to our different surviving ways and functions, they think they can treat the entire community as they please.”
Yet skin tone still matters. There are few black people in the upper reaches of government or business. If there’s a floor to be mopped or a trash can to be emptied, it’s likely to be done by a darker-skinned Brazilian. Silva said his color makes him a target for police.
“Like walking near them and they pull me over, approaching with brute force, slapping, even inside my home. And I could do nothing, even after I prove that I’m innocent, but due to skin color, they still say I’m into drug dealing,” he said.
“Just because we’re black, does it mean we’re thieves? No, we work hard to live a good life and give a good life to our families.”
In 2011, with the Olympics only a few years away, the government decided to take control of favelas that had become drug lord strongholds. Behind tanks and helicopters, Rocinha was invaded by 3,000 troops. This “pacification” strategy established police stations inside many favelas, but gunfights still frequently erupt. Police in Brazil kill far more people, most of them young black men, than in the United States. In Rio alone, according to Amnesty International, more than 100 people have been killed by police so far this year.
“The worst thing is this conflict between the police and the drug dealers. This is what haunts us and make us worry,” said Carlos Albierto, a gray-haired surfer standing outside the bodega. “Aside from that, everybody is friendly. You can come here with nothing and still get a job.
“The best thing about the favela is you can work or study during the day and have fun at night,” he said. “Run at the beach, breathe some fresh air.”
Few in Rocinha can afford tickets to the Olympics, and they have mixed feelings about the games that spurred new investment and infrastructure elsewhere in Rio.
“It’s good because it brings more jobs and a broader view of our country,” said Gomes, the barber. “But on the other side, there’s a lot of things that fell under our expectations, in health care and education. In the actual development of our community, they cover up a lot of things. It’s possible to do so much more for our people, in order to provide a better living.”
Silva and Barbosa are joined by their friend Gabriel Olivera, 16, an aspiring rapper. The trio mount the back of motorcycle taxis for a ride to the top of Rocinha. The bikes speed up a twisting road, swerving past oncoming cars and passing a large mural reading “UNITY” on a background of brightly colored geometric shapes. Around each hairpin turn, the road gets steeper. The stores thin out, replaced by trees and ramshackle dwellings, some with corrugated metal walls.
In Rio, the poorer you are, the higher you live.
ON HIGHER GROUND
The motorcycles pulled over near the peak of the favela, approximately 1,000 feet above the beach. The buildings are smaller up here. There are fewer pedestrians and cats. The sky seems bigger.
From a small roadside clearing, Daniel, David and Gabriel take in a breathtaking view of the city. To the east, atop Rio’s highest peak, the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue spreads its arms. Lush green foliage rolls down to the white high-rises of the affluent Leblon, Ipanema and Copacabana seaside neighborhoods.
From here, the jumble of Rocinha’s rickety homes and sewage-laden streets, the drug dealers and trigger-happy police – all are hidden in the embrace of the sea and the sky.
“It’s a place where you can think and have ideas,” Silva said. “And also this amazing view is a privilege for us in Rocinha, you know?”
The young men’s optimism grows in this rare air. They speak of world championships, humility, family.
Nobody says a thing about leaving.