Living in Brazil I am enjoying the culture, commenting on the differences, celebrating local expressions and inviting others to enjoy all Brazil has to offer.
Saturday, October 16, 2010
Favela Tours in Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro
Our friend Zezinho
This topic often draws a polarized conversation among those who want to go on a tour or have gone on a tour and loved it vs. those who find the very idea of a “poverty” tour offensive and would never go on one.
Recently I have had a bit of a change of heart on the subject. For the past 10 years, since I first started coming to Brazil, I have been an ardent opponent of favela tours. I’m a regular poster at some travel boards and have expressed my opinion as such repeatedly there. But then I met Zezinho in Rocinha.
Zezinho, as many of you know, runs his own favela tour (more like a social experience) operation in Rocinha, where he was born and raised. I reached out to him because I want to organize an effort to support the community in some simple way. But to do that effectively I would need to meet people active in a community program and evaluate how I might be of service.
So I asked Zezinho to meet with me and talk about with which programs it might be worth partnering. Naturally, the first bit of our conversation was about the controversy surrounding favela tours. I have long held that poverty tourism is offensive and frankly speaks poorly of those who wish to visit the poor and take pictures of their “other-ness.”
Zezinho could not agree more with this assessment. But as a life-long resident of Rochinha (with a brief break during which he lived in the United Sates) he also knows first hand how it feels to be an invisible resident of Rio and one onto which shallow and ignorant stereotypes are projected by the media, local citizens and tourists alike. All of Rocinha is not miserable and certainly all of the residents are not violent criminals. Every day is not a struggle to avoid flying bullets.
When you walk with Zezinho through his neighborhood and others within Rocinha (it is a community of more than 54,000 homes and 300,000 residents) it is all about mutual respect. He is quick to lay down ground rules about picture taking, some to avoid conflict with those who do not want their picture taken, and some out of respect for people simply going about their daily lives and not needing a gringo (or whomever) gawking at their activities.
Zezinho brings people into his community to help put an honest and actual face on the residents who live there. He speaks directly to the myths and prejudices that people often bring with them on a tour. And he insists on mutual respect. He is a true ambassador.
To hear him tell it, the very act of entering the community with respect, engaging with the residents (not staying on a jeep and taking pictures through a closed window) and stopping for lunch or a beer (spending some money locally) you are in effect saying to the community: “I see you. I respect you.” Reaching out to make contact, rather than treating the trip like a day at the zoo is the key to a meaningful and positive tour of a favela.
Slow down, get out and walk, stop for a meal, talk with people you may meet, contribute to the local economy.
Through his efforts Zezinho is inspiring visitors to become little ambassadors for Rocinha when they leave and return to their home.
All that said, I am personally committed to going the next step in terms of supporting the residents of Rocinha. Luiz and I met with Zezinho again a few days ago and then walked to the art studio of Tio Lino. We spent an hour or so talking with Tio Lino about his 30+ years of community service in Rocinha teaching art, in its many forms, to children.
Tio Lino has quite a story, and his impact on the children in his little corner of the immense community that is Rocinha is remarkable. We have a plan for getting involved.
Luiz and I are teaming up with Zezinho to support Tio Lino’s direct services. There is much to say about that – and it will be posted at a later date. Stay tuned.
In the mean time – what are your thoughts about the phenomenon that is “favela tours” in Rio?
We arrived in Brazil in January, 2008 to start up a new chapter in our life together. Luiz has returned to his hometown and I've jumped into the deep end of the pool ready for anything. Let the fun begin!