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?


Rachel said...

Very cool! Good to hear the other side. What did Luiz think of the tour?

The Reader said...

I felt/feel much like you - the thought of taking pictures just of their weirds me out. What Zezinho is doing, this I could get behind. But the stay on a jeep, come see the dangerous gangsters and drug lords of Rio! stuff -- crass, obnoxious, and not something of which I'd ever be a part.

Very much looking forward to your future posts when you finally tell us how we might partner with you as you partner with Tio Lino.

Corinne said...

my husband and his family are from Rocinha, I lived there for almost 2 years during my fieldwork and whenever we visit Rio, we stay there. So, I completely agree with you about Rocinha and the favela tours run there. When there is respect, community involvement and a chance to contribute to the local economy, they are a positive contribution. However, may I suggest looking into a less high-profile favela for a partnership? Rocinha has really more than its share of NGOs and international involvement. It would be nice to "spread the wealth" as it were and look into favelas that are not as famous. I suggest looking into partnering with Catalytic Communities, an NGO currently involved with aiding favelas faced with possible removal due to the Olympics.

c said...

Although you are right Corrine in regards to Rocinha being high profile, lets not forget that there is much need there with a population of over 300.000 there is still much need there. Up in Macega and Roupa Suja where the shacks are, exists much need in these areas and which is where the art school is that Zezinho supports. Since Zezinho is from Rocinha, it would only make sense for him to contribute back to his own community, no? He is involved in his community which is great considering there are the "other" tours who give little or nothing back into the community they use to make money.

After much research, Rocinha does have about 60 NGO's but most of them are non functioning or run by corrupt people.

Corinne it sounds like you work for Catalytic Communities. Catalytic Communities or CatCom gets much support from outsiders.

I think what Jim and Zezinho are trying to do here is to start something grassroots that goes directly to the community that Zezinho lives.

Corinne said...


I don't work for CatComm or any NGO, but I like the work they do. I was involved with Instituto 2 Irmãos in Rocinha from its beginning (was on the original founding board), but am not currently involved. Yes, there are plenty of areas in Rocinha that are in need of help and I was not trying to say there are not. I just think that in general the Zona Sul favelas get a lot of press and interest at the expense of other places, like favelas in the Zona Oeste or even Niteroi. Of course Zezinho should contribute to his own community and my suggestion of CatComm, was more to learn about the needs of other favelas, not to contribute directly to that NGO. I understood from Jim's post that he (and possibily other ex-pats) were looking to ways to support social programs in favela communities. If this is the case I was just recommending that they look beyond the typical Zona Sul favelas that have more opportunities for fundraising than other smaller and equally needy areas.

AdrianLesher said...

I went on a favela tour a few years ago. We traveled by minibus to the bottom of Rocinha, then rode motorcycle taxis to the top. We then walked down to the bottom, stopping off at various places along the way, including an arts center, a bakery, a bar, and a day care center

While there is obviously something voyeuristic about such an enterprise (as there is in much tourism), I do think that tours like this do a lot to dispel the common notion of the favelas as a constant stew of violence and misery. The more people who know about the ordinariness of much of everyday life in these neighborhoods, the better.

This is not to minimize the problems that exist in favelas, they are there. But these problems are only part of what life in cuch places is about.

Jim said...

Rachel - Luiz was reluctant to go with me to meet Tio Lino, but in the end he was impressed with the 'normalcy'of it all.

Reader - I'm nearly ready to launch the campaign. Stay tuned. And thanks.

Corinne & C - I agree that we need to spread the attention and subsequent support. I have been trying for some time to make a personal connection in Niterói. I've asked a Niterói blogger (who blogs about Niterói) to post a list of groups people can assist, but to no avail as yet.

So I moved forward with the only good connection I have, which is Zezinho in Rocinha. I want my efforts to be personally based, so it has been great to work with Zezinho.

Thanks for the suggestions regarding other places.

Adrian - Going local and meeting the people makes a big difference in how we see/understand places, for sure.

Thanks, all, for your comments.

Nancy said...

I have lived in Rio for about a year and a half now and have been really unsure about favela tours. Because of this, I have sort of just avoided it all together. I have friends coming to visit in a few months who have expressed their interest in going on a favela tour and I feel like it is my duty having lived here for a year and feeling more like a resident than a tourist, to express my thoughts on the matter. I am glad you wrote this entry Jim. I think it is great to get people talking about it rather than pushing it aside and ignoring it because it is a complicated topic. I'm excited to hear what new stuff you will be doing at the art school, and I would love to hear about it (a close friend of mine is coming in Jan and looking for a non-profit to work with in Rocinha)!

Ray Adkins said...

I totally respect your opinion and I admire your initiative, you will be doing more for Brazil in the short time you are there than most do their entire lives.
My personal opinion about favelas is that I am against the tours and I am also against ignoring them as if they didn't existed.
I think favelas are the most humiliating form of living besides being a homeless person, favelas are dangerous places because they are mostly built on the sides of mountains without any proper infra-structure and when there is a strong rain storm people living in favelas are under risk of being buried alive along with their children or they are built on the banks of polluted rivers and are subject to constant flooding.
I think favelas are dangerous because people living in them make illegal electrical connections to steal electricity and live under constant risk of electric shocks and devastating fires, which have happened lately in Sao Paulo favelas and have been widely reported on the media.
I think favelas are dangerous because they live off the grid,on stolen and invaded property, pay no taxes, have little or no social services such as Fire Departments, Police and Ambulance services due to difficult access due to it's lack of planning for streets or any access what so ever.
They living off the grid of society and the lack of easy access also allows drug traffic and other criminal organizations to hide and thrive inside favelas and with the complete lack of social order and little reach from organized society, favela residents have no choice but to fear and protect criminals under the so called "Lei do Silencio" "Silence Law", in other words, you should not be a "rat" like the mafia would say it, you should never be a witness to any crime, you should always be quiet.
Favelas in Rio have fake streets and fake store fronts and home fronts to deceive and sometimes even trap police and unwanted intruders, many residents know about it but are not allowed to talk under fear.
Society should put their efforts in getting rid of all favelas, destroying all the dangerous homes hanging from a cliff and build decent apartment communities for these people in safe areas where they will have access to legal and safe electrical service, where they will live on a street with regular police presence and Fire and Ambulance service available to them as well as other community services available to the rest of Rio, who pays taxes and enjoy them, where they won't be under constant risk of being buried alive by a mountain side or a raging river.
So they want to live in the center of it all, even by risking their lives and there is plenty of people who think favelas are a romantic part of the scene and there is nothing wrong with living that way...that along with the complacency of many and the ones who just ignore it...nothing or little will ever happen to improve the poor living situation of this humiliated part of society in Rio.
Not to mention that many "middle and upper class" cariocas need the favelas to buy their daily drug of choice near their it sounds like nothing will ever be done to change that if you wait on the Cariocas who benefit from the presence of the favelas.
Maybe they should just paint all the favela houses in white, it would look just like those coastal Greek towns on the side of mountains.
I know this is not a popular opinion but I thought there should be nothing wrong if it is expressed with respect and honesty.
Again, just as a reminder, this is my opinion.


Jim said...

Nancy - I think it is important to uncover exactly WHY your friends would like a favela tour. Thispersonal investigation could be illuminating. I think people should know what intrigues them about touring a favela and own those feelings. Then if folks want to go -- connect with Zezinho.

Ray - Oh, would that it were in the cards for Brazil to provide decent housing and living condition to the residents of favelas. It would be a whole new day.

I often confront middle and upper income Brazilians about their distain for favela residents by asking how much they pay their maid - and where do they think anyone can rent an apartment on a salary like that. ++ not to mention the drug issue.

The reality of favelas shocks my conscience. It seems so immovable a problem. At this point these communities seem to be a self-perpetuating situation.

Our small effort to support a tiny corner of hope for a few hundred children in just one favela is all that keeps me from hopelessness myself. (And still we are ridiculed by some for even trying anything at all.)

lifeinrocinha said...

Ray, I think you watch too many movies as not all favelas are created equal..your post just reinforces alot of misinformation that the news and Brazilian society spew to the masses..

I feel it pointless as again this is another opinion os somebody who is VERY MISINFORMED!!!!!

we do not have fake storefronts and all that ou write, but then again, I talk about Rocinha.

My living conditions in the US were far worse than the conditions I have here.

Me, Zezinho I am a proud favela resident who does pay a light bill and taxes. To generalize is WRONG!!!!!

Ray Adkins said...

Dear Zezinho,

I don't know you personally and never meant to offend you, your community or your lifestyle.
That said, I would like to reinforce that what I wrote on Jim's Blog is nothing more nothing less than my opinion.
I might be misinformed about how great your life in Rocinha is, but you are definitely misinformed about how better every favela resident's life could be if they lived in a better place.
Misinformed? That is your opinion about me, and it is a very relative word, I might be misinformed about your personal life and the great quality of life you say you enjoy living in a Favela in Rio de Janeiro, I am also misinformed about the terrible living conditions you had when you lived in the US, I can't possibly imagine where you lived that it was worse than living in Rocinha, but if you are saying it, I will believe you.
However, I definitely have a different life experience than you had, I also have had access to information you never had.
I lived in Sao Paulo for many years and used to believe the slums ( favelas ) were an unchangeable reality until I recently visited the city and found out that many favelas are coming down and giving place to nice well built communities with police presence, health clinics even post offices and people are proud to own their apartments and value more there communities once they are paying for it, it is a project called Singapora, Google it and find out more about it.
You might be part of a small minority who pays taxes and electricity, but you are an absolute minority.
Favelas are what they are, areas that are usually in judicial dispute between family estates or bankrupted corporations, some opportunistic individuals see a chance, INVADE private land and built dangerous wooden shacks on the side of hills, later those same shacks are built by concrete cinder blocks, still they are usually built in dangerous ravines or on the sides of rivers with poor structural integrity.
Favelas are NOT a good place to live, I don't care how romantic you might see favelas and take people on tours of these poor neighborhoods, they are awfully dangerous places and take the dignity away from human beings.
The other risk favelas offer the general population is the easy access for organized crime to hide and thrive in the complete lack of organization and urban development.
You never heard of an organized Drug Cartel in Condominios of Leblon or Barra, you know why? they would be trapped in apartment buildings by police and would be arrested right away.
Do you see criminals having a hard time hiding in narrow alleys between thousands of shacks with no known address that look all the same? Favelas are a haven for organized crime to hide.
Off course I am not saying all Favela residents belong to crime life, but they live in such disorganized chaos that they allow for crime to thrive and laugh on society's face.
Why don't we agree to disagree?
I envision a Brazil without slums ( Favela ) in the future, with people living in decent neighborhoods with the dignity provided by police, ambulance and fire services, health care clinics and other social services in an organized urban setting.
You envision the STATUS QUO, the chaos, rains bringing down mountain sides and burying thousands and others dying in floods and loosing all their belongings.
But as you said, your life in Rocinha is GREAT, fabulous, you pay taxes and your electric bills and your living standards are better than the one you had when you lived in the US.
That is all it matters, let's not generalize.

Take care


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