Opinion, by Michael Kerlin
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Favelas feature prominently in the news about Rio’s preparations for the World Cup and Olympics. Haphazard cinderblock blankets draped over the city’s hills, they at once offer a hopeful emotional heartbeat and a menacing history of violence to the Cidade Maravilhosa.
One thing hundreds of thousands of favelados have in common are roots in Brazil’s northeast. Between 1950 and 1980, twenty million people moved from Brazil’s poor northeast to increasingly prosperous southern cities like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.
They settled in favelas, and their lives took dramatically different paths. All started out dreaming just a bit, and I hope by telling the tale of two families, I might make the case that it’s worth doing everything possible to restore the dreams that have derailed.
A man who I’ll call Gil Cardoso grew up on a farm just outside the small town of Belem, in the poor northeastern Brazilian state of Paraiba. Gil’s Belem often got confused with a bigger northeastern city on the coast, also called Belem. Gil’s Belem was much smaller though.
Belem de Paraiba had rolling green hills of beans, corn, manioc, and cotton, along with scorching tropical weather, and a weakness for good parties. The hilly topography almost looked like Rio de Janeiro’s Zona Norte (North Zone) if you replaced all the brick shacks and concrete alleys with green fields and patches of trees.
Gil’s childhood house was made of wooden planks with a mud floor. He and his siblings slept side by side in just a few rooms, one for girls and one for boys. At dawn, they rose to work the fields—beans and corn, mostly, but some livestock too. The family lived off the land and sold a little bit for extra money, but, above all, they were poor.
By the time Joao was starting a family, many of his cousins had begun relocating to Rio de Janeiro. They sent back letters, and a few even sent back pictures, about plentiful work, huge mountains, and beautiful beaches. The more he heard about the Cidade Maravilhosa, the more Gil thought he might fit in there.
He eventually moved, and now has six children (five with steady jobs) and ten grandchildren. His oldest granddaughter will likely become the first in her family to go to college.
Around the same time Gil’s family arrived in Rio, another young woman in Paraiba began thinking about a move to Rio de Janeiro. Josefa Martiniano had long hair and a round youthful face, youthful even for a twenty-one year old. She lived in a small town called Bananeiras less than ten miles higher up the plateau from Gil’s childhood town.
At 500 meters above sea level, Bananeiras climbs up a gentle hill past a large Our Lady of Liberation colonial church and then gives way to miles of undulating farm hills. On those fields, cooler and dryer than Gil’s childhood fields, sugarcane, rice, and agave grow and help thousands of people make a living.
Young Josefa thought she could make a better living down in Rio de Janeiro, so she set off on the same path that Gil followed. Josefa waited until she got to Rio to find love.
There, she married Manoel Francisco da Silva, a young man with curly hair and sad eyes. The couple named their oldest child Luciano, the boy who would some day be known as Bigfoot.
At the start, young Luciano was about as likely to become a drug boss as Gil’s children were. All of the children passed through broken school systems, amid open sewers, spotty electricity, and the disdain of the ricos, off in places like Ipanema. More than anything, they lived in crowded quarters, the kind that could either coopt you or protect you, or both.
Now Luciano Pezao is one of the most wanted men in all of Rio. Most people in his generation have chosen their path. The city cannot give up on them though. A shared ancestry on the land in Brazil’s northeast should some day give way to a shared future of hope.
Michael Kerlin began working in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas fifteen years ago. An international management consultant, he has written about economic development in the Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, Philadelphia Inquirer, and several other publications.