Rio’s Culturally Connected Favelas

Opinion, by Michael Kerlin

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Last week, a friend in one of Rio’s favelas posted a Facebook update about Red Hot Chili Peppers coming to Rock in Rio. A few years ago, I might have found this young man’s Facebook presence and the post itself surprising, but these days it stands as a perfect example of just how connected and culture savvy some of the poorest Cariocas are.

Michael D. Kerlin is an international management consultant who began working in Rio’s favelas fifteen years ago.

Last week, in the midst of the big music festival, tourists, expats, and Rio natives alike benefited from a richer understanding of how ordinary people in Rio’s favelas connect with the world to share their culture. I have witnessed firsthand the evolution of the favelas’ presence in the global tech and cultural community.

First, some history: Back in the mid 1990s, many favelas were getting their first Internet connections and widespread computer use with the help of an organization called the Committee for Democracy in Information Technology. A tall, lanky young man named Rodrigo Baggio founded the organization by hitting up large corporations for computer donations and then opening IT centers in some of the toughest, poorest favelas.

In 1996, Mr. Baggio took me to community IT centers in the favelas of Vigario Geral, fresh off its notorious massacre, Santa Marta, then still the sight of some of the bloodiest battles between drug gangs and police, Borel, where gangs were fighting each other brutally, Morro dos Macacos, where a police helicopter would be shot down a dozen years later, and Mangueira, famous for its samba schools but still as poor and violent as many of its neighbors.

On the same trip, back in 1996, I made friends in the web of favelas now called the Complexo do Alemão, but quickly lost touch with them since they had no phone and no Internet. I doubted if I’d ever see them again.

Then, in 2008, business brought me back to Brazil and I came to Rio in search of my friends. If I were lucky enough to find them, I expected they’d still remain as disconnected from the rest of the world as they were when I first met them.

I could not have been more wrong. All had cell phones. Some had two. Most of my friends’ homes had computers, with working Internet connections that were a bit slow but effective. They invited me to join them on the social networking site Orkut, which has been leading social media in Brazil for the past several years. One day, I shot some digital video of a group of young women cheering for Barack Obama—who was then closing in on his 2008 election victory—and they insisted that I “Put it on YouTube! Put it on YouTube!”

These days, my favela-based friends are spending more time on Facebook, where we trade photos and updates. One young woman, poised to be the first in her family to go to university, recently wrote an apology on my Facebook wall for having been out of touch. “Too busy with school and college test preparation classes,” she wrote.

With the closing of the digital divide, the cultural divide has closed as well. By my last trip, “Everybody Hates Chris,” the semiautobiographical television program by Chris Rock, remained the most popular television program, but my friends were also showing me downloaded episodes of shows like Glee.

Justin Bieber: Never Say Never showed at the new cinema in the Complexo do Alemão, and police discovered a huge Justin Bieber mural in the home of one of the Complexo’s most notorious drug leaders, known as Pezão, back in the major raid of November 2010.

One could easily conclude from these examples that the spread of Internet in Rio’s favelas has only enabled one-way cultural sharing. But Rio’s favela residents are also sharing their own culture. One young woman has recently posted on her blog a number of locally generated photography, music video, drawing and culinary arts projects. My favorite project, showing that global online culture sharing can go both ways in a single work, was a reinterpretation of Van Gogh’s artwork in the form of a meticulously arranged fruit salad.

To be sure, these examples still show an imperfect closing of the digital divide, and the examples themselves are incomplete representations of reality. Many of Rio’s poorest residents, in and out of favelas, have not yet been able to connect sufficiently to global culture sharing on the Internet.

Those who do have computers and connections would benefit from more speed and reliability and lower prices. But the number of connections is growing daily, and everyone enjoying Rock in Rio can be sure that the people living in nearby favelas will be attending the events, or at least watching them via live streaming. More importantly, they have plenty of their own music, art, and culture to share. If you miss them in person, just go find them on the Internet.

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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.

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