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  • Writer's pictureMiguel Villalobos

The Brazilian Favela: A Pithy Diatribe on the Continuity of Things

Originally published 8 July 2014

Palafitas in the Favela do Bode, Recife, Pernambuco. (Photo: Michael Jerome Wolff)

The Twentieth Century was so many things, so please forgive my simplicity when I say that, in that highly varied mass of countries that constitute the so-called developing world, it was the Century of the Slum.

Slums, of course, have been around in some form or another since the dawn of urbanity, but here in Brazil, it was not until well into the early 1900s that the effects of things like agrarian restructuring, the abolition of slavery, and the growth of manufacturing centers had driven the poor and destitute en masse from the countryside and into cities ill-prepared to receive them. And they came in droves, looking for work, for survival, for adventure, for the pursuit of dreams. They came looking to trade the dreary social immobility of rural life for a dubious lottery of anonymity in exploding metropolises like Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo and Recife. They came, and having nowhere to rest their weary bones, they began to squat in abandoned lots, on mountainsides, or in swamplands filled in with dirt one bucket at a time. In Brazil, these squatter settlements have been called favelas, the simple naming of which has had its own peculiar impact on their development.

Favelas grew even more rapidly in the post-World War II era, thanks to a collapse in agricultural export markets, a series of droughts in the hinterlands, increased demand for urban labor, and the simple fact that Penicillin saved a buttload of people who in previous eras were destined to quicker demise. It was during this time that urban landscapes began to change radically in Brazil. The wealthy built white temples reaching skyward to catch the cooler air hovering above the putrid stench of development below, while the poor huddled in ever-expanding seas of wooden shacks that encircled those temples like floodwaters. So buildings grew taller, their walls higher, their security tighter. And when none of that was quite enough to breathe at ease above the rising tides of poverty, the wealthy lobbied their politicians to bring out the bulldozers, and preserve the sanctity of that regime we call private property.

Women in the Ilha do Rato (Rat Island) Favela, central Recife, prepare for an impromptu photo shoot. (photo: MJW)

But state-led favela removal efforts were rarely effective, and much to the contrary, they were perhaps as responsible for securing the permanence of the favela as a sort of national heritage as any other driver of social organization. This is because bulldozers—or coercive force, if you will—is like Newton’s third law of motion: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. That is, attempts by successive governments to forcefully remove entire populations from their homes compelled these populations to unite, organize, and resist. In doing so, favela communities attracted alliances with disempowered political elites who, in exchange for votes and militancy, were able to threaten the power of precisely those who intended to destroy their homes. The Catholic Church, the Communists, Liberals, Conservatives. Everyone was game. Any elite excluded from power became a defender of the poor, and together they would they would make things right. Political power would continue to change hands, and the poor would keep their homes in the slums.

Today some eighty-five percent of Brazil’s population now lives in urban centers, well under the standard for developed countries (95-98 percent), but well over the world average (50 percent). Since the majority of the county’s rural inhabitants constitute the poorest of the poor, and are still subject to the same social and economic pressures that have led their brethren to the cities in earlier decades, it is to assume that rural-to-urban migration will continue for some time to come. But does this mean that favelas will continue to grow or sprout in new areas?

Probably so, although it certainly does not have to be like this. There is a general assumption here in Brazil and elsewhere that slums blew up in the developing world because the rapid pace of urbanization in the post-war years simply overwhelmed the state’s capacity to absorb the rural exodus, and the favela was simply a natural and spontaneous overflow channel for the floods of impoverished newcomers. The problem with this assumption, however, is that the favela model of urbanization already existed long before the largest of the migratory tides came in. It was, rather, for the embedded economic and political interests associated with favelas that they would continue as the dominant model well past the twentieth century.

Favela da Pilar, Recife Antigo. (Photo: MJW)

It is not free to live in a favela. To move to an established favela is, like in almost any other community in the Western world, to submit to a regime of private property. You save or borrow money to buy a plot of land, and you build, buy, or rent a structure you can call home. The difference is only that the state is not there to sanction or protect your right of ownership. This function is instead left to informal authority structures, if they have developed, or otherwise it is left to the winds. Favelas, then, are simply the black market of private property, and like most black markets, they serve as a lubricant to ease the friction of a normatively biased legal system that contradicts social reality on the ground.

The Brazilian constitution, for example, is a glorious monument to the principles of democracy. It is extraordinarily progressive. All citizens have a legal right to a whole lot of wonderful things, independently of their class, race, or whatever. A right to express oneself. A right to earn a decent living and to have fair housing. A right to not be exploited. A right to live, and live in peace. A million rights to a million lovely things. But Brazilian society, or at least a large part of it (like any large country, there are many cultures within), is no such paradise of egalitarian values. Much to the contrary, a slave-era model of social organization, today adapted ineloquently to a “middle class”-driven mode of economic development, continues to be dominant in much of the country. The problem is that slaves don’t have rights, yet all Brazilians, by law, do.

Rocinha, often cited as Latin America's largest conglomerate of informal residential housing, as seen from above. (Photo: MWJ)

This means that a lot of people, in order to continue being slaves, must live outside the law, which otherwise would be compelled to protect them from things like corruption, theft, exploitation, racism, repression, poverty, and unemployment. Only outside the law can they continue to have poor healthcare, live in squalor, and attend inadequate schools. Only outside the law can they remain faithful to a time-tested system of social values that guarantees their destitution today and for many generations to come. And it is outside the law where we find the favela, an alternative living arrangement for so many millions of people ill-prepared to live as equals among their more privileged countrymen. Society demands just such a loophole in the framework of a progressive democratic constitution.

Brazilian army units patrol in the Complexo do Alemão favela complex, Rio de Janeiro. (Photo: MJW)

Of, course, I don’t mean to portray the favela as a place of misery and human suffering. It is, unto itself, a magnificent feat of human social organization replete with its own set of qualities good and bad. True, there tends to a be greater degree of instability in that world unshielded by the protective apparatus of the state, but there are also perks. The privations associated with poverty and close-quarters living, for example, allow for much more sociable modes of human interaction. Neighborhoods feel more like neighborhoods. Communities are tighter, collective identities stronger, and the pull towards psychic isolation and social alienation collateral to the growth of the middle class less persistent. Hence the common assumption that the poor are happier, what with all their smiley faces and all that singing and dancing.

So what will this next century be for Brazil? On one hand, social realities have changed dramatically over the last twenty or thirty years. Thanks, in part, to government programs to reduce abject poverty and reach its protective hand deeper into previously excluded sectors of the population, a lot more people have access to the more basic rights outlined in the constitution. Economic development has also created numerous new opportunities for social mobility, creating real citizens out of the millions of people that otherwise would continue to live in virtual slavery.

But the favela, I wager, will continue to exist as the dominant model of urbanization in Brazil for quite some time. While the progressive democratic constitution denies it, society still needs it. Indeed, for sometime now, society—rich and poor—has embraced it.

Young girls struttin' their stuff, Favela da Santa Marta, Rio de Janeiro. (Photo: MJW)
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