When I was a kid, hanging out meant going to the mall or maybe hanging out at the skate park, if it was warm enough. Wholesome activities in nature, like climbing trees, hiking, and building sandcastles or bodysurfing, filled a lot of time, too. The experience of childhood that I and, I imagine, most of my peers had in the United States seems ridiculously tranquil – even boring – when compared with the experience I see children having in Rocinha.
The close proximity of thousands of humans, the presence of crime, and the social trends of the favela create quite the unique environment for kids. There’s hardly space for sprawling activities—except on the beach. And with ever-present funk music and its crude messages and vulgar language blasting from cars and parties, and armed bandidos (people involved in drug trade) throughout the streets, there’s little room for innocence.
But Rocinha’s kids find things to do. They are creative about it, too.
Perhaps the most popular kids’ pastime involves kites. On the hottest days of December, January, and February, just a glance up at the sky above Rocinha is an obvious sign that school’s out for summer. Hundreds of little fluttering kites sparkle under the beating sun. Families in Rocinha pass days on their rooftops, which are perfect perches for flying kites.
Little plastic kites are sold for just a few centavos, but that doesn’t keep kids from treasuring them. According to Igor Barbosa de Silva, who grew up in the community, kite flying isn’t as simple as it seems. Along with the activity comes competition. Some customize their kites by attaching sharp blades to the strings, so that when another kite crosses its path, it sees its demise.
When a kite comes loose from its string, which is often even without the destructive competing kites, kids race up and down the labyrinth of alleyways that they know like the back of their hands as fast as they can to procure their treasured fallen plastic quadrangles. This is, of course, part of the fun.
Roofs are home to any number of activities. Some families put small pools on their roofs to provide playing kids some defense against the intense heat. Others have hammocks, which are fun for kids to swing in and climb. The roofs are so close to one another that just being on a roof is a social activity in Rocinha. They are excellent spots for interaction with the community. They are also excellent spots for play. One day, while some kids were flying kites from the roofs, I observed a boy roller-skating in circles on another roof, and a little girl playing with dolls on still another. Still other children were simply people-watching. And some were shouting to one another.
On the beach, futbol (soccer) is the pastime of choice. São Conrado beach, which is closest to Rocinha, is the locale of organized adult futbol games. When the nets aren’t being used, kids practice their skills shooting and defending goals. Pickup games, with or without a proper goal, adorn the sand and sidewalks until dark sets in at night. Participants range from roughly 10 to 20 years of age.
Boys like to run up and down the beach in packs, in order to become all big and buff like the older guys. In this workout capital of the world, even 10-year-old boys are astoundingly muscular. It’s alarming but common to see prepubescent boys with 8 packs.
Gatherings of children throughout the streets and alleyways of Rocinha are hardly up to the same shenanigans that their small-town counterparts might be up to in a tree house. The inability to escape the presence of other humans puts a spin on childhood games. They interact with people of all ages all the time.
In Rocinha, noise is not only expected, but also invited. Music constantly – at every hour – resonates throughout the streets and alleyways. Dancing is an automatic accompaniment. Kids learn to dance before they learn to walk in the community, so dancing is a default pastime. Musically inclined children also might make use of random materials to add to the noise, creating rhythms on buckets and singing or chanting their own songs.
There’s a stretch of the main street that winds up Rocinha where, on any given evening and well into the night, especially on the weekends, pre-teens hang out. They’re terrifyingly cool, and seem to be fazed by nothing – especially not the bandidos always posted nearby.
Considering the lively complications of growing up in the notorious biggest favela in Rio, kids grow up fast. But they also stay young. Their love for fun and games continues through adulthood, in which social and physical activity remains constant. A childhood set in Rocinha is a flawless combination to create fearless, festive social beings that can find or create some fun under any circumstances.