An Intro to Rio’s Favelas

City’s Wealthy Claim Lowlands While Shantytowns Cover Hillsides

The tightly packed homes at the very top of Rocinha frame Rio's famous statue Cristo Redentor in the background.
Rebecca Bachman

A couple nights back, I dreamt that a tsunami came for Rio. I was sitting on the beach in São Conrado, a neighborhood in the city’s Zona Sul, or Southern Zone, when I began to feel the slight rumbling resonating through the sand, hear a vague thundering whishing through the air, and see the faraway blur of mist being sliced by velocity from the top of the surf.

I knew just what to do. I shot up, gathered my things, and started running. My bare feet took me from the sand to the road that runs along the beach. I followed another road inland, through São Conrado, and toward Rocinha. All the while, the feeling of rumbling, the sound of thundering and the sight of misty surf grew in intensity, augmenting my crazed need to bury myself in the favela as soon as possible.

From the rooftop of a home in Rocinha, the community sprawls out in front, giving way to São Conrado in the flat area to the west, and the biggest seaside monolith in the world, Pedra de Gávea, in the background.
Rebecca Bachman

The lower part of Rocinha was saturated by foot traffic, as usual. I nimbly navigated the alleyways crowded by frequenters of the shops occupying either side, the random meetings of friends and neighbors, and the clusters of kids wreaking havoc closer to the ground. I climbed and climbed through the chaotic beauty of the afternoon bustle, already sensing that the surrounding community members and I were at a safe altitude. Neither time nor need to warn the masses remained.

But I continued my dash up the hill, hoping to beat time in my race against it. My goal was to reach the highest spot possible in Rocinha before the tsunami reached the shores of Rio. I was moving quickly but the wave was moving faster; every turn up the winding main road was accompanied by its intensifying noise. I found one of many shortcuts up the hill, and shot up the winding, crumbling steps through a crammed alleyway to be spit out, just in time, at a spot on the main road near the top of the community. I ran into a house, sprinted four flights to its roof, and took in, for the first time since I had been on the beach minutes earlier, the scenery.

From inside Rocinha, near the bottom of its hill, the shear size of the community of more than 250,000 people – which doesn't nearly fit in a photograph – is overwhelming.
Rebecca Bachman

I arrived just in time. The wave authoritatively invaded land, covering beaches and the flat areas between the sea and the mountains in a thick, powerful, quickly flowing blanket of wetness. The community took notice as workers, vendors, shoppers, mothers, children, and drug traffickers snapped out of work and play to observe the fantastic scene below.

People went to their rooftops to watch the water burry São Conrado, the wealthy neighborhood down the coast to the west. Signs of city disappeared, save for the tips of the many high-rise apartment buildings that litter the beautiful view of the coast from Rocinha. Up the coast to the east, water flooded flat beachside neighborhoods of Leblon, Ipanema, and touristy Copacabana.

At its highest, the wave left only the giant rocks, hills and jungle-covered mountains dry. Rocinha residents and I together observed the stunning geographical effects of the tsunami from atop the mountain Dois Irmãos, or “two brothers,” so-called because of its two peeks. Favelas Rocinha, Vidigal, and Parque da Cidade call this rock home.

Vidigal, the favela that shares the mountain Dois Irmãos with Rocinha, offers beautiful views of the ocean not found in wealthier neighborhoods found on the asfalto.
Rebecca Bachman

In my dream, the wave retracted again, leaving the flatter areas, or asfalto, devastated and empty. As far as the eye could travel throughout the spectacular, pointy Rio landscape, all that remained were the hillside favelas. The implications of this sudden natural disaster left Rocinha residents quite confused. The whole dynamic of the city would change. Their daily routines would no longer be determined by and targeted toward the greater good of the upper class. Maids would have no expensive flats to mop. Custodians would have no office building bathrooms to maintain spotless. Porters would have no fancy apartment buildings over which to keep watch. Cab drivers would have no clean-cut professionals to drag to Centro. Cooks would have no hotel guests to feed. They would have no choice but to stay home and focus on their own lives and families, rather than everybody else’s.

Of course, such an upside down flip of a city, class-wise, couldn’t happen quite like this anywhere else in the world. In California, for instance, upper-class citizens looking for a view claim the hills. Cities worldwide are developed such that the scenic spots are claimed by upper classes. But in Rio de Janeiro, an apartment ten blocks from the beach without a view in a flat, asfalto neighborhood goes for more than four times the price of a cozy hillside house over the sea in a favela. Richer populations saturated Rio’s flatter portions, leaving the extremely separated lower class with only the hills upon which to build communities.

A scenic view point in Rocinha shows the sprawl to the east of Rio's Zona Sul neighborhoods Gávea (on the left), Leblon (between Gávea and the ocean), Ipanema, and Copacabana (farthest back). The hills poking up are home to favelas.
Rebecca Bachman

But their isolation, altitude-wise, doesn’t keep favelas from being the meat and muscle of this city. Around 950 favelas exist in the city of Rio de Janeiro, holding roughly 1/3 of the city’s population. Each functions in its own way, is run by its own structures, and is home to its own happenings. The hardworking residents of favelas are almost solely responsible for the smooth running of the city, which relies heavily on service jobs.

I’ve had the privilege of getting to know Rocinha, Rio’s biggest favela, with an approximated [but probably under-estimated] population of 250,000 people. A Google search on the community finds a number of news items concerning drug trafficking and crime. Some hits appear for tourism – a recently developing industry in Rocinha. Most searches pop up with words like “danger,” “war-zone,” and “violence.” A request for the two cents of any given upper class resident of Rio unveils lists of judgments, which give credence to negative stereotypes about the notorious communities.

The main street of Rocinha winds up through the colorful, picturesque community.
Rebecca Bachman

The dynamics between classes and communities in Rio is anything but simple. The rumors reflect anything but unbiased truth. Since moving to São Conrado in January, my life has become increasingly involved in the neighboring community of Rocinha – I joined a gym, made friends, teach an English class, and am soon moving there.

The subject is anything but simple, but it’s about time I tackle Rio’s favelas. Here I will use my daily experiences and interactions to analyze stereotypes surrounding favelas, and do my best at providing snapshots of what’s really going down on within. Specifically: crime inside and outside of the favela, the drug trade, weapons, police involvement, community and family structure, poverty, creative children’s pastimes, and the truths and mistruths behind common favela modifiers “dangerous” and “violent.” Oh yeah, and the funk music, dance and parties that are a Brazilian cultural phenomenon unique to favelas equally deserve attention.

When I awoke from the tsunami dream I was relieved – what a tragedy it would be to lose such a giant chunk of Rio’s population. And what a mess it would be to restructure the entire city. But the images my brain concocted brought up some points that I couldn’t ignore: the contrast between the asfalto and the favelas – that crazy consequential class dynamic – makes Rio the awesomely unique city that it is.

Look forward to more details on life, society, and culture in Rio’s favelas!


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