I sat atop Morro da Urca, one of the highest and most stunning mountaintops in Rio, staring out across the city. I leaned forward and pressed my bodyweight against the steel railing, taking a deep breath of fresh Brazilian air. Here I was, after a grueling 6 hour bus ride, a short bike ride along the coast, and a tiring hike up the side of the mountain. I was standing on what seemed like the top of the world, with the entire city beneath my feet. I turned back around toward the rest of my group and looked at Jacque, our tour guide for that day. She led my group over toward the other side of the mountain – not to where the view of the city was, but to where we could clearly see the large mass of houses clumped on the side of a neighboring hill, on the outskirts of the main part of the city. I looked back over to her, wondering why she had taken us to view all the favelas. She began to explain exactly what I was thinking.
“Over the decades, the Rio favelas have been portrayed and associated in a very negative light”, she said. “They’re often referred to as ‘slums’, ‘shantytowns’, or the ‘ghetto’.” She went on explain how favelas have been misconstrued throughout the decades. Summing up the favelas as just ‘slums’ just doesn’t do justice to the richness of the favela culture and history. The favelas originated near the turn of the 19th century, after Brazilian soldiers migrated down from Bahia, having emerged victorious from the Canudos war. They settled along the mountains in Rio. Not long after, recently freed African slaves began to settle along the mountains as well, being complete outcasts from society and not having anywhere else to go. Later, urbanization caused workers to move from the countryside to Rio, where they sought for more work. But without being able to find an adequate amount of work or a sufficient amount of money like they had hoped, these migrants were also ultimately pushed towards the outskirts of Rio as well.
That day, Jacque taught me a very important lesson. Favelas aren’t necessarily the circus show that always seems to be portrayed in the media. They don’t exist so you can safely buy your Favela Tour ticket and silently judge from a distance like they’re some kind of animals. In fact, the people who live in these favelas in Rio are the exact opposite. They are motivated, hard-working people who are self starters and get things done. They may have been completely neglected by the government, but they’re strong people who have spent decades building their neighborhoods and their communities.
Brazil is a beautiful country, but it does have its problems. But despite all it, I know that when I look back at my experience in Rio, I know that I’m going to picture my first day there: sitting atop that mountain, staring across the horizon, staring down at the beauty of the city, but also down at the beauty built along those hills – the tight-knit communities sewn together from a long line of battered history and a rich culture.