Favela life: ‘See nothing and say nothing. It’s how you stay alive’

A Rio favela resident tells how the global media has not found the ‘real Brazil’ during the World Cup

A resident stands amongst the remains of demolished homes in the Metro Mangueira favela, approximately 750 metres from the Maracana stadium, where the final of the World Cup will be played tomorrow. The homes were thought to have been knocked down for a parking lot for the stadium, though that has yet to be built. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images

A resident stands amongst the remains of demolished homes in the Metro Mangueira favela, approximately 750 metres from the Maracana stadium, where the final of the World Cup will be played tomorrow. The homes were thought to have been knocked down for a parking lot for the stadium, though that has yet to be built. Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Sat, Jul 12, 2014, 01:00

Journalists are getting ready to go home, after the frenzy of uncovering the “real Brazil”. Favelas all over Brazil have been invaded by camera crews hoping to uncover the “reality” within these meandering alleyways we call home. Visiting a favela seems exotic and edgy, and toothy smiles mask the fear something sordid might unfold.

But, the real truth doesn’t make the final edit. You see, favelados obey the “law of silence”, an ingrained and automatic defence. You see nothing, you hear nothing, and you say nothing. The law of silence even penetrates my home. Someone could be shot dead next to my son, but he will tell me he saw nothing. He’ll believe it too. It’s better that way. It’s how you stay alive.

I wasn’t born in a favela; maybe that’s why I see things as I do. I moved from one type of poverty in the state where I was born, to a completely other type here in Rio de Janeiro. After decades of cleaning the homes of the rich (starting when I was eight), life brought me to raise my sons in this surreal place.

Violence is normal here, although we see fewer bodies in recent years. I remember, when my boys were young, setting up a little table in front of my house, to sell cakes. As I sat there, two guys walked past, arguing; one little, the other large. The short one was a trafficker, gun in hand, while the bigger guy was probably here to buy drugs. The argument developed, and the big guy was shot; first in the stomach, then in the chest, and finally in the head, just to be sure.

Body removed

All of this on the street outside a barber’s shop, on a sunny afternoon. The body was quickly scuttled into one of the alleyways, by a group of traffickers who appeared after the last shot rang out. Then, the barber came out with buckets of water, and a brush, to scrub away the blood. Moments later, it was like nothing had happened. And, nothing had. Nothing that would ever be spoken of.

The favela in which I live is not pacified, nor will it ever be. We’re not on the right part of the map for that. So, there are no police and no state presence. Instead, heavily armed teenagers patrol the streets, and lay down the law. We do as they say, or suffer the consequences. There are lots of rules; often we need to guess what these are.

If a trafficker asked me to hide a gun in my home tomorrow, I couldn’t refuse. Luckily, this has never happened. But, I wouldn’t risk refusing them. I could get a punch in the face, I could be kicked out of the community with only the clothes on my back, or I could be killed there and then. Anything could happen, depending on their mood.

We live at the mercy of the traffickers, and they live in impunity. We have no defence. If your son or your brother is killed by them, you don’t go to the police. You wouldn’t dare. You keep your mouth shut, and are grateful if you have a body to bury. In most cases, the body disappears, and that’s the end.

Death sentence

Freedom here is absolute, and non-existent at the same time. Freedom exists for those who comply with all of the rules of the favela, and who do nothing to displease the guys in charge. And, there is a certain type of safety; there are no robberies, no rapes. Fights between neighbours are prohibited. Rape doesn’t even have to happen; the rumour is enough to guarantee a death sentence.

This creates the illusion among residents that we are “protected”. The traffickers are normal people; they have families, fathers, mothers, children. Most of the time, they are very polite and helpful. But these guys can turn on any of us, at any stage, for any reason. If we step out of line, we have to face the consequences, but we never know what these will be. And indiscretions are not forgiven from anyone, not their own mother, father, spouse, children, no one.

This is not protection. These rules are not about protecting us, they are to avoid calling police attention to the favela. We live under this authoritarian power, and it’s not likely to change. The state notices us only in the run-up to elections. Pacification will never happen here, and honestly I think we’re better-off. At least with the traffickers, we know who they are. But, when the police come on the scene, you never know what will happen next.

I hope football lovers can excuse me, but the sport means nothing to me. The World Cup has no legacy for me or my community. It has just been a big party with public money, a huge disruption. It’s a way to make more cash for those who already have plenty. And afterwards, there will be a heavy price to pay. But now is not the time to protest; that time passed when the country was selected as host of the tournament seven years ago. Now, it’s time to play out our role as host as best we can, to show the world who we really are.

This competition has brought a feeling of exclusion even closer. The World Cup was always a faraway thing, on the television, the radio. Everyone watched from the same distance, rich and poor. But, now we can’t get near it. We might be hosting the party, but we’re not on the guest list. Maria Rodrigues lives in a favela in Rio de Janeiro

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