Tuesday, 31 March 2009

From favelas to Van-velas

Favelas. Oh yes, the favelas.

For the uninitiated – these are the slums, the skid rows, the dodgy ‘hoods of Brazil. Many people will be familiar with them from Brazil’s most famous movie, Cidade de Deus – or City of God. Perhaps some hardcore cinephiles will also recognize favelas in 2007’s Tropa de Elite, or Elite Force – somewhat of a flip-side version of City of God, in that it approaches the favelas from the cops’ point of view. Both are high-octane films that will make you feel like you’ve had too much coffee.
But enough movies. I want to talk about favelas and how they came to be. They started off quite simply – a feller goes to the big city (say Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo) to get a job. He finds said job, and realizes he doesn’t quite make enough money to rent an apartment. So he decides he’ll do what Will Smith did in Pursuit of Happiness – just set up camp on the street and somehow make the best of it.

And then, another feller comes along, says “You’re from Porto Alegre too? Great. I just arrived from there last week. I need a place to stay. Think I could set up camp next to yours?”

And the first feller says “Sure, no problem. Be my guest.”

Before you know it, there are several hundred people all setting up camp in the same area.

They start to form a small community. “You know, we need water supply here. Why not set up our own showers?” And they set up buckets so they can collect water when it rains.

And: “We need shelter, don’t we?” And roofs are put up over their heads. Small houses are formed, out of brick and mortar and whatever people can find from abandoned construction sites or old buildings.

Next thing you know, you have a neighbourhood of the impoverished.

Ta da, a favela.

Now, that’s a very simplified way to describe what happened. In present day, favelas are entrenched in Brazilian society. They are a fact of life, and for many, a way of life.

In fact – it’s become a huge problem. Or rather, it has been a huge problem for many years, but lately it has become a problem that people are no longer able to ignore.

They are growing. Rapidly.

And in these favelas, people will tell you, the societies are run by gangsters. Think we have it bad in Vancouver with close to 20 people shot dead in a drug war since January? Ha. A bunch of people got together and built a now-defunct website called Rio Body Count, back at the start of 2007. It’s a lot like Iraq Body Count. I followed it briefly and it seemed that a dozen new murders were happening on a daily basis. Some 70-80 were being offed in a week. 6,000, according to one source, were killed – in Rio alone, mind you – in 2006.

Those are real numbers, a real problem.

Now, on to my point: We were enjoying a stroll in Vancouver last year through the empty expanse just south of Terminal Avenue, near the tracks near Main Street SkyTrain – why there, we don’t know; just circumstance – and we walked past a small encampment made up of tarpaulin. There were a couple guys hanging out there smoking cigarettes. Rough-looking, bearded, standard homeless people that we are used to seeing every day now. I braced myself for the usual question: “Spare any change?” and braced myself for the usual head-shake and a gruff “No.” None of that happened. We just walked past them, no eye contact, just barely acknowledging each other as we strolled on. They had bicycles leaning against the fence – their mode of transport, no doubt. Their Beemers.

When they were out of earshot, I turned to Fer and said “You know what, I think this might be the beginning of a favela. Vancouver’s first favela.”

You know, it could be a possibility. We have tent cities, but they are $100 tents scattered throughout Victoria Park, surrounded by oodles of social services. Those aren’t real favelas.

I’m talking about the truly despondent, the people who truly feel no hope, no way of integrating into society due to all the reasons we read about in our trustworthy newspapers – bad economy, no jobs, prejudice, mental illness, crystal meth, low self esteem, shitty clothes, no postal address, expensive housing, etc, etc, etc. That’s what contributed to the massive growth of favelas in Rio, in Sao Paulo, and many other places.

Now, look carefully at that photo of a favela. That is Rocinha, one of the “nicer” favelas just outside of Rio de Janeiro. I took that photo when I was there in June 2006. I had no idea I would even consider the possibility of something like that sprouting up here in Vancouver.

But after seeing that tarpaulin tent set up near Terminal Avenue, with rusty bicycles, bearded middle-aged men in smelly clothes and second-hand cigarettes collected from the sidewalk, I begin to wonder.

Are we really so naïve to think that it’ll never happen here?

I think we are. Canada’s had it so good, and so has Vancouver. All this “most beautiful city in the world” tripe that has been spoon-fed to us has gone to our collective heads.

That Terminal Avenue scene that we saw last summer could very well become a terminal problem for lovely Lotus Land, for La-La Land, for, yes, Terminal City.


Chris Ruiz said...

Crazy stuff man. When I was in Sao Paulo one of the most hard-hitting things I saw was a favela literally at the side of the freeway: people had constructed ramshackle dwellings from bricks and corrugated steel one on top of the other like they were about to fall over, and each 'unit' was about the size of a bathroom. The guy living in one was standing at his 'door' wearing ragged shorts, and all this a spitting distance from the gridlocked freeway where Jags and Mercs drive by from the airport. The guy didn't looked too pissed off though: he looked as if he was enjoying the spectacle of us all stuck in traffic for hours!