This is a Favela


Favela does not mean “slum,” and contrary to what you might read in ESPN, the entire city of Rio is not big blazing war zone.

Favela has no direct translation, but the proper word these days is “community,” and a full third of Rio’s 6 million citizens live in “communities,” probably more if there were official census numbers. Drug traffickers control a bunch of them, militias control an equal part, and others are peaceful communities that control themselves.

Hard to generalize such a large and sprawling population.

Since the time the first favela was settled after the abolition of slavery in the late 1800’s to today, an overarching theme in the city of Rio is Cidade Partida, or “divided city.”

That’s all changing as the city undergoes a dizzying transformation leading up to World Cup 2014, and the national branding exercise that is the Summer Olympics in 2016. Elite police squads and federal troops are kicking drug traffickers out and bringing the basics like electricity and the mailman, and in the case of one of Rio’s biggest favelas, why not, an air tram.

The pacification program, as it’s known, is working so far.

And while some favelas are getting upgrades, others are getting evicted to make way for the Olympics.

The eye of the storm is a favela called Vila Autódromo. Picture a thin strip of land on a lagoon settled by fishermen in the 1967, a half hour south of Ipanema Beach. Sandwiched between a race car track and the site of Rock in Rio, the biggest music festival on the planet, 10 yards away on either side. Now add the HSBC Arena and the site of the 2007 Pan-American games.

Throw the entire Olympics site right on top of that and you have either a small lower-middle class community in the epicenter of the future of entertainment in Rio or some of the most valuable real estate in the entire city.

Did I mention it’s perched on a beautiful (polluted) lagoon that Brazilian oil tycoon Ike Batista, the 8th richest man on the planet, has just promised to clean up?

This is a favela:

New signage at the entrance of Vila Autódromo, “A peaceful and orderly community since 1967.” Welcome to Vila Autódromo.

Walk a quarter mile down a road muddy from last week’s rain…

Past the playground…

Past a river residents clean up themselves…

Haircut with a view.

This part is where the river opens to the lagoon, Lagoa de Jacarepaguá. It’s a high-risk area that will either be rebuilt with better houses, or more likely Olympified with a footbridge connecting it to the Olympic Village 30 yards to the right.

Limbo status is not keeping some home owners on the lagoon from remodeling. Nice view:

We sell ice cream. Talk to Elaine.

See where it says SMH 265 on the right? That’s an official notice from one of the last two times this house was slated for eviction.

This car belongs to dog lovers.

Neighborhood dogs.

Nice day for a bike ride. Timbuk2 agrees.

This is Inalva, a Portuguese literature professor, cutting up some graviola fruit she grew in her lagoon-front back yard to make juice. Inalva was involved in successfully stopping the eviction of Vila Autódromo for the 2007 Pan-American Games.

She only buys organic.

This is her house. Yes, we are still in Vila Autódromo.

While the official Olympic City plans keep most of the community intact and residents have legal title to the land, they are still facing eviction to make way for more brand-appropriate luxury condos. In the Resident’s Association, the battle plan is taking shape.

(June 2012 status update: still fighting…)

In front of the Resident’s Association, Jane is one of three elected community leaders and an artist. She did the font.

Jane also helped build this plastic bottle Christmas tree installation at the entrance of the community. Can you spot the pink stretch Hummers?

Inside the art.

Photography by Julie Ruvolo.


Read more: 

The Pacification of Favelas in Rio de Janeiro: Why the Program is Working and What are the Lessons for Other Countries, a paper in progress by Stanford research program associate Stephanie Gimenez Stahlberg.

Favela Painting, an art project by art duo Haas&Hahn who also filmed a 2005 short doc on hip hop in Rio’s favelas that aired on MTV.