Liliane Santos da Favela Rochina
On the second day of our visit to Rio de Janeiro, my son, who had spent a semester at Pontificia Universida de Catolica, rang our room at the Best Western Ipanema: he was waiting for us with a classmate, Liliane from the favela of Rochina. My friend Annette, a Rosebud Sioux with French blood now living in Hawaii, and I agreed we had to penetrate a favela, but we both though that taking a “tour” with a company would put us in the uncomfortable role of spectators. Annette imagined what it would be like to have a tour through Pine Ridge, South Dakota—one of the poorest communities in the U.S. Annette’s daughter has lived there and we both agreed that “gawking” would constitute a violation of the subjects’ dignity.
On our first day we went to the beach; it was ghastly. The water was brown from sugar cane run-off and sewage. “I’m not going in there,” Annette said grimly. What appeared to be fog was actually smog, heavier than in Los Angeles.
Liliane greeted us warmly, and kissed me on the cheek: at that point I did not realize that my son had not hung out with Liliane before. She was loving. Dark-skinned and well-built: evidence of her genetic roots in the Congo, where the Portuguese imported their slaves. After their emancipation in 1888, the slaves fled to the countryside, but returned to squat on the steep slopes of the tropical mountains when labor was needed. Over time, corporations dominated farming, particularly the sugar crop. The favela of Rochina was once called “Little Farm”, and grew over time from a shanty town to a city with houses made of concrete and brick stacked against the mountain, sometimes eleven stories high. This is now home to at least 60,000 or more.
There are hundreds of favelas in Rio de Janeiro, and as the government plans to create a new, First World identity for the upcoming World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games in 2016, they have asked Google maps to reconfigure the labeling of this complex city of 11 million so the favelas are not so easily identifiable.
In Rio de Janeiro First World apartment buildings are surrounded by eight foot fences made of steel poles, security cameras mounted on top. The juxtaposition of the wealthy with the extreme poor was unnerving: outside a boisterous up-scale restaurant in downtown Ipanema, a bare-foot boy is crying and holding out a cup. We passed him, and then when Annette, Liliane, my son Justin, and I settle into a restaurant, I realize a missed opportunity.
“What did I do?” I berated myself. “I should have given him some money.”
“Mom, remember Peru. My mother gave all her money away…” my son admonished me. He ordered beer, a privilege he enjoys in Brasilia as he has yet to see his 21st birthday. Liliane was not ordering; she was looking uncomfortable.
“This is on me,” I said.
She shook her head, and covered her face. “No, no. Please.”
“It’s fine, I would love to treat you and Justin,” I insisted.
Finally, she relented, and ordered beer and Red Bull. Soon plates of barbequed chicken and sausage, rice and beans arrived.
“Yeah,” Justin continued, “In Cusco, we were surrounded by native people as soon as we left the hotel.”
In Rio I was looking for native people; they had been enslaved along with the Africans. I knew there were tribes living in the Brazilian rain forest, trying to live in the traditional way. Precious metals used for technology have been discovered, and now there is a mining boom in Brazil.
“What could I do?” I mused. These were indigenous people: this was their square.
As one boy told me in a hamburger joint, “No hamburger for me? This is my square.”
We ran out of money; a woman can only buy so many finger puppets. Liliane liked to buy novelty items. She took some erasers from a bag: my favorite was shaped into a small pizza; one could take a “slice” to use, then return it to the pie. She wore little butterfly clips in her dense hair. She was constantly checking her cell phone.
“I think friends should be for life,” Liliane said. “I only have a few friends. One is a transvestite. Well, I should say once a year he is a transvestite.”
I assumed he must participate in Carnival. We all pledge to be friends for life.
Liliane told us about her dream to go to America. “I want to see New York. Washington D.C. I need to save up $2,500.” Annette told her that she would need much more.
We decided after lunch that it was time to take the bus up to Rochina; Liliane would take Annette and me, while Justin would head up to the college to collect his transcripts. He had been living for a number of months in Vidigal, a favela south of Rochina.
We to took a bus to the bottom of the favela, and would transfer to another for the ride up the steep winding road once used as a race course. Liliane pointed out a fourteen story social services building serving the favela. President Dilma Rousseff, once a part of Palmares Armed Revolutionary Vanguard under the former military dictatorship, has initiated an anti-poverty program. The country is infusing resources into the favelas by subsidizing small businesses and upgrading housing, sanitation, and electricity. Cell phone companies and telecom businesses can now be found in the favelas.
We were all casually dressed in shorts and t-shirts in the 95 degree heat. I tucked my blonde hair under my UPF 50 “Lotus Hat” (“embrace your inner nomad”) which probably made me look more conspicuous as a gringa, but it kept me cool.
At the mouth of Via Apua, motorcycles waited for tourists. I’ve read the ride up can be harrowing: the customers then mince their way down, passing cafes, bars, tiny churches, stores. This is best done during daylight, and common sense would direct most people away from the narrow alleys that lead deeper into the housing areas.
We took the bus part way up, and the activity on the streets was a sensory overload for me. When we got off, Liliane wanted to walk further up so we could have a one of the best views from Rochina: tropical forest, some of the wealthier areas of Rio, and a view of the Atlantic. But what caught my attention, as well as Annette’s, were the three policia with MK47’s. I looked at them; they looked at me. I took a picture of the scenery with my Blackberry. While there were no signs forbidding photos, I felt each photo I took to be an act of transgression.
“Oh,” I said to Liliane, “I would love to get their picture.”
“No,” she murmured and shook her head, avoiding the eyes of the police, “It’ too complicated.”
I admired the way she could set boundaries; I’m a risk-taker. I grew up in Detroit, currently one of the most violent and also abandoned cities in the U.S. Rochina was pacified as recently as November of 2011, when police stormed into the community with the intent of smoking out the drug dealers.
The first business we visited was a fish market: I looked at the fish encased in crushed ice and wondered where they had been caught. Guanabara Bay has become notorious for its contamination. Raw sewage and industrial waste from sugar processing, as well as trash, has all but eliminated it as a source for fish. The Rio + 20, a United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development held in June of 2012 could use the city has a case study of environmental catastrophe. Where to start? Hotels provide bottled water at four dollars a pop; we had to find stores for water at more reasonable prices.
Sanitation problems cannot solely be attributed to the poor. In 1985 apartment buildings for the well-to-do were built without adequate treatment for sewage, and this transformed Marapendi Lagoon into a cesspool. Only about sixty percent of water goes through a treatment process.
Liliane then took us to a sweets shop, where she treated us to iced acacia. We sat at a small table at the open market, watching people stream by. Across the street was an open-aired beauty shop, and I began to notice women who had dyed their hair blonde.
We then turned toward an alley way, perhaps four feet wide, to make an ascent to Liliane’s community. There was a century of grime in the alley ways, tangled wires and unplanned culverts where sewage water ran. Liliane took me by the hand as my own son might, helping me to negotiate the uneven stairs. I was sweating and out of breath. I turned to Annette, who clearly recognized the treachery of the place. We could not have done this without Liliane: I felt so grateful. The houses are so close that young men leaped from roof top to roof top above us. Liliane pointed out a foot wide culvert in which she fell as a child and hurt her foot. “I will never forget that.”
We came face to face with a beautiful white cat on a staircase. “Gatablanca,” I said using my limited Portuguese vocabulary. I took that as my nick name, for I did feel like a cat. The many electrical lines in Rochina are the result of a rogue tapping of lines from the rich community. The term “fazergato” is used: “to make like a cat.”Liliane saw her nephews above her, “I love them. I love them so much.” She called to them, and they came down to meet us, speaking respectfully in English.
“I can’t introduce you to my auntie; she doesn’t like whites. Please understand.”
We passed her auntie’s porch; her lover had just arrived and we could feel the heat between them. We reached the terrace of an older aunt of Liliane. She was friendly, but retreated into her home. Rows of baby clothes were hung out to dry. I went to the edge and saw a kite dangling.
“We love kites up here,” Liliane said.
I knew, but did not tell Liliane that I knew, that these kites were used to alert the drug dealers to the presence of police. These tactics of resistance, including the use of fireworks, were common before pacification.
Finally, we reached Liliane’s family compound. It had been freshly painted white. Immaculately clean. In the hallway was a blackboard where Liliane taught catechism to neighborhood children.
“Please don’t look at the kitchen,” Liliane cried out in embarrassment.
“My sink is always full of dishes. Don’t worry about it,” Annette assured her.
She showed us her library with an impressive collection of books. Liliane’s father watched television in one of the rooms. She gestured to another part of the house which they intended to rent; as part of a pilot project, Liliane’s family will be given legal land tenure. Both of her parents have service jobs in the nearby hotels.
Liliane took us to the house’s terrace. High above the favela, we had a glimpse of the sea. “It’s so beautiful. I can feel it.”
I could feel the peace and freedom. Annette murmured, “I love it here.”
The windows of other homes were very close. I looked down and saw the bare belly of a man.
“What if he wanted to make love?” I wondered aloud.
“It is too hot to make love,” Liliane proclaimed. “Be free…” She took down a mattress propped up against the wall. There was a sheet on it.
“Relax….just be free.” She put some Brazilian music on her stereo system. I laid back to rest.
Without fanfare, Liliane’s father went into the small room across from us. He was wearing a white muscle shirt and pants, a stark contrast with his ebony skin. He performed capoeira,a combination of martial arts and dance. For centuries this has been used as an act of resistance: under the scrutiny of the oppressor, the menace can be morphed into a harmless art.
“Simpatico!” I cried out after his performance. Annette and I clapped. Liliane took out her photo albums. She showed us a picture of her great-grandmother, a native of Brasilia. She showed us a picture of a great-grandfather from the Congo. She then took out her debutant photos. Liliane was fifteen at the time of her celebration and she was dressed in a strapless, beautiful white gown with a full skirt.
“I want it back,” she said, “I want it all back.” She had taken off a light-weight blouse and was wearing a tank top undershirt. She looked down at her breasts with regret. She folded her shoulders over her breasts in shame.
“You’re still beautiful,” Annette reassured her.
When we arrived at the island the next day, I realized I had lost my medications: Xanax for my anxiety and pstd, my mood stabilizer, and my sleep medication. I was in a panic. I remember taking things out on the boat to the island. I remembered that Liliana was looking through my bag, and tried on some eye-make-up. Could she have…? Annette and my son were supportive, but I had to go cold turkey. I slept by taking HCl, and the first night I had convulsions, withdrawal from the other drugs. I did have my Paxil, which was some comfort.
After we returned to the city, the three of us had dinner at a disappointing restaurant. We were famished and dehydrated. We had planned to go clubbing at Lapa, but Annette and I conceded that we could not keep up with Liliane and Justin. Liliane drank beer and Red Bull again. She was texting her friends and Justin. Annette and I talked later about what might have happened that night: Liliane texted Justin; he texted back, but they never connected. At five in the morning we received a phone call to our room, but we were sleeping too deeply to even consider answering it.
We told Liliane to call us when we arrived back from the island. We would be staying at The Sheraton: a bulwark of the First World at the south end of the city across the from the favela of Vidigal.
When we returned from the idyllic island, Annette was pleased to check into the Sheraton, with its four-star comforts. She fell face first into the clean white sheets and big pillows.
“Oh, I love this.” For a moment she was hovering in the air, defying gravity.
I had slipped on the muddy rocky trails of Ilho Grande; so I decided to swim from beach to beach, and cut up my legs on barnacles. I felt like Cabeza de Vaca Nunez as he stumbled from his ship wreck to the white sands of Florida.
Justin (his father’s name is Nunez) helped us check in, and told the people at entrance that he was my son and would be visiting from time to time. He blended in well with the local population. He has Portuguese blood, as well as Hispanic. His grandfather was brown-skinned, and the family acknowledged a great grandmother from the Cree Tribe. Justin’s hair is brown,and his skin is light brown.
I slept late the next morning, exhausted from the travel. Besides the cuts on my legs from the barnacles, I had consumed a salad at the Sheraton, and succumbed to stomach problems. I had broken one of the rules; local water and vegetables washed in water were to be avoided. I didn’t feel like eating anything.
We found out before dinner that the beach was “closed”. One staircase led down to the beach and it would open in the morning. There were warnings about safety, and there was a prohibition on swimming. Annette and I concluded that this was the gate between the First and Third Worlds. We could see the two stairways on opposite sides of the Sheraton where the people came to the beach. People from the favelas; all kinds of people. There were a few huge rocks where kids would climb and then jump into the Atlantic. Boys played soccer. We also had to face the fact that the cold Atlantic was the repository for the city’s waste—not safe. We opened our window and looked out at Vidigal: many homes are in the process of renovation. Down below us, we watched drug dealers exchange packages on the street.
Annette called the room in the morning: “It’s a beautiful day, but it’s going to be hot. I’m down near the pools.”
When I pulled myself together and took the elevator down to the veranda, I saw that Liliane had arrived and was sitting under an umbrella with Annette. We had agreed that we would offer to take Liliane to see the famous statue of Christ on the mountaintop. She had never been there. In the Four Corners area where I live, many people have not been to the Grand Canyon.
“You won’t believe what happened,” Annette began. “I went to meet Liliane at the front desk. They told her that only registered guests were allowed. I told them that she was visiting us. They said, ‘If she gets into a pool, or goes up to the room, we will charge you ten hundred dollars.’”
I was appalled. “That’s disgusting!”
Liliane shook her head. “It’s been this way since I was born,” she said sadly, “I’m used to it.” She began to look at her cell phone, a way to mitigate the pain. “I hate myself. I’m so ashamed.” She put her hands over her face.
“This is…unbelievable,” I stammered. “Liliane, you are beautiful.”
“No, I’m not.” She gave me a card that she had written to Justin. Thank you so much for introducing me to your mother…she is so fucking cool. I felt like crying when I read it.
A security officer appeared with her walkie-talkie and stood about five feet away. She was wearing a suit jacket and skirt in the heat. She was standing next to the steps that led down to the “sanctioned” beach area, complete with a security guard.
“I guess there are rules…” Liliane ventured. “I just don’t want my parents to lose their jobs.”
My stomach was clenched. A service worker came over with hot towels which he offered us on prongs. He was kind enough to include Liliane. We all refreshed our faces.
“My mother is upset with me. We had a fight. She said I should not have brought you into the house. That it wasn’t appropriate.”
“Oh, god, I’m sorry.” I said. I did not want Liliane to suffer.
“I’m going to get an apartment…” she responded. She had drawn in her wings to cover herself.
“I wonder what they would do if Justin came,” Annette speculated. Annette’s parents lived during the era when restaurants in Nebraska and South Dakota posted “No Dogs or Indians” signs.
“Liliane, do you know what apartheid means?” I asked. I felt dizzy and my stomach clenched up in a fist.
“Yes, yes,” she responded with weariness, “Nelson Mandela, South Africa.”
“I lived in a segregated city. But it changed. I was too young for the Civil Rights movement, but we eliminated segregation.”
“Martin Luther King,” Liliane said flatly, “you don’t know what our police do to us. They pepper spray us. They club us…”
“They hosed down the Civil Rights workers. Sometimes blood has to be shed…” Quite suddenly I was back in my teens, and I could feel the pain and shock of hearing of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death over the loud speaker in school. We were dismissed.
I started to cry, unexpectedly. I was back there.“That summer the city burned.” I remembered the tanks from the National Guard, the smell of smoke in the air of Detroit.
“It’s hard to keep up with you, English is my second language. I am part German, part native, part African. I will be strong. I will get out of this country.”
I was shaky. I told Liliane and Annette that I would go up to my room to get some money so we could buy cold juice; I was weak from hunger, but I didn’t know what would stay in my system. Liliane walked toward the restaurant with me to check out the menu.
“Voce e gente boa,” I said to Liliane and gave her a hug.
“Where did you learn that?”
I went to the room for cash, and when I went to the elevator there was a security guard inside. He accompanied me to the room.
When I told my son about this, he thought I was being paranoid. Back on the pool deck I found Annette, but Liliane had disappeared.
“She couldn’t handle it; she fled to the beach.”
“We were going to take her to see the statue of Christ.” This was darkly comic.
“I guess the staff talked with her. They told her that the security guards suspected that we wanted to take her to the room to have a ménage a trois. What sick, sick minds these people have.”
“Oh, that is so….perverse. Is that what they thought? Jesus.”
Annette responded with an ironic laugh. “We are women unaccompanied by men, so we must be lesbians.”
We were disgusted. Visceral repulsion. Annette said she would complain.
“I don’t think they give a shit about what we think,” I said.
Annette did talk with the front desk when she checked out, but they said they were only trying to “protect” us from the locals. When the Olympic athletes come to town in 2016, the hotel staff will have to develop a system to sort out the locals from the black-skinned competitors from all over the world.
Leaving the city for the airport, I considered the challenges faced by Rio de Janeiro as they prepare for the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. On the concrete walls the brightly colored graffiti is ubiquitous. The cab driver told me that a German man had bought four houses in Vidigal: “That will be the next Beverly Hills. There’s nowhere else to build.”
As we travelled farther east and north, I noted that ads for cars and clothing posted on the walls over the graffiti, and the presence of big box stores. The cargo containers are bringing First World products to the city. Yet the spectacle of favelas as far as the eye can see cannot easily be disguised. Abandoned apartment buildings looked slated for demolition, but I still saw traces of human occupation. In Detroit, such buildings have to be boarded up, or they become occupied by the homeless or crack dealers. Some of the favelas have housing made of materials obtained from dumps: tarps, tin, cardboard. Most egregious was the presence of humans living on cardboard on a five-foot wide strip of median between two lanes of traffic.
To celebrate the Olympics there are plans to build a solar plant on an island in the Bay; it will rise 105 meters above sea level, and on special occasions this machine building will display a waterfall. In 2013, Donald Trump will start construction on two of five Towers he plans to build near this same area of the city. Cleaning up the sewage and trash filled bays will require millions of dollars. And the ocean? How will we clean our oceans? I remain vexed.
According to The News Tribune (3/29/2013), there is a legal battle over the government’s demolition of the Indian Museum, which ironically is occupied by homeless natives. After they gave a ten minute warning for the natives to leave, the police came in with pepper gas, according to a protester. The Homes Workers Movement is active in calling attention to demolition of communities by the government to prepare for the World Cup. I can hear the bulldozers. This past summer the Brazilian government raised the price of bus tickets to help pay for the stadium: the aftermath was dramatic. Crowds of up to 20,000 people demonstrated against this price rise in the streets of Sao Paulo, Rio, and Brasilia. I thought of a line from one of Bob Dylan’s songs: “There was revolution in the air….”
Liliane: stay strong. We have a long struggle ahead as we try to create a Fourth World where we can love one another without shame.