Hope In a Whirlwind of Adversity: Rio De Janeiro’s Favelas

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1st Place High School Essay Contest 2021

Along the alleys and narrow streets that line Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, the informal settlements whose distinctive red cinder block shacks stack row-by-row across Rio’s picturesque hillscape, a unique blend of music, dance, art, and sociability flourishes. Musicians play in front 

of grocery stores whose owners sell drinks to a lively audience; percussionists drum Afro-Latin polyrhythms whose electrifying beats mix with the blaring of telenovelas; street artists line walls with colorful murals as community organizations teach classes on soccer, dance, and capoeira. If Rio’s opulent beachside neighborhoods are the city’s economic center, then its favelas are undeniably its cultural one. 

This portrait of Rio’s favelas, one that emphasizes their colorful culture, appears in stark contrast to the portrait that outside media tends to paint of them. In the Global North, favelas are best known for their negatives: violence, drug trafficking, and poverty. These are significant problems afflicting Rio’s 1.5 million predominately black and mixed-raced favelados. However, such issues do not negate nor conflict with the favelas’ vibrant and dynamic culture. In fact, they coexist with and even shape that culture, a relationship born directly from the favelas’ historically precarious relationship to the state. 

Rio de Janeiro’s first favela formed in the late 19th century (Duhaime 2014, 6). Dozens followed as an intense housing shortage drove thousands of poor and primarily-black residents and newly-arrived migrants from the asfalto, the asphalt representing Rio’s “formal” neighborhoods, to the morros, the hills. Almost immediately, the favelas were neglected and stigmatized by Rio’s government. To the state, favelas were corrupt “aberrations” rife with “deserters, thieves, and squaddies” (Douglas 2016). Eventually, both Rio and Brazil’s governments opted to eradicate the favelas, relocating 35,000 families to poorly-maintained housing projects over 30 years (Barke, Escasany, and O’Hare 2006).

Eradication was abandoned in the late 1970s in favor of ambitious urbanization projects that represented the first substantive efforts by the state to provide the favelas with much-needed urban services. Unfortunately, as Brazil’s government expanded them into the 2000s, most projects fell short of meaningfully improving favela conditions (Duhaime 2014, 10). 

Today, many favelas have developed substantially. However, many still lack things like health clinics, and favelados still face rampant stigmatization from the state and the wealthier, whiter asfaltos. Favelados’ most direct interactions with the state now come in their interactions with militarized police forces. Ostensibly there to combat drug gangs that, in the absence of a meaningful state presence, came to dominate much of favela life in the 1980s, Rio’s police have effectively waged a war on the favelas themselves (Moreira and Evanson 2011). Known to harbor extreme prejudices against the favelados, Rio’s police shoot carelessly, barge unannounced into homes and schools, and leave favelados in constant danger of crossfire between them and the drug gangs. 

Police violence is yet the latest consequence from a government that for over a century has neglected, impoverished, and marginalized favelados. This history is key to understanding favela culture. 

Favelados have historically been forced to provide water, sanitation, infrastructural, and, more recently, internet services themselves. This is manifested in culture practices like mutirão, where neighbors assemble “to build houses, pave roads, install sewage systems, clean streets,” or do any collective work (Moreira and Evanson 2011, 23). Mutirão reflects the centrality of community and solidarity in favela culture. 

Early on, community emerged as a tool for favelados to overcome social challenges. Neighbors formed deep connections with one another that generated feelings of sociability,

energy, and joy in the midst of their hardship. In turn, community has allowed favelados to form vast social networks across which cultural productions flourish. Samba, for instance, emerged in the favelas in the early 20th century as one of these cultural productions. Over time, the music and dance form came to exemplify the role of resistance in favela culture, as well. 

Resistance refers to the ways in favelados use culture to challenge the conditions of stigma and abandonment imposed on them by the state. Community can be thought of as a form of indirect resistance, in that it empowers favelados to face those conditions. In the case of samba, resistance was overt, coming in the form of biting lyrics that protested poverty, marginalization, and racism on the part of the state and the asfaltos (Barke, Escasany, and O’Hare 2006). The last note is especially, as it highlights how favelas have often been vehicles for expressions of African heritage within Brazilian society. Favela culture is soaked in African heritage, and resistance is frequently racial. 

Resistance is intertwined throughout most, if not all of favela culture. It is seen in passinho dance-offs that empower younger favelados to dream beyond the conditions poverty imposed on them (Cronin 2016); it is expressed by the favelas’ emerging rap scene, whose verses deliver scathing critiques of Rio’s police (Almeida 2016); it is manifested in favelados simply enduring. 

Resistance and community are locked in a symbiotic relationship that forms the lifeblood of favela culture. Over time, the state has taken on different roles in relation to that culture. At times, the state has sponsored the appropriation of favela culture into the “mainstream” asfalto society. At other times, the state has assaulted it, as was the case with the eradication campaigns, which fractured many of those social networks vital to cultural production (Barke, Escasany, and O’Hare 2006). Ironically, however, the state has always played a pivotal role in the creation of

favela culture. Community and resistance are the expressions of a population that has been invisibilized for a century and which has chosen to use culture as means to fight back. In recent decades, an important trend has emerged in the favelas. Favela-based community organizations and news outlets have begun to assert their voices not only within Brazil, but also on the international stage. Yes, favelas remain best known for their negatives. But favelados are tirelessly working to change that perception, and culture, naturally, is their primary weapon. In a whirlwind of adversity, culture has always provided hope.


Almeida, Angela. “Inside the Rio Rap Scene Calling Out Police Brutality.” VICE, 2016. https://www.vice.com/en/article/qbnjpm/rio-brazil-rap-police-violence-roda-de-rima-prot est-brutality. 

Barke, Michael, Tony Escasany, and Greg O’Hare. “Samba: A Metaphor for Rio’s Favelas.” Cities, 2001. 

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/229093743_Samba_A_Metaphor_for_Rio’s_Fa velas. 

Cronin, Sarah. “The Story of Passinho, the Favela Dance That Opened the 2016 Olympics [VIDEO].” RioOnWatch, August 20, 2016. https://www.rioonwatch.org/?p=30466. 

Douglas, Bruze. “The Story of Cities #15: the Rise and Ruin of Rio De Janeiro’s First Favela.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, April 5, 2016. 

https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/apr/05/story-cities-15-rio-de-janeiro-first-favela -providencia-2016-olympic-games. 

Duhaime, Brianna, “The Role of Culture in Social Displacement: AfroReggae in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.” Honors College. 2014. Moreira, Alves Maria Helena, and Philip Evanson. Living in the Crossfire Favela Residents, Drug Dealers, and Police Violence in Rio De Janeiro. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2011.