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The Political Evolution of Rio de Janeiro's Favelas: Recent Works

From: Latin American Research Review
Volume 41, Number 3, 2006
pp. 149-163 | 10.1353/lar.2006.0044

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You've probably heard the one about Eskimo demography: how many Eskimos in the typical igloo? Five—a mother, father, two kids, and an anthropologist. The same joke might be made about Rio de Janeiro's favelas, but it would vastly undercount the anthropologists, to say nothing of the sociologists, political scientists, and assorted external agents of nongovernmental organizations. For the past forty years, Rio's squatter settlements have been among the most studied low-income neighborhoods in the world. Among the myths shattered by Janice Perlman's pathbreaking 1976 work The Myth of Marginality was that of the favela as an isolated zone, cut off from the broader economic, political, and social rhythms of the city. Thirty years later, it is clear that social scientists themselves have served as some of the foremost intermediaries between "favela" and "cidade," between the extralegal conglomerations of the squatter settlements and the institutions of political power and cultural capital in the legal metropolis. Until recently, that traffic remained heavily unidirectional, as university researchers entered favelas and reported back to the wider world. The slow but significant expansion of the population of university students hailing from the favelas and the far more rapid growth of nongovernmental organizations cultivating local agents trained in social scientific methods have begun to change this pattern. Partly as a result, recent studies and reports have reached new levels of density, combining "native" and "foreign" viewpoints to offer a richer understanding of the changing problems of these neighborhoods.

The most obvious theme of recent work is that there is no typical favela—there are at least 500 at latest reliable count, and they vary enormously in size, level of urbanization, incorporation into the larger city, and local history. Not surprisingly, a few—such as Rocinha, Santa Marta, and Mangueira—have attracted the lion's share of scholarly attention, for reasons of convenient location, newsmaking violence, cultural imprimatur and, more recently, ambitious programs of public outreach. Meanwhile, many smaller favelas on the outskirts of the city have not yet seen their anthropologist. As a result, scholarly production remains lopsided—we now have abundant knowledge of the large favelas of the South Zone, the area of the city that also concentrates middle-class residential neighborhoods and tourist hotels, and very little about the newer favelas of the rapidly growing Western Zone. There is no reason to assume that patterns that held true for the growth and development of Rocinha, the colossal South Zone favela with sixty years of history, will apply to that of Cavanco, a small favela in the western suburbs first settled in the early 1990s.

Nonetheless, recent production is diverse and sophisticated enough to bring to light several unifying themes tying together the political evolution of varying favelas over the past forty years. The four books under review here are exemplary both in their high standards and in representing important subgenres of what might be termed favela studies. A Favela Fala is a collection of oral histories of activists from four diverse neighborhoods. Its extensive, penetrating interviews offer sharp insight into a political shift from grand strategies and pan-favela organizing towards narrow programmatic focus on specific problems. Lucia is a biography/testimonio of one troubled woman from a South Zone favela. It grants an intimate view of the ravages left by the rise of the drug trade and organized crime and the corresponding rise of evangelical Christian sects in neighborhoods devastated by violence and fear. Integração Perversa is a collection of essays on drug trafficking and poverty by one of the outstanding scholars in the field. It considers this central relationship from a variety of perspectives and proposes reformist solutions. A Utopia da Comunidade is an interdisciplinary collection of essays tracing the history, organization, and internal contradictions of Rio das Pedras, a large favela in the Western Zone. It offers a compelling portrait of an atypical favela where no drug-trafficking gang has risen to power, allowing comparative assessment of social and economic factors affecting all favelas. Taken together, these four publications show the breadth of recent work and bring to light four key themes: the role of neighborhood associations, the construction of relationships between the...

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