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  • Living with Insecurity in a Brazilian Favela: Urban Violence and Daily Life by R. Ben Penglase
  • Erika Robb Larkins
R. Ben Penglase, Living with Insecurity in a Brazilian Favela: Urban Violence and Daily Life. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2014. 224 pp.

On the enormous 250-step staircase in Lapa known as Escadaria Selaron, a hand-painted tile called “Favela” features a surreal self-portrait of the artist Jorge Selarón along with a bit of sage advice about favela life: “Living in a favela is an art. Nobody robs. Nobody hears. Nothing is lost. Those who are wise obey those who give orders.” Ben Penglase’s book, Living with Insecurity in a Brazilian Favela: Urban Violence and Daily Life, takes up the task of more fully elucidating this “art” of favela living. The book carefully and sensitively addresses what the author calls “(in) security,” as it shapes favela residents’ daily lives. Drawing on long-term experience in the community of Caxambu, Penglase seeks not simply to explain (in)security, but to “portray it, describe it, and perhaps give a sense of what it felt like” (26). What emerges is a highly nuanced and subtle ethnography which teases out the complexities of (in)security and gives equal attention to resident perspectives.

One of the books’ major contributions is the elaboration of Michel de Certeau’s (1984) distinction between “strategies” (for the powerful—ways of enacting change at the level of wider structures of society) and “tactics” (for the less powerful—ways of exercising agency that manage risk at a smaller scale) in the favela context (6). The focus on tactics resonates particularly well within the Brazilian cultural context and is effective in highlighting the ways in which residents are able to exercise agency, even if their agency is ultimately circumscribed by larger power structures.

Knowing how to live in Caxambu, the author explains, “meant maintaining a constant attentiveness to how to dodge, evade, or turn to one’s advantage the obstacles that life placed in one’s path” (7). Each of the [End Page 831] substantive chapters of the book looks at an obstacle or moment of crisis, weaving together a skillful analysis of violence in wider Rio with ethnographic details the author captures in Caxambu.

In the opening chapter, Penglase situates his work within the anthropological study of violence. He emphasizes that violence is a productive force, “generating new meanings, emotions, practices, and forms of subjectivity” (18). Though the ethnographic details of the book reveal these forms of production for the reader, the author is mindful not to present violence or insecurity as somehow separate from larger social practices. Race, class, gender, and space all intersect in vital ways with everyday (in) security in Caxambu. Penglase further emphasizes that experiences of violence are often uncertain and contradictory. (In)security is unstable. At the same time, residents themselves employ ambiguity as a mitigating tactic.

Chapter 2 situates the author as an actor by discussing his own experiences of (in)security as a researcher and examining how he unwittingly reproduced tropes of safety and danger in accounting for his fieldwork. In this chapter, and indeed throughout the book, Penglase does a commendable job of locating himself in the narrative in a light, yet meaningful way. In particular, I found his discussion of “feeling estressado (stressed) without even knowing why” (64-66) to be an insightful way of helping the reader to understand the embodied experience of living in a state of (in)security.

Chapter 3 looks at the spatial dynamics of the favela “familiar,” meant both in the sense of familiar and family based and, at the same time, full of what Penglase calls “dangerous intimates”—drug traffickers with deep ties to the community. Shared history and spatial organization create an intimacy that complicates (in)security. The task for residents then, is “how to manage to be both close enough to these dangerous intimates to avoid their violence or perhaps even secure some of their assistance and yet distant enough to avoid becoming entangled in their violence” (97).

The structures of authority of the favela’s drug traffickers are the topic of Chapter 4. Through a tactic that the...