Monday, May 7, 2012

A little on favelas

A favela?

      What is a favela and how does it function?  Like one of those giant pieces of art made out of skittles or shoes or bicycle parts, the image seems clearer the further you are from it and breaks up when you look closer.  A common definition would say favela is the Brazilian word for slum.  And that's not wrong.  A slightly more technical one would mention the role rural-urban migration and the lack of formal financing and property rights play in shaping a favela.  When I'm on the bus and I see a hillside of brick and concrete houses zig-zagging their way down a hillside, some wedged into the most improbable slopes or valleys, the favela label seems obvious.  (I often wondered how the houses halfway up the hilll, with no access to the road besides a steep, narrow staircase were even built.  Then one day I saw men carrying bags of cement and armfuls of bricks down the stairs to construct another floor on one of those houses.)  But these same red brick and concrete houses, some of which are plastered and painted bright colors while others are left bare brick, lined the streets next to the apartment complex where I was staying on the outskirts of Salvador and it was hard to think of them as anything but houses.  And some of them weren't houses of course -- there were grocery stores, churches, and bars.  Men in shirts and ties and women in heels would wait at the dirt lot for buses that would take them to their jobs downtown.
        I take heart that in a paper I read about the ways of understanding a favela, the authors conclude early on that there are no good standards or criteria for defining one.  The collection of urban places that are lumped into the category have different histories, racial compositions, and economic ties to the city. A favela can be seen as a reservoir of people waiting their turn to enter the city's formal sector as unskilled workers, as a group of squatters breaking the city's social contract, as a breeding ground for illicit activity and a blindspot to laws and law enforcement, or a mosaic featuring the combination of people's creative ability to overcome flaws in urban planning.
        Varying degrees of each may be present in different favelas.  As with any place, there is likely a lot of variation.  Not every block of the South Bronx is gang territory and not everyone who lives in Orange County is superrich.  I'm left with lots of question.  The people who pick through the trash with dignity, sometimes a mother and child team, where do they live?  Next to the people in suits waiting for the bus to go downtown?  Or somewhere else?  How do they get water and sanitation services into such spontaneous neighborhoods?  And how long is it after a favela's construction before the city government even recognizes it exists?  Do the neighborhoods have any voice in politics?  Or do they only get any attention as charity or when they get of control, like when the government recently sent in the military police to take control of some favelas in Rio?  I tried to ask every person who sold me peanuts on the bus, or sodas in the front of the mall, or the delicious bean-fritter concotion called acaraje, how long they'd lived in Salvador, thinking they must be recent immigrants to have simple jobs like this in the informal sector selling snacks.  But almost every one one of them had lived in the city for more than twenty years.  How long will it be before all the favela residents find their places in the clean, modern, symmetrical apartments?  Will that ever happen and would it be a good thing?


  1. Did you take that photo of the houses on the slope? m.o.m.