Slumdog gringos

July 15, 2013

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

By Pilar Olivares

One day I decided to check out rumors that there were gringos living in the famous but feared “favelas” of Rio. I went to the Vidigal favela and asked residents if they knew any foreigners living there, and they confirmed, “This place has been invaded by gringos. Look around a while and you’ll see a parade of them, even Peruvians, Ecuadorians, from everywhere.”

Although the term gringo was originally coined in Mexico to refer to Americans, here it refers to any foreigner, even myself, a gringa from Peru.


There in Vidigal I met Ekaterina, an attorney from Russia who is living in the favela with her Chilean boyfriend, Marcos. Spending a day with them was like training myself to be a translator – Ekaterina doesn’t speak Spanish and is only just learning Portuguese, so her best language of communication here is English. Between photographing and interviewing, I often ended up in the middle of the couple and their language problems.

For Ekaterina, living in Rio means lowering her standard of living and status that she had in other cities of Europe, where she lived before coming here. Here she is giving English classes while Marcos works as a street artist. This city is expensive, and it’s far from easy to get by without a stable job. The only housing option for them was a favela, where a two-room apartment rents for about $200 a month. No other neighborhood in Rio’s center or southern districts has anything near it in size that cheap.

Marcos is happy. He adapts to anything while Ekaterina constantly complains. “I can’t stand the filth. I don’t like it when the people yell a lot. It sounds as if they were always fighting. I’ll never get used to this. Sometimes I feel like yelling, ‘Get me out of here, Mom!’”

It’s been five years since the first of the “Pacifying Police Units” (UPP) was installed in the favelas closest to the upscale neighborhoods. Since then much of the city’s real estate that is now safer has been appreciating in value as owners reopen apartments or dwellings that they had shuttered and abandoned. For that reason it’s now a business opportunity, and gringos who live in Rio are the most sought after tenants.

One person who experienced the war against drug trafficking is Mara, an Italian artist who arrived in Rio seven years ago. Mara lives alone with her six-year-old daughter Maya in a small apartment in the notorious Rocinha favela which costs $250 per month. She says that when she hears gunshots she throws herself down to the ground and waits for it to end. Death can come at any time, whether walking the streets, waiting for a train, or standing inside your home. Mara says she’s not afraid and things will happen when they have to happen.

To reach Mara’s home we had to climb up so many steps that my knees nearly gave out. She walks fast out of habit, so fast that I could hardly photograph during the climb. There were places where I had to stash my camera in a backpack; some parts of Rocinha are too dangerous to photograph, especially near her home where there is a “boca de fumo,” akin to a crack alley. As we passed near drug vendors Mara would order me in a low voice, “Put the camera away, put it away!”

However you look at it, Rocinha is much calmer now than before, although anything can still happen.

The story of Tom is a little different from the others. Tom is a trumpet player from England who arrived in Rio five years ago with the goal of experiencing Brazil’s music. Tom found a small apartment belonging to a French expatriate, who rents it for $400. It’s high up near the hilltop of the Pareira da Silva favela, with an impressive view of Sugarloaf Mountain.

Tom knows that the money he pays could be used to rent a room in Rio’s center, but he says his reason for being there is not just economic. He likes to live with the slum dwellers to learn about the culture and roots behind Brazilian music.

Tom is well-liked by his neighbors, as one of the few gringos who mixes with others in the community. One of his friends told me, “There are gringos who come here only to make money, open hostels, and contribute nothing to the community. Sometimes they arrange parties for gringos only, without Brazilans. Tom is different. Children, his music students, greet him on the street, and the owner of a small shop chats with him.

When I accompanied him to look for a friend who lives down the hill we walked along streets so dark that I felt it too unsafe to walk with a camera. But Tom assured me in his relaxed English accent, “It’s very safe here, nothing will happen.” Along the way I noticed some silhouettes in the darkness that spooked me, but only after we returned to his home did he confess that those truly were “mysterious.” Still, he assured me that nobody touches the local gringos.

Tom says that in Rio he has a more active social life than in London, participating in samba events where he plays with others musicians. He has close friends in the favela.

“Rio is an excellent place for a musician,” he said. His only worry is his ability to support a future family. He wouldn’t think of sending kids to a public school or a public hospital. The cost of living and private services like education and health is so high that Tom concludes, “To live a comfortable life in Brazil you have to be rich.”

As a new gringa resident myself in Rio, I understand perfectly what it is like to find a decent place at a fair price to live in. Favelas are attractive for their overviews, but also for their prices. In spite of them being much cheaper than upscale neighborhoods like Ipanema and Copacabana, favelas like Babilonia and Chapeu Mangueira, where the police installed UPP’s in 2009, have seen apartment rents more than double in the past four years. Major sporting events like the World Cup and Olympics soon to be hosted by Rio, are a main reason for the boom in rents. So without the most obvious danger from drug gangs, favelas are more and more a viable option.

When we arrived in Rio to live last year we visited many apartments, and so many of them were in bad shape with such high prices that we immediately thought we might not find a decent place to live. We finally did find a place in Santa Teresa, a neighborhood that before the arrival of the UPP’s was considered dangerous. It’s not cheap and it takes a sacrifice to live there, but with a school-aged son we think it’s worth it. Otherwise, a favela might have been our best option too.

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