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Brazzil - Poverty - September 2004

In Brazil, the Poorer the Better for the Rich

Brazil is a very class conscious culture. The majority of politicians
and the elite in control have little desire to change the lives of
the poor. The lower class is viewed as a source of affordable
domestic labor. Street children are seen as nuisances and favelas
as crime areas which should be left to the police to deal with.

Jennifer Grant

Picture If there are so many poor people in Brazil, how can they afford to buy things?

In stores in Rio many items are marked with two prices. The first one is the cost of the item if you pay the entire purchase price up front. The second is a credit-plan amount which specifies both the payment price and number of premiums needed to own the product. It also lets you know if interest must be included in the payments.

Many people, who cannot readily afford to purchase up front, opt for the credit- plan. When one buys many items in this manner, everything adds up. This results in some Cariocas spending their thirteenth salary (a mandatory bonus salary generally paid at the end of the year) just to try and catch up on their debts.

For those who pay the whole amount at once, what form does the payment take?

Just as in the United States, Rio's residents use cash, check, and credit card. Writing bad checks is also a problem in Brazil. One way the country copes with this problem is to post the name of bad check writers on a web site which can be accessed by both merchants and the general public.

The fact that someone's friends or boss can go online and see whether they have honest payment habits serves as a personal deterrent in addition to protecting the store owners.

Why do so many things cost $1.00 or even amounts which don't require change?

It seems that both Rio's sellers and buyers hate to deal with change. For low-priced items, like a drink or a sandwich, charging exactly $1.00 serves to make things quicker and easier for everyone.

Do both rich and poor Cariocas shop in the same areas and buy the same types of things?

Like anywhere the world over, people tend to shop in their own bairros where there is easier access and they know with whom they are dealing. Naturally, the more income one has, the more they can afford. The price of the goods is marked accordingly.

Does everyone own their own appliances?

While appliances of all types are available, members of the lower class cannot always afford to possess their own. In the favelas, the apparatus with the most personal value is usually the television. Everyone either has their own, or, at the minimum, a sharing arrangement with their neighbor.

Do Carioca appliances resemble and operate the same as those in the United States?

While they are just as adequate in the way they function, the appliances may appear and operate somewhat differently.

What about furniture?

Furniture tends to be generally smaller in actual size as well as built to occupy less space. This is because the average home generally comprises a more compact area. Also, the average Brazilian is somewhat more petite than the average American.

Furniture tends to be hand made as opposed to factory produced. Varnished wood and cast iron metal are the materials used most frequently. Kitchens come in complete units.

Do Cariocas use computers to the same extent as people in the United States?

Computers are widely used in Rio. A variety of Internet services originate there. However, a smaller percentage of the population can afford machines of their own. To help solve the problem, Internet cafés have sprung up in many of the bairros.

An Internet café allows someone to rent a computer by the hour. In the favelas, nonprofit organizations are providing residents with local access. These organizations, along with individual volunteers, offer support and training in computer technology.

Are Cariocas animal lovers?

Very much so. In fact, the Brazilian term for pet, animal de estimação, translates to `treasured animal'. While some could argue that the title is only to differentiate them from livestock, the phrase also reflects how deeply pets are valued.

Dogs and cats both make popular companions. Those who live in Rio's most crowded bairros tend to keep smaller dogs, due to lack of exercise space within their apartment living quarters. However, many breeds and sizes can be found throughout the city.

Among the most popular are toy poodles, bull terriers, Yorkshires, Labradors, and Cocker Spaniels. Of course, mixed-breeds are everywhere. Dogs can be seen roaming unsupervised in favela streets, but rarely in heavily traveled parts of the city.

How do the homes of the wealthy differentiate from those of the poor?

Wealthy and middle class houses and apartments are usually situated within blocks of the beach or else near other areas of beauty and leisure like the Tijuca National Forest or the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, a lovely recreation area complete with lagoon and park. Even when the actual square footage is small, there is often a feeling of spaciousness.

The upper and middle class homes frequently have many rooms complete with quarters for live-in domestic help. Decor may be modest, but is usually tasteful and beautiful. Cariocas take pride in maintaining a home in which to entertain guests.

High end apartments often have guards, electric gates, or other measures of security. Additional fees for these services may be charged aside from the rent.

In contrast, the homes of the poorest members of the lower class are often built on steep hills or outlying areas bordering the higher class bairros or close to the central sections of Rio. They appear tightly grouped together either in ditches or stacked on the hillsides.

These homes incorporate one or two rooms hastily constructed out of abandoned wooden boards or poured piles of concrete. The majority of roofs consist of a sheet of metal laid atop the structure's four corners.

If one is more fortunate, his roof may be made from brick or broken loose tile. There are instances where neighbors share bathrooms and cooking facilities. Furnishings may be so sparse that the sole piece is a bare mattress laid on the floor where several members of the family sleep huddled together.

In some favelas there is no city sewage system or utility services. Trash and exposed drainage pipes cover the hills. Currently, about 25% of Rio's 6 million residents live under these conditions.

How did these shantytowns get started and why do the people live like that?

Many of the people who live in Rio's favelas came from the northeastern region of Brazil. Some were descendants of slaves left without land of their own. Others were farmers who suffered in the droughts for which the agricultural areas of northeast Brazil are notorious.

Hoping to find work and a better life for themselves and their families, these migrants headed to Rio. Upon arrival, they either camped or built crude homes surrounding the sections of the city where they hoped to find work.

Unfortunately, they soon discovered that their dreams were hard to realize. This was due to lack of education, job skills, and the large number of congregants.

How did the migrant's homes come to be known as `favelas'?

As the number of migrant workers increased, so did their houses. The shantytowns became analogous to the wild favela flower which covers the hillsides in continual blooming abundance.

What were the migrants called?

In accordance with the term used to describe their living areas, the migrants began to be called `favelados'.

What became of the favelados?

Many never left the favelas or else were forced to find a wealthy patron who would give them work in his or her home. Out of frustration and desperation, some took advantage of the access to lucrative black markets facilitated by Rio's international shipping port and either started or became members of gangs which traffic in illegal commodities ranging from drugs to other humans. These conditions persist in the present.

What about the children who live in the favelas?

The children are supposed to be in school. The Brazilian government now gives a financial incentive to poor families who send them. However, there are some parents with such troubles of their own that they do not make an effort to see that their children attend.

Some encourage the children to work or beg instead. There are even situations where the effects of poverty are so disastrous that the parents feel incapable of caring for the children and abandon them to relatives or life in the streets.

In cases where the situation is particularly bad, the child may be the one to choose life in the streets rather than remain in the care of his or her family.

This reflects a significant contrast with upper and middle class children. They usually attend private or international schools and are well attended by family members or nannies.

What happens to the children in the streets?

Life in the streets is hard. What can't be begged or earned is stolen. Tourists are told to watch their wallets because some of the children become very good at picking pockets. Unfortunately, because of thefts from their stores, the merchants do not have much tolerance for street children and put pressure on the police to do something about them.

The police regard the children as an irritation and take them off to juvenile institutions or worse. In the past, this has led to violence. This happened at Candelária Church in 1993 when police shot street children sleeping in the church's courtyard.

What else can happen to these children?

To escape the difficulties of their lives, both children who are in the street, as well as those who are at home in the favelas, face the temptations of drugs. They have not been taught how to say "no".

Marijuana and cocaine are trafficked by the gangs, making them easy to obtain. Street children use glue because it is cheap and the high lasts for a longer period. Unfortunately, it also destroys their brains or eventually kills them.

Other children are sold or used for illegal purposes, willingly or not. Those who allow themselves to be used illegally feel there is no other alternative. Tragically a few people, especially those from other countries, take advantage of this.

Is this the fate of all favela children?

Fortunately not. Thus, it is important not to stereotype. Many favela parents are warm and loving While favela children have more obstacles to overcome than others, many do go to public school. A few even receive scholarships to private ones.

Others find productive ways to earn money through working within the favela, finding domestic jobs in homes, producing artwork, or participating in projects sponsored by nonprofit organizations such as Viva Rio.

Are there many of these organizations?

Viva Rio is perhaps the biggest and most well known of the local organizations. However, there are others, both municipal and foreign. The vast majority are non profits. Others are programs through churches. There are also private individuals, such as well-known activist, Yvonne de Mello, who have given unselfishly of their time and money to help street children or volunteer within the favela communities. Some of these individual activists later form their own nonprofit organizations, such as Yvonne did with Projeto Uere.

What are the organizations doing to help?

Some organizations focus on supplying food and shelter to children who live or spend a lot of time on the street. Others stress education, providing scholarships and transportation which enable children to attend public or private schools. There are organizations which offer training programs which supplement public schooling.

Still others combine different types of strategies or present their own unique solutions. Even the national government of Brazil has become involved. Under President Lula, the nation is trying to help meet basic nutritional needs through Projeto Fome Zero ( Zero Hunger Project) as well as increase the financial incentives for parents to send their children to school.

Perhaps the most comprehensive organization, as previously mentioned, is Viva Rio, which serves as an umbrella for many different types of programs.

Here is an example of the types of projects which fall under their wing: television education courses for both adults and children at the primary and secondary education level; computer science classes; library services which also offer access to the Internet; music instrument lessons under the direction and coordination of professional musicians; violence prevention and conflict resolution seminars given by members of the Brazilian Boxing Federation Fighting for Peace program; a junior police program which utilizes materials prepared by the Institute of Public Safety; legal assistance; promotions for the reduction of weapons and disarmament; gardening programs which train young people to care for the city's landscape; reforestation and environmental maintenance campaigns; and building projects to repair homes damaged by flooding along with the construction of new housing.

What obstacles stand in the way of improving the lives of the favela dwellers and other lower class members of Carioca society?

Brazil is a very class conscious culture. Despite having elected President Lula in 2002, who overcame a poverty background, the majority of politicians and other elite in control have little true desire to change the lives of the poor.

The lower class is viewed as a source of affordable domestic labor. Many of the wealthy believe that by hiring them in their homes, at a slightly above minimum salary, they have provided an acceptable means of assistance. Otherwise, the status quo is accepted without much question.

Street children are seen as nuisances and favelas as bothersome crime areas which should be left to the police to deal with.

Due to this "us and them" attitude, Brazil is world recognized for its poor record on human rights. Big cities are especially notorious for this, and Rio is no exception.

Does race enter in?

Prejudice is one determined by social class instead of by color. Early European settlers were encouraged to have relationships with those of different races in order to populate the territory. This left the Carioca citizenry a wide combination of races.

Almost everyone is a mixture. 30% of the residents claim African heritage. Skin tones range from pale white to deep black. The nation prides itself on what they believe is a lack of racial prejudice.

On the surface, it does appear that Cariocas of all shades and hues of skin tones interact together without distinction. However, the outsider often notes that the majority of the lower class is made up of people with the darker skin tones. Those of the elite have lighter ones.

Isn't anything being done to overcome these obstacles?

It is to Brazil's credit that they have elected President Lula, but he will not be able to change the situation overnight. It takes more than the head of state to change attitudes which have existed since the time of the Portuguese rulers.

Fortunately, there are caring individuals from the other classes who are willing to make a difference, as well as people from foreign countries.

Could a child from another country help?

Certainly. One way is to contact organizations which offer assistance in the form of scholarships, community development projects, etc. The child and members of his or her family can then become involved in one of the charity's fund-raisers to solicit money or materials.

He or she might even want to try and hold a money drive at school, church, or through an outside club or scout troop and donate the proceeds. The organization may have their own personal ways an individual child can contribute, so it never hurts to ask them for suggestions.

Prior to becoming involved, someone in the family should do some research to ensure that whichever agency they are donating to will use the money where it is needed.

Just as a child may pray for his family and friends, he or she can also ask God to bring assistance to Rio's needy children. This is a beautiful way to care for others who live far away and with whom one has no means of personal contact.

The text above was excerpted from Rio de Janeiro: The City, the Life, and the Kids, a work aimed at grades 5 through high school level. The author, Jennifer Grant, is currently seeking a publisher for this book. Comments and contacts in English and Portuguese are welcome at Please reference the book title or Brazzil in subject line.
Grant wishes to thank Jazon da Silva Santos for his comments and editing work on some of the chapters contained in the book. She has authored previous articles in Brazzil magazine, as well as an article on the children in the favelas for Faces Magazine, which is used in United States schools.
Her interests include promoting awareness of the needs of the favelados and the organizations and individuals which are willing to help them through both the written word and by making presentations at churches and schools.

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