Marta for the Cause: The inner beauty of Santa Marta favela

Along with my partner, I did so much during a recent trip to Rio de Janeiro, where I was blessed to witness such landmarks as Christ the Redeemer, Sugar Loaf Mountain and the Maracana (to see an all too defensive Fluminense fail to hold onto a one goal lead against Atlético Mineiro,). However, the highlight of my trip was an afternoon spent in Santa Marta favela.

Whilst the usually escapist nature of tourism involves denying the wider existence of poorer areas, in Rio these becomes impossible to ignore as most of the mountains that dominate the city’s landscape are awash with haphazard colour. To this, it is worth mentioning the excellent tour supervised by Felipe, whom I would recommend to anyone who happens to end up in Rio. I would go so far as to say no trip to this part of the world would be complete without such a visit.

That favelas are notorious is to put it mildly. In the absence of affordable accommodation in what Felipe said was the most expensive place to live in the whole of South America, the only option was to head for one of the various mountains that dominate the Rio landscape and build a house from scratch without basic facilities. Whilst favelas do at least now have running water and electricity, the lack of any discreet sewage system remains.

Given the steepness of these mountains, the main access is through an intricate maze of steps that weave through each building. Road building has never been an option here. Santa Marta is fortunate enough to have a funicular that runs along the perimeter of the favela, but this is an extreme rarity compared to other favelas in Rio and beyond.

This lack of clear accessibility has increased the capacity for organised crime to flourish. Felipe gave fair warning that the group could come into close proximity with drugs and even guns with some sage and philosophical advice. Aside from the obvious need for self-preservation, as the proceeds of such crime do not go back to the favelas, then these miscreants were not part of that self-same community. To this end, it was a case of letting them work their side of the street whilst we worked ours.

This lack of moral sanctimony also alludes to what Felipe referred to as a ‘first world’ mind set, illustrated by the conscious decision to build favelas from the highest possible point in the mountain rather than the bottom. This, according to Felipe, was to do with minimising the risk of apprehension by the local authorities and not, as I had suggested somewhat flippantly, for the better view.

This seemingly apparent disregard for the law is not so much a philosophy as a means of a survival illustrated by the sale of counterfeit goods (such as Flamengo replica shirts in the wake of their last gasp victory in the Copa Libertadores final) in various spots around Rio. For the poverty that exists within favelas is not only financial. Such is the lack of social justice that there is no guarantee of the children growing up in the likes of Santa Marta even getting access to the educational facilities we take for granted in the UK, never mind anything approaching gainful employment.

This lack of schooling presented an opportunity to play a game of five a side against some local kids in exchange for a couple of Reals (about 50p) which Felipe used towards buying them some sweets afterwards. The astro turf pitch had seen better days (with strips peeling away from the ground like an uneven rug) and there was dog shit to navigate, an added risk as I chose to play only in trainer liners as the kids didn’t have shoes on their feet. Whilst I avoided this slippery landmine and scored a disputed goal into the bargain (evoking memories of Brian Glover in Kes), I was happy to finish on the losing side in this tussle.

That this facility existed at all was testament not only to Brazil’s well known passion for Futebol, with Man City’s Gabriel Jesus the latest example of a player who rose to superstardom having grown up in a favela in Sao Paulo. Making it to that level is a million to one chance, but it is still a chance all the same. Besides, whilst poverty may have deprived these kids of shoes on their feet there is no reason why it should deprive them of their dreams.

And whilst dreams can be endless in their possibilities, I suspect that no one in Santa Marta would have imagined the biggest pop star on the planet coming to shoot a video there. Yet that happened with Michael Jackson’s They Don’t Care About Us, a somewhat apt title given its location. That there is a rare bit of open space within Santa Marta dedicated to Jackson (to include a statue recreated in his seriously reconstructed image) is testament to the legacy of his visit, not only culturally but also financially where Santa Marta is concerned. Whilst Jackson is posthumously considered a figure of revulsion these days, that he is still seen as something of a saviour in Santa Marta is not a sign of this favela’s ambivalence, but merely a sign of how much his patronage is still needed here. Besides there were no shortage of tourists still willing to pose with the statue or mural.

And money is needed to invest in its infrastructure, such as the aforementioned funicular with space for those who need to carry bulky items up the steep incline towards the peak of Mirante Dona Marta but also a pre-school along with a community centre which houses the favela’s invaluable pigeon holes for incoming post. As Felipe’s company also helps to fund this pre-school this is not so much a tour company as a social enterprise.

For in spite of the illicit origins of favelas such as Santa Marta, there is an undeniable sense of community here, somewhat unavoidable given how each house is so close together. The bond is so strong that not everyone necessarily wants to escape even when a change of circumstances presents an opportunity to live somewhere else. The moral here is not forgetting where you have come from, which could well be the most important life lesson these kids will ever learn.

So in spite of favelas remaining the continued by-product of Rio’s extreme levels of social inequality, such are the foundations of the community that lives in places such as Santa Marta that their continued existence is necessary, if only to challenge the stigma attached to living in favelas and help build a much needed sense of socio-economical identity. This was illustrated during one part of the tour, which involved Felipe distributing leaflets to each of the tour group with an appeal that we should leave them in the lobby of the hotels in which we were staying on the premise that they are typically reluctant to promote favela tours.

That favelas at least have a cultural identity is something at least, but it would be nice if their existence featured beyond the travel pages of our beloved press and media, not least given the threat of an even greater increase in social inequality under Bolsonaro.



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Rob Fitzgerald

Rob Fitzgerald

Footy Anorak & Terrible Photographer.