I know that the following blog might likely result in an expulsion from my exchange program at PUC University in Rio de Janiero, if not my expulsion from University of California Santa Barbara. I write this with full knowledge of this regulation and am prepared to accept the consequences. All I ask is if those responsible for this decision are reading this blog, that they remember that education is about more than just classrooms and lectures. Hopefully, the following piece will convince those reading it that my learning has been enhanced by my decisions. If I am to choose between a degree from a university and the visceral experiences that I have had the fortune to take part in, I can now say that I prefer the experiences.
I have been participating in an exchange program here in Rio de Janeiro. One of the regulations of this exchange program is that I do not live in a favela, under government control or not. Contrary to those regulations, for the past four months I have been living in a favela known as Vidigal. For those of you who do not know, Vidigal is a vibrant lower income community that is not under the control of the central government. Instead it is under the control of a drug gang known as Amigos Das Amigos (ADA).
Although I studied the favelas before coming to Rio, I had no intention on living here. My primary motivating factor for moving to Vidigal was the affordable rent, as Rio has become extremely expensive. After living here for a few weeks, I realized that Vidigal and its unique existence offered me a window into a part of Brazil that middle and upper class Brazilians, as well as many foreigners, ignore. I quickly fell in love with the easy smiles and “Bom Dias” that greeted me at every turn. I have travelled all over the world and I have never encountered such charismatic and kind people as those living here in Vidigal.
Last Saturday, the government of Rio de Janiero made it clear that they would be setting up a permanent police presence in the favela by this coming Sunday. What this means in reality is that they will be occupying the favela and forcing out the drug traffickers, at the same time as trying to establish government control over the entire favela. The roar of helicopters blades over my head tells me that they are not waiting until Sunday.
Obviously, this is a complicated situation. My eyes are surrounded by shades of grey everywhere I turn. My purpose in writing this is only to report what I am seeing and relate this with my previous experiences of both studying and living in the favela, not to make moral condemnations of the groups involved.
Unfortunately the residents of this community do not have the advantage to speak about their experiences in such a way. Most are poor migrants from the North East of Brazil, who have come here in the search of better economic conditions and a better life. Some are general criminals who deserved to be locked up far away from society. I do not have the arrogance to say that I can speak for these residents. I only want to let the world have access to a side of a story that they will not hear anywhere else.
I intend on staying in Vidigal until Sunday, when the government plans to pacify the favela. I know that many of my friends and family will think I am crazy and will want me to leave. I am aware that there is danger in staying here. I am also aware that if I do not take the unique opportunity that I have been given to speak (in English), I am afraid no one else can or will. I will be posting regular updates to this blog, as well as attempting to use Twitter and Facebook to let people know what I can see and hear in real time. You can find me on Facebook at StewartalsopIII@gmail.com, and Twitter @offthetrackrio.