Rio de Janeiro After Dark
by Daphne Carpenter
My first encoun-ter with the semi-automatic gun-slinging little soldiers of Rio‘s Tabajaras favela was alarmingly bizarre. It was around 10 p.m. on a Tuesday night. My friend Liliana and I were returning to our friend’s house after taking a walk down to the Copacabana boardwalk. As we advanced at a steep incline towards the house, I looked up and there they were, descending the hill with assault rifles strapped on, walking right past us. They appeared to be 12 to 14 years old—to me, just babies.
I was caught completely off guard. I didn’t know what to do or how to react. They’re so young, I thought, as we made friendly eye contact with each other and exchanged greetings of “boa noite.” To make the situation even stranger, the boys were smiling at us flirtingly as we passed, with the confidence of grown men.
My friend Liliana was in Brazil to volunteer as an English teacher, and I went to play capoeira and to photograph the internationally renowned graffiti art that graces the city. From seeing films like City of God and Favela Rising, I knew that children carried guns in the favelas, but I had no idea that I would be diving into such a profound place inside myself, coming face to face with a very dark reality of human existence. I had traveled to the country of fun-in-the-sun and endless bare asses for my own selfish reasons.
When I first arrived to the South American mecca of graffiti art (although Sao Paulo is comparable), my eyes were delighted. From the bus ride out of the airport, you start to see how large portions of the city are interconnected by labyrinthine sets of endless, intact murals. I‘m so lucky, I thought. I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. But from my window seat on the bus, my happiness was slowly eclipsed by the discovery of a very young homeless population. They were wandering the streets like lost, abandoned animals, like drugged-out little ghosts.
When I finally met up with Liliana, she introduced me to Leandro Rodrigues de Sousa, aka, Tick, a graffiti artist in his mid-20s who runs a unique art and foreign language program in the favela called Calle.
By starting with improved education and a greater regard for social justice, Calle is a revolutionary, grassroots program which unites international travelers and teachers with community members. At their graffiti-adorned school, moradores—as community members call themselves—enhance their quality of life by learning to paint and draw, to speak English and Spanish, and to use gardening skills.
They attend evening and weekend classes taught by an array of enthusiastic international volunteers who share their stories about the world. In return, the volunteers learn about Brazilian culture and the struggles of living in the favela. But mostly, the volunteers learn about themselves and realize how people in wealthier communities squander resources and take things for granted. My friend Liliana, a Mexican girl who was raised in California, dedicated herself as a volunteer for four months, spending her evenings surrounded by curious local children and adults.
The kids would shuffle up to the outdoor classroom with tattered notebooks and dull pencils, but full of gleaming, gorgeous smiles and sometimes, as can be expected, very short attention spans. One evening I spent with the children, I remembered the importance of pictograph communication, when a crew of messy-haired, beautiful little Brazilian princesses had me saying valuable words like “borboleta” (butterfly), “lua” (moon) and “estrela” (star), after drawing the images for me in their notebooks. Hence, my baptism into the world of Portuguese was kicked-off by art, a medium which unifies people from different cultures, where an alien language might have otherwise divided us.
But the classes through the Calle program aren’t filled to capacity like they could be. Sessions are often interrupted by bouts of neighborhood violence. Many neighborhood children and adolescents are employed by the drug dealers as armed security guards. A lot of them end up becoming addicted to hard drugs—especially crack, the addiction to which is epidemic in Brazil.
“We live in communities where there is drug dealing, but we don’t interfere with their activities and they just leave us alone,” a local friend told me.
The battle between the police and the people from the favelas, who are mostly poor and black, has been historically violent. This is where the story really gets tragic. In their “war against crime,” Rio police kill more than 2.5 times as many people in one month as the New York Police Department kills in one year, according to Human Rights Watch Americas, 2007.
A consistent flow of militarized police operations in the 600-800 favelas—where police officers are known to shoot indiscriminately, leaving bullets in schools, homes and even in churches—is one of the factors that keep the youth armed. A lack of resources and the desperate need to “go to work” keep many children out of school, working for dealers or begging on the street.
My friends from Tabajaras told me that the armed youngsters “aren’t there to harm community members,” and strangely, I found this to be true. However you may feel about it, the kids (who often wear black ski masks to conceal their identities) are employed and armed by adults to help restrain the use of force by aggressive police and to alert the drug dealers of potential invasion.
They stand at geographical vantage points—the highest hills in the favela—where easy surveillance of the narrow streets below allows visual access of police traffic. The little soldiers communicate with the traficantes through the use of radios, often working through the night. It’s their jobs, and the more I saw of their work, the harder it became for me to keep my heart from being submersed. I wanted to help them all.
Luckily I’m not the only one with my heart in a blender. As a talented artist and compassionate young man driven by a revolutionary urge to fight against social injustice, Tick sees the potential in all of his neighbors. He refuses to be desensitized by the continual lack of resources in the favelas.
“In this community, we share experiences and each time, we learn how important it is to know the world and to know ourselves. We each have our own personal history and culture,” explained Tick, who teaches drawing, painting and graffiti art. He wants his students to be assertive, creative and expressive, and as a result, the neighborhood is covered in elaborate works of art. Small businesses, schools, community centers and even the houses in Tabajaras are designed and painted by talented local young graffiti artists.
“People here really appreciate graffiti art and they beautify the favela with it,” Liliana told me on my first night in town.
She was right. During my stay in Tabajaras, I was struck by the mastery in the paintings and murals. A profound sense of dignity and unity among the residents is reflected through the artwork. The walls are connected by a dazzling display of self-expression. Tick said that one particularly momentous occasion for the moradores was when they organized a graffiti event and many people of all ages from outside the community came together to paint what is now the highly regarded neighborhood mural of Che Guevara.
Community events like this give face to the talented people from the favelas, whose contributions in visual arts, music, and dance (the top Samba schools are located inside the favelas), help dispel negative myths and stereotypes about these economically challenged neighborhoods. The English classes also help tremendously, as many moradores work with tourists.
“The people in the favela get to know other parts of the world [by being exposed to international volunteers],” said Tick.
Calle has opened up a world of opportunities for people who, due to economic restraints, might not otherwise have the chance to travel outside of Brazil or Rio to learn about other cultures. As for me, I learned more than I could ever have hoped for by meeting moradores from Tabajaras, whose efforts to keep moving forward in the face of oppressive violence is truly inspirational.
I was humbled by my stay there. On my journey through life, where I’ve been lucky enough to experience juicy bits of international culture, wild art, exotic spices, and seductive foreign languages, I’ve walked thousands of miles and have seen some interesting and disturbing things. But living next to armed 12-year-olds who are constantly putting their life on the line to defend their neighborhood and to earn money is something that’s hard to forget. I give much respect to Tick and to small, contribution-driven grassroots programs like Calle, where our brothers and sisters are given opportunities to learn and to live beyond the violence that encapsulates their lives.
To learn more about Calle or to volunteer, visit www.callerj.com. Daphne Carpenter is most inspired by the potential to travel in order to help people where she can. She is a yoga instructor who is drawn to exotic foreign languages and spices, indigenous cultures and people who think that the best things in life are not things. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.