Diego in Brazil: Interacting with Rio de Janeiro’s socio-economic and racial inequality

I have been writing in this blog for some weeks now, and so far I have tried to stay away from portraying Rio de Janeiro under the same lens you may find in other type of stories about Brazil. I came to Rio almost seven weeks ago with the goal of avoiding becoming yet another tourist in this incredibly dynamic city. To accomplish that, I decided I would stay away from visiting some of the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods at first. From what I heard before coming here and what I have seen so far, this what many outsiders do when visiting Rio de Janeiro.

In recent years, the ‘Favela Tours’ have become major touristic attractions for foreigners. A quick search online for these tours will show you what these companies advertise: “interact with local people, see the happiness that comes out of these slums, and learn about the city’s socio-economic problems.” Most of the exchange students I have met at PUC-Rio have already ‘visited’ some of these favelas, yet when I ask them what the difference between their visit and these popular favela tours is there seems to always be an uncomfortable pause in the conversation.

Certainly many people would disagree with my approach to settling in Rio de Janeiro. Living in Rio’s Zona Sul (the city’s richest area) with a host-family, attending a private university as an exchange student, and interacting mainly with Rio’s middle-class will not show you much about other regions of the city. But this is precisely my point: what exactly is to be “shown” about these marginalized neighborhoods? I share many foreigners’ desire to learn about and interact with Rio de Janeiro’s diverse population. But can we find a more just way of learning about the country’s social diversity when we have the time and resources to do so? Would it be possible to suppress our ‘inner explorers’ until we find a social position or activity that will contribute to the lives of those from whom we seek to learn? In other words, could we approach a new social reality as foreigners and complete strangers while respecting the humanity of those who suffer from inequality and discrimination in the city? I truly want to believe we can.

One of my first steps in finding a more conscious way to learn about Rio de Janeiro was paying attention to how Rio’s residents talk about the city’s socio-economic inequality. My main source of information and perspectives is my host University. I must say that my perspective on how PUC-Rio talks about poverty, culture, and racial discrimination in Rio de Janeiro and Brazil is highly determined by a very particular set of students. As in any other university, you will find some differences between those who discuss social exclusion for two hours in a sociology course and those who take more technical courses. Among the many perspectives and ideas I have heard in my classes so far, the most common thought that I keep encountering is that “poverty in Brazil has color.”

Poverty and race relations in Brazil have drastically changed in the recent decade, and according to one of my professors, class conversation on these topics is shifting and constantly adapting. The World Bank states that Brazil saw its poverty rates dropped from 21% in 2003 to just 11% in 2009, and despite recent protests in Brazil’s biggest cities, statistics show that poverty continues to drop in the country.  I have heard many students arguing that race relations in Brazil are also changing, yet by 2012, 70% of those living in poverty were Afro-Brazilian. Programs and new systems such as university quotas based on race have been established in the country, but as recently as last year statistics showed that only 2.2% of Afro-Brazilians can access higher education. Rio de Janeiro mirrors some of these relationships present in the rest of Brazil.

Let me go back to my point of respecting marginalized populations as we seek to learn about a new place. I want to ask, how fair is it to enter these communities as ‘travelers’ seeking to gain experience and then return to our safe and comfortable accommodation in the nicest areas of the city? Why would we take the freedom to pay our way into these favelas to witness the marginalization of countless families and communities for the sake of experience? As I wrote in one of my first entries, my goal for the semester was to find a position that allowed me to interact with Rio’s diverse population while contributing to these communities. I have been looking for some math and reading teaching programs that go directly to groups of kids and young students inside or near Rio’s poor neighborhoods. If everything works out in the next few weeks, I will hopefully join one of these programs for the rest of the semester. Is it a perfect solution to my questions? Of course not. Yet I want to believe that we can make an effort to grow as exchange students while respecting and contributing to the lives of those who welcome us in their cities and homes.

PUC-Rio has been an interesting place to learn about racial and social dynamics in Brazil. Just last week the University hosted a fair with many people who came to sell their products. The activity had a strong focus on racial and ethnic diversity, and I was happy to join other exchange students who were also interested in learning more about this complicated topic in Brazil.

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One of the booths at the Brazilian fair

Maybe six months will not be enough to fully grasp how PUC-Rio talks about inequality in Rio de Janeiro, but so far I have at least had the opportunity to learn some interesting perspectives from the University.

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The fair gave me new perspective on Brazilian diversity

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