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The view from Mangueira: a snapshot of Brazil’s ‘Favelas’

The view from Mangueira: a snapshot of Brazil’s ‘Favelas’
Members of a youth soccer team in the Mangueira favela in Rio de Janeiro greet a visitor to their practice field. (Left to right) Marcelo da Silva Salles, Lucas Lopes Custodio, Isaac Lopes, Wellington Carolos, Bruno Nascimento and George Pereira.

Children from the “City of God” favela line up for lunch at a day care and education center supported by the Developing Minds Foundation. (Photos courtesy of Erint Images)

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – Marcelo da Silva Salles, a 15-year-old goalie with a sly smile and cat-quick feet, is one of the lucky ones. Like all Brazilians, he loves soccer, but unlike most teens, he gets to wear fresh gear and train with professionals.

For the last eight years, coaches assigned by Flamengo, one of the nation’s storied “futebol” clubs, have drilled Marcelo and hundreds of other kids from the impoverished slum known as Mangueira to mimic the wizardry of Pelé, Neymar, Socrates and other heroes of the nation’s most popular sport.

“It’s the future,” says Marcelo, nodding toward the worn pitch where his dozen teammates clad in red and black — the Flamengo colors — warm up for practice. A visitor to Mangueira’s potted lanes and tin-roofed shacks asks if he means soccer or life beyond the glass-strewn field. Pulling on his goalie gloves, Marcel says, “Both. The game, it won’t last for us. Here we learn more.”

Mangueira is one of three Rio slums — or “favelas” — where the Miami-based Developing Minds Foundation funds innovative social projects aimed at improving the odds for children with few prospects of advancement. The others are Rocinha, the largest slum in Latin America, and Cidade de Deus, or “City of God,” made notorious by the 2002 movie depicting the anarchic, drug-fueled violence of day-to-day life in the favela.

Of Brazil’s population of 200 million, about half have some African ancestry — and make up close to 80 percent of the nation’s poor. In spite of vast new oil wealth, the educational disparity between blacks and whites has remained unchanged over three generations.

In Rio, 25 percent of the residents — close to 1.5 million — live in one of the city’s 630 favelas, which sprung up on the hillsides as informal communities to house domestic workers and laborers to support the seaside city’s growing tourist and manufacturing economy.

The hotels and restaurants lining the famed scimitar-shaped beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema depend on the favelas’ low-paid workers to serve the millions of tourists who come for the sun, the food, the samba and the soccer. But with youth unemployment soaring over 60 percent in many favelas, drug cartels run by violent gangs have provided an economic alternative to careers as busboys and chambermaids.

Marcelo and his teammates have thus far evaded the reach of outlaw life and its predictable end. But temptation never lurks far, especially when education is so elusive. Marcelo attends a school fairly close to home but he is the exception. Because of a shortage of seats, millions of Brazilian students must endure one-way commutes of over an hour to attend school for as little as four hours a day in double-shift classrooms.

Allan da Silva Borges, 13, a defender on the team, voices the cynicism heard over and over again in the favelas. “The government is very racist,” he says. “They only care about helping the wealthy. We need the trash picked up and the streets fixed.”

Confidence in civic institutions is rock bottom in a country with a murder rate of 21 per 100,000, the world’s highest. There were close to 41,000 killings in Brazil last year, almost all of them in the favelas. By comparison, India, with six times the population, had the same number of murders. Even worse, less than 8 percent of Brazil’s killings are ever solved, compared to a 65 percent closure rate in the U.S.

To the residents of Mangueira, that sort of figure confirms that Brazil’s white elite consider them disposable.

Poised on a steep hillside overlooking Rio’s famed Maracana soccer stadium, Mangueira is home to about 55,000 people. Mostly poor and black, they enjoy some measure of fame from Brazil’s other obsession — the sensuous sounds of hip-shaking samba. The green-and-pink colors of Mangueira’s famed samba school dominate the yearly carnival competitors who parade by the packed stands of the Sambadrome in flamboyant costumes.

Maracana, the Olympus of world soccer, taunts as much as it entices Mangueira’s poor. From high on the hillside, they catch a narrow glimpse of Maracana’s manicured green pitch through the vast oculus opening to the sky.

During a recent tournament, a warm up to the World Cup coming to Brazil in 2014, over 100,000 fans arriving to watch the Confederations Cup final between the host country and Spain were greeted by cordons of protesters holding signs and chanting anti-government slogans.

The favelas’ embittered poor have long complained of spotty services, inadequate schooling and police repression, particularly the violent crackdown in the slums meant to “pacify” the city in advance of the World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. But the anger in this oil-rich country has filtered up the socioeconomic ladder.

The flashpoint came in June, when the government announced a ten-cent increase in bus fares, sparking the largest protests since the fall of the dictatorship. The ruling Workers Party, headed by President Dilma Rousseff, plunged in popularity, with critics lambasting multi-billion-dollar preparations for the World Cup while education and infrastructure needs go ignored.

Gabriel de Melo, an 11-year-old defender on the Mangueira team, supported the demonstrations, but doubts that they’ll result in significant improvements to his community. Instead, he thinks any benefits of changes in government policy will help the lighter-skinned residents of the beachfront neighborhoods and wealthier suburbs. “Very few projects help us out,” says de Melo. “We’re always asking for help but we get ignored or promised improvements that never come.”

In Rocinha, where the Developing Minds Foundation supports a day care center and a computer lab, improvements have often come at the expense of residents. Incursions by the pacification police have resulted in scores of deaths, with few officers held accountable.

Trudging up one of Rocinha’s winding, narrow stairways that snake up the mountainside like capillaries, a visitor is greeted by anti-police graffiti and sullen looks from residents suspicious of outsiders. In the “crèche,” or day care center, scenes of happy toddlers crawling across freshly scrubbed mats and children dipping their hands in face-paint form a stark contrast to the stench of raw sewage and tangles of illegal electrical lines running along the favela’s near-vertical arteries.

In an apparent concession to rising resentment, homicide investigators earlier this month charged 10 police officers with torture and murder in the disappearance of a Rocinha construction worker, a father of six whose family said he had no connection to drug trafficking.

In the “City of God” favela, where the foundation helps fund a computer training center, residents have voiced similar complaints about police impunity.

Though the boys on the Mangueira team appreciate their opportunity, it is unclear what long-term impact their training will have. One of the coaches describes a recent team trip animated by the sounds of “baile funk” playing from a boom-box — with lyrics exhorting violence against police as the bus rolled by a knot of pacification officers on a street corner.

“The boys stuck their hands out of the windows and aimed their index fingers at the cops,” he says. “And pulled the trigger.”

Philippe Houdard, an entrepreneur who sunk a decade of earnings from telecommunications work in Latin America into the Developing Minds Foundation, knows the odds are stacked against him. “But we can’t afford to sit back,” he says. “Too many generations have already been lost.”

Back on the soccer field, Marcelo and his teammates finish their warm ups. Cleats in day-glo colors flash in the dust as the boys settle into a scrimmage. A long ball from the outside back is headed from a central midfielder to an attacker already starting his run. He collects the ball at his feet, swerves around a defender and blasts a curling shot from the top of the box.

Marcelo propels his body right. Parallel to the ground, he parries the shot with an outstretched hand, pushing it just outside the chipped goal post. The game goes on.