During spring break, I had the wonderful opportunity to visit South America. My friends and I stayed at our friend’s house in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. While most of my friends were amazed by the touristic lifestyle the city has to offer, I could not help but to think about the city’s structure from a socioeconomic perspective. Rio de Janeiro is, to a certain extent, an architectural paradox that accurately reflects the country’s social composition. As American journalist Robert Neuwirth once said, “Behind the sprawl of white sand and soft turf, behind the glamorous waterfront and the old-world elegance of some of the five-star hotels, Rio is a city of intense contrasts.”
Due to the city’s geographic disposition, the inhabitants of Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro are, in a peculiar way, accustomed to social inequality. Crammed between the ocean and the mountains, there will rarely be a neighborhood completely divorced from any favela, also addressed as community — the “politically correct” term for such squatter settlements. Obviously, this modifies the environment of upper and middle-class buildings. For instance, from the window of my friend’s house, one comes across slums encroached on steep hillsides in the background, not to mention young kids and beggars juggling at streetlights or selling candy. Having become such a common occurrence, it goes by unnoticed, transformed into “landscape” as is denoted by publicity jargon. One looks, but fails to see; one walks by, but takes no notice. This is the reality of many Cariocas — Rio’s residents — spread throughout the city.
Although Ipanema is one the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods, it is the home of a communing population of beggars, who occupy the corners of the busier and more commercial streets. Even inside middle and upper class residences, you cannot escape this reality, key to Rio’s identity as a beautiful, yet almost tragic city. The front façade of windows overlooks the beach, a center of touristic activity. However if we were to turn slightly to the right, our eyes would meet the Favela do Vidigal, resting on a hillside and hanging over the ocean. This squatter settlement, like most of its precedents, was initially made up of isolated barracos — or shanties — hidden under the region’s dense canopy of vegetation. However, through time, these isolated residencies have become self-built, independent communities that span kilometers across the once-deemed uninhabitable terrain of rocky cliffs and hillsides. Rio’s urban disparity is an ideal example of social inequality in the city. This is particularly evident when one sees how many of these squatter settlements spread across the periphery and hang over the city’s richer neighborhoods. These favelas lack the necessary resources for decent sanitation and infrastructure, all of which are far from scarce in neighborhoods such as Ipanema.
Despite an extreme inequality in urban and environmental conditions — as slums also tend to locate themselves in areas of soil and water contamination — the shanty towns attain a sense of community that is absent in the upper class neighborhoods. In spite of the hardships and uncertainties in their lives, the favelados — illegal hill-dwellers — display a communal identity and organization that is nothing short of remarkable. Not only had I noticed it when I visited these communities, but also through my interaction with Rio’s citizens. The building where my friend lives — in Ipanema — is small in size; only five families inhabit it. However, there is almost no social connection amongst them. A formal greeting on the occasional elevator ride is the extent to which neighbors interact. Unfortunately, this is the case for the majority of buildings in middle and upper class urban spaces. One of the few spaces within Ipanema that provides a sense of community is the beach — which is ironically full of low-income Cariocas seeking to make money for their families.
Although many consider Rio de Janeiro — with its five-million inhabitants — a cosmopolitan city, I think it is a beach town at heart. From morning until nightfall, both the rich and the poor inhabit the city’s beaches. The coast becomes pivotal in separating Rio from other Brazilian cities sharing a common social inequality, for it brings together people of all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds; it is the one space where social inequality has no voice, despite Ipanema’s label as an upper class neighborhood. In effect, this natural microcosm is a dynamic space of social use where its occupiers are reclassified by their interests and affinities.
Like most neighborhoods, Ipanema has its share of attributes as well as injustices. Yet, the social inequality that is a part of Rio de Janeiro’s identity as an urban city provides for obstacles that interfere with the functioning and beautification of the neighborhood. Yet, to eliminate the shanty towns that surround Ipanema might not prove to be the solution to its problems, for they possess valuable characteristics that are essential to Rio’s culture.
Abdiel Ortiz-Carrasquillo is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . I Respectfully Dissent appears alternate Fridays this semester.