An American Dream: To Aid Brazilian Favela

     An American Dream: To Aid Brazilian 

    Rocinha’s Two Brothers Foundation has counted on the
    energies of a handful of volunteers, generally of university age
    who have felt the allure of the shantytown for its color and the
    charm of its people. Volunteer teachers over the past several years
    have come from all over of the U.S. and many universities.
    by: Gabe
    Ponce de León


    In June of 1990, Paul Sneed, a Political and Social Thought major from the
    University of Virginia, would have been well-cast for the role of typical
    college student abroad; full of wanderlust and optimism, Paul was enraptured
    by the idea of writing a bold new chapter in his life’s story. The setting,
    Rio de Janeiro and the prestigious Pontifícia Universidade Católica
    (PUC-Rio), was nothing less than ideal.

    Moreover, through the
    International Programs office at PUC-Rio, Paul was assigned to live in a multi-million-dollar
    mansion in chic São Conrado, with an elderly German man and
    his Brazilian wife. In a city widely regarded as one of the world’s most naturally
    splendid, São Conrado occupies one of its more sublime enclaves.

    The prosperous neighborhood
    is flanked on the west by the colossal Pedra da Gávea (Rock of Gávea)
    and on the east by the famous twin peaks of the Morro Dois Irmãos (Two
    Brothers Mountain). Indeed, São Conrado, whose sky-rises spring
    out of a tropical littoral, is the stuff both poetry and chapters in Lonely
    Planets are made of.

    Yet São Conrado’s
    scintillating buildings, housing thousands of affluent Cariocas (natives
    of the city Rio de Janeiro) cower in the menacing shadow of Rocinha, Brazil’s
    largest favela (shanty-town).

    Sprawling along the northeastern
    fringe of São Conrado, Rocinha is a ramshackle of cinderblock structures,
    inhabited by hundreds of thousands of people—of which most are either
    first or second-generation migrants from the impoverished northeastern region
    of the country. Nowhere else in Brazil is the striking divide between the
    nation’s haves and have-nots so grippingly visible.

    Owing to Rocinha’s singular
    immensity—the favela is sometimes referred to as the "City
    Within the City." Relatively large, concrete buildings now dominate the
    lower region of the favela, into which well-known businesses such as
    McDonald’s, Bob’s (a Brazilian fast-food chain) and Claro (a telecommunications
    company) have moved. As one climbs uphill the favela, however, the
    structures become increasingly dilapidated and traces of commercial life evaporate
    into the mountain air.

    Like other Rio de Janeiro
    favelas, organized crime dominates Rocinha, under whose aegis residents
    live in security. Street crime and burglary are virtually non-existent and
    organized crime often invests the spoils of drug-trafficking into community
    projects. Traficantes, or drug-traffickers, fill a gaping void opened
    by the inadequacy of municipal services, most notably security, but often
    as basic as sewage drainage, running water or electricity.

    To say that Paul Sneed
    was moved by that shabby, yet colorfully alluring city that he passed everyday
    on the bus is an understatement. Riveting tales of the social bandits of Rio’s
    slums, sometimes portrayed as Robin Hoods of Rio’s down-trodden, captured
    his imagination.

    After only a few months
    in Rio, Paul had already made up his mind to live in Rocinha. But more importantly,
    he was driven by a visceral longing to learn about life, and life in Brazil—a
    spiritual coming-of-age of sorts.

    An opportunity to penetrate
    what, to outsiders usually seems a guarded, impregnable fortress, presented
    itself when Paul befriended a young woman who lived in the favela.
    The woman had previously told Paul that she lived in São Conrado, near
    the favela. To Paul’s surprise, however, one day she took him to have
    dinner with her family, and she took him into the actual favela, not
    stopping until they were smack in its middle.

    Before long, Paul had
    comfortably ensconced himself in her family’s Rua 1 apartment in the
    room of her brother—off completing military service at the time—where
    he remained for the duration of his semester at PUC-Rio.

    International Exchange

    Back in the United States,
    Paul earned an MA in Portuguese at the University of Wisconsin-Madison over
    the next several years, returning sporadically to Brazil for short visits.
    It was not until 1998, eight years since his initial Brazilian sojourn, that
    he finally launched the not-for-profit organization he had come to envision
    during previous trips to Brazil, calling it Two Brothers Foundation, or Fundação
    Dois Irmãos in Portuguese.

    After an initial pitch
    to the Ação Social Padre Anchieta, Rocinha’s oldest
    NGO, had been rebuffed, Paul, along with two locals, Vivianna Rodrigues da
    Silva and Socorro Gomes de Andrade, decided to proceed alone.

    Vivianna, who ran a kindergarten
    in Rocinha called the Escola Moranguinhos (Little Strawberries School),
    offered Paul use of the school in the evening. In an informal manner, Paul
    began teaching English night courses a couple times a week and the response
    was "incredible"; a motivated group of fifteen local youngsters
    started showing up to class regularly.

    The English course would
    become an integral part of a broader plan to facilitate horizontal cultural
    exchange between young people from low-income communities in different countries.
    Paul posited that people from inner cities in different countries faced similar
    social and economic challenges and that they could learn from one another,
    through cultural interchange.

    The foundation’s mission
    would be to "assist local efforts of community development" and
    "foster leadership abilities in low-income youths through education,
    cultural activities and international exchange."

    In addition to the English
    class for children and adults, in past years the Two Brothers Foundation has
    offered art classes, the popular hora do conto (story time) for children
    and a computer training class, in addition to numerous cultural events that
    volunteers often recall with excitement.

    One such event was the
    Festa dos Soldados da Paz (Party of the Soldiers of Peace) that consisted
    of hip-hop, salsa, merengue, and capoeira. Another memorable event
    was the Intercâmbio Virtual (Virtual Exchange) in which delegates from
    Barcelona, Madison, São Paulo and Brasília convened in Rio de
    Janeiro to discuss setting up on-line dialogue among youths from different
    communities around the world.

    Another summer, St. Mary’s
    College from California sent an entourage of students down to Rio de Janeiro
    for a month to work on a multimedia project designed to investigate the social
    terrain of the city. The students of the foundation volunteered as city guides
    to their American counterparts who, in turn, participated enthusiastically
    in the English classes.

    From the outset, the adult
    course has counted on the youthful energies of a handful of volunteers, generally
    of university age who, like Paul, have felt the allure of the favela
    for its color and the charm of its people. Volunteer teachers over the past
    several years have come from all over of the United States and from many universities:
    the University of Pennsylvania, University of Wisconsin, Georgetown University,
    University of North Carolina, Johns Hopkins, Bryn Mawr College, University
    of Minnesota and Boston College, to name a few.

    Moreover, in the past
    year a wide range of people have comprised the volunteer corps, from a financial
    consultant to two vacationing high school girls from California. Volunteers
    generally hear about the Two Brothers Foundation via word of mouth, but occasionally
    a prospective teacher stumbles across the web site _
    – while surfing the Net.

    As Paul’s stays in Brazil
    have become increasingly truncated and infrequent—he recently defended
    a dissertation at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is now a professor
    of Luso-Brazilian Studies at Oklahoma University—he has relied on the
    dedication of volunteers, Brazilian and foreign, as well as long-time students,
    to oversee the English language instruction and administration of the day-to-day
    operations of the foundation in Brazil.

    Paul credits volunteers
    who have passed through the foundation for many of the creative programs the
    foundation has implemented. "Sometimes there are volunteers that you
    have high hopes for" he remarks, "that turn out not to be too helpful.
    And other times, people who you never thought would become too involved, wind
    up coming up with fantastic ideas."

    The Favela Energy

    While volunteers invariably
    derive satisfaction from their work with the community, they take away insights
    into Brazilian society and culture through the experience that they might
    have otherwise missed.

    According to Lucia Lifschitz,
    a recent University of Pennsylvannia graduate on her way to medical school,
    "What goes on here is a symbiotic relationship between the Brazilian
    students and the foreign volunteers. When I tell people that I work in a favela,
    they often assume that I am trying to save the world, or keep people from
    starving to death, which is ridiculous.

    "I go to Rocinha
    because I want to go there, because I am fond of the community and I have
    great friendships with my students. I get out of it at least what I put in,
    I see a side of Rio that most people don’t see."

    Lucia’s experience echoes
    Paul’s sentiments about Rocinha. In discussing why he chooses to live in the
    favela—where he maintains an apartment that he often sublets to
    volunteers, Paul refers to a "certain energy" that pulsates in Rocinha
    and to the "community and family spirit" one discovers there.

    "If you live in Rocinha,
    people are very open to you, and adopt you, in the same way that I adopted
    the community," Paul explains. "Besides," he continues, "it
    has many physical beauties, it’s close to the ocean and it has a vibrant cultural

    Washington Ferreira, a
    lanky eighteen year-old high school student, is the lone remaining student
    from the original class in 1998 and, now fluent in English, teaches the children
    and adolescents as well. For Washington, the Two Brothers Foundation represents
    more than a forum for learning and cultural exchange. "TBF is a place
    I feel welcome, where I have spent a large part of my life and made a lot
    of friends," he says. "It is something of a second life."

    Orlando Santos, another
    long-time student in his early-twenties, emphasizes the positive influence
    the foundation has on the youths who become involved, especially in a place
    like Rocinha where it is so easy to fall by the wayside. "The foundation
    does an important job of keeping kids off the street here in Rocinha, kids
    who could become drug-traffickers," Orlando says. "Their mothers
    can stay calm and not worry."

    An obstacle to recruiting
    new volunteers has been the perception that Rocinha—and all favelas
    for that matter—is very dangerous. Citing safety concerns, the International
    Program at PUC-Rio, despite serving as a wellspring of volunteers since the
    foundation’s inception, declined Paul’s entreaty to formalize the link between
    the foundation and the university.

    Likewise, the American
    School in Gávea, Rio de Janeiro’s most exclusive private high school,
    whose curriculum includes a community service component, dismissed outright
    the notion of students using the Two Brothers Foundation to fulfill this requirement.

    "If you go into the
    favela as a part of Two Brothers, or any other similar organization,
    you’re pretty safe," Paul claims. "Levels of everyday crime in favelas
    are much lower than those in the rest of the city. But at the same time, anyone
    who goes into a favela has to be aware of the [occasional violent confrontations]
    between the police and organized crime, just in the same way that anybody
    who visits Rio needs to be aware of high levels of urban violence there."

    To downplay any safety
    concerns, Paul cites the example of one female volunteer, who took up residence
    in Rocinha: "She felt completely safe in the favela, anywhere
    and at anytime of the day or night. She would not have felt that safe anywhere
    else in Rio."

    Not a single volunteer
    has been a victim of physical violence in Rocinha. It is the tight-knit community,
    coupled with the deterrent effect of the notoriously draconian punishment
    meted out by organized crime to local miscreants, that makes Rocinha’s narrow
    alleys and streets safe around the clock.

    In the words of Nicole
    Campo, a twenty-two year old New Yorker who visited the English class last
    year, "I think Rocinha is definitely one of those places that you hear
    all kinds of bad things about, and then you go in, and find out it’s mostly
    myth. Probably the majority of people who talk about how dangerous a place
    like Rocinha is, have never been there."

    Rocinha had not seen inter-gang
    violence in recent years which is one of the reasons that safety has never
    been a serious concern for volunteers. In the past few months, however, police
    incursions into the Rocinha—which generally provoke shootouts with drug-traffickers—have
    increased, in response to the specter of a gang war.

    A former drug lord from
    Rocinha, Eduíno Eustáquio de Araújo Filho, known as Dudu,
    escaped from prison in January. Dudu, who is loathed by residents of Rocinha,
    immediately began planning an invasion of Rocinha, in order to take control
    of its lucrative drug trade, which police estimate at 10 million reais (3.3
    million dollars) per week.

    On Good Friday, Dudu finally
    launched the long anticipated invasion of Rocinha, which was thwarted by the
    police and local gangsters. Dudu managed to escape Rocinha and it is rumored
    that he is plotting a second attempt.

    Little Break

    Owing to the increase
    in violence in Rocinha, Two Brothers Foundation has canceled most of its classes
    thus far this year. "The organization takes the safety of students and
    volunteers very seriously," according to volunteer Christopher Cummisky.

    "Since favelas
    in general have such a bad reputation for being violent, it’s very important
    that to have the complete confidence of our volunteers that we would not put
    them into a dangerous situation. This situation is very rare for Rocinha,
    and nobody expects it to last too long. It is possible we are being overly
    cautious. But as soon as things return to normal, we’ll be back as well."

    In Brazil, the talk is
    always about development, about which economic model will allow the country
    to finally reach its economic potential, discarding once and for all the label
    of "país do futuro" ("country of the future").

    But to some observers
    it seems that, lost in all the debate about interest rates, exchange rates,
    and external debt, is the problem of Brazil’s appallingly deficient public
    education system.

    Markus Stadler, a former
    investment banker in Deutsche Bank’s London Branch and Two Brothers Foundation
    volunteer, views the foundation as an exercise in development.

    "Development, in
    the long-term, has to be linked to a drastic improvement of the public education
    system," he remarks. "The way I see it, the Fundação
    Dois Irmãos is educational and, therefore, related to the development
    process. My students not only learned English, the international language,
    but they learned about the world, through close contact with educated foreigners."

    Not having proficiency
    in English can be an impediment to gaining admittance to quality public universities.
    Rhea Pariana, a recent Bryn Mawr graduate and volunteer, asserts that "in
    order to get into the most selective universities, which are usually public,
    you need to demonstrate a certain level of proficiency in a foreign language,
    normally English, that can’t be attained relying solely on English courses
    at public high schools. Ironically the large majority of public university
    students come from private schools."

    Layla de Carvalho, a 25-year-old
    Carioca lawyer who recently visited the adult English class, was impressed
    by the caliber of the lesson, notwithstanding that the majority of the volunteers
    had no formal training as teachers.

    "I told some of those
    kids that they really have to take advantage of this opportunity, of the intimate
    setting with native English-speakers," she recounts. "I, like most
    people who can afford it, had to spend a lot of money on private English courses,
    and the teachers, most of the time, were Brazilian.

    "Not speaking English
    nowadays can almost be a form of illiteracy—it’s an incredible disadvantage
    professionally, and it usually correlates to social class. It’s for that reason
    that programs like this are so important in Brazil."

    Gabe Ponce de León is an American, but has been involved in the community
    in Rocinha, a Rio favela, for several years and has a photography
    studio there. Comments are welcome at

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