This is part two of a series of posts discussing the representation of favelas in Rio de Janeiro, favela tours and the tourist narrative. In part one I sketched out some of the controversy in the global debate surrounding the definition of slums. Grounding this debate in Rio de Janeiro is especially relevant given the current paradigm of urban renewal. The representation of Rio’s favelas in popular media, everyday interactions, and political, professional and academic discourses reproduces the spatial relationships between favelas and their surrounding areas (the formal city, the asfalto). These relationships affect the daily lives of just about everyone in the city—rich, poor and everyone in between; native, migrant and tourist; politicians, day laborers and the unemployed. The way one feels about Rio’s favelas impacts how one experiences the city. As a new world power, the sixth largest national economy, and with the FIFA World Cup and Summer Olympics in the near future, how people experience Rio de Janeiro is a major concern for Brazilian politicians, planners, investors and ordinary citizens.
The idea of looking at the representation of Rio’s favelas in tourist-produced media is simple: tourists are sold their favela experience by guidebooks, hostel employees, tourist agencies and their websites. They arrive with preconceptions based on popular media (movies like City of God, news media, TV and the internet), other tourists, Brazilian nationals, and their scholastic and personal histories. While on the tour they experience the favela through a narrative provided by their guide and through their own discerning senses. They then consolidate this narrative with the influences mentioned above and reproduce it through blogs and online photo sharing. As tourists are not directly involved in the political subjectivity of favela representation, and as they did not grow up with the locally constructed socio-spatial prejudices, it stands to reason that they should easily adopt the narrative provided to them by their guides, tourist agencies and others parroting official state discourse about the new era dawning in Rio de Janeiro.
Methodological disclaimer: this is not an academic study. I did not collect and analyze data systematically and what I write here should not be considered conclusive. It’s a blog, and should be taken as a thinking exercise and public debate. In preparing for these posts, I’ve read a few dozen blogs written by tourists, checked out the websites of some of the tour agencies and guides that offer favela tours, and read relevant travel forums that discuss the politics of favela tours and recommend ‘good’ (read ethical) guides as opposed to ‘bad’ (read exploitative) agencies.
Today I want to start small and lay out a few patterns that I saw across the travel blogs.
and Cantagalo each popped up in a generic internet search, I had to seek out non-Rocinha experiences by searching specifically for favelas that I knew to be accessible to everyday tourists (such as Santa Marta). This is not particularly surprising, as Rocinha is the largest favela in Rio, receives the most attention from academics and news media alike, and was safe while under the control of Nem and the ADA (Amigos dos Amigos) even prior to the government military takeover.
I quickly noticed that many tourist bloggers are aware that favela tours are something of a controversial topic. More than a few opened their entries with comments about poverty voyeurism, and a couple travellers left companions behind who were either uninterested in visiting a favela or ethically opposed. All of these bloggers ended up stressing that their tour was an ethical one, meaning that their guide was either a resident of the favela or was well liked and respected by members of the favela community. They also reject the notion that they were participating in the making of a human zoo with anecdotes of supporting the local economy, visiting an art studio or samba school, and chatting with street vendors. As one traveller writes, “I’m sure that the favela could be turned into a human zoo but it definitely wasn’t. In fact, it felt like we went to debunk all of the myths about this place. […] Everyone was friendly and acted as if we were guests and not invaders. […] I don’t even think ‘tour’ is the right word. We spent a morning in the favela and met some people. And I learned a lot.” On the flip side, others note the moments of awkwardness when they wandered through a private home, a group of gringos traipsing single-file through someone’s living room.
Most tourists stress how normal the favela is while simultaneously in awe of its size, complexity and exotic qualities. The favela is represented as natural but different; self-contained but connected to the outside city. Nearly every blog I read on Rocinha
described the favela as a functioning small city, complete with its own banks, stores, schools and police stations: “Patrick [the tour guide] explained that the favela has everything available that a regular city does – you can still purchase anything you would normally.” Rocinha residents are said to be employed in the low-paid service sector and they ‘commute’ to the wealthy neighbourhoods close by in the larger city.
These same tourists are intrigued by the parallel legal and police structures, particularly in Rocinha where many tours were operating well before the government’s pacification campaign. In this narrative the favela is “completely self-governed”; and, absent of the state, the drug lords make the rules (knowledge of the police militias that now control over half of Rio’s favelas is lacking). One blogger informs us that “not many people in the favela do drugs, but most sell them”. Another claims that people caught stealing in the favela have their hands cut off! Understandably they are shocked to see adolescent males carting around assault rifles, but they parrot their tour guides who assure them that “both the police and the drug lords rule the same way, by intimidation.” They pointedly tell their readers that despite stereotypes, favelas are safer than the city due to the strict rule of gangs and strong sense of community.
These are just a few of the patterns that show up in the favela tourist narrative. In the following post (go to part III), I ask how we might situate them in the larger political struggle to (re)define favela space.
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