Imagine trying to a start newspaper in a community with nearly nothing: little food, no access to running water or electricity. Meet Rene Silva. This 19-year-old journalist did just that. His community is the favelas of Brazil. Silva’s task was not an easy one, especially with the rampant crime and drug lords who impose martial law on these shantytowns.
Brazil’s poverty is legendary and brutal, as Gordon Parks showed the world in his 1961 Life magazine photo essay masterpiece titled “Freedom’s Fearful Foe: Poverty,” in which he introduced the world to Flavio da Silva, a 12-year-old Brazilian boy who lived in a the Catacumba Favela in the hills outside of Rio de Janeiro.
The favelas began appearing in the late 19th century, as landless and often jobless migrants streamed into the city of Rio de Janero and its surrounding hills. Little by little, communities were created. These were folks who didn’t buy land; they just started constructing their own homes there. The name “favela” came from an actual plant that was found in those hills.
Though poverty, lack of resources, drug infestation and crime still run rampant through these hillside slums, Silva and partner Daiene Mendes started a six-page paper titled Voz das Comunidades” (Voice of the Community), a valued resource for those living in these dwellings. The favelas still don’t have much, but they do have a voice now, thanks to Silva. He and Mendes spoke with the AmNews as part of the Brotherhood-SisterSol Media Exchange Program and spoke through a translator about life in the favelas and his mission to give a voice to those who survive in them.
“Once people began setting up in these communities, there was pressure from the authorities and from the police. They were trying to get the houses knocked down, but eventually there were just too many of these kinds of houses and the city began to just ignore it until it became a real problem.
“Within the favelas of today, there are poor people who live in them, but you have people from all over Brazil and even from outside of Brazil who live in the favelas. They’ve become more incorporated into the city. Before they were completely separate. The city didn’t provide any services like sanitation, garbage, electricity or water. All these things people had to either steal or go without. Little by little, these things have been incorporated more into the cities.
“Certain parts of the favelas have water while others don’t. People who live up higher generally have less access to water because the pressure doesn’t go up as high. It’s not the city that provides the water. It’s the people who actually tap into the lines and have their water coming in.
“Originally there were certain points with a spout and you had to take your bucket and fill it up. People started tapping into that over time. Historically, it’s been a big issue, not just in the favelas, but in other parts of Rio as well,” Silva said.
The first favelas were near the center of Rio de Janero because Rio was very small at that time. As Rio expanded, the favelas kept expanding around the city. Now there are more than 1,000 favelas. In the favela where Silva and Mendes live alone, there are between 100,000 and 180,000 people. Favelas come in various sizes but theirs is one of the largest. Today there are more than 11 million people living in the favelas.
Silva was inspired to take a stab at journalism in 2005 by a Christmas campaign. When he was 11, he started a school newspaper. The idea was to share important information with the community but also to provide a place where the community could have a voice to communicate things that were going on. If there was an event, or workshop or any kind of activity, the newspaper was a way to get out the word about what was going on in the community. It began as a six-page edition, helped along by an online blog and advertising.
“The newspaper grew and eventually they started going into the community and getting people to advertise in the newspaper,” Silva said through translation.
“He did that newspaper for several years,” said the translator. “In 2010 there was the occupation of the favelas. Many of them have been taken over by drug dealers. Literally, they are controlled by violent means by gun-wielding drug dealers. When we visited some of the favelas, and walk into the neighborhood, you actually pass by the drug dealers with their guns out. They decide who gets in and who doesn’t. The police don’t enter these favelas. They enter only with their guns out, ready for war because the drug dealers won’t allow them in. It’s something hard for people in the U.S. to understand. Obviously we have drug dealers all over the place but they don’t carry their guns out, exposed. They don’t control the neighborhood in the same kind of way that these folks control the favelas.”
Despite all of that, Silva continued with Voz da Commundadge, growing it from 90 copies in its first year to 3,000 currently. They are looking to increase distribution to 5,000 copies. It’s real community news. Silva, along with 35 volunteers, goes out into the community and asks what it needs. The latest in the “Calendar of Events” was an organized Easter Egg hunt for kids.
With Rio de Janeiro playing host to the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016, the favelas are changing. Drug lords are being pushed out. The favelas are becoming tourist destinations, and, with their sweeping views of the city and famed beaches they are now being scooped up by real estate investors.
Silva will begin college studies this month on full scholarship. He plans to major in journalism and marketing. He will continue with Voz da Commundadge and is looking to expand it to 16 pages. Silva also plans to create a library in the favelas.