Spiking in the Favelas: Violence and Volleyball in Rio

Spiking in the Favelas: Violence and Volleyball in Rio

Ravel Gonçalves Mendonça is a 17-year-old beach volleyball phenom from Rio. He is currently training with Brazil’s national team at its state-of-the-art facility. But his country’s preparation for the Olympics has eliminated what used to be Ravel’s home.

Partially destroyed home in the Manguinhos favela of Rio de Janeiro ( Ratão Diniz/Imagens do Povo)

Ravel Gonçalves Mendonça is a seventeen-year-old beach volleyball phenom from Rio de Janeiro. He is currently training with Brazil’s national team at its state-of-the-art facility in Saquarema, a hundred kilometers north of Rio. He represents the junior national team and hopes to make the cut for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games, which will be held in his home city.

But his country’s preparation for the Olympics has eliminated what used to be Ravel’s home. Until recently, he lived with his family—father Rosinaldo, mother Rosilene, and brothers Ruan (eighteen) and Roger (six)—in a community known as Largo do Tanque, not far from the Olympic stadia under construction in the West Zone of the vast municipality. In the first months of this year, much of Largo do Tanque, including the Mendonça family home, was razed to make way for the Transcarioca Expressway, a rapid-transit highway for buses that will link Rio’s international airport with the Olympic village, cutting through working-class North and West Zone neighborhoods on its way. Ravel’s story illustrates both the promise and the peril of the Olympics for residents of favelas and other working-class subdivisions.

The Transcarioca promises to move Olympic crowds directly from the airport to the sites of the Games without going through the congested center of the city—and to streamline public transportation after the crowds are gone. The risk is that it will uproot more families like Ravel’s and reinforce existing social divisions by pushing the working class to the periphery while preserving the South Zone for Rio’s elite and tourists.

The Transcarioca is just one of several major infrastructural projects that are reshaping Rio. In the short term, they displace poor residents, leaving them scrambling for housing in the midst of an Olympic-sized real-estate bubble. The long-term costs and benefits of these projects, beyond adding to the fortunes of well-connected construction magnates, are uncertain. In the face of this uncertainty, residents at risk are putting pressure on the municipal government. They are mobilizing to slow or divert Olympic projects, limiting their negative consequences for the urban poor.

But not all poor residents of Rio are pessimistic about the Olympics. Few have a chance to reach the medal stand, but increasing numbers of favela residents are playing organized sports. Volleyball, practically unknown in poor neighborhoods as recently as a decade ago, is taking off. The stereotypical image of barefoot boys playing soccer in vacant lots with balls made out of knotted rags is long out of date. In favelas like Tavares Bastos in Rio’s South Zone, children eschew the mini soccerfield, itself recently upgraded with artificial turf, in favor of a nearby volleyball court surrounded on all sides by three-story homes. Here and elsewhere, volleyball programs, linked in direct and indirect ways to Olympic preparation, have become increasingly central to favela life.

This change reflects improving economic conditions within favelas and their increasing integration with the surrounding city. In recent years, better security and civil society programs have helped reverse the demarcation and protection of favela turf by groups of criminals. As a result, more favelas are now part of the fabric of the city rather than isolated from it. This shows up in everything from a boost in regular jobs to participation in team sports.


A man walks through the ruins of his home, cleared to make way for infrastructural upgrading, in the Manguinhos favela of Rio de Janeiro (Ratão Diniz/Imagens do Povo)

Which of these trends will prevail? Will Rio continue to be a city of evictions, spatial divisions, and real-estate speculation at the expense of the poor? Or will it continue to incorporate residents of the favelas into its economic and cultural life? The ball is up in the air, and it is not clear on which side of the net it will come down.


Ravel’s father, Rosinaldo, got an eviction notice early in 2013 but hid the news from his son. His first cause for concern was not Ravel but his older son, Ruan, who is severely autistic. Four years earlier, in part to meet Ruan’s needs, Rosinaldo had used his meager savings, earned from his work as a house painter, to purchase a lot in Largo do Tanque. “I knew it wasn’t legal,” Rosinaldo admits. But housing in the formal sector—with a verifiable property title, in a dwelling that meets building codes and requires the owner to pay municipal taxes—is largely beyond the reach of the urban poor. Over the past century, Rio’s housing market has traditionally pushed that population into the informal sector, where property claims are vulnerable and difficult to defend in court.

More favelas are now part of the fabric of the city rather than isolated from it. This shows up in everything from a boost in regular jobs to participation in team sports.

Over the past fifty years, hundreds of such irregular subdivisions have been erected in the West Zone of the city. The overwhelming majority endure. Many have prospered, and some have made the gradual transition to legal status. Only a small percentage have bumped up against more powerful interests, leading to the eviction of their residents and the destruction of their homes. So for most buyers, investment in a lot in an irregular subdivision has been a risk worth taking.

Rosinaldo spent more on construction materials—the equivalent of about $15,000—than he spent on the lot itself and did all the labor himself. The lot stood on land owned by the municipal government, a feature typical of unoccupied land in the West Zone. Municipal ownership in itself was not necessarily an obstacle to eventually gaining legitimate status. It was just Rosinaldo’s bad luck that his plot stood squarely in the path of the Transcarioca.

Agents for the city initially offered him the equivalent of about $7,000 to give up his land. Several of his neighbors received similar offers, took the money, and left rather than attempting to fight City Hall. Rosinaldo stayed, mostly because he knew he could not find safe housing for Ruan for so little money.

To pressure him, the city sent out its “submayor” for Rosinaldo’s slice of the West Zone, a combative young politician named Igor Guerrato. When your story features a hero named Ravel and a villain named Igor, it is not hard to pick sides—or, rather, it is hard not to pick sides. Igor (Brazil’s politicians, like its soccer stars, are often known by their first names) seemed resolved to play the part. Rosinaldo called him “grosseiro,” rude and truculent. Guerrato threatened that the offer would be reduced unless Rosinaldo promptly accepted it.

No longer able to hide the trauma at home, Rosinaldo informed Ravel, who asked his coach if he could leave the training compound to help his family. Fortunately, other observers of evictions caused by the Transcarioca also found out. Renato Cosentino and Theresa Williamson, activists in groups that are mobilizing against evictions caused by the upcoming Olympics and soccer’s World Cup, visited Rosinaldo and his family in Largo do Tanque. They vainly attempted to communicate with Guerrato and then published accounts of the eviction-in-progress on websites like RioOnWatch, which collects community reporting on popular responses to Olympic pressures.

As publicity mounted, the authorities raised their offer of indemnification to about U.S. $20,000. This was still less than Rosinaldo had spent on the lot and construction materials combined, but it was enough to allow the family to dar um jeito, or find a way. Rosinaldo accepted the offer and bought a decrepit house in a nearby favela, using the surplus to begin the process of tearing down the existing structure and building a new one in its place, even as his family had to live on the site. The new house, he insists, will look much like the old one.

City officials, for their part, insist that the Transcarioca is a necessary improvement, and that the interests of individual families who have built on public land cannot override the broader public good. The city quickly razed Rosinaldo’s old home before anyone else could move in, which is common after such evictions. The Transcarioca is on the way. Except for having a son who is an Olympic hopeful, Rosinaldo’s story is typical. Residents subject to eviction who find the right allies are able to negotiate acceptable if seldom desirable settlements. When large factions of a community mobilize, the municipality often responds and drastically changes its plans or abandons them entirely. In contrast, residents caught unaware and isolated get nothing.


Largo do Tanque is on the outskirts of the city, in an area of recent settlement where residents of favelas and informal subdivisions are particularly vulnerable to risks of removal. Closer to the center of the city, particularly in the favelas overlooking the neighborhoods of Rio’s South Zone, the picture looks very different. It takes at least two hours by city bus to get from Largo do Tanque to the favela of Tavares Bastos, perched on a hillside just south of downtown Rio. Although it is flanked by favelas that long suffered from drug trafficking and related violence, Tavares Bastos managed to escape without the scars suffered by its neighbors. It looks much like those adjoining favelas, with self-built housing of brick and cinderblock rising precipitously over ravines and narrow concrete alleyways. But it has enjoyed greater peace, and as a result its residents have faced less stigma from middle-class Rio. In part, this is due to a long-standing police outpost on the hill, but the presence of law enforcement did not stop criminals from fighting turf wars nearby. The relative good fortune of Tavares Bastos seems to be a result of luck as much as anything else.

The absence of gun-toting drug traffickers in Tavares Bastos helped make possible the growth of community initiatives there. One sign of this was the enthusiasm with which the community adopted a local branch of the Escola Bernardinho de Vôlei, a volleyball academy founded by Bernardo Resende—gold-medal coach of the Brazilian national men’s team and the most decorated coach in the history of the game. Most branches of Bernardinho’s academy elsewhere in the country are located in sports clubs or private schools that cater to children of the middle class. The free academy in Tavares Bastos, founded in 2008, signaled a new focus on social justice, balancing the other for-profit branches.


Partially destroyed home in the Manguinhos favela of Rio de Janeiro (Ratão Diniz/Imagens do Povo)

In Brazil, volleyball has traditionally been a middle-class sport. But the academy in Tavares Bastos grew quickly. Bernardinho’s fame and charisma certainly helped; all the young players, who range in age from eight to fifteen, remember Bernardinho’s visits to the academy and are proud to associate their school with his Olympic glory. The school built on this initial allure by hiring and training coaches who understood the kind of neighborhood in which their students lived. Raimundo Soares, head coach at Tavares Bastos, grew up in the enormous South Zone favela of Rocinha. “I was never any good at soccer, and I was tall, so I looked into volleyball,” Raimundo remembers. “I got good enough to play for a few clubs,” he notes. “And then this opportunity came along.”

“I teach down at the Hebráica,” he says, referring to the Escola’s flagship location at the Clube Hebráica, a sports and social club established by Rio’s small Jewish community but open to all. It is located in the nearby middle-class neighborhood of Laranjeiras. “And I teach here,” he said with a broad, sweeping gesture taking in Tavares Bastos’s vibrant quadra, an open-air sports court, rehearsal space, and community center at the uppermost reaches of the favela. “I prefer teaching here,” he continues. “The students are harder to orient at the beginning. They are not so used to following directions and staying well behaved to get a certain result. But once they adopt volleyball, they are more committed. Volleyball becomes their way of interacting with the world.”

Several of Raimundo’s students have gone on to play for local clubs. For those few, volleyball could be a path to a career. But Raimundo harbors no illusions that this is likely, nor does he consider it the goal of the school. “For most of these kids, this is about fitness, self-confidence, teamwork. Things that are maybe not very complicated at the Hebráica but are harder to get up here.”

Tavares Bastos, its challenges notwithstanding, is well off in comparison to a place like the Complexo de Alemão, a vast conglomeration of favelas in the deindustrialized, working-class North Zone lacerated for decades by police violence and political corruption and long one of the most notorious strongholds of Rio’s drug trade. Since 2010 the Complexo de Alemão has been a prominent test case for the city’s new security strategy—the UPP, for Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora, or Pacifying Police Unit. The UPP calls for short-term military occupations in specific favelas, giving way to longer-term operations staffed by prominent but lightly armed foot patrols.

This strategy has worked well in small favelas that have already benefited from state investment and community programs. But it has been more contentious in the Complexo de Alemão. The occupation of Alemão ran into difficulties right from its televised beginning in November 2010, when aerial footage revealed armed drug traffickers fleeing out the back of the favela while uniformed soldiers poured in the main entrance. The flight of the dealers suggested they were merely relocating rather than disappearing. Since then, Alemão’s UPP has been characterized by lower levels of trust and higher levels of animosity than those in the more successful pilot programs on the south side. The favela may well slide backward into a semi-permanent militarized occupation.

Even here, however, the UPP has created space for the community to develop in ways that benefit its residents. Federal funds paid for an aerial tramway that traverses the Complexo de Alemão, the first such initiative in this region in decades. Critics dismiss the tramway as a showcase for tourists, but residents ride for free and use it extensively. The Praça do Terço neighborhood at the heart of the favela is now home to a well-funded “Knowledge Plaza”—a community computer lab, library, and video-editing studio, next door to a subsidized cinema. Residents are cautiously noncommittal about the UPP, but they have flocked to Knowledge Plaza.

In Rio, much of the discontent focused, inevitably, on the Olympics. Why was the city pouring billions into preparation for the Games while the real needs of citizens in health, education, and public transportation went unaddressed?

Behind it lies a quadra that is home to another branch of the Escola Bernardinho de Vôlei, inaugurated shortly after the arrival of the UPP. As in Tavares Bastos, the school took pains to hire coaches who would not come across as elite outsiders. One of them is Wallace Jardim, a lifelong resident of the favela and recent graduate of a college program in physical education. Unlike his counterpart Raimundo, Wallace had little prior experience with volleyball before attending Benardinho’s training program at the Hebráica. His greatest value to the school lies in his easy rapport with students who have ample reason to be skeptical of outside authorities.

The other coach at the Alemão branch, Agosto dos Santos, is both an experienced volleyball player and author of a master’s thesis on community development in poor neighborhoods through organized sport. Agosto and Wallace balance one another, guiding sixty children through sets, spikes, and blocks. The Alemão children are less experienced than those in Tavares Bastos. And when the coaches pack up for the day, soccer once again takes over the quadra. Still, in the corner of the quadra, two girls continue working on their serves.

Outside the quadra, a pair of UPP police, a young man and young woman, both attractive, patrol the community. In typical Brazilian fashion, the UPP emphasizes youth and beauty in its strategy of community relations. The presence of female officers probably makes a greater difference; residents are clearly more at ease approaching a woman in uniform than a man. Male officers do not have a monopoly on police violence, but they come close.

The good-looking patrol stops at a neighborhood bar and chats with customers, then greets the children leaving the volleyball academy. Nevertheless, while the kids laugh and joke with the officers, most adults maintain a respectful distance. Alemão has a long history of suffering at the hands of the police, and longtime residents prefer to wait and see whether this new venture will be any different.

Does a community volleyball program make any difference in this delicate context? Not by itself, surely. In Tavares Bastos, where the volleyball academy has benefited from a history of community stability and civil society initiatives, the program is already a beloved part of the favela’s identity. In Alemão, where the volleyball academy is knit into a cluster of new educational and cultural projects designed to offer young people a chance to rise from poverty, it has a good chance to prosper. But if the fragile gains of the UPP are reversed there, all the initiatives will founder.


Children play volleyball with an improvised net in the Alemão favela of Rio de Janeiro, surrounded by rubble of homes recently cleared to make way for infrastructural projects (Fábio Caffe/Imagens do Povo)

The Escola Bernardinho de Vôlei has recently expanded into five more favelas, each one a community with its own complicated past, as different from one another as Tavares Bastos is from Alemão. And Bernardinho is not the only one bringing volleyball to Rio’s favelas: other institutions run similar programs, with varying degrees of success. Their growth is a sign that Rio’s favelas are changing in positive ways. But their continuity is based on a tenuous experiment.

In a city with a bloody recent history of police violence and corruption, there is considerable risk that the UPP could disintegrate or, worse, turn into arbitrary, militarized occupation. The approaching mega-events exacerbate this risk. If the UPP is going to achieve its goal of “pacifying” the favela, it must first pacify the police. The early, tantalizing indications that this process is underway have been enough to revive civil society in places like Alemão. But it can only be consolidated if the UPP—and the political authorities behind it—can avoid the distortion and degradation that have marked previous security initiatives.


The impending Olympics throw the future of the favelas into doubt. Last June, on the same day I last visited Alemão, a small group of protesters in downtown Rio rallied against a recent hike in the municipal bus fare. The Rio protests followed the example of similar rallies in São Paulo but began so tepidly that they seemed unlikely to have much effect. To the surprise of most Brazilians, when police cracked down on the São Paulo rallies a few days later, protesters in cities across the nation poured into the streets in a series of demonstrations that lasted for two weeks. Some of the largest demonstrations took place in Rio, where hundreds of thousands of students, workers, activists, and citizens of all backgrounds marched to the central plaza.

The nationwide mobilization began with the issue of public transportation—which has become increasingly expensive, unsafe, overcrowded, and inefficient. But it quickly broadened into a larger protest over misplaced spending priorities and political corruption.

In Rio, much of the discontent focused, inevitably, on the Olympics. Why was the city pouring billions into preparation for the Games while the real needs of citizens in health, education, and public transportation went unaddressed? For years, boosters have been touting the purported benefits of the Olympics, citing infrastructural improvements and promising job growth—as well as national pride. But anxiety about the social costs—evictions, greater spatial divisions by class, repressive security measures, and spending on Games instead of other needs—got little attention. That all changed in June.

In Rio, the protests have made these issues central to conversation in a way they had not been before. And they have made clear that residents of all classes are demanding greater participation in the project of reshaping their city. For residents of places like Tavares Bastos, the Complexo de Alemão, and what is left of Largo do Tanque, the larger contest of the Olympics is just beginning. The odds may be against them. But the ball is now in their court.


Bryan McCann is an associate professor of Latin American history at Georgetown University. He is the author of Hard Times in the Marvelous City: From Dictatorship to Democracy in the Favelas of Rio de Janeiro, forthcoming from Duke University Press.


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