The relatively recent trend of tourism in the favelas, the huge slums of Rio de Janeiro, perplexes many middle-class Brazilians who would rather leave the reality of poverty hidden from the eyes of foreign visitors. Gringo na laje: Produção, circulação e consumo da favela turística (Gringos on the Rooftop: The Production, Circulation and Consumption of Slum Tourism), a short book by sociologist Bianca Freire-Medeiros focusing on tourism in Rocinha (the largest favela in Rio), is a welcome and fresh look at the subject. Through interviews conducted by the author and her team of sociology students with residents of Rocinha and their foreign guests, the book shows how slum visits are more than a passive experience for both favelados (the locals) and their visitors and can actually challenge stereotypes.
But while the book provides Brazilians with an inside look at urban areas seen mostly as hotbeds of crime and violence, it fails to offer much insight beyond what would be gleaned by a casual tourist.
Its main shortcoming is the repeated claim that crime and violence in the favela is just a “spectacular media-centric representation,” blaming the media for depicting only the slums’ negative sides. Freire-Medeiros writes that the recent phenomenon of “tourism in Rocinha has deconstructed the logic that associates favela and violence.”
As favelados struggle for their everyday survival, the thriving new industry of favela tourism indeed brings thousands of foreign visitors to Rio’s slums. The most visible, Rocinha, is located on prime real estate with views of Ipanema beach and sits adjacent to the expensive condos on São Conrado beach. The top dwellings in Rocinha have arguably the best view in Rio.
But Rocinha is dominated by a gang of drug traffickers with a narcotics business that brings in an estimated $5 million in monthly sales. The government of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is investing $90 million to upgrade infrastructure in Rocinha as part of its national PAC (Plan of Accelerated Growth) program, but for the works to go forward, the government had to have the implicit support of the drug cartel. Since then, at least at the time this issue went to press, the constant shootouts between rival gangs and the police have been replaced by a deceitful peace, with the drug lords still ruling inside the favela and administering their brand of justice.
Freire-Medeiros doesn’t ignore the presence of the narcotics gangs, but she claims that the media have exaggerated their importance. This is particularly troublesome to read in light of the 2002 murder of Tim Lopes, an investigative reporter working for the Globo TV network while researching a story in another Rio slum, an incident she does not mention. Lopes was captured by a drug gang, tortured and personally butchered by the notorious drug lord, Elias Maluco (Crazy Elias). The journalist’s body was burned in what the traffickers call a “microwave,” a pile of burning tires used to hide evidence of their crimes. Elias Maluco was arrested and sentenced to 28 years in prison. Later his sentence was lowered; he’ll be out on parole in a few years.
Instead of the “media-centric stereotypes” alleged by Freire-Medeiros, Tim Lopes’ many stories for Globo showed how the hard-working, honest people of the favelas are terrorized daily and exploited by organized crime, with no recourse to justice and law enforcement. These are facts left out of Gringo na laje.
Freire-Medeiros focuses on what she calls the “complexity” of daily life in Rocinha and the exchanges between favelados and tourists, but she treats the role that drug trafficking plays in creating that complexity as irrelevant. Gringo na laje ends up analyzing Rocinha with just about the same amount of insight as a tourist, failing to do much more than look around with casual interest. The author—like tourists who are instructed to look away and not take pictures of armed drug soldiers—does not understand or care to explain the mushrooming narcotics trade and its implications.
Ironically, Freire-Medeiros reports that most tourists want to visit Rocinha after having seen the film City of God, a harrowing depiction of violence and drug rule in the favelas. Some of them confessed to her they wanted to experience the thrill of being in a place like those shown in the movie. It has been alleged that the travel agencies that bring tourists to Rocinha have arrangements with the drug lords (through payments) to ensure tourists’ safety. But the travel operators interviewed by the author deny this, and she accepts their word without further investigation.
Freire-Medeiros subscribes to the theories of British sociologist John Urry, who focuses on the new patterns created by globalization—of which the phenomenon of slum tourism is an example. To understand this global trend, the author visited the Soweto slum in Johannesburg, South Africa, and the Dharavi slum in Mumbai, India, to compare the tours offered to those in Rocinha. Her conclusion: “Marx states that capitalism imposes the conversion of things, subjects and social relations into market goods. Poverty, theoretically, escapes this unavoidable fate, for it is impossible to buy it or sell it. Contradicting Marx, we see, at the turn of the century, poverty acquiring value and being marketed in the tourist trade.”
But for a reader interested in more than just a light scratching of the surface of Rio’s slums, a better choice would be Favela, Four Decades of Living on the Edge in Rio de Janeiro by Janice Perlman, which Oxford University Press will publish in November. Perlman’s classic study of the favelas, The Myth of Marginality (ignored by Freire-Medeiros), researched in the late 1960s during the military dictatorship and published in 1976. In Favela, Four Decades of Living on the Edge in Rio de Janeiro, she goes back to the same families and traces the destinies of four generations of favelados. Perlman, who had previously debunked the myth that favelados are “marginal” by showing how the slum was deeply integrated into the city, now recognizes that the marginalization of the favelas has become real. The culprits: governments that have left them increasingly under the rule of the drug lords.
Gringo na laje captures the yearning of the residents of Rocinha to be accepted as full citizens, and how tourism helps to break their isolation. In it, Freire-Medeiros concludes that “slum tourism is not the cause of poverty and inequality, though it feeds on them.” But a more detailed examination of how such tourism is linked to the rising power of organized crime in the favelas might possibly make people think twice before booking one of these tours.