Favelas are the slums in urban areas throughout Brazil. In Rio the favelas grow and spread upward on the mountainsides, and locals told us the slums are named "favelas" after the favela plant that grows on mountainsides.
The Santa Marta tour is run by the favela by tour guides that live in the favela. So your tour money goes to help the community. Many of Rio's favelas are dangerous to tourists. Drug trafficking being a huge problem. But the Santa Marta favela is very small, about 5,000 souls, allowing it to be the first favela in Rio to have a consistent police presence. (Some favelas are enormous, the largest one in Rio around 250,000, too big and sprawling for the police to effectively monitor and control.) And with the police the tours started up.
The tour begins by taking a tram to the top of the favela. Remember, the favela is on a mountainside! So it's easier to start at the top and walk your way down through the town.
Although Brazil is probably the most Catholic country in the world evangelicalism is growing in Brazil and in the favelas. Our tour guide pointed out that there are more evangelical churches in the Santa Marta favela than Catholic churches. At one point we passed an evangelical church during a service, the familiar sound of praise music thumping through the walls.
The favela was alive with energy during our tour, everyone getting ready for a Festas Juninas and Julinas celebration. June and July are big festival months in Brazil. As the adults readied for the party children played soccer on rooftops.
Colorful graffiti art was everywhere, and many of the houses painted brightly.
The life and color within the poverty of Santa Marta--from the political organization, the storefronts, the faith, the festival--communicate an essential truth.
The favelas exist because Brazil has one of the world's most unequal distributions of wealth. That's a huge problem that needs to be worked. And the drug problem in many favelas remains a scourge.
The favelas exist on mountains and that's an apt metaphor for the steep systemic and structural obstacles they have to face and climb.
But the people within the favelas? Although they face systemic injustices they are a vibrant and competent people. They are merchants, politicians, artists and pastors. And the community ties they have created--the neighbor to neighbor bonds of affection--are so strong many in Santa Marta prefer living in the favela to living in the city.
As my friend Larry James describes it, this is the "wealth of the poor."