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One Step Forward, Ten Steps Back: On the Exoticization of Rio's Favelas

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João Otavio Nunes via Getty Images
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The scene opens with Gregório Duvivier, a well-known comedian and Internet personality, perched atop the bed of a truck pointing out the different peculiarities in one of Rio's many favelas. In this video from the popular Brazilian YouTube series, Porta dos Fundos, Duvivier is playing the role of tour guide, and gathered around him are several stand-ins meant to be curious outsiders who have come to explore the favela.

It quickly becomes apparent, that this installment from Porta dos Fundos is meant to put a smile on the viewer's face with its ridiculous exaggerations about the life of those with a more modest condition. The video's title, Pobre, translates simply to "Poor" -- the word itself used an uncountable amount of times to drive the video's over-arching point home: The nature of these tours, albeit intriguing to some, are questionable and misguided at the very least.

Duvivier goes on to sensationalize in the video: This is how a poor person eats, drinks, lives and habitats -- all the while indirectly emphasizing that this type of tourism is deeply flawed in acknowledging the soul and daily ongoings of such gargantuan and complex ecosystems. A recent blog entry in Brasil Post by Renato Meirelles, co-director of Brazil's Data Popular, claims that a total of 11.7 million Brazilians are currently living in the country's numerous favelas. That's 11.7 million people whose lives are "inspiring" a tourist gimmick in order to amuse foreigners as to how the exotic "other" lives. Respectively, that's 11.7 million people whose stories are being reduced to a 30- minute scenic route through a favela's safest and most beautiful parts. The most irreparable damage being that the fleeting tourists will most likely walk away with the notion that they really "learned something."

The implications of these tours are frightful and seemingly self-destructive. Any person with a brief historical understanding of what a favela is, can conclude that "a day in the life" does not mean walking around to marvel at the bright colors and fraternize with the smiling shirtless children. A day in the life of a favela does not mean questioning your tour guide as to how the "unique architecture" was built and is made to stand as it does. These are not planned housing alternatives for those with a less fortunate monetary structure than the majority middle class. These are the historical improvisations of an ecosystem that developed out of necessity, demand and a human instinct to survive.

A couple of months ago, I stumbled upon a site called Favela Experience. To my complete dismay and unblinking stillness, it was (and still is) exactly what it sounded like. This site offers room and board in one of Rio's favelas for those attending the FIFA World Cup in Brazil come June. Before jumping to the ugly conclusions my brain had formulated in under a minute's worth of time, I scoured the site for any "pros" that might slowly begin to pull my sunken heart out of my stomach. A few did catch my eye:

"Ultimately, we practice sustainable tourism because we generate additional income for favela residents." The usage of because here vaguely suggests justification, but in a system in which local favela residents are receiving additional income, I found that all can not be completely lost.

"Zezinho [an advisor employed by Favela Experience and the founder of a company with a similar ethos, Favela Adventures] only hires other favela residents as guides." I was relieved to learn that these tour guides are favela residents -- any outsider would certainly do all parties involved an extreme injustice within this position.

"We pay the majority of booking fees to our host families and reinvest our commissions into growing our social impact." The biggest, and perhaps most worrisome, concern lay in a simple question: Where was the money going? If they claim that the majority is indeed handed over to favela residents, I can therefore agree to this being one positive aspect of such tourism.

Now for the cons, which came easier to the eye:

"In other countries, favelas are mostly known for their history of violence, drugs and poverty, which mainstream movies and news have exaggerated and sensationalized." These implications, although sometimes exaggerated, still do affect Brazilian favelas. To suggest otherwise is ignorant and misleading.

"Our favelas are located within the heart of Rio de Janeiro's South Zone." These are not "your" favelas. "Your" pertaining to the two Americans who act as the company's CEO and Operations Manager, respectively. These favelas have been around for hundreds of years, and to suggest outsider ownership, however slightly and unintentionally, is quite frankly absurd.

"With Favela Experience, you'll immerse yourself in the real Rio by staying in some of Brazil's most fascinating communities and feel for yourself the passion and excitement of the favelas." The real Rio for whom? The way the information is presented on this site reads like a masquerading political campaign that fails to tell you the whole truth.

Then came the security warnings:

"Stay aware of your surroundings at all times."

"Don't have sex with minors."

"Don't get scared by fireworks (Brazilians love to celebrate any occasion!)"

The contradictions in full are too plentiful and excruciating to continue. How does one go about presenting favelas as presumably an overly sensationalized drug and violent free "fascinating community," and in the same breath warn you to be aware of your surroundings at all times? What logic is there behind stating that "we shun any tourism activities that exploit, misrepresent or objectify marginalized communities," and on the same page advise your patrons to not have sex with minors? In no place on this site can you read about the realities of favela life. These are "fascinating communities," yes, full of life and beauty down to the very core of them. But they are also fragile, complex, unpredictable and problematic. And the outsider who's coming in for a simple "cultural exchange" should be made aware of such realities.

This type of exoticization works both in favor and as a disservice to the residents of a favela community. At first glance, it proves to be one-step forward, providing residents with additional income and a means to support their families that doesn't include selling drugs or themselves. In the long-view however, it reveals itself as a one-way road in the complete opposite direction. It ingrains, however subtly, the notion that the only way for favela residents to better their lives is to exploit themselves at the beck and call of an outsider. It creates a dependence on the culturally unaware foreigner who's expecting a smiley carefree favela resident as their host. It further solidifies the position of the exoticized "other" within a world system where those with more capital and cultural currency can both gawk and eventually take advantage of the presumed lesser.

My point is this: Favela Experience, at the very center of its operations, may have the best of intentions. Furthermore, favela residents who act as hosts and tour guides are far from incorrect in seizing an opportunity to better themselves financially through employment with this company. The problem is that only half of the information is being presented, only the pleasant half. And the way that it is being presented fails to convey that there are extreme implications that may hurt both the residents and the outsiders flocking to immerse themselves in the "real Rio" come time for the World Cup.

If you are planning to be a tourist this summer in Rio, then simply be a tourist. Stay at a hotel, cruise the landmarks and safe parts, and basque in the somewhat eschewed experience. There is no shame in admitting one is less culturally aware, if the alternative is exploitation and promotion of ignorance of an entire people's reality. The problem develops when you want to embody cultural sensitivity without actually understanding the complexities of favela life. The issue comes when you want to swim in the depths of a culture without getting your toes wet. It lies within the snapshots you'll make an album of later, one that will sit on your coffee table filled with pictures of small children shirtless, shoeless and smiling, making you feel that much more culturally conscious.

Don't take the picture, take a moment instead to realize: Yes, a favela is a "fascinating community" that can offer perspective as to how "the other half lives," but there is a fine line between that and stripping it of its truths that must be paid attention to. Once you become genuinely intrigued by something such as Favela Experience, reflect on the reasons as to why it sounds so appealing to you. Are you so compassionate about the global human condition that you want to see how your presence and knowledge can contribute to this specific community, or are you simply exoticizing the other?

The former is the exception, the latter is the institutionalized. To claim Favela Experience as one or the other would be inconclusive on my part, for I have not experienced it myself to make that bold of a claim. However, it raises the question and provokes deep cultural thought at the very least.

Unfortunately, I end this piece still battling the same question that got me writing it in the first place: Does "explore the narrow passageways and catch breathtaking views of unique architecture, mountains, and ocean" sound like the exception, or does it sound like a misguided brochure?

As a Brazilian woman whose quite familiar with exoticization in all its shapes and forms, I fear that the answer is too obvious and transparent to dismiss.