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Two Years After Rio Olympics, Vila Autódromo Celebrates ‘Glorious Victory,’ Looks Toward the Future

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On August 5, 2016, the Olympic Games began in Rio de Janeiro. As teargas choked protesting activists outside Maracanã Stadium, a tiny fraction of the original residents of Vila Autódromo were busy moving into new homes. These twenty families had resisted relocation against all odds after years of struggle and the loss of 97% of the community’s original residents. Two years later, on August 5, 2018, at an event jointly organized by the Evictions Museum and the Public Defenders Land and Housing Nucleus (NUTH), residents and supporters celebrated Vila Autódromo’s notable victory, while looking forward to the community’s future—as well as the future of housing rights in Brazil more generally.

Having resisted eviction in a determined and creative manner, twenty families succeeded in their struggle to stay in the community as part of the first-ever collectively negotiated rehousing agreement in Rio de Janeiro. The government built new homes for those residents who remained and promised further upgrades of community spaces in the months following the Olympic Games. This second phase of upgrades, which should have been completed by the end of 2016, has not yet begun.

The Evictions Museum was born out of the resistance movement to ensure that the memories of eviction and struggle in Vila Autódromo are not lost. The Museum is a statement by residents, asserting that Vila Autódromo cannot be wiped off the map and that “memory cannot be erased.” As museologist Mario Chagas explained, the Evictions Museum also lends legitimacy to residents of Vila Autódromo in telling their story in elite spaces, such as universities and other museums in the city.

The event opened with a photo exhibition entitled “Images of Memory and Struggle” by Luiz Claudio Silva. Silva has lived in Vila Autódromo for more than twenty years; his family’s home was the last to be demolished before the community reached an agreement with the City. In Silva’s words, the exhibition presents the “perspective of a resident of a community that was violated in the recent process of urban transformation unchained by the mega-events, presenting a sensitive view from someone engaged in a daily struggle for their right to exist in the city.” Such images, Silva explained, help to “preserve the memory of the community and everything that happened here.”

After the photo exhibition, a discussion was held in the community’s Catholic church, chaired by Public Defender Adriana Bevilaqua. The panel was composed of Regina Bienenstein, professor of architecture and urbanism at the Fluminense Federal University (UFF); Carlos Vainer, professor of urban planning at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ); and Maria da Penha, resident of Vila Autódromo. The two professors led the team of urban planners that collaborated with the community to produce the Vila Autódromo People’s Plan, presenting an alternative future for the community in which evictions were not necessary.

Bienenstein began her speech by saying how good it was to be back in Vila Autódromo and that she had missed the community. “The struggle of Vila Autódromo,” she explained, “remains an exemplary case of resistance [against evictions].” Describing the process of constructing the People’s Plan, she affirmed that the case of Vila Autódromo provides important lessons in the struggle for housing rights. Importantly, she noted, “Vila Autódromo was never alone,” drawing support from social movements, universities, politicians, and others.

In the end, although 97% of the community was evicted, she views the story of Vila Autódromo as a relative victory, not just because of the success of those who remained, but for those residents who left with adequate compensation packages as a result of their fierce resistance. However, Bienenstein warned: “The shadow of eviction doesn’t disappear… We have to give visibility to this struggle.” She stated that “the struggle is not over,” explaining that residents have not been given promised documents to prove ownership and are still waiting for undelivered upgrades, including a sports field and community square. 

While Bienenstein spoke of the past and the struggle that continues to this day, Vainer contemplated how these memories can help envision future possibilities. Vila Autódromo “lives in each one of us, in the memory of each of us,” he asserted. Here, at such events, “we construct the present from our past, and open possibilities for the future,” creating a space where “we can think about and change the future.”

This “possibility of a different future” allows us to affirm that “we want a different city,” he explained. Referencing the People’s Plan, he said: “Vila Autódromo made its plan. Vila Autódromo projected its future.” In doing so, these residents demonstrated the possibility of “a new Vila, a new city, a new world,” argued Vainer, slyly inverting the official motto of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.

Inspirational orator and twenty-year resident Maria da Penha then took the microphone and announced: “Thank God for this wonderful afternoon.” Penha remarked that seeing the church filled to capacity, overflowing into the street, fills her with happiness “because we are here celebrating two years of [the community’s] upgrading.” She said that Vila Autódromo’s achievement in remaining is what many would call impossible. Indeed, in anticipation of the Olympics, many residents and activists doubted that the community would be able to stay given the ferocity of the government’s attempts to remove them. Penha affirmed that while the community is utterly different today, their story should be seen as a victory. Yes, the community was “transformed, but with dignity.” For this reason, she is “celebrating this day, this huge victory.”

For Penha, determination is essential: “When you know what you want, you can get it… It’s difficult, but it isn’t impossible.” Her land, she explained, holds a value that cannot be bought; money runs out, but her land will remain. As such, she is happy to stay on her land, even if not in her old house. “The beauty [here]… doesn’t have a price,” Penha declared. She thanked those who have supported the community over the years of struggle, pointing out individuals in the crowd to thank them for their contributions.

Penha argued that education is critical in grassroots struggles. “I have the right to stay,” she asserted, explaining how she managed to stay strong in the face of threats. Educating people about their rights is more powerful than breaking things in protest, she argued, because when things are broken it is the workers who have to fix it. She outlined some of the tools that residents used to resist, from the events and seminars organized by Occupy Vila Autódromo to giving interviews, allowing people to “carry our story outside”—locally and globally.

Many in attendance at the event were students from the Fluminense Federal University (UFF). Penha remarked that “it is very important that you, students, are here, hearing the people.” She suggested that having heard these stories, these future planners and architects will be cognizant of issues facing communities like Vila Autódromo and do their work with love and kindness, transforming the dominant mode of government intervention in favelas. Penha concluded her inspiring speech with a message of hope for the future, met with loud applause from the crowd: “Yes, we can change this city and this country.”

Bevilaqua, a public defender who had worked on the community’s case, recalled hearing people often say, “I don’t know if I will stay, but I have no fear.” Vila Autódromo’s “glorious victory” is a testament to this fearlessness, she said. As the discussion opened up to the audience, Daniel Ferriera Campos, a community organizer from Vila União de Curicica, commented that he “learned a lot from Dona Penha” about continuing to fight in the face of eviction threats. Thanks, in part, to the support of Vila Autódromo, his “house still stands today.”

These words capture the theme of the discussion: thanking Vila Autódromo for the lesson in resistance. “The resistance shown by residents of Vila Autódromo sets a great example for others,” said one speaker, telling the residents in attendance: “You are huge inspirations.” In response to these comments, with a mischievous grin, Professor Vainer suggested that the area should be reoccupied: the twenty homes that are here today will become the capital of Vila Autódromo. He concluded: “Let’s start working in this direction.”

Closing the debate, Penha acknowledged the birds nesting in the church that had been chirping throughout the discussion. These birds, she says, “are occupying because they have the right to the land. This is wonderful.”

After the panel discussion, Silva led the crowd of over fifty visitors on a tour of the Evictions Museum, explaining that the community itself is the museum—a monument to memories of struggle. He showed photos and landmarks in the community, explaining their significance in the struggle. As he picked fruit from one of the remaining trees in the community, he lamented the missed opportunity of the Olympics. Silva loves sports—he works as a physical education teacher and organized soccer tournaments as part of the resistance movement. The Olympics, he said, could have presented a great opportunity to leave a positive social legacy by upgrading this community, showing what favelas could be with the support of the State. 

As residents of Vila Autódromo celebrated the community’s vitality and dreamed of a better future, the Olympic Park next door stood empty and derelict.

Adam Talbot is a lecturer in the sociology of sport at Abertay University, Dundee. His research focuses on protest, human rights, and the Olympic Games.