Vidigal: Which conflicts can be mediated?
The road to the top of Vidigal is cluttered with cement and debris from construction projects, as long-time residents renovate their houses for rental and new residents build hostels, restaurants, etc. The situation has gotten so out of hand that the Vidigal Residents’ Association has established guidelines for conflict resolution between residents. Rosa Batista, 57, a member of the residents’ association, spoke about the work of conflict mediation in the favela:
“Since pacification, people have been coming to the residents’ association to register complaints, mostly to do with neighbors’ construction projects. Vidigal is growing quickly, everyone’s working on their homes, so sometimes they get in each others’ way.”
“The market says the house is worth more, so sure enough, the owner raises the rent. What happens is that people will pay the higher rent for a few months but they can’t handle it for very long,” says Rosa Batista,on real estate speculation in Vidigal.
Bianor, a 43-year-old moto-taxi driver and favela resident, says: “Prices are going up so much because of demand. You buy a bag of cement here for R$35 (US$12) that would be R$25 (US$9) somewhere else.”
Mery Ellen Alentejo, 31, also senses the changes transforming the economic and cultural life of Vidigal: “The first difference I see is overcrowding in the community, which means longer lines for the moto-taxis. And I think a more drastic change is directly related to tourism: significantly higher prices for everything. Rents have gone up a lot, and the supermarket, restaurants, beer, parties…. Everything is more and more expensive, and I’ve seen a lot of houses turning into bars, hostels, and restaurants. It seems the community is gearing itself more and more toward tourism, and losing the character it had when I moved here.”
Born in São Gonçalo, Mery Ellen has lived in Vidigal for three years. She describes how she came to live there: “I came because I didn’t have anywhere to live. Vidigal was the most affordable area in Rio de Janeiro on my income. I felt at home here because it was a lot like the neighborhood where I was born and raised, with the streets always full of kids playing and people talking,” she recalls. “I came to Vidigal from time to time before I lived here, and I can say that the type of person who lives here is really changing. Since the Pacifying Police Unit (UPP) came in, a lot of people who didn’t own their own homes have had to move out because of rent increases—including friends of mine who were born here.”
To Mery Ellen, the influx of people from outside the favela has its pros and cons: “The upside is the mix of different people, the exchange of knowledge and experiences. The downside is the higher cost of living, and the way the place is changing. Like I said, it was more than just a place to live, with children playing and people talking out on the sidewalk. Little by little it’s being transformed and it’s getting more commercial and touristy. Every day there are more houses being built, apartment buildings, new bars, etc.”
Elma de Alleluia, of the NGO Ser Alzira, says her organization has worked with foreign volunteers since its founding in 2003. “We don’t get any help from the government because we work in education, and they’re not interested in education. We have foreign volunteers. We have partnerships with foreign universities and they send us students.” Elma sees the exchange between Brazilians and foreigners as a positive aspect of Vidigal: “We see the gringo [foreigner] as a tool for transformation. A lot of them give guitar, computer, and language classes at Ser Alzira.”
Amidst the construction and new business ventures, resident Rosa Batista says newcomers have more spending power than those who have been there a long time: “I went to the opening of a restaurant owned by a Portuguese man and an Italian woman. They come in with money, so they do this huge thing, completely different from Sol over there, who lives here, who doesn’t have money to invest [on her business], who doesn’t charge so much. You get the contrast, right? Who are they here for? They’d like to serve the people in the favela, but basically it’s the people from the ‘asphalt’ [as the ‘formal’ city that receives greater public investment is known] who wind up going there. When I got there I saw a ton of people who don’t live in Vidigal. I use the derogatory term ‘asphalt’ because I felt that separation. And it affected me. My first thought was: ‘The asphalt has come up the hill.’ But at the same time, everybody had wanted that barrier broken down. There’s a positive side… but for residents, what comes with that?”
Rosa Batista’s concerns are magnified when she reflects on what happened to long-established social projects in Vidigal once the UPP was established: “An NGO that had been operating in an abandoned city building had to leave. Other NGOs came in and are trying to keep going. Locals ran the NGOs that were here before, but now people from outside are coming—people who want to do social work and who are taking advantage of this media moment to come to Vidigal. They don’t know Vidigal. They come from the outside and they already have resources, and those who have been here forever can barely keep their work going. We welcome collaboration with people who come from other places. Let them come, but let them come to add to what we have, not take away from it. And not as exploiting colonizers.”
Vidigal on the map: visibility, memory, and a record of daily life
Unlike favelas such as Santa Marta, Rocinha, Cantagalo, and Pavão-Pavãozinho—all located in the largely affluent South Zone of Rio de Janeiro—Vidigal does not have plans for a community museum. However, there are a number of projects aimed at preserving local memory. Former president of the Vidigal Residents’ Association, Armando Almeida Lima, 72, has written a memoir called Resistance and Conquest in Vidigal, published in 2010 by Nelpa. In his book he highlights the actions of the residents’ association in the struggles against forced evictions and the controversial improvements to the favela, as well as the persecution suffered by community leaders during the 1964 Military dictatorship, and Pope John Paul II’s visit to Vidigal in 1980.
In the book Armando reveals his desire to preserve the favela’s memory and the motivations that led him to write. “Sometimes people want to know something about Vidigal, and they turn to the oldest residents. But those old folks are already headed upstairs, and soon we will have no more history. As a long-time resident of Vidigal, I know about a lot of things that have happened here, such as the resistance against evictions, the Pope’s visit, etc. In my 59 years here, I’ve lived through many episodes,” writes Armando. Thinking of his comrades Duque, Mário, and Carlinhos Pernambuco, who ran the [historic] residents’ association [that fought and won against eviction attempts] with him, he adds: “And it’s good to remember that one of my motivations for writing this history is that Carlinhos Pernambuco is no longer with us. He’s deceased. Duque doesn’t live here anymore—he moved to Barra. And Mario, too—he moved to the North Zone. Of the four of us, I’m the only one who has stayed in Vidigal. I worry about our history dying out. Later, I too will pass to the other side, and Vidigal will be left without its story”
Recently, the NGO Ser Alzira, in partnership with the Federal University of the State of Rio de Janeiro (Unirio), began to research information and documents about Vidigal. “A while ago we realized we had almost nothing recorded of the community’s memory. We’re going to turn part of the Ser Alzira house into a center for memories. We’re also building a research center with information about Vidigal. And we need a library so children can learn to handle books,” says Elma de Alleluia.
The first memoir to be housed in Ser Alzira’s space is that of Alzira de Aleluia (1905-2001). Born in Ubá, in the interior of the state of Minas Gerais, she migrated to Rio de Janeiro, where she worked as a laundress—a story that has much in common with the memoir of Orosina Vieira, an older resident of Morro do Timbau in Maré, and echoes the experience of many black women living in favelas across Rio de Janeiro.
According to Elma, Alzira de Aleluia participated in the remodeling of her house for the creation of the NGO: “She came to see the construction, and we told her that we were going to pay tribute to her. In the [favela] communities there aren’t usually people who remember others like that, to pay tribute to them. That culture isn’t there. We paid tribute to Mrs. Alzira because she was recognized in the community as a laundress and a mentor to the children. She helped her neighbors. She knit baby sweaters. She was kind of a social worker in her own way. Knowing how to live is sometimes more important than academic knowledge, because it brings people together. She gave people bread; she gave them sweaters. The children were always at her house. She encouraged the children to study. Her two grandchildren went to school: her granddaughter is now a dentist and her grandson is a university professor. Some people mistakenly call me Alzira; they think she’s alive, and I feel very honored. Then I let them know I’m Elma.”
While some projects focus on retrieving and preserving the history of old Vidigal, threatened by profound and rapid changes to daily life, the map 100 Secrets of Vidigal by 41-year old German Vidigal resident André Koller, now in its third edition, keeps a sort of record of the present.
“The map is also a record. You take the first, second, and third maps and see how things have changed, how there are more businesses, how it’s denser. On the first map there were only a couple of hostels, and on the latest map there are more than twenty. So you see how it’s changing. What’s opening, what’s closing. Before, there were more beauty salons because of the funk parties, but now you don’t see as many salons because there are no more dances. The map shows the kinds of activities that are going on in the community. Ten, twenty years from now you can pick up the map and see what Vidigal was like in 2014. It creates a record. Next year I’m going to have to add the bike lane they’re building,” says André Koller.
But the idea of making a map of Vidigal did not emerge from a desire to record the changes in daily life in the favela. André, who moved to Vidigal shortly before the UPP came in was having a hard time explaining to friends how to get to his house: “I couldn’t explain to anyone how to get to my house because my street wasn’t even on the city map. The community just wasn’t there—it was nothing, it was jungle. So anytime anyone came to see me, I had to go down to the entrance of Vidigal to get them. So I made a map by hand of how to get to my house, and I started thinking about it and realized I could do something cool with it. But I couldn’t do the work then, because I didn’t feel comfortable poking around every corner of the community. There were some areas that were a little sketchy—let’s put it that way—and I didn’t know how they would feel about somebody walking around with a clipboard and a pen, drawing pictures of the street and asking questions.”
Koller says it was only after pacification that he walked the entire favela and developed the map project. His presence nonetheless created suspicion and discomfort among long-time residents. “When I went out, I went on foot, and since it was just after pacification, a lot of people thought I was with the city. A lot of people were afraid I was mapping them for eviction. So I would say, “No, this has nothing to do with the city, nothing to do with the government. It’s a personal project.”
Another unusual aspect of the map is that the first edition cost R$3 (US$1); the second cost R$2 (US$0.66), and the third is free—a rhythm that goes against the logic of the market. Koller says he had never wanted to charge anything for the map. The original idea was to collect some money to support the work of Sitiê Park, in Alto Vidigal, which was short on funds. “I never wanted to charge money. Sitiê was having trouble with funding. I was a volunteer at the park and they didn’t even have money to put in a little coffee shop, even though they had lots of tourists visiting. They wouldn’t ever ask anyone for a cent, they don’t do that. I suggested they sell the map, but they’re not salespeople, they don’t sell things.”
On the one hand, to put Vidigal on the map means to recognize the place and the people who live there as part of the city. On the other hand, it leaves the place without secrets, as indicated by the pun Vidigal 100 Segredos (in Portuguese, “100” and “sem,” meaning “without,” are homonyms). “At first I didn’t know if people were going to feel exposed or not—because, okay, it’s great to be on the map of the city, of the larger community of Rio de Janeiro, but at the same time, they were used to being more on their own, less accessible. I didn’t know how people would react, but in general they’ve been happy with the project.”
André Koller funded the printing of 100 Secrets of Vidigal through the support of local businesses, whose advertisements appear on the back of the map. “I wonder how effective those ads are. I would ask people, ‘Do you think you’ll get more business if your ad is on the map?’ But a lot of people didn’t understand the point of an ad, of publicity. They’d tell me, ‘I don’t need a map. I already know the community.’ I realized that some people wanted to put an ad on the map just to be a part of it, to be included on the map. They weren’t thinking about having more clients or earning more money. They were thinking, ‘I want to be on the map because I’m a part of Vidigal and I want a record of that.’ Mr. Jesus of Jesus’s Bar died, and he was a deeply loved person up here; they asked me to put his photo on the map to remember him. They were more interested in seeing people than companies’ logos. I want to do a new edition of the map more related to memory, to pay tribute to residents such as Armando Lima, who was president of the association during the evictions. I’d like a map that portrays the people and the cultural projects here.”
What about the future of Vidigal?
“Things are changing rapidly. New people are welcome here, but our hope is that the long-time residents who have a history here, who were born and raised here, can stay. That’s our great wish and our great concern. It’s all new; we don’t know where this discussion will lead. We don’t know what’s going to happen. People are afraid this will turn into an elitist neighborhood… which has long been the dream of an elitist segment of the population, which has always wondered, ‘How come those favela people get to live in such a fabulous place with that view?’”
“I’m afraid, because everything is relative. I don’t know how long this is going to go on. I see it as an abuse of power. I don’t know how long people are going to put up with this.”
“At the beginning of the UPP everything was good. The police would take children for rides on their horses. There were social workers. A façade, all a façade. I think the UPP was very good in theory, but in practice it’s flawed. The police have become the gangsters of the community, so now people have to pray to two saints. Now the UPP is in charge of the community. Any community that has the UPP knows that the chief officer is the boss. There’s no more social work, no government support, no healthcare. The health clinic has deteriorated; it was better before. I think the UPP should be a social thing, without weapons.”
“What’s a bit worse now is that people don’t know who’s who anymore. It’s a question of safety. Sure, the parade of weapons we had gotten used to living with is gone. On the other hand, just as the police can’t guarantee safety down in Leblon, Ipanema, Copacabana, Jardim Botanico, Gávea, nobody is guaranteed safety in Vidigal. When the traffickers were here—out in the open, let’s put it that way—there were no muggings in the community. All favelas and communities in Rio de Janeiro that have the UPP—they all still have drug trafficking. And the asphalt neighborhoods have it too. If there are drugs on Vieira Souto [beachfront street in posh Ipanema], why wouldn’t there be in Vidigal?”
“I’m a little afraid [for the future of Vidigal] because when the old-timers start leaving, Vidigal is left with less and less memory. The new residents today don’t respect the old ones. Mostly because some of them coming in don’t even plan on putting down roots, you know? So it’s like they’re not even really there. You fought for years to get people to be conscientious about throwing their trash in the trashcan, then you have these people just passing through and they throw their trash wherever they want. They’re bringing in behavior that isn’t the way we do things.”
“I’m a hard worker. I go to work every day, I pay my taxes, I earn reais and I spend reais. I consider myself a resident even though I wasn’t born and raised here, but I identify with this place; I consider myself a resident. I’m here to add something, to do something positive, not to exploit or buy…. I didn’t want to buy this house. I don’t want to own anything. Someday I’ll go back to Germany and grow old there.”
“Expectations? I think that a few days from now they’ll be kicking people out of Vidigal. People are not going to be able to live here anymore. Everything’s going to go up, things are going to go up. For example, we’re still not paying that much for electricity, but soon it’s going to cost an absurd amount. We don’t pay property taxes yet, but we’re going to start paying them. I think that a lot of residents are not going to be able to do it anymore and the gringos are going to take over. That’s what it seems like to me.”
“How old are you, Bianor?”
“43 years old, and 43 years in Vidigal.”
“Do you like it here?”
“I love it here…”