The F-word: discussing Rio's favelas

With the FIFA World Cup on in countless living rooms, pubs, and public screenings around the world, the word favela – describing the unofficial settlements of Rio de Janeiro and other cities in Brazil – has been mouthed multiple times lately in the Finnish as well as international media.

Unfortunately the word is not at all unproblematic. People who live in these communities often feel that the f-word holds a negative connotation, bringing to mind drugs and violence rather than a community of law-abiding, hard working families.

Avoiding the word favela was actually the first thing I learned in Brazil. I had hardly even found my way out of the airport, when I was advised to leave it out of my vocabulary. I got curious about the topic and interviewed my neighbours in the community of Pavão-Pavãozinho about it. They found it better to use the word comunidade instead – although apparently this sounds like something that “scientists or politicians” would say – or simply use the word morro, hill.

On another train of thought, a news site called Rio on Watch following the mega event makeover in the city writes, that it is still better to use the word favela than words like ‘slum’ or ‘shantytown’. A Rio on Watch blog post stated that a word from the local vocabulary may actually better comprehend the local situation in its unique character.

Using words like ‘shantytown’ and ‘slum’, is an act of forcibly simplifying a complex reality. It re-enforces a picture of Rio as a divided city. The glitz and glamour of Leblon and Ipanema being on one side, and the violence and drugs of favelas being on the other. It is obvious that this division is far from reality, considering that favelas are lively communities bursting with entrepreneurship, creative urbanism, and culture like Samba and Capoeira, and that it is far easier buying drugs or getting mugged on the beach than up on the hill.

Another thing that using words like ‘slum’ or ‘shantytown’ does, is it pins together a variety of complex realities, and in doing so takes a step away from actually describing reality, instead resorting to generalization.

In itself slum is not an absolute but a relative concept, “viewed differently according to social class, culture and ideology, it cannot be defined safely in any universally acceptable way. Nor is the concept stable across time because what we consider to be ‘a slum’ changes.” (Gilbert 2007, 700.)

What would be considered a slum in Finland might well be an comfortable place of residence in other parts of the world. Having a toilet outside the house used to be normal in Europe, but nowadays it is unheard of. An exception might be the Finnish summer cottage. But we would hardly consider Mäntyharju a slum. As a relative concept ‘slum’ is “as much a figment of the mind as a physical construct” (Gilbert 2007, 700).

The same thing could be said about the experience of poverty. Rio’s way of tackling its housing problems has been criticised of being too much of a top-down approach. In order to create a social project with long lasting benefits for people, one has to begin with trying to understand the grassroots level, the various experiences of poverty.

First of all, poverty means much more than just a lack of income. It relates to vulnerability, insecurity, ill-health, and poor access to essential services. Secondly, it is interpreted subjectively and experienced differently according to culture, gender, and age for example. A middle aged man in a favela of Rio’s Zona Norte might have a completely different experience of poverty than would a little girl on Ipanema.

Be it morro, comunidade or favela, the important thing to remember is that no community is exactly like the other. Because it is people that make a place.

Kenno's researcher Elina has done fieldwork in Rio de Janeiro. Photo by Juuso Haaksivuori.

Gilbert, Alan 2007: The Return of the Slum: Does Language Matter? International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 2007, 697-713.