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“If you’re not first, you’re last.” – Ricky Bobby’s dad.

My mother – Angel of Grace and Tolerator of Her Eldest Son’s Irrepressible Verbosity – always told me I’m a winner. And when pressed, my wife – whose womb bore me a tiny sliver of Heaven and who, indeed, is also a Suave Putter-Upper of Her Marido’s Loquacity – will likewise admit her station in life improved at least somewhat after having hitched her wagon to my locomotive. Though I didn’t get promoted at work on the first go ’round, I did pick up tenure as soon as I was eligible for it. So this tells me I’m slugging at least .500, well above the baseline Hall of Fame batting average. The significance of this sports metaphor: the cosmos lines up occasionally in my favor, and I reap a concurrent bounty.

And yet this morning when I embarked on what was supposed to be a bland weekly grocery run, little did I anticipate hitting the Brazilian jackpot. What transpired at the cash register, as I pulled forth my debit card to pay for the goods, was the supermarket equivalent of a game-winning, goal-scoring reverse-bicycle kick with three milliseconds seconds left on the clock.

There was something in the air this morn, and my mood was uncommonly uppity for a domingo. Perhaps ’twas due to spending last night jamming metal songs on dual guitars with a buddy at his apartment in Copacabana; and my levity of being ’twas aided in no small measure by the weather being 10 degree cooler today in Rio. Thus I set foot inside the Horti Fruti humming random tracks from Exodus’ “Bonded by Blood” and Death’s “The Sound of Perseverance”, even playing air guitar in the cart-infested aisles. I grabbed Tabasco sauce and a box of Choco-Krispies for my soon-to-arrive wife, a bag of frozen French fries, and enough fruits to eliminate a small nation’s worth of scurvy. Then I approached the cash register and placed my intended purchases onto the conveyer belt, striking up convo with Patricia, in whose line I always seem to end up.

About to pay, a woman with a microphone materialized before me. Her nametag bore the moniker “Sandra”. And indeed, Sandra represented the Horti Fruti Prize Patrol. Flanked she was on the right by a man toting a plastic Christmas tree adorned with folded pieces of paper on all sides. Another man to her left held aloft a box with a hand-sized hole in the top, and colored pieces of paper contained within its depths.

Sandra announced to the now-gawking assemblage of customers that I was selected at random to participate in their holiday contest. I was asked, first, to pull a piece of paper from the box and present it to her. Sandra would then open it and read the number written on it. That number would correspond to the number of one of the cash registers. She would then approach the customer in line at that specific register, and that person would snatch a paper from the plastic Christmas tree, open it, and read aloud his/her prize contained with it to the whole store.

This is where the Brazilian “jeitinho” enters the picture. I’m not a naturally competitive man, but do we not all enjoy winning something once in awhile? Even Ralphie’s toiling blue-collar dad netted the leg lamp in A Christmas Story. My winnings are of the Haley’s Comet variety: exceptionally infrequent, but slammin’ when they do roll down range. And so when I selected a paper from the box and opened it, it appeared to contain a 6. Or maybe ’twas a 9, depending on which end you thought was up.

It was not lost on me that I happened to be standing at register 6.

And so felt I a victory close at hand!

A look of understanding was then exchanged bewteen Sandra and I. My eyes spake unto her, “Sandra, oh with Rio’s inflation forever on the rise, my creeks are rising, for now I buy for three mouths!” And Sandra’s eyes responded to me, “Gringo, I live in Rocinha, and well I know the difficulties of purchasing for an entire litter of mouths.” This shared moment lasted no longer than two fleeting nano-seconds, but ’twas sufficient to turn the tide in my favor. And so Sandra announced that ’twas register 6.

Proclaiming me the winner, Sandra let me pick a piece of paper from the plastic Christmas tree. Upon opening it, elated was I to discover that I’d just won half off my next grocery purchase at Horti Fruti. I turned around to face the crowd – a covetous bunch of shoppers applauding in a muted fashion, a rotund player hate springing from their eyes – and pumped my metal-horned hands skyward, declaring myself “ganhador”. Sandra passed me the mic, that I might comment on the senstation invading my entire soul as the realization dawned upon me that I’d just beaten the odds. Clutching the mic in a triumphant right fist, I raised it to my mouth, took a deep breath, and loudly extolled the virtues of Horiti Fruti’s quality produce, reasonable prices, and above all else, righteous business model.

I cannot fault the lookers-on for believing that, somehow, the fix was in. They will doubtless contemplate this next week, when all of them are paying full price for their groceries. Let them eat cake, though sadly not a discounted one.

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The Brazilian Favela: Doth Fools Step in Where Angels Fear Tread?

A typical Sunday morning, yet depressingly overcast in a city not meant for anything less than sun beaming down from the turquoise heavens, lamentably poo-pooing my initial plan to hit the beach. Not wanting to sit stewing inside my ever-stuffier apartment, my beach deployment scuttled and the shutters on Starbucks Leblon still sitting conspicuously closed, I opted for the only viable alternative: simply walking and seeing where it took me. So 30 minutes in, I made it to the Vidigal favela, lying up a hillside but a short distance from my place.

As I’m certain has occurred with many gringos whose fascination with Latin America entailed reading endless books on the region, so too was my perception of the Brazilian favelas negatively swayed by a volume I read years ago called Child of the Dark. The autobiography of onetime favela dweller Maria Carolina de Jesus, this sketch of daily life in Rio’s poorest communities rose to global prominence as the first-of-its-kind in the now-estimable canon of Brazilian testimonial literature. The picture she painted was bleak by any standard, and formed the bedrock of my understanding of Rio’s slums. This perception was buttressed by subsequent years of grisly fofocas regarding the misery of Rio’s urban poor, the inherent criminal demeanor and intent of those who inhabit the favelas, and the risk I’d run as a foreigner walking into a place like Vidigal without a guide shepherding my stupid and naive flock of one. It does not help that the media – both locally and globally – focuses on the crises faced by someone every day in such places. As the saying goes, if it bleeds, it leads. Thus you could forgive one for assuming every favela ought be a total shit-show, all the better avoided, the people of such locales pitiable for the mournful and intrinsically unrewarding existences they barely eek out of the pathetic hand life has dealt them.

And yet since my October arrival in Rio, a curious thing has happened: I have come upon information contradicting, at least in part, this standard narrative. If even part of the info is accurate, it would seem the conventional wisdom is none too conventional, after all. In the last decade, the so-called Brazilian “economic miracle” (not really a miracle, but I’ll tackle that in a future post) yanked nearly 40 million people out of poverty, injecting them into the incipient Brazilian middle class with credit lines and disposable incomes. Subsequent to this economic blossoming, the favelas began to improve – if only slightly and at a snail’s pace – as money began trickling into them both from insiders-done-good and outside investors who saw opportunity. As Brazilians living in the favelas gradually enhanced their individual and aggregate purchasing power, they gained marginally more political power, organizing and demanding better municipal services and utilities like potable water that won’t give you amoebas, stable electrical grids that don’t crap the bed every 12 minutes, internet connectivity letting them interact with one another and the distant outside world, and other material and technological pleasures of the modern world.

Things kicked into even higher developmental gear after Brazil was awarded the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games. The government realized if it plans to successfully host these high-profile mega-events, establish its global image as that of a “serious country” (a goal of near-fanatical regard to Brazilians at all stripes), and provide a safe environment for the hundreds of thousands of foreign tourists who will descend upon the country like locusts to a crop in coming years, it had to sort out the security situation in its key cities, which necessarily meant making the favelas safer. So the authorities organized and deployed Unidades de Policia Pacificadora (UPP, or Pacification Police Units in English) into slums like Vidigal. The idea was simple: halt the most egregious crimes committed, restore a sense of marginal order, and instill even the semblance of calm on the streets, perhaps along the way imbuing residents with a kernel of belief that the elected officials are, in fact, doing something remotely approximating their job description, i.e. serving the citizenry. Very novel, crazy talk in Brazil, really. This became even more important when a crucial statistic came to light in recent years: nearly 65 percent of Rio’s middle class lives in favelas. And when that many middle class people are calling for safer streets, politicians begin to listen.

Of over 600 favelas in Rio de Janeiro, roughly 34 are considered “pacified” now, with Vidigal being at the top of the list. There’s a great deal of labor and growing pains still lying on the horizon – after all, recent estimates claim that Rio has 665 soccer stadiums’ worth of favelas within its municipal limits, housing in the ballpark of 2.5 million people, and they are still amongst the most violent places in the world if the statistics are true – but Brazil ought be recognized for what it’s already accomplished in the favelas, many of which didn’t have state presence of any sort as recently as 20 short years ago.

While the absence of open conflict does not automatically equate peace in the favelas, and while there is still plenty of poverty in Vidigal, just walking through it I clearly perceived that the problem now is not the abject misery of days’ past, when favela residents lived in wood slatted shanties, crapped in buckets on the porch, and lived in mortal fear of being roughed by neighborhood toughs (and, sadly, the police themselves) asserting their will by might. True, there are still economic issues, serious crime problems, and locals will tell you the cops don’t always seem to be on the right side of history. But the fact that a gringo like me could go walking into Vidigal – and more importantly, out of Vidigal – without incident is testament that the sands are shifting, hinting the favelas’ better days may lie on the not-too-distant horizon. All of this implies that a discussion of the favelas is more nuanced than the erred traditionalist everything-about-this-place-sucks construct I toted to Rio in my know-it-all gringo ditty bag, and Vidigal was a good entry point to learning more about these communities.


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