Rio's Favela Museum Organizes Community and Memorializes Its People

The interdependent culture of Brazilian favelas offer a means of survival.
November 3, 2020, 3:21pm
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The old Brazilian saying “fazer um jeitinho” does not have a direct to English translation. The Portuguese phrase, which roughly translates to “finding a way,” has become a defining aspect of Brazilian culture. It boasts creativity and a carefree lifestyle. When in difficult circumstances, not all hope should be lost. Antonio Firmino, a 53-year-old geographer, says that this phrase has become somewhat of a lifeline for him and his family during the pandemic. 

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Firmino, the co-founder of the Sankofa Museum, has lived in the hillside favela of Rochina for the past 30 years but now rarely leaves his home. When VICE News spoke with Firmino over Zoom, he sat at his kitchen table while the television blared in the background. He remains vigilant when going outdoors because of his wife’s health, so he spends most of his time at home with his two daughters.

“We are well, in the middle of all of this, as is the Brazilian way,” he said. The carefree lifestyle of “jeitinho,” however, may have its limits.

Scientists have identified Brazil as one of the deadliest spots for COVID-19. The state does not help the dire situation by downplaying the virus’s impact, despite the president having been infected himself. As Brazil faced an uphill climb in its virus numbers, researchers found that COVID-19 originated from middle and upper-middle class cities where vacationers arrived from foreign countries. As the virus ripped through the country, the death toll rose in the densest and poorest cities in the country, where it is almost impossible to adhere to social distancing and acquire adequate preventative equipment. The majority of the favela’s residents are working class and the essential workers of society who couldn’t just stay home. In June, Brazilian researchers found that the number of people infected in favelas was 30 times higher than the official count.

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With a population of more than 100,000 people, Rocinha is the largest favela in Rio de Janeiro, and one in four people test positive. To navigate the narrow streets of the favela becomes a risky endeavor. Hand sanitizer, proper sanitation, and access to clean water are hard to come by. “Favela residents have always suffered from a type of social isolation,” said Firmino. The central issue of favelas is property. In a country where 46% of land is owned by 1% of the population, space is limited.

In normal circumstances, Firmino would be working the streets of Rocinha, along with his museum co-director Fernando Ermiro, as walking tour guides to educate visitors on the history of community organizing in favelas. The Sankofa Museum aims to preserve the favela’s history and document its future. He based the idea of the Sankofa Museum on the emerging academic interest in favelas from the 1970s. Researchers and professors collected oral histories, documents, and photos from residents to create a sort of ethnography of the favela. In 2007, residents, activists, and government officials gathered together to continue these discussions. The multidisciplinary team led by Firmino urges debate and discussion on the favela as an act of self-preservation of self-representation. The government chooses to leave these informal settlements to the wayside despite the growing population. As soon as the pandemic hit Brazil and neighbors were affected, members of the Sankofa Museum felt a responsibility to memorialize the victims from Rocinha. 

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A partner of the museum’s team, Dr. Monica Alegre, proposed the idea of paying homage to Rocinha residents who died of the virus. “We had a governmental movement to make victims more invisible and to minimize the severity of the disease,” says Dr. Alegre, who operates a family clinic in Rocinha. Inspired by Memorial Inumeráveis, a website documenting and honoring the victims of the virus in Brazil, Dr. Alegre recommended the idea to Firmino because she recognized his commitment to the collective memory of favelas.

“It is an homage, and it is at the same time a protest,” said Firmino. “We can’t protest in person, but [online] we can protest these lives that have value.” He envisions the virtual memorial to take place on social media while looking to have a physical memorial in the future as part of the museum. 

The optics of Brazilian culture function in a way that suppresses its dark past and current system of slavery. Its ruling class has had a long history of superficial promises and indulgent architectural projects, like the Rio Olympics in 2016. To the rest of the world, the cultural signifiers of wealth ultimately feigned “progress.” In a country where Bolsonaro has downplayed racism, the president’s revisionist history threatens the existence of Afro-Brazilians like Firmino and the people who live in favelas. In one short video, the Sankofa Museum documented the story of one man who has been threatened with eviction.

The favela has always functioned as a self-made social order where the residents must depend on each other because the federal government refuses to acknowledge their existence. In an authoritarian state like Brazil where the government treats essential workers as disposable, members of the favela depend on local organizations for survival. “[Favelas] have this long history of social organizing and already had these networks in place,” said Ana Paulina Lee, assistant professor of Latin American and Iberian cultures at Columbia University, “You see a really common thing across many favelas is that they started doing their own public health ads and getting the resources to people.” Community museums like the Sankofa Museum are networks for survival.

The memorialization of those who have died from COVID-19 is part of a larger project of how they will keep memory and history alive. Antonio Firmino recalls another Brazilian proverb: “Nos sommos nois por nois mesmos.” We are us for us. Within the favela, the community keeps itself safe, shifts culture, and fills a need where there is one. Just as the Sankofa Museum is not a static building, as most museums are, the stories of the favela’s residents will remain active and itinerant through Firmino’s project, even after death.