On Monday, our group with the Boston Archdiocese was split into smaller groups of 12 or so and we were taken by van to the favela Santa Marta in Rio. “Favela” means plant and it is the word for the densely constructed neighborhoods or shantytowns in Brazil that house some of the country’s materially poorest people.
We were brought there by the knowledgeable tour group, Soul Brasileiro. One of our three guides, Paulo, is a resident of Santa Marta. We also found out, much to our surprise, that artists, lawyers and other professionals live there. These native Brazilians encouraged our questions and it was great to talk with them along the way. This was not a hurried tour, with a 25-minute drive to Santa Marta, a couple of hours visit and the ride back to our hotel in downtown Rio.
After arriving outside Santa Marta, we took a battery-operated tram up the steep mountain. The same tram also brings contained rubbish down to the base in a different compartment. Before the tram, only completed in 2008, workers had to lug building supplies up the mountain, an arduous task made more tangible when we passed a man carrying an office cooler-sized container of water up steep steps, as we were leisurely going down.
The view above the favela could almost be compared to a colorful honeycomb on a hill, with kite-flying kids and their futbol-playing friends. Not too far distant, on an even higher mountain, the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue looks over this neighborhood and all of Rio.
After seeing a view of the city, we took the trip back down the favela, down steps between narrow passage ways that opened up here and there. We passed doors of homes, a tailor shop, a mixed martial arts studio and places to get food. Toward the bottom, there was an open plaza that serves as the central meeting spot, which features music on the first Saturday of the month.
Certainly, the most surprising stop was a plaza dedicated to the late pop music icon Michael Jackson. Memorialized with a colorful mosaic and a statue, Jackson was in Santa Marta in 1996 to film part of a music video for his single “They Don’t Care About Us.” We actually got to watch the video in a nearby dwelling of a young mother and her baby.
Later this week, there are plans for Pope Francis — who arrived yesterday to cheering and excited crowds along the downtown streets — to visit a favela.
Later in the evening, as our group was walking to dinner, I chatted with a Franciscan friar who also went on the tour. I asked him his opinion about this so-called poverty tourism, and in the context of our Santa Marta tour. He seemed to think it was a positive thing overall. I have to agree and though I have heard this term, I would not apply it to the tour we went on, as it was very educational and respectful of the people.
He did mention though, he felt the real poverty was the kids’ lack of religious education, as his group had tried to pray with some of them and they just did not know the prayers. There is a chapel in Santa Marta, but it is only open on Sundays and the friar equated the lack of education with Catholic parents in the United States not passing on the faith well to their children.
One of my dinner companions mentioned the Santa Marta residents’ sense of community, while we might not know our own neighbors. Others mentioned the residents’ happiness, and said the tour gave them of sense of being thankful for what we have.
Certainly, today’s tour was only scratching the surface of material poverty favela residents experience. But it serves as a reference point when discussing material and spiritual poverty as well as a host of social issues.
However brief the stay was, I will always be grateful for the time spent with God’s people on the mountain.