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Hands in the Fire


The following essay is one I wrote in 2006 when I was living in Rio de Janeiro, Brasil. It has felt relevant to me lately during the inspiring process of Voice of Our Future.

"Hands in the Fire"
I am looking out my window in the mornings at the same view that stunned me when I first began my journey in September. Rio de Janeiro is a vivid collision of city and jungle. Impressive buildings, tiny shacks and cobblestone roads tumble out like words from the mouths of shocking green peaks that rest cradled by the bay and the ocean.

I can't imagine what one would think of Brazilian culture after having been to Brasil solely for the two weeks of Carnival. It certainly represents an impressively diverse display of Brazilian dance and music and radiates the Brazilian spirit of celebration, but it is only one window into the reality of living here.

My time during Carnival was spent mostly in the company of my very close friend Val, who is Brazilian and another close friend Tom, who is British. The three of us formed a funny and dynamic trio.
Everyone spends so much time preparing for Carnival that the rush of anticipation as it begins is physically palpable. I actually found it hard to sleep the last couple days leading up to Carnival's commencement. The city was pulsating. A piece of earth preparing to rupture. And that is what happened. A giant rupture, unfurled energy, an abandonment of the generally adhered to social 'norms' here and an overall sense that this was the last party before the end of the world.

For me, one of the ironies of Carnival here is also the most popular aspect of Rio's celebration, the parade of Samba schools. Samba schools from all over Rio practice through out the year preparing music, dance steps, costumes, a float and a specific theme, (all of which must abide by very detailed rules), in order to parade in the Sambadrome, (a large arena/processional space set up on one of the main streets of down town), in front of a large crowd where they will compete for the prize of 'best school'. However, most of the tickets to enter the sambadrome and watch the festivities are very expensive, making them available mainly for tourists and a small group that makes up the upper class Brazilian sect of Rio. Many of the samba schools come from the favelas and the numerous friends and family of the school parading must watch it on t.v., though it is taking place, live in person, right there in the center of their city.

One night, after watching an outdoor concert, Val told Tom and I that she had somewhere special she wanted to take us. So at 4 in the morning we trustingly trekked for a long time behind a very excited Val as she led us to the area just outside the Sambadrome. As we arrived everything suddenly transformed from big city to my image of Peter Pan’s tropical Neverland. This is where the floats line up and wait to enter the Sambadrome. This is where the samba schools flurry around getting ready, dancers and musicians half dressed in outrageous, glittered costumes, an air of intense anticipation and giddy delirium. It was almost dawn and we walked the whole stretch of the line up together holding hands, touching the floats as we passed and getting the chance to take in their stunning artistic detail from inches away. Val sighed, "Look at the artistry we are capable of, I am so proud of this."

I love seeing what the human mind can envision and what human hands are capable of putting into physical form. What a unique co-existence of tools we have at our disposal, being our mind, body and spirit. The level at which any of these three forms functions varies for everyone. But in some combination we have them. Since I arrived here I have been thinking a lot that my only real job in life, if I were to relay it very simply, is to play with the paradox and cooperation of these three parts.

My experience of life in Rio this time around feels very different. I am living in my own bedroom adjacent to Val and her family. We treat my room and her house, (which has a small stove), like communal space and we freely pass back and forth between the two. We live in a favela called Falete, in the Santa Teresa neighborhood, which is the oldest part of the city.
Since many of the favelas in Rio are built sliding down the slopes of hills, we descend a large, 120 step concrete staircase to enter the road that leads to our house, which is tucked in between other small houses and the sharp incline of the hill.
I live in what is considered the 'beginning' of this favela and so I am slightly removed from the center of violence that occurs between the drug traffick and the police. The gun shots, however, are more daunting and less removed than they were when I lived here in September and my awareness of the impact and frequency of this violence has dramatically heightened.
I am trying to understand this dynamic as best I can from my stand point. The dynamic I am referring to being the one that exists between and within the favelas, the police force and the rest of Rio´s society. Although there are many favelas all over Brasil, as well as versions throughout the entire world, I am experiencing the structure of favelas in Rio to be unique, based on the geography of the city. Everything is pressed right into the shoulder of everything else, making the presence of the favelas an undeniable reality that bleeds into every other part of life.
In my effort to understand this complex system more completely I have been reading various articles about the police violence in Rio from international media sources as well as Rio news sources. I have also been speaking with different friends I have that have lived within favelas here their whole life, gathering information on how they perceive the reality and structure of this world. Being able to listen to people's opinions and perspectives has felt significant and illuminating. I have also been creating my own opinions as I live day to day within the favela of Falete. Based on that information I would like to try to breakdown and describe the system, as I understand it.

There are various favelas in Rio de Janeiro, favelas being socially excluded, impoverished communities where a strong drug trafficking culture is active. Homes here often use construction materials such as cement slabs, concrete columns and pillars to make construction possible in areas that would otherwise be unusable. In Rio these homes are built practically on top of one another, perched precariously, winding up and down the hillsides.

Groups of favelas belong to one of many factions and within each faction there is a level of solidarity. Each favela has a Dono, or 'head man' that is in charge of overseeing the business of the drug traffickers and the going ons inside the community. Sometimes various favelas within a single faction will be under the supervision of only one Dono. There are, however, other positions of authority, though none supersede the authority of the Dono.

Each faction has a name, such as, 'Comando Vermelho' or 'Terceiro Comando'. I live in the favela of Falete and we belong to Comando Vermelho. If I am wandering around in a different favela that belongs to another faction and someone asks me where I live, it would be unwise to admit I live in Falete. People can be killed for living in a favela that is controlled by an opposing faction. From what my friend Val tells me, Comando Vermelho is relatively calm when people from other factions enter, but this attitude is not reciprocated and other factions are known to be more brutal.

Within the business of the drug traffick here, there are also many different terms and positions. Some of them being...
BANDITIO and TRAFICANTE are used interchangeably to refer to the men, (and very rarely women), who are involved in the business of trafficking and who carry weapons.
The VAPOR is the term used for the person who sells the drugs, mainly cocaine, to various clients.
The PLANTORISTA is the person who keeps watch for the VAPOR when the VAPOR is doing a business exchange. He is the VAPOR's security.
The FOGOTEIRO is the person who sets off fireworks as a warning to the traficantes and residents when the police are seen inside the favela or preparing to enter.

The favelas experience a high volume of violence as a result of power battles between different factions and gun fire exchanged with the police.
When one faction wants control over favelas in an opposing faction they need to kill the Dono of those favelas. This obviously puts the life of the Dono in very high risk and because of this he spends lots of his physical time outside of the favela, though he remains connected to business updates and news within his community.

The gunfire that gets exchanged with the police is the basis for the on going controversy of police corruption here in Rio.
Put simply, the police receive a low paying salary and as a result many of them find alternative means to make money in their work within the favelas. Of course, nothing about this is really that simple and many other elements come into play.

Often the police will enter favelas shooting, in what is explained as their ongoing effort to halt the illegal drug trafficking and apprehend traficantes. What ends up taking place are gunfire battles between police and traficantes, almost like a modern day, wild west version of battles between the 'law and the lawless'.
Although I personally don't see the justification for killing anyone involved within the business of drug trafficking, (many of whom are teenage boys), numerous victims outside of this business, merely residents of the favela community, get killed in this cross fire, as well as by indiscriminate gun fire let off by the police.
Often the interplay that takes place is as follows: The traffickers offer the policemen drug money in exchange for a traficante they have apprehended or for a promise to lessen the frequency of their violent entries. This works for a period of time and then the cycle begins again.

Another player in this set up is called the X-9. This person can work for either side- being either a policeman that, in exchange for money, tips off the traficantes when police are planning to enter their favela or a traficante that tips off the police about whereabouts of wanted banditos and other important pieces of information.
To add to the mess there are many politicians in Rio that also lead the double life of Dono of a favela. Of course, this double status makes interchanges between the traffickers, the police and the government, all the more corrupt and confusing.
To me it appears to be a video game on repeat. A complex system that has been put in place and perpetuated for a long time. A deep rooted system that has been replicated in different forms all over the world to further social exclusion of different parts of the human population and yet use these parts for financial gain.

What has called the most attention to the problem of police violence within favelas recently is the use of the caveirão, a bullet proof tank that is used by the more elite police division and enters favelas shooting from massive and extremely lethal weaponry. Its emblem, which can also be found on other 'special police vehicles' is a skull impaled on a sword. The caveirão is seen by many as a violation of human rights and an inhumane effort to intimidate.
Last July, in a favela called Vilha do João, an 11 year old boy was killed by a bullet shot from a Caveirão, as he was on his way to his house with his father. This stimulated more out cries in the media and amongst human rights activists about what is being seen as a form of execution and an alternative for the lack of a death sentence in Brasil.

Amnesty International wrote a report entitled "They Come in Shooting: Policing Socially Excluded Communities", that tried to address some of the statistics of police violence related deaths in Rio.
My friend Val feels that even with the attention the press and human rights organizations are starting to give to the backwards workings of crime mediation in Rio's 'socially excluded communities', the truth of the problem is severely understated. She believes the number of deaths that occur daily because of interactions between police and traficantes far exceed any statistic officially reported.

I woke up last week out of a heavy sleep to the sound of gun fire. Val, who had fallen asleep in bed beside me, mid conversation, woke up at the same moment, both of us startled breathless. I have heard gunfire at night various times in my neighborhood here, but this sound was different.
It was the sound of numerous types of weaponry, one in particular that made an awful, explosive noise, deep and rumbling, the kind of noise that belongs to a weapon capable of obliterating a body with one shot.
Val and I stayed awake for a long time.
A caveirão had entered Falete and was shooting down below. This sound track will never be normal for me, but it is something Val and her family are extremely accustomed to. As we laid awake with the back drop of this gun fire that continued for almost thirty minutes, Val talked about Iraq. She commented how she couldn't imagine living there, or living anywhere where you hear the sounds of missiles dropping and wonder if next time they will drop on your house.
It was startling to have this perspective brought out in the midst of our current reality. It was amazing to me that there is always a way to see the world at large and feel empathy for someone else's experience, even if you yourself are living in a place of destruction and sadness.

I am shape shifting between the skins of two perspectives.
There exists the me that believes this is all very hopeless and deeply depressing. One of many things in the world I want to change and don't know how to. One of many things in the world that persists and seems to only get worse.

Then there exists the other me.
She agrees there is no grand 'solution', but there exists various responses we are capable of that will direct the way we engage within our reality and with one another. A series of ways we can choose to express ourselves and support each other within the undeniable truth of the tragic and unjust parts of our world.
With out this option for interacting with tragedy as a community, using our array of assorted artistic, mental and emotional tools, what is the point?
If there is this darkness than maybe the counter part, the light, isn't for fighting the darkness into non-existence, but for living within the darkness and creating life that has sustenance around it.

For me this connects to my experience of dance and the work that I have done with teenagers and children within favelas since I have arrived.
I am believing more and more this type of work presents one of many vehicles for the violence and poverty that resides here to be contemplated, interpreted, wrestled with, expressed and sometimes, worthy of just as much value, forgotten about. I believe this empowers something in the kids I have gotten to know, who's life at times appears to be a very steep, insurmountable peak. And I believe this empowering is capable of heightening the quality of our living.

I think about listening to the Caveirão shooting, listening to my 8yr. old friend do a perfect mimic of machine gun fire and watching groups of the kids I teach start pounding their feet into the floor when they hear a strong bass beat come on in a hip hop song.
I perceive a relationship between the sad facts and the ways we are drawn to express ourselves.
It seems to me there are common threads at the heart of much of the world's devastation and many of these threads lead back to the human instinct to keep our loved ones safe.
I think there is a need for places to fight for these instincts, when they can't always be fought for directly. It is so easy to undervalue, but self expression has great worth in its capacity to allow us to fight.
I am feeling that if this is the choice, to submit to the me that says all of this living is pointless in the face of so much heart ache, or to find a way to interpret the heart ache and live in it alertly, like a fire I choose to wash my hands in, then I would rather choose the second option. Every day I would like to find ways to inspire myself to choose the second option. The more all of us can do this as individuals, the more I believe we will be able to facilitate this choice in our communities and this may be our greatest opportunity yet.



Maria de Chirikof's picture


I loved reading this. It reminded me of how we felt when we first got our house and the neighborhood seemed asleep since everyone was still on vacations and you could watch and see no one outside. Then school started and it came to life and also brought the sounds of sirens too. My girls and I talked of that, how our city was changing with too many people moving up here and bringing their craziness with them. Before you would not hear sirens that often so it caught your attention and you felt sorry for whoever was in trouble. But that changed.

The compassion turns to anger and you wish all these people would just leave and go back to wherever they came from! How it seems so rude to come to my home and then behave this way. In understanding this feeling and applying to people living in other places we can share the pain and work for a solution for them. It is why we must end the violence everyone lives in and not stop until we have achieved this for all. It it not wrong to start locally since you are starting. It is why I know those living in that kind of circumstance will understand me when I say I empathize with them since I am in a similar situation and also struggling for our rights and our lives. People who don't experience the empathy might think I don't understand what it is like but those living in the situations do. I know they are happy it is not that bad for me and why I try to do my part to help change things in a real way.

I thought your post was beautiful! Here is my favorite part:

I love seeing what the human mind can envision and what human hands are capable of putting into physical form. What a unique co-existence of tools we have at our disposal, being our mind, body and spirit. The level at which any of these three forms functions varies for everyone. But in some combination we have them. Since I arrived here I have been thinking a lot that my only real job in life, if I were to relay it very simply, is to play with the paradox and cooperation of these three parts.

Thanks for posting this,


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