Saturday, May 4, 2013

The Girl from Ipanema Doesn't Walk Up Here

Posted by Angela Mazzini, RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL -- On a recent visit to Rio, I stayed in Ipanema, one of the city's most affluent neighborhoods. Ipanema was made famous by the 1964 recording of Antonio Carlos Jobim's Bossa Nova song The Girl From Ipanema, sung by Astrud Gilberto on the Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto album Getz/Gilberto. This version of the song became an international hit and the album won a Grammy for best record of the year in 1965. But the glamour of the song telling of a beautiful, graceful, and enigmatic woman walking along the pristine beaches of Ipanema (figuratively ignoring Frank Sinatra) has a certain irony to it. Why? Well because Ipanema is located right next to some of the poorest places in Rio -- places that have also made their mark in Hollywood -- the Favelas: Cantagalo, Pavao-Pavaozinho,Vidigal, and Rocinha.


The word Favela is usually translated into shantytown -- but they have always been more than that stigmatized term. They are thriving communities in many ways, with vibrant local economies (other than the drug trade) and many cultural traditions that more well-off Rio citizens flock to. But for many on the outside the Favelas are also perceived as places were thieves and drug dealers live. This is a misconception.  Just because Favelados, people who live in the Favelas, are poor and live in houses they have built themselves doesn't mean that they are all criminals. In fact, most of them aren't, even though many of their homes lack basic amenities like plumbing and electricity.

Living in the Favelas comes with its challenges. Besides being marginalized by society, Favelados have to deal with the constant threat of mudslides. The streets of most Favelas are really narrow, preventing traffic on both directions, so motorcycles or walking are the main modes of transportation. Public transportation typically stops at the bottom of the steep hills leading up to the Favelas. Therefore Favelados must leave very early  and walk to get to the bus stop in order to get to their jobs.  Or if they can afford it,  catch a local “motortaxi” to the bus stop.

In many ways Rio's Favelas have been under-invested in by the government, although there have been some infrastructure improvements. But Favela electric cables are all amassed together in tangled, makeshift messes on posts running along on the streets.  This mess of wires dangles low enough to touch, creating a dangerous environment for residents. In many places, sewers run openly through the streets, and when it rains they tend to flood. These are problems that people of Ipanema -- and perhaps even the mysterious Girl from Ipanema --  never have had to face. 

Yet in Ipanema, most of the people working in the service industry – waiters, maids, cooks, bus drivers and others – are Favelados. While the children of Ipanema enjoy the beaches with parents or nannies during free time, the children in the Favelas take care of siblings while their parents work. Many of the Favelas' children stop school as young as 9 or 10 years of age to help support their families. Now that the World Cup and the Olympics are coming to Rio, the Favelas are being 'pacified' by the police and there is a constant police presence to maintain 'order'.  With massive redevelopment in preparation for these world events, in the Favelas closest to the targeted venue sites,  Favelados are being displaced. Perhaps with government assistance, these Favelados can move to Ipanema. It's much closer to their jobs and the education system can give their children a chance for an Ipanema-like life.

Angela Mazzini is a Anthropology major with a minor in Sociology at Georgia State University, and she is originally from Peru. She can be reached at

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