As slums go, the Santa Marta favela in Rio de Janeiro is remarkably pretty, even glamorous. The stinking open sewers, garbage-strewn alleys and tumbledown shacks are doubtless much like those in many hundreds of such favelas, home to almost a quarter of the city’s population of over six million.
But Santa Marta is special. One thing that makes it so, in the mantra of the real estate dealers, is “location, location, location”. Unlike the vast, sprawling, nondescript favelas of industrial north Rio, Santa Marta lies in the favoured south, only a couple of Metro stations away from well-heeled Copacabana, with its famous beach. Actually, Santa Marta doesn’t really “lie” anywhere. Instead, it clings precariously to a steep and, as it were, “holy” hillside, directly beneath Rio’s truly most iconic feature – tourists make thousands of “icons” of it every day – the huge and imposing mountain-top statue of Christ the Redeemer, whose open arms embrace the city.
Perhaps this special location lay behind the decision to use Santa Marta for filming the video of Michael Jackson’s song “They don’t really care about us” in 1995. As many here will be aware, the shoot featured local kids (surprise, surprise!) singing and dancing along with Jackson. He was accused at the time of exploiting their poverty, which may be true. But it is also true that the massive worldwide publicity generated by the event meant that suddenly, the image-conscious Brazilian authorities – then bidding for the World Cup and Olympics that are finally now coming their way – started caring about Santa Marta. Artists were commissioned to beautify the place with murals; the more prominent houses were painted in bright, cheerful colours. More practically, a cable car was built, so that favela dwellers would no longer have to sweat their way to the top; concrete steps replaced slippery mud banks; railings were installed so that kids would no longer tumble and hurt themselves.
Jon, my guide when I visited the favela a few days ago, testified personally to the importance of this last improvement. A Santa Marta resident all his life, when he was little he fell off an unguarded sheer drop, badly injuring his back.
“I still have the scars to prove it,” he told me, in good English learned not in school but from the internet and talking with tourists.
As the author of a book on Michael Jackson (and his boys), I was particularly keen to explore the superstar’s connection with the favela. Not that Jon would have let it pass unnoticed: a visit to what has become a Jackson “shrine” is a highlight of his tour. The Jackson area includes a balcony with a statue of the late great in an open-armed gesture, appearing to – ahem – embrace the city below, rather like Jesus. Accused in his lifetime of presenting himself as a messiah (not the only allegation he faced, of course) at least he cannot be blamed for this little excess.
Little, indeed, is the operative word here. The statue is tiny, less than life-size. By contrast, Jackson promoted his History album with a 60-foot statue of himself, floated upright on a barge down the River Thames, in London. Now that was a statue fit for a god!
Why all this is expected to be of interest to readers of Heretic TOC is a bit obscure, I confess. My interest in Jackson is primarily rooted in his boy-love rather than his over-the-top self-presentation or the way his fans idolised him. Unsurprisingly, there was not a trace of evidence in Santa Marta that I could find in my brief visit to suggest any BL connection, other than the faint echoes discernible from the video itself – which was played to me in the inevitable souvenir shop and which I felt obliged to buy. Oh, yes, there is another thing I nearly forgot to mention: Michael had a couple of young boys in his entourage, so he wasn’t exactly short of company!
What I’m trying to do, I suppose, in a roundabout way, is to let y’all know that Heretic TOC is on vacation in Brazil right now, escaping the horrible wet, windy, grey English winter for a few weeks. After a very agreeable week spent in Rio seeing all the usual tourist sights, I will soon be off hiking deep in the interior. I expect this will be all about mountains, rivers, waterfalls and valleys rather than a “heretic” thing, so it is entirely possible my next blog won’t even mention Brazil, although it will probably be written in this country.
I should not leave the favela theme, though, without some acknowledgement of a much bigger issue than Michael Jackson’s fleeting presence long ago. Apart from poverty, which is still the defining feature of favela life for many, although it could be worse – satellite TV dishes festoon the rooftops – violence has also been endemic in these communities, as those familiar with the film City of God will be aware.
That has changed for the better quite a bit in recent years, thanks to police “pacification” programmes: one by one, dozens of favelas, starting with Santa Marta itself in 2008, have been subjected to intensive policing, resulting in the expulsion of the criminal gangs that used to rule the roost, dominating entire communities not just the drug scene. Without such pacification I could not have entered Santa Marta without severe risk of being intimidated and robbed.
The price of such victories has been high, though. The police in Brazil are often accused of brutality, the latest allegations arising from their handling in recent days of demonstrations against the World Cup – a popular protest despite the country’s fabled love of football, because people would prefer to see the money go on decent public services, especially in education and health provision.
But I digress. The allegations have often all too clearly been true, although a culture of impunity means police officers are very seldom held to account for actions that include outright torture and murder of suspects, with even mass killings not unknown. Not so long ago, Human Rights Watch reported over 3,000 deaths annually from police violence in Brazil. In one appalling incident, the Candelária church massacre of 1993, eight minors were killed by the police, including two boys aged 14, one 13 and one 11.
Basically these kids, and others like them in many cities, have been treated like vermin who need to be exterminated in order to “cleanse” the streets, making them safe for the prosperous classes who don’t like their pockets picked by Dickensian gangs of urchins, or having their stores robbed – and who, in their respectability, don’t much care for kids to be hanging around plying a trade as prostitutes either.
Pacification, then, has its agreeable side, as I discovered: it is good to stroll about in a relaxed, crime-free environment. But the flip side has been ugly and vicious in the extreme. And the favelas have arguably been not just pacified but stultified. When the law rides into town a lot of the colour and the fun rides out!
P.S. Director Spike Lee also shot part of his Jackson video in the city of Salvador, where I am staying right now. This location was in the historic district of Pelourinho, originally a slave market. Naturally, I plan to pay a visit!
N.B. For one week, starting on Monday 10 February, I expect to be hiking in remote places away from any internet connections. Accordingly, I will be unable to approve and posts your comments in this period. So, if you have anything to say about this or other H-TOC blogs, get in quickly!