Should I say Favela or Comunidade?

In a recent post I looked at the sensitive subject of favelas and described some of the ways that you can get into trouble when talking about them. But did you know that even the name can stir controversy?

The term favela has an interesting history. Back in the 1890s, various Brazilian forces fought a series of escalating battles with a group of 30,000 settlers in Canudos, a remote town in Bahia. The settlers were led by a charismatic mystic named Antônio Conselheiro who had spent much of his earlier life wandering the north-east of Brazil and picking up followers along the way.

Time and again, government forces underestimated the strength of the Conselheiro’s followers, suffering a series of humiliating defeats. Eventually the Minister of War got involved and sent a huge, well-armed force which utterly destroyed Canudos. It is said that more than 15,000 inhabitants were killed (many civilians were slaughtered after the initial resistance was stamped out).

 

the favela plant Cnidoscolus phyllacanthus

This is the Favela Plant (Cnidoscolus quercifolius), common in Bahia and other semi-arid areas of Brazil. It has long spines, it is a skin irritant and has similar effects to cyanide when eaten! An appropriate namesake for such a prickly, difficult, even poisonous topic.

 

When the massacre was complete (1897), the soldiers made their way to Rio. When they were recruited they had been promised housing in return for victory, but when they arrived in the capital they got a shock.

There was no housing for them! Having fulfilled their duty, they were effectively abandoned, so they set up improvised dwellings on a hill in central Rio – today that hill is known as Morro da Providência. The soldiers were reminded of a hill from their fighting days in Canudos which was named after that spiny plant you see in the picture above and so Morro da Providência also came to be known as Morro da Favela. Before long, all the other slums that were springing up in the city were also referred to as favelas.

favela-morro-da-providencia

An early photo of the slum in Morro da Providencia that became known as Morro da Favela. By 1910 this had become known as the most violent place in Rio. Source

 

So that is the story of how the makeshift settlements in Brazil came to be known as favelas. Now back to the title of the post.

During one of my first ever Portuguese lessons, my teacher and I were talking about favelas when she said “You know really, we shouldn’t use the word ‘favela’ – we should say comunidade“. Comunidade (sounds like comooni-DADGE) means ‘community’, which on first sight seems like a strangely vague term for such a specific form of settlement.

But let’s think about why a new name has been developed in the first place. Since their inception, favelas have had negative associations – crime, violence, poverty and drugs – the kind of negative associations that lead to entrenched prejudice. The term favelado, used for someone who lives in a favela, is highly offensive. But what about favela? Is that offensive too? I still hear it used on the news and in everyday conversations without any apparent pejorative intent, so surely it is fine isn’t it?

 

Vidigal favela

Comunidade or Favela? Does it really matter?

 

During my reading for this post, I’ve spent some time looking around to see how people feel about this alternative term, comunidade. Certainly there are some people who seem to think that people who actually live in favelas prefer them to be called comunidade. But there is another school of thought that says that changing the name suggests that these people have something to be ashamed of.

Personally, I prefer to be straight about things: when I’m out of work, I say that I’m unemployed, not “between jobs”; when someone close to me dies, I say that they died, not that they “passed away”. These euphemisms always strike me as a little ridiculous – however you say it, you still don’t have a job, and that person is never coming back.

But if I lived in a favela and experienced the prejudices that I’m sure many residents suffer, perhaps I’d feel differently. If you knew that, for many people, the name of the place you lived was synonymous with crime and dishonesty, maybe you’d want to change that name too?

 

Women are heroes Morro da Providência

The original favela, Morro da Providência, became part of an art project entitled Women are heroes by French urban activist, JR. Source

29 replies
  1. Eva
    Eva says:

    Tom, my respect for your research efforts, for real.
    Last semester I took an extension course at UFRJ and a girl in the class made a comment that before signing up she wasn´t sure if she was eligible because the classes were “para a comunidade” and she assumed she couldn’t take them until someone explained to her that comunidade doesn’t necessarily refer to favela. Maybe it’s not PC for me to say this, but I found the whole thing really funny and kind of an example of the way euphemisms can have unintended consequences.

    Reply
    • tomlemes
      tomlemes says:

      Ha ha! Thanks Eva, though I’m not sure my ‘research efforts’ deserve much respect! 😉 Just a bit of googling and asking people I know what they think.

      I have to say though, I’m really hoping people don’t start insisting that I say comunidade all the time. The bottom line with language is that we all just use the word that most people understand don’t we? For most people favela needs no explanation – as your example demonstrates, comunidade is too vague isn’t it?

      Reply
        • tomlemes
          tomlemes says:

          Thanks Eva, that’s a great article! I love it! Great website too by the looks of things. I’m kind of surprised I hadn’t seen it before – it’s so big it has its own Singles section! The Singles section is actually pretty hilarious. Here is how one guy described himself:

          I like all kind of woman, I am easygoing, good and have never harmed any lady” – sounds like a keeper 😉

          Reply
          • The Gritty Poet
            The Gritty Poet says:

            If the term Favela conjures up an image which does not correspond to the truth then I definitely think the nomenclature should change. When I think of Favela suddenly cardboard and wooden shacks – plus open sewage – come to mind. Is this what most of them look like? I remember once being told that in some Brazilian regions people already differentiate low income neighborhoods with basic infrastructure (masonery walls, eletricity and main streets that are paved) from Favelas by calling them Morro , and continue to use Favela to refer to places that are really lacking in everything. In the end though I think that if someone does not like the term you are using then you may want to use another one. I just hope Brazil’s legal system doesn’t start to enforce this via legislation since that tramples on free speech.
            Btw Tom did you really have to make fun of Alex’s BrazilMax ad? Why crush a man for trying to find his soulmate? Not cool.

  2. Ray
    Ray says:

    Tom,

    Great post, and awesome research, I think I had read about this in elementary school and had completely forgotten about it. I also read that the freed slaves that started to flock to the cities, started building shacks in the outskirts of Rio and started the first favelas, but the soldiers story is just another favela that also started in Rio.
    Regarding the wording, I think it’s kinda silly to say “comunidade”, I am with you, we should call it for what it is, it’s not gonna be a better place if we make it sound better, what will end up happening is that the word “comunidade” will eventually be ruined and will become a pejorative term as well.
    I just hope Brazilians find a way to improve the lives of these people so they can upgrade their lives and we can rid the country of the horrible places we call favela.

    Abracos
    Ray

    Reply
    • tomlemes
      tomlemes says:

      Hi Ray, you’re absolutely right. From what I read, there were already slums in existence – it’s just that they weren’t called favelas until the soldiers turned up! 🙂

      And I’m with you and Gritty on this term comunidade – if you use it to describe even the worst parts of a slum then it will just turn bad too. Maybe they could use comunidade to describe a favela that has running water, sanitation, electricity, trash collection, security for all its residents. The challenge for the government of Brazil would be to turn all of its favelas into comunidades.

      Reply
  3. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    Great research. Hard subject. I call it a favela because the Cariocas do. Just ask Zezinho, there is pride behind FAVELA. 😀

    Have you done his tour? If not, I think you would like it.

    Reply
    • tomlemes
      tomlemes says:

      That’s great! And it’s the ultimate measure isn’t it? If the people who live there call it a favela, then that’s the term to use right?

      I haven’t done his tour, but I really want to. I’ve heard so many good things.

      Reply
  4. Raf Kiss
    Raf Kiss says:

    Hey Tom,
    Another great read. Congratulations.
    Glad to see that you have the same story as I do on how the favelas got their name. I learned it at guide school so I like to believe that ‘s the correct version 🙂
    I don’t know, but I have the impression that the name “comunidade” first came up when the first UPP’s appeared, which leads me to believe that a comunidade is a pacified favela. I still use the word favela, but I have a feeling that the true meaning of it (a place for the poor and the homeless, where people pay no rent, electricity, water – provided that they even HAVE these things, where the drug lords rule their little kingdom with violence, you get the idea). I’m sure you also heard that more and more “normal” people are moving in to the favelas and as a result prices are rising… They are building a brand new 4 star hotel on top of Vidigal… the original inhabitants are being squeezed out (as usual) by those who have more money… More and more tourists visit favelas like Santa Marta, Vidigal and Rocinha. I myself was in Rocinha before and after the pacification. The guys who were sitting on the sidewalk with machine guns in their laps in December 2010 are now selling little Christ the Redeemer paintings on top of the hill (in a matter of speaking of course. I have no idea if those are the same guys). I did have a chance to talk to a local guy who accompanied us up the hill last time (I actually drove my own car up Rocinha, which would have been impossible back in 2010). He was born in Rocinha some 45 years ago and when I asked him about how it was to grow up there and how difficult it must have been to stay out of the criminality, which of course was a source of easy money, he said: I had a teenage son who liked to surf, so I wanted to buy him a nice surf board but didn’t know how to get the money to do that and so I ended up doing “some stuff” for the local traficantes. I strongly believe that many of the people who were involved in the drug traffic in the favelas were not necessarily bad people, but did it out of necessity.
    Ok, I don’t want to make this too long, because there’s so much going on it he favelas right now that it could be a blog on its own. Favela or comunidade? Maybe I can say it like this: Rocinha today is referred to as a “comunidade”, but some parts of it are still very much “favela”…
    Cheers
    Raf

    Reply
  5. The Gritty Poet
    The Gritty Poet says:

    “They are building a brand new 4 star hotel on top of Vidigal… the original inhabitants are being squeezed out (as usual) by those who have more money…”

    Would it not be better if these residents were offered legal and financial consultation, perhaps by way of public university students (if tutition is free then give something back methinks) at the final stages of law, business management and/or economics; rather than the usual “the rich are mean and kicking out the poor” approach (which often manifests itself via demonstrations and such, and usually by middle class students who are studying in said public universities, and whose time would better serve those they wish to help if they volunteered to teach them financial education). I think Raf’s comment pointed out the obvious: once a place improves value will increase and it will be more coveted. It just seems to me that it is better to educate people on how they can make better decisions regarding their real estate so they too can take full advantage of this newly added value. And perhaps it can be argued that rebranding the place as Comunidade, or anything else, instead fo Favela actually helps (as does rebranding in other economic scenarios). The question is if the product remains the same. It appears that product has improved, so why not? I think the important thing in the end is to empower people so to better prepare them in deciding if they wish to stay, rent, sell, or whatever other option suits them best.

    Reply
    • tomlemes
      tomlemes says:

      It’s interesting this idea about the original residents being ‘squeezed out’ by the rich (be they foreigners or just rich Brazilians). Isn’t that just economics really? When a place is undesirable (because of crime, lack of facilities, location relative to other neighbourhoods, etc) the prices are low. When something about the neighbourhood improves, the prices go up. People who need the money sell up and move somewhere cheap again – people who have money move in.

      I think you have a good point about property and investment advice – where the original inhabitants could get stung is if they aren’t smart about selling up (if indeed they decide to sell).

      Reply
    • Raf Kiss
      Raf Kiss says:

      Hi there,
      I fact there is an organisation (non profit) doing a lot of work in the field of destigmatizing the “favela communities” (that’s how they call it… not bad I think 🙂 ). The orgnisation is called “Catalytic communities”. Here’s what they say about themselves:

      “Since 2000 CatComm has incubated pioneering local projects that strengthen and recognize Rio’s favela communities through education, training, communications and networks, with an eye towards developing sustainable models for worldwide replication”…

      Check their website for the complete text: http://www.catcomm.org/en/?page_id=57

      Education indeed is key in this whole matter. Thing is also: people that are born in a favela and DO get a chance to get an education (or become a famous football player) are bound to get out of the place once they have the money to do so. In other words, “real” favela residents – again – are there out of necessity, not because they want to. A favela is “home” for so many people, and it’s the PEOPLE that make the place what it is, with all it’s good and bad sides and the place being taken over by the “rich folk” is probably going to turn it into another stale neighborhood where nobody knows their next door neighbors.

      I think that people with money move in for two main reasons:
      1. Because it’s trendy
      2. For investment purposes. (o yeah… there it is… Money) – Tom also said it:: “isn’t that just economics really?”

      Indeed Economics and money. The trade off for the original residents is: more safety and better access to healthcare and other community services.

      So I feel it’s kind of double: Did they really clean out the drug traffickers to make it safer for the people or did they want to clear the way for the investors? I tend to believe that the key factor was money. Of course the Copa and the Olympics were a welcome hook to explain the clean-up, but I’m sure that unless some business guy saw ways to make a huge profit somehow, the favela’s – and it’s residents – would be left to rot.

      JMHO
      Take care
      Raf

      Reply
      • tomlemes
        tomlemes says:

        I think there are a couple of other reasons to add to your list:

        3. Location – Take Rocinha or Vidigal as examples. They are (fairly) close to São Conrado, Leblon, Barra, Ipanema, Gávea, Jardim Botânico. Speaking as someone who spends around 4 hours commuting every day, the location is a big deal. If I had just got out of university and my first job was in São Conrado, I’d definitely see if I could find something in Vidigal – 20 minutes to work? Yes please!

        4. The views – I’m sure there are some people moving into Complexo do Alemão, but it seems that the most popular favelas are the ones with spectacular views.

        Bottom line is that some of the favelas happen to be situated in what has/will become prime real estate. If danger of violence and lack of rule of law is perceived to have been removed, then of course people will want to move in and develop it and prices will rise.

        It’s sad that people who don’t have so much money will probably be forced to move further away and will then be the ones spending hours on buses every day, but to a certain extent that’s inevitable. Back in London, if you want to live in the central 2 zones of the transport system, you pay an absolute fortune.

        But to continue the London comparison, the UK government have strict rules about property development – if a company want to build a block of luxury apartments, they are obliged by law to build a certain amount of ‘affordable housing’ in the same area. This affordable housing is apportioned to people on low incomes. I think I agree with your last sentence, I can’t see that ‘affordable housing’ happening here in Rio – if there’s no money in it then I’d be surprised to see the government doing it for the good of the people…

        Reply
        • Raf Kiss
          Raf Kiss says:

          I hear you… I would actually not mind to find something in Vidigal either… It seems to be (have become) a very tranquil place. Let’s see how it all pans out, but I can imagine that many original residents are not going to pack up and leave without a fight, and I sure wouldn’t like to be there when that starts.

          Reply
      • tomlemes
        tomlemes says:

        I think “Favela Community” is OK, but can you imagine having a conversation and using that term over and over? It’s probably too long (7 syllables!) to really catch on.

        Reply
        • Raf Kiss
          Raf Kiss says:

          Tom,
          I don’t think I would ever use it in a conversation. I would always say “Favela” or refer to the specific place, as in: do you want to visit Vidigal, or Rocinha, or Santa Marta?…
          “Favela community” only works in English and in writing I guess 🙂
          cheers

          Reply
  6. Mauricio
    Mauricio says:

    I usually do say favela, but I remember of one recent situation I said comunidade (and felt silly afterwards). I was looking for an apartment to rent in SP and had a real state agent showing me one. Suddenly, looking out of the window I saw small favela not so close by. I then asked : Excuse me mam, but what’s that on the side? Is it a “comunidade”?

    Don’t know why but I felt a bit embarrassed of saying favela, as it could be interpreted I was depreciating the apartment somehow.

    Reply
    • tomlemes
      tomlemes says:

      Heh heh, that was a good explanation Mauricio. I think we all do things like this and then feel a bit silly about it afterwards right? 🙂

      I can see that in certain contexts the term “comunidade” seems more ‘sanatised’ doesn’t it? In the UK we have a joke that real estate agents never say that a house is “small”, instead they use words like “cosy” or “comfortable”. I think they would say “comunidade” instead of “favela” too, right? Somehow it makes it sound less bad.

      Reply
  7. Mauricio
    Mauricio says:

    It’s all about the use we make of euphemisms I guess. Depending on the context, we may find ourselves feeling like using them in order not to offend the interlocutor.

    I recall seeing some apartments ads on newspapers and the word favela is never used. The usually say : “Sem vista para comunidade”.

    About the small and cosy example you gave, the funniest one I’ve heard recently was :

    Instead of boleira (who makes cakes) -> cake designer (yes! spoken in english) ! hehehe

    Cheers

    Reply

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