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).
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.
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?
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?