Jacarezinho: Political History of a Rio de Janeiro Favela
by Julio César Pino
courtesy of Riotur Rio de Janeiro
Rio de Janeiro - Jacarezinho never had any trouble being overlooked on the map; on the contrary, many people mistook it for a mini-city. It was the largest favela in the state of Guanabara in 1960, with a population of 22,714. Today, with its numbers swollen to over 100,000, it occupies a humble second place behind the favela of Rocinha. Jacarezinho overlaps two neighborhoods, Maria da Graça and Jacaré, both located in the district of Méier in Zona Norte. It is bounded by Avenida Suburbana, Vieira Fazenda station of the auxiliary line of the Central do Brasil railroad, and the Jacaré River. The favela has three major subdivisions: riverside, where the poorest migrants have always settled; the main area, also called Vieira Fazenda, which touches on the Central do Brasil; and the hillside, Morro Azul, where the first inhabitants set up home. An important unofficial boundary marker between the favela and the rest of the city is the General Electric factory, north of Vieira Fazenda and next to the railroad.
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While it may have been predestined that a favela would arise in Jacarezinho, due to the availability of factory jobs, there was nothing inevitable about its staying-power and expansion. They were due primarily to the strong presence of industry in the area and the political savvy of the inhabitants. A few scattered shacks may have been built in the 1920s, but residents insist that occupation did not begin until 1932. The central feature of Jacarezinho back then was a large country house owned by a Portuguese family. Fruits, vegetables, and sugarcane grew in the fields. In the first decade of occupation, ten courageous migrant families staked out a claim on the Morro Azul (Blue Hill), so called because it brought them happiness. The occupation of Jacarezinho occurred from the top of the hill downward. Curiously, today this process is reversing itself, with space on the plain running out, many newcomers are forced to climb the hillside to build their homes, just like the founders of the favela.
Jacarezinho's conquest of the title of the number one favela in Rio de Janeiro in the 1950s can be attributed to three factors. The improvement and extension of the Central do Brasil railroad allowed local residents to commute to jobs in Centro and Zona Sul. The favela was infused with new blood when the construction of Avenida Presidente Vargas in Centro displaced many of the downtown poor toward Zona Norte. But the crucial element in the spectacular growth of Jacarezinho was the industrial boom in the district of Méier following World War II. Some local factories, particularly General Electric dated from the 1920s, but it was not until the late and 1950s that industrial jobs beckoned large numbers of the homeless to Jacarezinho. In 1950 some 40 percent of the workforce in Jacarezinho was employed in factory work.
Industry had a stake in the survival of Jacarezinho, as shown by the willingness of local entrepreneurs to come to the aid of the residents when the favela was threatened with extinction. The first such incident occurred in 1945, when one of original owners of the area, Mario de Alimeida, who realized just how valuable his domain had become thanks to local industry, demanded his land back. After the police repeatedly invaded the favela with vans and armored vehicles, the residents organized a march on the Presidential Palace at Catête, and extracted a promise from Getúlio Vargas to put an end to evictions. In the late 1940s the Companhia Concórdia Imobiliárial, a real estate firm, pressured the city government to evict the thirty thousand squatters living in Jacarezinho, but the bosses of the GE factory, with other industrialists, came to the defense of the favela. A more serious melee ensued in the 1950s when the Companhia Administradora São Paulo petitioned the city to expel the inhabitants and hand the land of Jacarezinho over to it. The company won its case in court but lost the sympathy of city officials, who moved to buy the land and grant it to the favelados. By 1960 Jacarezinho had become too large to eradicate but impossible to urbanize, according to city planners. The result was uncontrolled growth and the renovation of the favela by the residents themselves, a pattern followed since then in many other shantytowns.
The Politics of Representation
The history of Jacarezinho, the largest squatter settlement in Rio de Janeiro from the 1950s until the late 1960s, demonstrates the possibilities and limits of the political strength of the favelados. Several unique qualities of this favela contributed to its survival. Geography served the interests of the inhabitants, joining their fortunes to the more prosperous surrounding communities.
Jacarezinho spilled over into the neighborhoods of Maria da Graça and Jacaré, which contained large working-class and middle-class populations who often walked to the favela to purchase food and second hand goods. The resident Jacarezinho operated one of the most important consumer markets in the district Méier, and won the respect of fellow cariocas through their hard work. The eradication of the favela would therefore have dealt a hard blow to many of neighboring communities.
The large industrial labor force living inside Jacarezinho and the mutually beneficial relationship between the favelados and the industries of Méier also help to explain the longevity of the favela. The large number of industrial jobs held by residents of Jacarezinho was noted by census takers, who counted close to two thousand factory workers living there in 1948. Industrial activity could also be found within the favela, from shoe repair shops to slaughterhouses. Cooperatives were the most common form of industry, some workshops employed wage laborers, so the favela could be said to contain home-based capitalists and proletarians.
Jacarezinho also possessed a petty bourgeoisie. Many residents owned commercial establishments. Nearly every shanty located near the entrances to the favela threw its doors open during the day to customers wanting food, drink cigarettes, haircuts, and just about anything else. Some businesses generated enough income to lend money to their customers, allowing debtors to pay off loans either in cash or in labor service. Eventually the success of these establishments turned the nearby favelas, such as Manguinhos, into economic satellites Jacarezinho. Poorer favelados trekked to Jacarezinho in search of work, loans, and cheap goods. This network of service sector, credit establishments, cooperatives and industries forged unity across class lines and developed ties between the favela and the neighborhood of Jacaré that proved crucial in preserving the settlement.
The first serious attempt to destroy Jacarezinho came in the early 1940s initiated by one of the original owners of the land, a Portuguese named Mario de Almeida. This episode combined tragedy with farce. Beginning in 1942, Almeida used his considerable political clout to order evictions. A genuine battle ensued; Jacarezinho for the next three years, with the police using horses and vans to demolish shanties. The favelados erected primitive barricades to protect homes. New shacks went up as fast as the police could destroy them, and neither side could prevail.
Almeida had not counted on the political savvy of the favelados. One of few privileges that squatters shared with more affluent residents of Rio de Janeiro was direct access to government agencies and politicians. Squatters did not shrink from the authority of even the president of Brazil, thought of him and other government officials as potential allies in the fight against eradication. On somewhat dubious grounds, the political leaders of Jacarezinho told the press and the mayor's Office that the first lady of Brazil, Darcy Vargas, had promised them ownership of the land. To make this unfounded claim come true, some two hundred residents organized a march on the Presidential Palace in Catête in 1945, to speak with Getúlio Vargas. They were received by the chief executive, who agreed to live up to his wife's "promise." Shortly thereafter, Vargas gave orders that the inhabitants of Jacarezinho occupied the land by "consent” of the city, and that further settlements must be legalized by the Liga Brasileira de Assistência, a government aid agency for the poor run by Dona Darcy. The favelados were so grateful that they renamed one of the principal streets in Jacarezinho "Rua Darcy."
The overthrow of Vargas in 1945 created an unusual scenario in the favelas, Jacarezinho in particular. As the Estado Novo collapsed, so did the paternalistic policies of the government of Rio de Janeiro toward the squatter settlements. Whereas in the early part of the decade favelados were deemed worthy of being saved through experiments like the proletarian parks, now the political mood was one of overt hostility toward the poor and working-class followers of Vargas. Demagogues such as journalist Carlos Lacerda called for the physical destruction of the favelas, which he despised as bailiwicks for both Vargas and the powerful Brazilian Communist party.
History was not on the side of Lacerda. The eradication of the favelas was no longer feasible because they had grown too large to demolish. Further complicating matters for the government, the squatter settlements of Rio de Janeiro now contained large numbers of voters who had to be courted by politicians aspiring to local and national office. During the presidential campaign of 1946, Eurico Dutra, Vargas's stand-in, promised community leaders in Jacarezinho that their homes would be secure if he won the election, and the squatment voted for him overwhelmingly. But, once elected, he endorsed the call to eliminate the favelas as seedbeds of radicalism.
At first Dutra and the appointed mayor of Rio de Janeiro, Angelo Mendes de Moraes, seemed to encourage urbanization as the answer to the favela problem. The president attended the inauguration of a post of the Catholic charity organization, the Fundação Leão XIII, in Jacarezinho, the Centro Social Carmela Dutra, and promised residents he would build a water network for them. But when the Companhia Concórdia Imobiliárial, a real estate firm that owned much property in and around Jacarezinho, filed a claim with the city in 1949 to recover land lost to squatters, the president and Mayor Mendes equivocated in their response.
Companhia Concórdia was well known to the thirty thousand residents of Jacarezinho; in fact, one of the busiest byways of the favela still bears its name. But in 1949 it proved a deadly enemy. In the winter of that year the company, in conjunction with two local factory firms, Unidas de Tecidos and Bordados S.A., filed a petition before Federal Judge Augosto de Moura to expropriate the land of Jacarezinho, claiming it had originally been intended as the site for factory workers' housing and was now illegally occupied by squatters.
The mayor countered with his own petition, calling on the judge to reject Concórdia's request, asserting that the city had first claim on the property. But the mayor was not about to concede the right of residents of Jacarezinho to defend their homes. Even as he argued their case before the courts, more police were stationed inside the favela to prevent the building of new shanties, and Mendes de Moraes publicly endorsed a federal government report that called for the expulsion of all the squatters in Rio de Janeiro to their home states. He also suggested to the city council that it consider the forced removal of favela families whose household income exceeded the minimum wage.
Judge Moura ruled in favor of Concórdia, arguing that the city had failed to register its domain over Jacarezinho in proper fashion by not submitting an evaluation of the current worth of the property. He also acceded to the company’s demand for two hundred policemen to be dispatched to Jacarezinho to begin evictions." But the judge was no political naïf. Realizing the danger posed to favelados should his ruling be taken as precedent, Moura stressed in his decision the need to avoid "demagogic outbursts" over the favelas, insisting that the social question involved, the future of squatter settlements in Rio de Janeiro, was not within the competency of the judiciary.
Knowing just how crucial the vote in Jacarezinho was to politicians, favelados contacted members of the city council and asked them to speak in their defense. On June 27 the council passed a resolution that a telegram be sent to the mayor directing him to turn "his attention to the unexpected assault' facing Jacarezinho. A month later Councilman Luiz Paes Leme spoke of the "women who had stopped crying and children who had gone back to playing in Jacarezinho, in the naive belief that their homes were safe after the government’s "promise of protection," only to be confronted once again with the specter of eviction.
Editorials for and against the rescue of Jacarezinho appeared in the press. Most emphasized the possible harm to the city, and not the squatters, if the settlement were swept away. The popular daily newspaper “A Manhã” warned: “Eviction would leave thousands of people without a roof, creating a serious social problem to be conveniently exploited by extremist, demagogic elements.... A sword of Damocles hangs over ten thousand people [sic] and there are only two possible ways to save them: either the city comes up with the money to purchase the land, or it finds a way to house the mass of favelados after eviction. The first solution seems more viable. No matter how much the land costs, the price is not as high as the onerous consequences of eviction.”
Those who clamored for the destruction of the favelas naturally used the uproar over Jacarezinho to blame the city authorities for having allowed squatter settlements to spread in the first place. The editors of “0 Jornal” took an "I told you so" line: "This case should be a warning to the people [in the favelas] and the authorities. To the latter, for not having prevented the illegal occupation of land belonging to a third party, and to the former, for their naïveté in building shanties on property that did not belong to them and trusting the government to act like a 'good daddy.'” Some in the press championed the cause of government intervention in the squatter settlements as a way of redeeming the favelados from their own vices. One editorial in the “Jornal do Brasil” pontificated: “The favela of Jacarezinho, where thousands of men, women, and children live in condemnable promiscuity, is in desperate need of intervention by the city authorities." Much of the public in Rio de Janeiro, according to the editors, concurred with their assessment that favelados should be treated as wards of the state.
A few dissenting voices questioned the notion of the favela as a den of iniquity. The explosive growth of Jacarezinho in the late 1940s forced outside observers to paint a more complex picture. In 1950 “0 Jornal,” which the previous year had condemned the city government for allowing favelas to spread, was sufficiently impressed with the campaign to save Jacarezinho to reconsider its verdict. The editors now tried to impress readers with the accomplishment of the squatters. “The favela houses 35,000 people in 7,000 shanties. It is larger than 83 percent of existing Brazilian cities, and only 21 cities, including sixteen state capitals, have a larger population. To be sure there are pockets of outlaws and evildoers, but most favelados are hard workers. Jacarezinho has six-hundred commercial establishments, including jewelry stores, but only three schools, and two of these are for samba music.” Still, the paper could not refrain from calling the residents "a marginal population, waiting for incorporation into the city."
The dispute over the future of Jacarezinho was still a combustible topic in local and national politics when Getúlio Vargas returned to the presidency in 1951. At the start of the 1950s the fight centered on electricity. Mario de Almeida had forsaken his claim to the land of Jacarezinho in 1945, but not to several electrical outlets he claimed to have installed. In 1950 he took his case to court and threatened to cut off electricity to the favela unless his lands were restored. Shanty dwellers were shocked, but their response was not long in coming. Seven associations of residents, calling themselves Light and Energy Companies, with up to four hundred members each, sprang up in Jacarezinho almost overnight to deal directly with the city electrical company and bypass Almeida. They remained in operation until the late 1960s when Rio de Janeiro officially extended electrical service to Jacarezinho.
The favela confronted myriad other problems as the decade progressed. In 1951 the estimated population stood at forty-five thousand to fifty thousand persons. The inhabitants had to share six water spigots. Only seven National Guardsmen watched over the settlement. Electricity reached only a relatively few families at a cost of three hundred cruzeiros for installation and eleven cruzeiros per month. Jacarezinho lacked any sort of sewage disposal, and one medical post, run out of the Fundação Leão XIII, served the entire population. Community leaders decided it was time once again to go to the top of the city bureaucracy and seek official backing for urbanization, playing the votes of Jacarezinho as a trump card.
In response to the squatters' efforts during the second Vargas administration (1951-1954) many local and national politicians canvassed Jacarezinho. Early in 1951 Vice President João Café Filho climbed the Morro Azul and inspected the shanties. The pro-government press of Rio de Janeiro used the occasion to present the vice president as a "messenger of peace and joy" to a depressed area and to blast the previous city administration of "the demagogue" Mendes de Moraes for having neglected the favelas. Getulista newspapers told the favelados to trust in the new mayor, João Vital, who had the ear of Vargas.
Café Filho told those he met in Jacarezinho that if they wanted to receive services from the city, they had to begin improving the favela themselves. This meant first of all expelling local entrepreneurs - "sharks" - who illegally dispensed goods and services to the residents while cheating the government of revenue. The newspaper “A Noticia” cited one such type: “The fat man Joaquim Modena is the owner of a fairly sizable warehouse, with income of 30,000 cruzeiros. He pays no taxes, but promises to do so in the future. His goods are not inspected for hygiene, nor are his prices regulated by the government. Modena is no fool, and does pretty much as the other 200 owners of commercial establishments in Jacarezinho do: he charges what he can get away with.”
Such reportage reinforced the popular stereotype of the favelado as a lamb easily fleeced by con artists. Jacarezinho was described by much of the press in 1950s as a "stagnant environment" where thousands of souls were condemned forever. A typical newspaper account of the times read: "There are shanties in Jacarezinho of only one room used to house eight to ten people. The promiscuity is astounding. Residents have no sanitary installations and throw garba-ge in a common ditch. No ambulance serves the favela, and the sick often die for lack of attention." This stereotype of the favelado as a helpless victim who needed assistance from guardian angels of the government expressed the philosophy of Vargas to grant services to the poor in return for their loyalty.
The dangers of relying on government saviors to come to the aid of the favela was made clear when Jacarezinho was once again confronted with demolition. In July 1951, just after Café Filho's visit, the Companhia Administradora de São Paulo, owner of much of the land in Jacarezinho in the vicinity of Rua Claudio, filed suit in municipal court to evict the squatters within ten days. The area in question housed 30,000 persons in 452,000 square meters.
The residents targeted for removal told the press they would leave “in pine boxes" rather than give up their homes, and scheduled a meeting with President Vargas. Though the chief executive was indisposed, his spokesman promised the delegation that came to the Palácio do Catête that the president would appoint a commission to address their demands and would send Mayor Vital to the favela to rally the inhabitants against eviction. In the meantime, to forestall immediate action by the Companhia de São Paulo, a city council member, Edgar de Carvalho introduced a bill to offer the company other land owned by the Federal District in exchange for its property in Jacarezinho.
Back in the favela, community leaders were busy organizing the public, to turn out for the mayor's visit. Upon his arrival he promised an end to the threat of eviction, and the fulfillment of every other desire of the favelados: transportation the rest of city, widening of public streets, a primary school, and legalizing commercial activity inside the favela. The newspaper “Diário Trabalhista,” organ of the Partido Trabalhista Brasileiro (PTB) of President Vargas, declared that the president and João Vital would succeed where previous politicians had failed. "Perhaps with Mr. João Vital the problems of the hillside populations will be concretely resolved, putting an end to the quixotic and melancholic 'Battle of Rio de Janeiro' [campaign of Carlos Lacerda]."
The favelados were more politically sophisticated than Vargas assumed. Community leaders wondered how they could preserve the favela for future generations. Many outside parties besides the Companhia de São Paulo had a claim on some segment of the favela. The only way to stop the cycle of threats of eradication was to fully urbanize the settlement. Spokesmen for the favela made their concerns known to the press, and their campaign elicited favorable if not always accurate coverage. In July 1951 the influential newspaper “Gazeta de Notícias” ran an editorial titled "A Medical Post for Jacarezinho!" claiming "that of all their problems the favelados of Jacarezinho consider the lack of a medical post the most crucial. The creation of such a structure, in our view, would prevent a repetition of the tragedy that occurred a few days ago - when [the old woman] Arquiminia Vitoria died for lack of immediate assistance." A few days later the favelados extracted from President Vargas a promise to build a thousand new houses for them in the vicinity of the favela should they be expelled from their shanties. As in the case of the "proletarian homes" in Praia do Pinto that were never built, the pro-government press excelled in describing imaginary domiciles: "One thousand prefabricated houses will be built close to Jacarezinho, with two to three rooms, bath, and kitchen. Construction should take up to four to six months, including water installation. Favelados living here will pay a small monthly fee for each house."
As eviction day drew closer, enemies of the favela grew bolder. At the start of August 1951, the police, apparently acting without authorization of the mayor, temporarily closed down all commerce in the favelas. This struck a hard blow at Jacarezinho in particular, which housed eight hundred commercial stores. A courageous federal deputy, Breno de Silveira, protested directly to the mayor's office, and the order was revoked.
This temporary victory could not dissipate the dark cloud that hung over the favela. Stopping the evictions permanently demanded bold and massive popular repudiation of the Companhia de São Paulo's scheme to grab a piece of Jacarezinho. In the middle of August, the Centro de Melhoramentos de Jacarezinho (Jacarezinho Improvement Center), the union of residents' associations, staged a self-proclaimed “monster rally" in the soccer field on Rua Viuva Claudio to demand the expropriation of the favela by the city. The residents called up their electoral debts accumulated over the years and brought out every public figure who owed Jacarezinho a vote: Deputy Breno da Silveira, city council members Cotrim Netto, Venerando da Graça, Edgar de Carvalho, and Council President João Machado. Speaking for the favelados were Francisco Santos of the Improvement Center, Zulmira Rocha on behalf of women, and Antonio Simões for the children of Jacarezinho. President Vargas was not present at the rally, but all the speeches were directed at him; as one old lady reminded a reporter: "Young man, tell Dr. Getúlio we all voted for him."
The "Father of the Poor" did not disappoint his children. City authorities arrived at a solution to the crisis inspired in part by a petition filed in 1948 by two lawyers, Viana and Benicio Foriteriele, to "authorize the mayor to expropriate the in land situated on Rua Viuva Claudio #362, or part of the same, where the conglomeration known as 'Favela de Jacarezinho' is installed. Once expropriated, the land should be turned over to the Fundação da Casa Popular, and sold to the current occupants at cost, to be paid off in twenty years. The Fundação will help each occupant finance the construction of a new home, up to the cost of 30,000 cruzeiros." Using this proposal, Mayor João Vital, acting under instructions from Vargas, had the Federal District assume ownership of Jacarezinho, but forbade the construction of any new shanties.
What had the favelados really gained? In an editorial published in the newspaper “0 Radical” in 1952, Venerando da Graça, one of the featured speakers at the previous year's rally, described what he saw the morning after the demonstration in Jacarezinho: "The mayor had left. Spigots functioned here and there inside and outside the favela, but water was not generally available. Sewage disposal never materialized. Public lighting was limited to sprucing up the lampposts. Meanwhile, thousands of children continue to live as beggars, left to their own fate, playing with the future of Brazil.” For the sake of the children, the favelados had to take a more aggressive political stance.
Organized political activity still flourished in Jacarezinho at the start of the 1960s, but to a large degree surreptitiously. The Partido Trabalhista (Labor Party), formed by Vargas to facilitate his return to power in 1950, remained active in the favela, as shown by the many references to Jacarezinho found in the pages of the party press, “A Voz Trabalhista” and “Diário Trabalhista.” The propaganda work of the party in Jacarezinho indicates that the president kept a watchful eye on the favela, but there is no record of overt recruitment to the party. Instead, the Getulistas sought to infiltrate their cadre into the favela to serve as ward bosses for Vargas. Although the Labor Party lost most of its membership after Getúlio's death in 1954, it continued to play a part in Jacarezinho politics for the next ten years.
The Brazilian Communists appear to have been busy in Jacarezinho, if the hysterical accounts published by Carlos Lacerda and other anticommunists are to be believed, but there is no firsthand record of any significant recruitment among the favelados. At this time the Communist Party was still pushing for a united front with Vargas and his followers, and the housing question was not a top priority on the its agenda. Still, the Communist Party, like the Labor Party, provided valuable political training for the community leaders of Jacarezinho in organizing meetings and utilizing propaganda.
The larger established political parties also turned their eyes to Jacarezinho. The fight to save the favela had demonstrated the growing political clout of what was now the largest squatter camp in the city. A startling sign of new times was the visit of Carlos Lacerda, “bete noire” of the squatters, to Jacarezinho during his gubernatorial campaign in 1960. Lacerda's mouthpiece, the newspaper “Tribuna da Imprensa,” recorded the moment for posterity: "Entering Jacarezinho by way of Avenida dos Demócraticos, Lacerda delivered his first speech of the day standing on top of a chair. He began by speaking only to a few, but little by little people began to crowd around him. When he finished, he was surrounded by a small multitude, applauded and hugged. As he strode forward, everyone followed." If one believed the press, Lacerda had undergone something akin to a religious conversion in his feelings toward the favela, but in fact the one-time general of the "Batalha do Rio de Janeiro” shrewdly calculated that he had more to gain politically by posing as a friend of the poor. Soon after his election as governor of Guanabara, Lacerda had his staff devise a plan to urbanize Jacarezinho. Eradication, he assured skeptical squatters, had been a folly of his youth.
Lacerda's plans for the complete urbanization of Jacarezinho never materialized, because the election of 1965 swept him and his allies from the gubernatorial palace. His successor, Francisco Negrão de Lima, was not willing to finance such an ambitious project. The election of Negrão de Lima as governor of Guanabara in 1965, with the support of the favelados, had convinced the military that the return to civilian rule in Brazil should be postponed and all popular opposition, actual or potential, must be crushed. Future elections were canceled, the press was muzzled, and military police began to patrol the favelas.
The imposition of dictatorial rule under Humberto Castelo Branco and his successors cowed many politicians into not speaking out on behalf of the favelas during the 1960s, but it did not dampen the political spirit of Jacarezinho. By 1965 the favela had already been substantially urbanized by the residents, so the dictatorship did not dare attempt to demolish it, as it did Praia do Pinto. More important, Jacarezinho possessed a higher degree of political cohesion than almost any other favela in the city. In 1966 a single political organization representing the entire population was formed-the Associação Pro-Melhoramento do Jacarezinho (Association for the Improvement of Jacarezinho). The association's charter pledged leaders to "solicit, among other things, the legalization of the favela of Jacarezinho, so that all 150,000 of its inhabitants can be the legal owners of their homes, and to make an appeal that there be only one Association in the favela." Once it received the approval of the city government and the Fundação Leão XIII, the Associação Pro-Melhoramento transformed itself into the Provisional Commission of the Residents' Association of Jacarezinho on November 2, 1966,and set direct popular elections for this body for the end of 1967.
The Residents' Association was the most important political and social group working inside the favela. Ostensibly, it was to act as the voice of the squatters before the state of Guanabara. The statutes of the association declared five goals: (1) to fight alongside competent state or federal authorities for assistance pertinent to the improvement of public services in the interests of our members; (2) grant members all assistance within our reach; (3) promote social activities such as recreation and sports; (4) act as a link between legally constituted authorities and the local population, helping the over former in the resolution of all problems pertinent to the community; and (5) watch legally act for the maintenance of order, security, and tranquility of families in the favela.
In practice, the association became the city council of Jacarezinho. Residents of the favela petitioned the association on a host of grievances and requests. typical letter read: “Rio de Janeiro 20 of April 1967. To the Residents' Association of Jacarezinho: I seek permission to build a new roof for my shanty, already constructed, measuring 2 meters, up front and more or less 4 in the back; total area 16 square meters, for said shanty is in an irregular state, situated on Rua Amaro Rangel No. 4. Awaiting your approval, and thankful for the attention you have granted me.”
The Residents' Association was not the only political agency at work Jacarezinho. Other institutions with overt or covert political agendas were active in the late 1960s and three merit special attention. Some businessmen had formed their own "light commissions" back in 1950 to attach favela to the city electrical supply. In the 1960s these groups merged to form "Light Commission of Jacarezinho" and signed a contract with the Rio de Janeiro Light Company to bring electricity directly to all parts of the favela. As an elected body, the Light Commission gained enormous authority, since it acted as combination chamber of commerce and political lobby. The commission occasionally sent out "information bulletins" to its patrons that read very much like politicians' handbills. One read: "The commission has illuminated all the streets of Jacarezinho, bringing tranquility to residents and merchants. Let's demonstrate to city authorities that commerce in Jacarezinho is united behind progress and welfare of this populous neighborhood."
Religious organizations came to play an even larger role in Jacarezinho as decade came to an end. The hold of the Catholic Church over the favela was challenged by Protestant evangelicals eager to win converts. In principle none of these groups was explicitly political. Clergymen from the Assembly of God, Baptist, Methodist, and other churches proclaimed that their ends were solely spiritual, and that they placed themselves squarely on the side of law and order. The Association of Evangelical Leaders of Jacarezinho announced to the city the aims were "to congregate believers for the achievement of giant meetings of a purely evangelical sense, and to cooperate with constituted authorities for moral, social, and spiritual welfare of the community." Though the sects claimed they had no political mission in Jacarezinho, as their membership grew larger, no candidate for office in the Residents' Association could afford to ignore them.'
However disparate their membership and aims, all these institutions opened space for political dialogue and protected the rights of citizenship of the favelados Jacarezinho was better prepared politically to enter the “linha dura” (hard-line) period of military rule in Brazil after 1968, when the mere mention of the problem of favelas was banned from the media. The urbanization of the favela at the hands of its inhabitants had created a fortress too difficult to destroy. Destroying dwellings that in many respects now resembled middle-class homes proved politically impossible. Even more critical to the survival of Jacarezinho was the symbiotic relationship that developed between organizations inside the favela and different constituencies with the same end: the preservation of the homeland. The Light Commission lobbied the city on behalf of businessmen. Protestant sects, which claimed to be apolitical, challenged the authority of the Catholic Church and its paternalistic practices. The Residents' Association performed acts that by law belonged to the state, such as authorizing land deeds. The seeds for the social movements that would sweep the most of the favelas of Rio de Janeiro in the 1970s had been sown.
Julio César Pino is assistant professor of history at Kent State University. This article is excerpted from his book, “Family and Favela: The Reproduction of Poverty in Rio de Janeiro” (Greenwood Press: Westport, Connecticut, 1997).