From the favelas: rising up through arts and sport in Brazil

Can the carnival spirit, combined with sport, help deal with Brazil’s social issues? keka

With final preparations now underway for next week’s annual Rio de Janeiro carnival, and as the hype builds for this year’s FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, it’s almost inevitable images of football-playing street children and bronzed, beach volleyball players will proliferate the media.

Both sport (football) and the arts (carnival) contribute to a distinctive Brazilian national identity, but there the association often ends. But in innovative social programs, arts and sport are now being used collaboratively to tackle Brazil’s extreme social issues.

Brazil is a country of contrasts. Against the backdrop of beaches and football exists a country that is perceived to be corrupt and violent. Much of the blame for this crime is placed at the feet of those living in the slums (the favelas). This problem is arguably most acute in the iconic city of Rio de Janeiro.

The favelas of Rio de Janeiro are scattered throughout the city, often towering above the wealthy suburbs. The close proximity of the rich and poor make for a bizarre and uncomfortable juxtaposition of lives. Rich and poor share the same geographical space (the favelas are often only a few streets away from wealthier suburbs), yet socially and psychologically there exists a clear chasm.

Those who are born into a favela are faced with limited opportunities. They struggle to progress, face prejudice, poverty and suspicion. Aspirations are stunted at birth, decided by address, and social elevation is rare.

A favela in Rio. meducauk

Escaping the favelas

Sport and the arts have long been utilised as vehicles for personal and social transformation. Both can build self-confidence, develop communication and inter-relational skills, and potentially offer escape from poverty. Since European clubs began to source talented players from South America in the 1930s, the prospects of self-advancement through sport has been a common goal for those living in the favelas.

The examples of past players such as Pelé and Garrincha fuel aspirations. Young players dream of being spotted by a talent scout, potentially from Europe, and being offered a contract that will result in a better life for the athlete and their family.

Pelé before the final game of his career, Giants Stadium, New Jersey, October 1, 1977. Wikimedia Commons

In the arts, practitioners such as the late Augusto Boal, who founded the Theatre of the Oppressed, use arts as a political tool to highlight injustice and inequality. Other companies such as youth theatre company Nos do Morro offer exemplary acting training and progression routes.

Both sports and the arts are valued for their instrumental benefits. Both have been wielded by various governments as tools to reduce crime, improve health and create cohesive communities (amongst other benefits). What is novel is the recognition of the increased power and benefit of combining arts and sport. So often the two are perceived as rivals, but in Rio, the two cultural forms are merging to provide training and opportunity for the poorest in society.

Mangueira Samba School

Nowhere is this more apparent than at the Mangueira Samba School. Alongside football, carnival is arguably the lifeblood of Brazil. The Mangueira samba school belongs to the “premier league” of schools in Rio and each year they battle with other samba schools to win the famous Rio Carnival.

The Mangueiras Samba School. illuminaut

Carnival is unquestionably an art form. It utilises dance, song and bateria (drumming), and costume as an expression and celebration of identity. Yet, in the case of Manguiera Samba School, it continually borrows traditions, motifs, and elements of sport to increase its engagement and appeal.

The home of the Mangueira Samba School is a stadium-like structure. By all accounts it looks like a sports stadium, perhaps with the exception of the signs prohibiting guns. It is decked out in Mangueira colours (bright green and pink), which are reflected throughout, from the costumes worn to the merchandise sold in the samba school shop. Much like a football club the Mangueira samba school has a distinct identity.

epaselect epa04080234 A band plays during the traditional entrance hall party of Rio Carnival earlier this week. Antonio Lacerda/ EPA

Fans of Mangueira buy into this identity and the samba school is used to unify the community around a common cause. Competition is an integral aspect of carnival. There is a strong drive to win with intensive training taking place from June until February, when the carnival occurs.

Contained within the stadium is a museum which houses a large trophy cabinet, displaying the success of the samba school. Moreover there is a deliberate intention to bring together arts and sport. The samba school shares its site with a Cultural Centre and an “Olympic Village” - a multi-purpose sports complex. All three sites offer interventionist programs in both arts and sport.

Brazilian police officer patrol on the streets of a favela north of Rio de Janeiro. Antonio Lacerda/EPA

The Cultural Centre offers contemporary dance and karate (amongst other programs) and the Olympic Village provides opportunities in a variety of sports such as football, athletics, and boxing.

All forms of intervention are used as social tools to up-skill participants and offer a path to a better life.

At the Magueira Samba School, and elsewhere in Brazil, sport and the arts are seen as complementary rather than competitive. Programs offer pathways for social advancement that are not otherwise available to those living in disadvantaged areas.

While each has power in its own right, a combination of sport and the arts offers unique and interesting opportunities to address social problems such as those faced in the favelas of Brazil.