Reimagining American Community
A view of Rio from the Rocinha favela.

A view of Rio from the Rocinha favela.

For my two teenage daughters and myself, World Youth Day began shortly after we reached Chicago’s O’Hare Airport en route to Rio. Conspicuous with our overstuffed backpacks, we were spotted by a small group of fellow pilgrims, Felician sisters from Chicago.

Soon one of the nuns, all smiles, came over and offered us gifts– three pairs of what I would describe as Blues Brothers sunglasses. Except that they were two-tone–bright orange and black—and had the Felician order’s web address printed on one side.

Some fourteen hours later, we had cleared customs and were zooming along the streets of Rio in a cab headed for our guest house in the old Santa Teresa neighborhood, a mix of colonial architecture, art galleries and jazz bars. Navigating through the numerous blocked streets that week, more than one cabbie turned to me with a shrug, adding “Papa” (the Portuguese word for Pope), as though Pope Francis’ mere presence in the city explained everything.

I was not prepared for the feel of Rio, the incredible leafiness and natural grandeur of the place, a city where hints of the rainforest are everywhere: the nearly tame monkey who joined us at breakfast time, the fresh coconut milk everyone drinks through a straw as they promenade along Ipanema Beach, and the beautiful green mountainsides of Corcovado and Sugar Loaf.

Given Rio’s population of seven million, I was expecting something like New York with a few palm trees but Latin cities are different, of course. Rio seemed more like a collection of large neighborhoods where the rules are not intended to end discussion but to begin one. You want to park in the restricted zone? First, the Rio policeman wants to know your reasons and then he seemingly decides on a case by case basis–never mind the rulebook.

I asked an Argentinian woman who was also staying at our guest house how Argentines differed from Brazilians. She said her countrymen answer questions with a simple yes or no, whereas Brazilians always say yes. This, she explained, is because they want you to be happy. Just don’t expect them to show up when they promise.

I found the outdoor nature of life in Rio irresistible, as well as the presence of children everywhere. I’ve never travelled in such a child-friendly country before. Nor can I omit to mention Brazil’s justly deserved reputation for being multi-racial. My daughters noticed numerous groups of Brazilian students hanging out, each of which were a salad of different Brazilian ethnicities. We are far from George Zimmerman’s neighborhood here.

Even the slums are different. I went along on a guided tour of Rocinha, the large hillside favela which was finally pacified a few years ago after a full-scale police assault on the drug gangs. Unlike many economically moribund inner city areas in the U.S., favelas are semi-independent neighborhoods with at least a number of inhabitants who somehow manage to scrape by with small service jobs in the wealthier areas across town. Rocinha, with a population of 300,000, has something like three elementary schools, according to our guide. For its part, the city of Rio is budgeting for new soccer stadiums (the latter being one motive for the recent Occupy uprisings in Rio and elsewhere in Brazil), not on helping favelados (favela dwellers) with much-needed infrastructure like basic sewer systems.

The internal streets of a favela are narrow and Dickensian: with their overhanging bundles of bare electrical wiring they are also frightening at times. With the rise of “slum tourism,” outsiders can be escorted through a favela in order to mingle a bit with the locals, as well as shopping for some local products. Doors and windows seem always open, offering an occasional glimpse of someone asleep on a couch or changing a baby, as though the visitor were merely wandering through other people’s private homes—which of course is what these tours amount to, in a sense.

But the favelas strike me as operating on the same loose principles of civil action that often apply when dealing with Rio officialdom: everything is a conversation in which both parties have a certain amount of latitude. When students (and others) erupted several weeks ago over higher public transit fares, Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff hosted a public roundtable conversation that included several students and during which she cheerfully offered to look at making changes to the Brazilian constitution. I have a hard time imagining any such conversation in the U.S.

A possible metaphor for this flexible, humane attitude is the way Brazilians drive. Whereas Americans are accustomed to staying each within our own lanes of traffic, drivers in Rio must contend with older streets without clearly marked lanes and they are comfortable speeding along with no more than two feet or so of distance between vehicles.

The system seems to work because everyone, pedestrians included, holds to the same standard of alertness and instinctive caution. In narrow city streets, that is, well-marked lanes are less necessary if everyone rises to the community standard of head’s-up motoring.

I must end this post soon before I lapse into the same kind of effusive reaction over Brazil that I recall having many years ago when I first saw Italy. If you want to visit a communal society, head for this place. If this doesn’t sound too odd, it has, I think, made me a much better Catholic.

About the Author
A native Texan, Elias spent several good years studying classics and medieval Italian at UC Berkeley before wasting several more years in financial journalism around Chicago. He has written for Strong Towns, the American Scholar, the New Urbs blog, and the Gary Catholic Worker and is the co-author of a textbook on character education. He briefly published something called The Armchair Historian. None of his three teenage daughters display an interest in the Greek and Latin classics thus far. He and his family reside in leafy Valparaiso IN.