South America

Frente Favela Brasil: a political voice for women and black Brazilians

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In Brazil's current government, there is not a single woman, or black man, in its 22-person Cabinet. But a new political party is aiming to change all that.

Fernando is waiting at the bottom of Vidigal, a favela that sprawls across the mountainous backdrop of Ipanema beach. We jump onto a bus and head north toward the centre of Rio. We are on our way to the launch of a new political party, Frente Favela Brasil.

Our bus navigates through busy traffic and passes by several trucks filled with soldiers, who are geared and ready for action. The military has moved into the city for the Olympics and they are dispersed around tourist hot spots with their arsenals at the ready. Seemingly oblivious or perhaps accustomed to the heavy weaponry, the hustle and bustle of Brazil continues around them. We jump off the bus at Copacabana and descend into the underground metro.

 

The launch of Frente Favela Brasil is taking place in Morro da Providência, which was the first favela born out of Rio. The land was initially occupied after the government failed to provide housing for returning soldiers at the end of Brazil’s deadliest civil war in 1897. A large concentration of Africans also moved in to the area, who were otherwise homeless after the abolition of slavery.

I can’t help but wonder if anyone died here. I decide not to ask.

Celso Athayde, a well known author, social activist and producer, began tossing around the idea of a new political party to represent black Brazilians and people who live in favelas. Morro da Providência was always going to be a symbolic place to launch, and Athayde began holding discussions around the country to unite community leaders with the prospect of an influential voice rising from the poorest areas of Brazil.

Fernando and I surface at central station and walk out onto the street, a genuine stimulant to the senses. The buzz and dust of construction sites pepper the air, street vendors shout at us as we shuffle forward with the masses and hundreds of motorbikes, vans and taxis swerve and weave within inches of each other, madly honking their horns.

 

After walking a few blocks, we meet up with a friend of Fernando's called Johnny Black, a local rapper who grew up in Morro da Providência. He takes us to a small chairlift which carries groups of people up to the top of the hill. Free for the community, the 2014 government project has been well received.

We wait in line to jump on board and the woman loading the chair notices my camera gear and gives me a suspicious look. She warns me not to film anything. I'm slightly concerned, but once inside the chairlift, Johnny Black tells me that with him it’s OK.

We sway slowly back and forth as our lift ascends the hill, the sheer size and beauty of the place leaving me speechless. Once at the top, we exit the station and follow Johnny Black into a narrow street. One of the first buildings we pass is riddled with bullet holes, the corner of the wall is mangled and cement pieces lay scattered on the ground from what could have been a recent battle. I can’t help but wonder if anyone died here. I decide not to ask.

We arrive at a checkpoint and Johnny Black approaches a young boy watching over the street we’re walking down. I can’t quite hear the exchange between them but the boy nods, mutters something into his walkie-talkie and waves us through.

There are still a couple of hours before the event starts, but we make our way there anyway. A marque has been erected over a large urban plaza and hundreds of plastic chairs are set up in front of a stage. This is where they have notorious funk parties, Johnny Black tells me.

We are greeted at the event by volunteers wearing grey Frente Favela Brasil shirts. They ask us who we are, write down our names and offer us water. I get chatting to Marilia, who has been setting up the launch party throughout the day.

We talk about the fact that the current government has not a single woman, or black man, in its 22-person Cabinet. Something that continues to baffle me and no doubt many others.

"At the end of the day, women must be present in a political party, leading, making transformations, to find better opportunities," she says.

Half of the vacancies in Frente Favela Brasil will be reserved for women, a powerful statement for a political system ranking 153rd in the world for female representation in the lower or single house, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union). This position is well behind countries such as Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, India and South Sudan.

"52 per cent of the Brazilian population is black, that’s 106 million people who aren’t represented at all."

After wandering through the plaza and introducing myself to those present, I notice a murmur of excitement and ask somebody what’s going on. Celso Athayde has arrived.

After greeting what seems like every single person at the event, he turns to me and says hello. I first met Mr Athayde at one of his talks in Belo Horizonte several months ago, and I am delighted that he remembers me. He agrees to a quick interview on camera.

"It’s important to have a political party that speaks for the community. 52 per cent of the Brazilian population is black, that’s 106 million people who aren’t represented at all," he says.

He explains how black Brazilians are the majority but are still to this day seen as the minority. Other than voting, Mr Athayde explains, black Brazilians are not part of the national political scene and that it is important for them to start thinking about positions of power as opposed to just focusing on compensation. 

"Compensation is still important, due to everything we couldn’t build, everything that was taken from us over the years. But it’s thinking about power, not just for the power, but for it to give you the chance to change lives," he says.

 

For a political party to officially launch in Brazil, they need around 500,000 signatures. Already represented in more than 27 states, Frente Favela Brazil is expecting to bring in over four million. The collection of signatures is likely to happen on the 20th of November, which is Black Awareness Day.

After finally getting my interview with Mr Athayde, I ask Fernando and Johnny Black if we could go for another walk through the community. We wander from the plaza and start to film again. After turning a corner, Fernando tells me to lower my camera to the ground. He’s calm but deadly serious. Several metres in front of us, there’s a boy, no older than 18, toying with a metal handgun. Johnny Black approaches him, and Fernando and I hold back. The boy points up the hill toward a young man, who seems to be the one in charge, and Johnny heads in his direction. As I pass by the boy as he follows me with his eyes and blows into the barrel of his pistol, which makes a whistling noise. I can feel my heart racing. The man up top tells us that we can film, but quickly and only in a certain place. We don’t hang around for long.

Back at the plaza the musical acts have begun and dancers take to the stage. My mind lingers on the boy with his gun and I start to think about my own life. How lucky I am to have been born in Australia, with a stable family behind me. If I messed up, there was always somebody there to support me and set me on the right path. I wonder what that boy has been through or who he lost for him to be placed in that situation. Maybe it’s cliché, but I start to realise how important it is for these kids to have role models within their community, role models of colour.

The momentum behind the Frente Favela Brasil party is as infectious as it is resilient. There's an immense task ahead of them, but they can succeed in making a serious difference in this divided and poverty stricken country.

Elliot Constable is a freelance journalist currently based in Brazil. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram. 

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