RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – Gone are the days when Rio de Janeiro’s Favela da Rocinha made news only because of its violence.
The slum is becoming one of the city’s most popular attractions.
After the police established a permanent base in the favela in November 2011, it ceased to be a stronghold of the drug trade and became a stage for events that bring together residents of the community and surrounding neighborhoods.
One of the major events is the “Rocinha de Braços Abertos” (Rocinha with Open Arms) race on Jan. 22, when 2,000 people will participate in the runs, including more than 500 community residents.
“I don’t know very well what’s inside Rocinha. Running through the passages and alleyways of the favela is going to be an adventure,” says runner Alexandre Moura, 32, a resident of the Flamengo neighborhood, located about 15 kilometers (10 miles) from Rocinha. “The social integration will be the best part. The favela is going to stop for the race.”
The Military Police’s Special Operations Battalion (BOPE) helped the event’s organizers define the 5-kilometer (3.1-mile) and 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) routes, which will pass through the stairways, passages and alleys of the favela, as well as the trail of a nature preserve surrounding the community.
A “Community” category was created for residents of Rocinha and neighboring Favela do Vidigal, who won’t have to pay the registration fee of R$40 (US$22.38). The two winners – male and female – of the 10K race will receive athletic equipment and training from a running coach, a physiotherapist and a nutritionist for a year.
When the 10K and 5K races are over, a mini-run will be held for children between 1 and 12 years old, with distances set according to age.
Rocinha is situated between two of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Rio de Janeiro, São Conrado and Gávea. According to the 2010 census by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), Rocinha is the most populous favela in Brazil, with about 70,000 people.
Its residents, however, disagree with the IBGE’s data, claiming as many as 210,000 call Rocinha home.
Due to its size and location, Rocinha has been one of the focus points for the Rio de Janeiro Department of Public Safety since the beginning of its favela pacification program in 2008.
Jungle Fight in Rocinha
On Jan. 21, another major event will bring attention to the favela: Jungle Fight 36, which will be held at 8 p.m. at the Acadêmicos da Rocinha samba school.
Jungle Fight is one of the biggest events of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), a sport that is enjoying growing popularity nationwide.
“The tickets will be totally free and distributed within the Rocinha community,” says Jungle Fight’s President Wallid Ismail, 43. “The residents will enjoy watching the fights.”
The main event features Argentine Emiliano Sordy and Bahia native Kleber Orgulho, who will compete for the title in the 93-kilogram (204-pound) division. Fighters from Rocinha and other favelas will also get their chance in the ring through the Jungle Community, an initiative introduced for this edition of Jungle Fight. Of the nine fights, five will include residents of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas.
“A majority of the great fighters are from humble backgrounds. Even if a fighter doesn’t become the champion, he can become a fight instructor and teach other young people how to fight, keeping them away from crime,” Ismail says. “The cycle of sports brings opportunities and combats the cycle of violence and drugs.”
Jacqueline Bezerra, a 26-year-old student and Rocinha resident, wants to watch the fights.
“It’s an excellent opportunity to see this sport, which is so trendy here in Brazil,” she says, noting that tickets for major MMA events in Rio de Janeiro usually cost between R$275 (US$153.85) and R$1,600 (US$895.16).
Bezerra has danced for the Acadêmicos da Rocinha samba school for the past 11 years, and she supports opening the community to outsiders.
“Rocinha always received foreigner visitors who wanted to see the poverty side of the favela,” says Bezerra, who has taught samba classes to foreigners and residents of neighborhoods located in the city’s wealthy south side. “But now, those people are no longer afraid to come here alone, and they’re interested in seeing the good things we have, as well.”
Samba school brings together foreigners and locals
Bezerra says the samba school reflects this new mixture: of the 2,000 who will parade with the school during this year’s Carnival, about 900 are from the community and 1,100 are from other neighborhoods, cities and countries.
“This mix of people is really cool, and it sets the tone for the party,” she says.
Marcelo Vianna, a 44-year-old agricultural consultant who went to the samba school’s technical rehearsal on Jan. 14 with his wife and two friends, says the pacification of Rio’s favelas has made a major difference.
“The pacification has made it easier to get around the city. And now, here we are, carefree,” he adds.
Seventeen years ago, Vianna left Rio for the Lake Region, located about 150 kilometers (93 miles) from Rocinha, in search of a calmer lifestyle.
“Rio used to be very violent,” he says. “I chose a smaller city, where everyone knows each other.”
‘The Challenge of Peace’
On Jan. 29, Rocinha will host another race, “The Challenge of Peace.” The 5K course will be the same as the one used for the Gávea Circuit, an automobile race held in the 1930s.
Created by the NGO AfroReggae, “The Challenge of Peace” was held in two other low-income communities – the Complexo do Alemão and Vila Cruzeiro – in 2011. It’s become a major date on Rio de Janeiro’s sports calendar.
In Rocinha, the number of participants will double that of the previous races, as 2,000 people, including 500 from the community, are expected to toe the starting line.
“Rio de Janeiro is changing. The ‘divided city’ of the past is fading away and ‘The Challenge of Peace’ was created to help that process along,” says José Junior, the executive coordinator of AfroReggae. “Our challenge is to bring together top athletes, artists, police officers, businessmen and residents.”
Another event expected to attract outsiders and media attention is Miss Rocinha 2012, a beauty competition for the favela’s women, in March. A catwalk will be erected along Via Ápia, the favela’s main thoroughfare, to stage the event.
The candidates, who must be between 16 and 20 years of age and live in Rocinha, will be judged in the final round by a jury of celebrities, including former model Luiza Brunet, actress Carolina Dieckmann and singer Preta Gil.