Final paper

Rio de Janeiro and the class divide

By Fatima Niazi

When one thinks of Brazil, what images appear in one’s mind? After speaking to numerous Karachiites who can afford to travel, the answer derived was that Brazil is a desired vacation spot. The mere mention of Brazil brings to mind images of beaches, forests, colourful parrots and parades. Men on the other hand imagine it as a hub of gorgeous women with perfect bodies or as a nation that has a spectacular football team with famous players like Ricardo Kaka, Neymar and Ronaldinho. The overall consensus is; Brazil is an exotic land of beauty, talent and celebrations.

Amongst the many cities in Brazil, Rio de Janeiro is the most famous amongst tourists.  Rio was once the capital of the country and one could say it is the Karachi or New York of Brazil. ‘It is known as the “Carnival Capital of the World” with the biggest celebrations and parades. Celebrations take place in cities across the whole country but Rio locals proudly describe the Rio Carnival as “the greatest show on Earth.”’ [1]

For many tourists, Rio is the representative city of Brazil and a visit is a must. From what we know of Rio, it is a land oozing with glamour, extravagance and splendour. At least that’s what the media presents it to be.  However, the experience of those living in Rio, especially the poor, is completely different from that of the tourist. The information the mass media deprives people of is that Brazil is still a developing country and cities like Rio have many problems that the State tries to cover up.


Brazilians, pictured at carnival in Rio. [2]

“Brazil continues to be one of the most economically unequal countries in the world with the top 10 percent of the population earning 50 percent of the national income, while about 34 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. 14% is the percentage of women employed as maids while many others are restricted to ‘typically female’ occupations such as nurses and secretaries. According to the statistics, 35,000 is the number of young people who die each year from firearms in Brazil. In 2012 Brazil forced nearly 1.4 million children to work, according to official figures released on the World Day Against Child Labour, June 12. It counts 304,415 children between 5-10 years (9.9%) and 755,973 children between 11-14 years (36.6%); while overall, there are some of 1.4 million Brazilian children ranging in age from 5 to 14 in the labour market.” [3]

These statistics don’t paint such a pretty picture do they? Behind the image of beauty and extravagance that Brazil has created, lie dark neighbourhoods drenched in poverty. For the poor, life is a perfect dystopia.

When thinking of the famous travel destination Rio di Janeiro, images of its famous Copacabana beach come to mind. The city is known for its scenery, upbeat lifestyle, beautiful beaches, rain forested hills and its parades. However, Rio as a city is also one of the finest examples of monetary disparity that exist in an urban modern city.

‘It is a place of strong contrasts between the rich and the poor and reflects a high degree of social inequality where one third of the people live in districts of self-built homes called favelas. The gap between the richest and the poorest and their close geographic proximity are characteristic features of Rio.’ [4]

In fact the distance between the urbanized Gávea and the favelas (a Portuguese word for slums) is only a few kilometres. Gávea is the pride of Rio as it stands tall with mansions, restaurants, clubs, art galleries, malls and numerous other places for the elite class. The residents of this area are well educated and affluent. They are also blessed with luxuries such as cars, branded accessories, fine dining, clubbing, spacious homes etc.

While on the other side are the favelas (slums) where poverty is on the rise and the residents are deprived of basic necessities such as food, clothing and electricity. For those living in favelas, even the thought of attaining ‘wants’ seems like a far-fetched dream.  It is due to the close proximity between the two opposite sides that leads to a high rate of crime, drug trafficking, police corruption, as well as deficiencies in health and violence in Rio.

Rio for the rich

As time passes, the rich in Rio continue to get richer while the poor continue to suffer. The richest 10 percent own 46 percent of the wealth and they spend that money by living a lavish lifestyle. Some of the well developed areas and neighbourhoods where the rich reside in Rio are Copacabana, Gavea, Barra da Tijuca.

“Areas such as Copacabana, Ipanema, have an up-beat feel. Copacabana shares its name with the beach in front of this famous city and has a huge mixture of people with different backgrounds and pay packets. At 25,000 people per square metre, it also has one of the highest population densities in the world. With space at a premium, rich residents live in high-rise apartment blocks that line the beachfront.

Then there is the town within Rio called Barra da Tijuca nicknamed, the ‘Brazilian California’, where 130,000 people live. Barra da Tijuca has wide avenues and roads, large spacious condominium complexes, South America’s largest convention centre called Riocentro, five kilometre strip of shops and entertainment facilities. The particular town also has five theme parks, 21 nightclubs ‘Barrashopping’, the largest shopping mall with over 650 shops and apartments, offices, restaurants, cinemas and even its own monorail.” [5]

The lives of the rich in Rio are furthermore, deliberated in the following article written in 2012. The article discusses a reality TV show called ‘Made in Rio’ that looks into the lifestyle of the millionaires of the city.  The concept of the show is to present ‘the five women who have problems with everything – except money.’ One of these women revealed having rented a Ferrari for her husband and taking a bath in mineral water on a regular basis while another woman was seen buying a £10million private jet with gold fittings.

Link: FkPI

‘Every year during the ‘Rio Carnival’ at least $3 million are spent on outfits and preparations. There are more than 2 million people on the streets everyday during the carnival, which has become an event of huge proportions and is the most famous holiday in Brazil.’ [6]

Here are some images of the life of the rich in Rio. The pictures are of carnivals and some everyday settings:

A0      carnival

f7a3e5ec-eb77-424d-9b78-6af878cf573c.Brazil-riodejaneiro-carnivalparade    sapucai

rio-de-janeiro_1     rio-surfing-copacabana-by-fabiola-bezerra


Unfortunately, the life of Rio that is promoted in the media is the lifestyle of the rich. The state has managed to hide away the poverty from the view of the tourists who now see the favelas merely as a tourist site. Towns like Barra da Tijuca and Gavea are developed as well as beautiful and give the impression of a world class city. The poor have been shifted to the other end of the city like sweeping dust under a rug. According to Gyan Prakash in Noir Urbanism, this habit of sweeping aside poverty is common in many cities of the developing countries. It’s stated in the book, “Urbanists write about fortified “privatopias” erected by the privileged to wall themselves off from the imagined resentment and violence of the multitude. Instead of freedom, the unprecedented urbanization of poverty seems to promise only division and conflict.” (1)

Further visual cleansing of Rio was done during the FIFA World Cup 2014 when favelas were torn down to make space for the stadium and large number of tourists that would visit the city for the sports event.

According to an article from The Guardian, “There is a process of gentrification taking place in the whole city that is connected to the sports events and how the government sees the city: it is no longer a place for residents, but as a business to sell to foreign investors. That’s what the World Cup is about,” said Renata Neder of Amnesty.[7]

This cleansing was done because Rio is seen as an exotic land of enjoyment and an example of this representation can be seen in the song ‘To Brazil’. Released in 1997 by the Vengaboys, the video of the song shows women of different nationalities on the beaches of Rio. The Brazilians in the video are dancing and having the time of their lives. It is the perfect holiday celebration scenario. The last two seconds of the video shows a scene from one of the favelas but it has very few details. Hence, the audience fails to pay attention to it and focuses instead on the luxuriousness of Brazil shown in the rest of the video.

We can’t entirely blame the directors for the content of the video because after all, whatever they have showed does happen in some parts of Brazil. The state takes great pride in their parades and celebrations. However, it is due to such biased representations by the media that those suffering in poverty are overshadowed with the utopian lifestyle image that Rio offers.

Watch the video here:


Rio for the poor

Those who dwell in Rio and don’t earn well have no choice but to shift to the favelas; Brazilian shacks or shanty towns (slums within urban areas).

According to a report on the class differences in Rio by the Royal Geographical society, ‘Forty years ago, people began to pour in from poorer parts of Brazil to take advantage of the new job opportunities in Rio’s factories and shops. But the city faced a massive housing shortage as there was not enough land to build new houses. Poorer families had to find a place to live in one of the city’s favelas. These neighbourhoods illegally occupy land on hillsides and ravines.’[8]


WordPress [9] :

Rio is a good example of how the dream for a perfect urban city can turn out to be a nightmare for many. Today, up to a third of the city’s residents live in favelas, and more than 600 of them are scattered across the city with populations varying from a few dozen to thousands of people. The favelas can be found in two main areas of Rio – along the hillsides, and along the outer fringes of urban expansion.

‘In Rio’s favelas, most homes are made from brick and cement, a majority does not have running water and about 99 percent don’t have electricity. Sanitation is often a big problem – in Rocinha sewage flows down a large channel in the middle of houses.’[10]

“All favelas have a low standard of living and are limited in their access to utilities. Clean water is available only at the bottom of the hills, making access for those at the top extremely difficult and only 50 percent of the people have a toilet inside the house. Sewage runs through open drains collecting at the bottom of the hill creating a real health hazard, while electricity is scarce limiting the small, local industries and making life very hard work. Goods are often far more expensive in the favela than in other parts of the city, hence the residents purchase far smaller amounts and buy, where possible, on credit.” [11]

The poor residing in the favelas of Rio are also considered a source of urban problems and are blamed for the high crime rate by the State and those residing in urbanized towns. Favelas are also considered areas that ruin the view and the modernity of the city. This is why before the FIFA World Cup of 2014, thousands of families living in Favelas were displaced for redevelopments in spite of protests and resistance. Favela do Metrô near the Maracanã Stadium, that previously housed 700 families in 2010 was completely destroyed as a result.

Favela in Rio de Janeiro

A favela in Rio de Janeiro, which will host seven games followed by the Olympics in 2016. Photograph: Image Broker/Rex Features

According to a statement from The Guardian, the poor from the favelas lost their homes. “People are being moved more than 40km [25 miles] from their homes without prior notice and no compensation.

“The authorities wouldn’t even enter our community in the past and there was no mention of moving us, but then Brazil won the right to host the World Cup and everything changed,” Maria do Socorro said at a hearing in the city council building. Socorro’s home of 40 years in the Indiana favela was one of those marked for demolition.[12]

While some see favelas as a negative space, others view it as a means of earning capital since it provides many businessmen with cheap labour.  The book Noir Urbanism by Gyan Prakash best describes the situation of Rio where it states, “Monstrous megacities do not promise the pleasures of urbanity but the misery and strife of the Hobbesian jungle.”

Following are the images of favelas:

 2fee7047-8a3f-4d8c-b29e-add4ca7c8c3e-620x372  0507_santamarta_630x420

poverty-Brazil  rio-de-janeiro-favela-da-rocinha-slum-photo-by-n-cabana (1)

Favela     clip_image001clip_image002

City of God; media representation of the poverty in Rio

Numerous articles that state statistics of the poverty in Brazil have appeared in newspapers and blogs but the image of the extravagant lifestyle of Brazil still exists for many of us. However, movies like City of God provide an in depth look into the life of the residents of favelas.

City of God is a 2002 Brazilian crime drama film directed by Fernando Meirelles and co-directed by Kátia Lund. The story was adapted by Bráulio Mantovani from the 1997 novel of the same name written by Paulo Lins, but the plot is loosely based on real events. It depicts the growth of organized crime in the Cidade de Deus suburb of Rio de Janeiro, between the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1980.

The movie takes place in slums constructed by Rio to isolate the poor from the city centre. However, this is a place where the law is absent and violent gangs rule the streets and anyone who wants some status in the favela has to join a criminal gang. The story is about Wilson Rodriguez, a Brazilian photographer who lives in the same favela, but finds a different way to earn money. He starts photographing the criminal activities that take place in the area and sells them to a newspaper for a specific amount. Eventually his continuous contributions get him hired as an official photographer for the newspaper. The movie follows his life as he tries to earn an honest living while residing in a favela flooded with criminal activities.

The movie depicts favelas as they are in Rio, with congested alleys, broken roads, small houses, trash scattered on the road, paint peeling off the walls of the houses and old worn out furniture within the homes. There is no electricity, paved streets or transportation. The residents of the favelas are shown to be wearing ragged clothes and many kids are seen running around barefooted. It is due to this poverty that the kids in the movie join gangs, do drugs and conduct criminal activities such as robberies and murders at a young age.

At the beginning of the movie a group of teens rob a motel and kill five people without any remorse. The movie clearly portrays the hatred the poor kids have for the rich and they feel entitled to snatching away the wealth using any means. The following dialogue from the movie explains their state of mind, “Let’s rob a rich guy’s house. That is the only way we can get out of here.”

On the other hand, the children who do not want to get involved in criminal activities discuss taking up jobs such as fishmongers or lifeguards when they grow up. Their lack of ambition for better job opportunities clearly states that these children are deprived of education, opportunities and role models. The movie also speaks of the great class divide and the ‘extravagant’ image of Rio that has been created in the world. This is evident from the following dialogue spoken by the narrator in the movie, “For the rich and powerful our lives didn’t matter. We are far too removed from the picture postcard image of Rio.”

This movie is important as it gives an insight into the life of the favelas, from their structure to the activities and sufferings of the residents.


What I have derived from the analysis of the two medias is that; just as Rio is divided into two parts, rich and poor, so are its representations in the media. For instance, the Vengaboys show the utopian image of the city. City of God on the other hand focuses on the suffering in the city: each medium successfully manages to represent one side of the city.

Even though, an insight into the life of the poor reveals a lot about Rio, one cannot help but notice that the content in City of God showed the negative side of Rio. This kind of depiction makes me wonder if the director of the movie is trying to gain sympathy of the viewers for his benefit. The only way a film can gain acclaim is by touching the souls of the viewers and this particular movie seems to have successfully used this tactic. The narrative and visuals also strongly reinforce the thought that the people of Rio need a saviour.

Although, the movie was enlightening, one cannot ignore the fact that those working on its production minted money because the movie turned out to be quite a successful venture. Once again poverty was used as a tool for profit.

Vengaboys on the other hand eliminated the element of sympathy from their video because the song ‘To Brazil’ is an upbeat party number. For them, portraying the splendour of Rio was profitable. Showing the suffering of the poor on the other hand, could have affected their profit as no one wants to see poverty stricken areas in a music video. More often than not, people block out the cruelty in the world in order to enjoy their lives and upbeat videos such as ‘To Brazil’ showing happy people, is a good escape for them.

After analysing both the medias, I have understood that nothing should be taken at face value. This is because each media representation has its own agenda. Just like the State of Rio highlights its parades and night life and uses it for tourism, many other mediums utilise poverty for their own purpose too.

City of God                                                                          ‘To Brazil’ Vengaboys


 city-of-god-cidade-de-deus-tanri-kent-998        maxresdefault



  • Daily Mail article ‘Made in Rio’

  • Chanel-lifestyles-rich-women-Brazils-booming-economy.html
  • Global voices article ‘35 Million Escape Poverty – But Can Brazil Overcome Inequality?’

  • ‘Social Problems in Rio de Janeiro’

  • Differences of Development in Rio de Janeiro

  • The Guardian: World Cup: Rio favelas being ‘socially cleansed’ in runup to sporting events

  • Favela life: Rio’s city within a city

  • Noir Urbanis, Gyan Prakash







[7] The Guardian: World Cup: Rio favelas being ‘socially cleansed’ in runup to sporting events





[12] The Guardian: World Cup: Rio favelas being ‘socially cleansed’ in runup to sporting events


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