Cidade de Deus: favela, Río de Janeiro, Brasil. Guns, gangs, drugs, girls, crime. Sound a bit like a horrendous gangster-film scene? Though these words may seem other-worldly in your life, for the youth of favela known as Cidade de Deus, Brasil, they are simply a fact of life in their world.
As Stephen Hart recounts in his synopsis of Cidade de Deus, “Rocket,” an adolescent boy struggling to grow up in a life embedded with crime and gangs, but also with a passion for photography and a drive for a different sort of life, describes the world of Cidade de Deus as a “dog-eat-dog existence.” “Fight and you’ll never survive,” he continues. “Run and you’ll never escape …” (Hart 205). Rocket, in his pessimistic realism, is implying that the way of life is just that, the way of life. By chance, or by fate, we are born into a given class, a given race, a given world. And we cannot escape that world. Or can we?
Before we address the escape, however, we must address the beginning. In his article, “Labor in the Favelas of Rio de Janeiro, 1940-1969,” Julio César Pino traces back the onset of many favelas in Latin America as a result of the emerging urban “subproletariat” class: an unskilled, temporary working class that could be exploited by large capitalistic firms as “surplus labor” without any sort of contract of liability to the workers (18). The subproletariat, Pino argues, is superficially similar to the proletariat, except that it essentially compensates for menial labor so that the proletariat may find better-paying, higher-skilled jobs in the workforce (19). These informal subproletariat workers lacked job security, high standards of living, and union opportunities. Not unlike early jobs for newly freed slaves in the U.S., these workers generally found work in construction (males), or domestic service (females). Most of these workers came to Rio de Janeiro as part of a mass exodus from the agricultural countryside from 1929 onward. Absorption of these lavradores in the urban economy, however, was quite slow. Unemployment rates soared for several decades; the subproletariat that did manage to find work was often paid sub-minimum wages.
The result? Poverty, slums, an aching for means, any means, of income and subsistence. The unemployed abonded the urban center, opting istead for provisional shantytowns on the outskirts of town. With no economic backbone pre-established in these favelas, squatters initially sought to create their own. But how could their neighbors, struggling, homeless and jobless, support that economy?
The only viable solution for many? Crime, drug trafficking, and superficial “support” groups known as gangs.
The children in Cidade de Deus seem, for a while, immune to these notions. Yet, as we see quite clearly in Lil’ Dice’s transformation to Lil’ Ze’, the wanting mind and adolescent soul eventually give in to the temptation. It is “cool” and (falsely) sustainable to be a gangster in Rio de Janeiro. And what do we do when something is cool? We do it. We almost cannot blame the kids of Cidade de Deus and other squatted slums from turning to crime. The voicelessness and illiteracy of these children is emphasized in the film (Hart 206); and a direct correlation has been found between illiteracy and crime (see “A Lawyer’s Case for Crime, by Eugene C. Thomas, http://heinonline.org/HOL/LandingPage?collection=journals&handle=hein.journals/abaj72&div=212&id=&page=, note the tendency t0 “knock others down” in response to one’s own illiteracy).
While on the surface this film is just another violence-laden gangster film, a theme emerges beneath the blood and warfare: we are not all created equal. But we can rise up out of our situation as Rocket becomes “no longer Rocket,” but rather Wilson Rodriguez, photographer (Hart 207). This rising up is not easy, however, and simply not everyone can manage a way to it.
At least not on their own.