Renaming of Brazilian shantytown puts spotlight on problems facing country’s 16 million citizens living in extreme poverty
Tom Phillips in Rio de Janeiro ; guardian.co.uk, Monday 27 June 2011 16.58 BST
They call her Dilma Rousseff’s daughter: a dribbling three-month-old girl, coated in puppy fat and smothered by cooing relatives.
But Karen da Silva is no relation of Brazil’s first-ever female president. She is the first child to be born into one of the country’s newest favelas – the Comunidade Dilma Rousseff, a roadside shantytown on the western outskirts of Rio de Janeiro that was recently re-baptised with the name of the most powerful woman in the country
“She’s Dilma’s baby,” said Vagner Gonzaga dos Santos, a 33-year-old brick-layer-cum-evangelical preacher and the brains behind the decision to change the name of this hitherto unknown favela.
Last month, just as Rousseff was about to complete six months in power, Santos says he received a heaven-sent message suggesting the renaming.
“God lit up my heart,” he said. “The idea was to pay homage to the president and also to get the attention of the government, of our leaders, so they look to us and help the families here. The poor are God’s children too.”
Until recently, the 30-odd shacks that flank the Rio-Sao Paulo highway were known simply as “kilometre 31”. But its transition to Dilma Rousseff has not been entirely smooth.
At first, locals plastered A4 posters on the area’s walls and front doors, announcing the new name. But the posters referred to the Comunidade “Roussef” – one “f” short of the president’s Bulgarian surname. In May a sign was erected welcoming visitors to their shantytown, but again spelling proved an issue. This time the name given was “Dilma Rusself.”
That mistake has now been corrected, after an intervention from the preacher’s wife, who took a pot of red nail varnish to the sign. Locals say the name-change is starting to pay off.
“It’s been good having the president’s names,” said Marlene Silva de Souza, a 57-year-old mother of five and one of the area’s oldest residents. “Now we can say our community’s name with pride. Before we didn’t have a name at all.”
Dozens of Brazilian newspapers have flocked to the community – poking fun at its misspelt sign but also drawing attention to the poor living conditions inside the favela.
“It has brought us a lot of attention … The repercussion has been marvellous. Today things are starting to take shape, things are improving,” said Santos, who hopes local authorities will now formally recognise the favela, bringing public services such as electricity and rubbish collection.
Still, problems abound. Raw sewage trickles out from the houses, through a patchwork of wooden shacks, banana and mango trees and an allotment where onions sprout amid piles of rubbish. Rats and cockroaches proliferate in the wasteland that encircles the area.
Ownership is also an issue. Dilma Rousseff is built on private land – “The owners are Spanish, I think,” says Santos – and on paper the community does not officially exist. Without a fixed abode Karen “Rousseff” da Silva – the favela’s firstborn child – has yet to be legally registered.
Last month the Brazilian government launched a drive to eradicate extreme poverty unveiling programmes that will target 16 million of Brazil’s poorest citizens.
“My government’s most determined fight will be to eradicate extreme poverty and create opportunities for all,” Rousseff said in her inaugural address in January. “I will not rest while there are Brazilians who have no food on their tables, while there are desperate families on the streets [and] while there are poor children abandoned to their own fate.”
Residents of Rousseff’s namesake, who scratch a living selling biscuits and drinks to passing truck drivers, hope such benefits will soon reach them.
A visit from the president herself may also be on the cards, after Santos launched an appeal in the Brazilian media.
“We dream of her coming one day,” said the preacher, perched on a wooden bench outside his redbrick church, the House of Prayers. “It might be impossible for man to achieve, but for God everything is possible.”
Naming a community
Tear-jerking soap operas, political icons, stars of stage and screen – when it comes to baptising a Brazilian favela, all are fair game. The north-eastern city of Recife is home to favelas called Ayrton Senna, Planet of the Apes and Dancing Days, the title of a popular 1970stelenovela,
In the 1980s residents of a shantytown in Belo Horizonte named their community Rock in Rio – a tribute to the Brazilian rock festival that has played host to acts such as Neil Young, David Bowie and Queen.
Rio de Janeiro is home to the Boogie Woogie favela, the Kinder Egg favela and one community called Disneylandia. Vila Kennedy – a slum in west Rio – was named after the American president John F Kennedy and features a three-metre tall replica of the Statue of Liberty. Nearby, locals christened another hilltop slum Jorge Turco or Turkish George. Jorge was reputedly a benevolent gangster who ruled the community decades ago.