It is worth taking some time to take a brief look at the kind of overlapping and intermixing cultural and social trends that interact within the space of the favela of Rocinha in the beginnings of the new millennium. Some might argue that Rocinha is not indicative of the culture of favelas in Rio, because of its size and the fact that it is somewhat more urbanized and wealthier than most others. On the other hand, due to its location in one of the richest neighborhoods of the Zona Sul, which makes it a classic example of the drastic disparities between the classes, Rocinha can be seen as a paradigm of the rule of the traffickers. Certainly, it is the single favela with the largest number of armed gangsters and the one the sells the greatest amounts of drugs. It is also considered to be the port of entry for the arms trade between the Comando Vermelho and the FARC in Colombia. At the same time, the large numbers of organizations besides the drug gang in Rocinha provides it with leadership from various sectors, including religious groups, the neighbors’ associations, several NGOs, and a thriving business community that even has its own commercial association. There is also a great amount of government activity and that of relatively big businesses like Telemar, Light and TV ROC that link Rocinha economically and politically to the city outside. Also, the entertainment industry in Rocinha is important in its own right, as well as sports and fitness related organizations. This broad-based leadership and the multiple layers of the political make-up of Rocinha make it hard for its drug traffickers to establish a absolute “narcodictatorship.” Instead, they must operate within a complex social terrain in which their political abilities gain them as much or even more advantage than the force of their arms. If the traffickers are successful at navigating this terrain, they can profit; if not, they will be in danger of being overthrown and replaced.11
In the 1930’s, a slow trickle of people began occupying the lands of a fazenda beneath the mountain know as Dois Irmãos, in São Conrado, then at the remote and rustic edge of Rio de Janeiro. Some fruits and vegetables were grown and sold in the area, which came to be known as the “Little Field,” or Rocinha. A very curvy and narrow road was built over the hill between São Conrado and Gávea for car races of cars popularly known as “baratinhas.” Over time, more and more people began to settle in the lands of the old fazenda, or plantation. Many of these were black people either from Rio itself or from the state of Bahia. Their religion tended to be Roman Catholic, candomblé or umbanda. During the sixties and seventies, when the tunnels were built under Dois Irmãos and a great deal of construction occurred in the Zona Sul, a massive wave of new residents from the sertão region of the Northeast came to live in the favela. This immigration has continued ever since and to this day Rocinha has a thriving Northeastern culture; on virtually every corner people with the Northeastern accents can be heard along with those having carioca accents. The Northeastern culture can be seen Sundays at the enormous open-air market in the Largo do Boiadeiro, where repentistas play every week. Forró music is as popular as funk in the favela andforróparties pop up in dozens of little bars all over. Also, one can easily buy Northeastern products and foods such as fumo-de-rolo, rapadura and buchada de bode in Rocinha. Most of the Northeasterners who come to Rocinha are afraid of the favela at first for its bad reputation and overcrowded living conditions. They often maintain contact with their families back in their home states, but the distance is great and the cost is high to travel back and forth.
Not surprisingly, many newer immigrants to Rocinha from the Northeast are Roman Catholic. Still, the question of religion in Rocinha, and in favelas in Brazil in general, is a very complicated one and extremely important. While Brazil is culturally a Catholic country, considered the largest in the world, it is difficult to overestimate the impact and size of the Pentecostal movement in Brazil over the last decades. The Assembléia de Deus (Assmebly of God) and the Igreja Universal (Universal Church) are the two largest, but there is a plethora of smaller churches such as Deus é Amor (God is Love), the Igreja Metodista Wesleyana (Wesleyan Methodist Church) and Maranata (Maranatha). These exist side by side with traditional Protestant churches such as the Methodists and Baptists, also very active in poor communities, and the Catholic Church, which has become more popularized in recent decades with movements like Liberation Theology and the Charismatic Renovation. Rocinha itself still has a very active Catholic community, and its Via Sacra street performance of the Passion of Christ attracts tens of thousands of spectators as it runs up the Estrada da Gávea on Good Friday. Additionally, there are still many active umbanda and candomblé terreiros, and a large number of little shops selling articles of faith for followers of them.
Commercially, Rocinha is considered a huge and lucrative market and much money is made there outside of drug trafficking. There is a McDonalds, a Bob’s Burgers, a Brasimac appliance store, a Deplá Kodak store, two banks, and the TV Roc and TV Siri cable companies. There are also many successful local businesses, though it remains to be seen how successful they will be as the development of the favela by outsiders continues. There is a commercial organization, three neighbors associations, dozens of NGOS, the samba school Acadêmicos da Rocinha, and many sports leagues. Rocinha is a Zona Sul beachfront neighborhood, a place of surfers, weightlifters, groups of jiu-jitzu fighters, women in bikinis and men in sungas (Speedo-type lycra swimsuits), and there is a constant flow of people walking to the beach to tan, to swim, to roller blade, jog, play futevôlei (a cross between soccer and volleyball) and soccer. With its residents constantly tuned in to TV networks like Globo via satellite dishes and the two Rocinha cable companies, and with its close proximity to the golf courses and elite shopping mall of São Conrado, few favelas in Rio are in closer contact with the Brazilian consumerist dream.