The Trouble with Favela Chic

Rocinha, Rio's largest favela (image via Wikimedia Commons)
Rocinha, Rio’s largest favela (image via Wikimedia Commons)

A Milwaukee bar called Nomad World Pub wanted to create a special place for its customers to watch the World Cup, so it decided to set up a faux favela inspired by Rio de Janeiro’s poverty-stricken mountainside slums. The fact the space comes with a taco hut — a type of food not even served in Brazil — reveals the depth of ignorance out of which it was created. You have to wonder: is the menu in Spanish too? 

For those who may not know, favela is the Portuguese word for slum. These shanty towns came to prominence in Rio de Janeiro in the mid-20th century, when millions escaping severe drought in Brazil’s north migrated to Rio and built homes in the only available land they could find: high up on the mountainsides, where risks of landslides are ever imminent. Today, Rio’s favelas are strongholds run by drug lords that make life exceedingly difficult for their fellow residents. 

You would think Nomad’s owner might think twice before replicating this environment for local Wisconsinites’ enjoyment, but such poverty has long been an inexplicable source of titillation for those not born into it. In the 19th century, wealthy Londoners enjoyed touring Brick Lane (then a slum), just as today Westerners pay money to visit the slums of Rio and Mumbai. In the mid-2000s, “homeless chic” — literally clothing inspired by homeless people’s make-do attire — took over the catwalks of designers like John Galliano and Vivienne Westwood (models wore “frostbitten” makeup).

Artists have also explored the aesthetics of urban poverty in works such as Thomas Hirschhorn’s “Eternal Flame,” Andres Serrano’s “Sign of the Times” and Tadashi Kawamata and Christophe Scheidegger’s “Favela Café.” And in the arena of favela-themed bars, Milwaukee’s Nomad isn’t even the first. In Williamsburg, Brooklyn, you can enjoy caipirinhas at Miss Favela while sitting at rickety, candelit tables that replicate the poor man’s bar (though not his budget: restaurant policy requires customers to spend $20 per person on food alone).

It’s difficult to imagine any intelligent human being today actually thinking a kitschy favela bar is a good idea. It’s even harder to think about people visiting that bar and coming away feeling they’ve experienced something exotic — that they’ve had a taste of life in a part of the world they’ll probably never see and certainly never understand. That one man’s suffering can be a novelty, thrill or source of creative inspiration for another is unbelievably twisted. And in our day and age, when we have so much knowledge at our fingertips, it points not just to thoughtlessness, carelessness or foolishness, but to a willful ignorance. 

h/t Death and Taxes

Correction, 6/24: An earlier version of this article mistakenly referred to severe flooding that helped shape the favelas in Rio de Janeiro. It should be drought, and has now been fixed.

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