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.

Laura C. Mallonee

Laura C. Mallonee is a Brooklyn-based writer. She holds an M.A. in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU and a B.F.A. in painting from Missouri State University. She enjoys exploring new cities and...

7 replies on “The Trouble with Favela Chic”

  1. Depressing, but not surprising…however, just to quibble about a couple of points. Suffering as a source of inspiration is pretty common. Just to cite one important example: Charles Dickens. of course he was advocating for change, I just take issue with the sentence at the end citing suffering as a a source for creative inspiration being incredibly twisted. I suppose it depends on what you do with it. Also, not sure what slum tours you’re talking about in Mumbai, but I was in S. Africa for a conference in 2000, and went on a tour where we met local people, including community leaders, visited a school made mostly out of cardboard and tin cans and learned what real life was like beyond the window dressing in Cape Town. We all ended up donating money to the teacher and it was one of the most important experiences I’ve ever had. It helped me understand apartheid and poverty in ways that were previously inaccessible to me. it’s one thing to see miles of shiny tin roofs and another to make yourself experience that reality, if only for a long afternoon. So I don’t think all visits to slums are just gawking and titillation. At least, there was nothing titillating for us.

    1. I completely agree about creative suffering. I was referring to homeless-inspired fashion when I wrote that, but some clarification would have been helpful. In terms of slum tours, I don’t deny that they can be eye-opening experiences. But I know that if I lived in extreme poverty, it would bother me to have outsiders come in to marvel at the conditions in which I live. There are probably better ways to gain that perspective, possibly through volunteer work with a local NGO.

      1. Homeless inspired fashion? wow, that’s pretty gross! I still disagree with you about the”slum tours”, though. Do you really think the favela is better served when a businessman going to Sao Paolo never sees the suffering close up? A tour that sponsored by a non-profit that benefitted favela residents (like the one I went on in S.Africa) that showed him real life would, I think, be 100% more likely to make him want to work to change the situation than if he didn’t go. Volunteer work is great. NGOs are great. I’ve been involved with both, but we don’t all have the time. And those organizations desperately need money, usually even more than they need volunteers, and there are lots of people who have money who could help those organizations, but may not be motivated to unless they see the horror close up. Not only that, but meeting people as human beings rather than as “news stories” helps increase all our humanity. Of course any tour run for profit that looks at people as exhibits is not cool. Agreed on that.

  2. “severe flooding in Brazil’s north” seems quite unlikely. Perhaps you meant draught?

  3. “No ‘we’ should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people’s pain.”
    – Susan Sontag

  4. My son lived in a favela for a few months last year. It was called Leme, near Copa Cabana Beach. From what he told me Leme and many other favelas were being gentrified–sort of like the Lower East Side or Alphabet City and now neighborhoods in Brooklyn are I guess. He never encountered any drug lords, or evidence of their existence there. That’s not to say they weren’t somewhere in the favela. He didn’t see any dead bodies either, and not because he’s myopic. Maybe it’s good to visit places and see what they are like first hand. Obviously things were not perfect (sewage flowed down the hillside through the streets when it rained, for one thing) but maybe life there is more similar to places here in NYC than you might think.
    You forgot to mention that Jean Francois Millet was inspired by poor peasant farmers.

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