The grass is always greener on the other side. Did you ever go on a vacation to a tropical resort and remark, “Wow—I could live here forever!” Just ask the residents how they feel. Many would tell you that they would like to escape. With Rio de Janeiro, there is an underbelly to its pristine beaches and ocean—the hillside favelas.

A blog from the Economist points out significant similarities and dissimilarities between Brazil and America. The two dominant countries in their continents with many similarities: 1) Lands of abundance; 2) A gorgeous diversity of landscapes; and 3) Opportunity and dire poverty.  Each has big minorities of indigenous peoples–blacks (both had slavery the mid 19th-century), and immigrants from Italy, Germany and Asia (Chinese predominate in the US; Japanese in Brazil). In Brazil, people of Portuguese descent comprise half the population. In the US, whites comprise two-thirds and trending downwards. But there are also major dissimilarities. Britain gave the USA its language, a legal system, political elite (WASPs), capitalism, fierce freedom, and a puritanical society. Portugal bequeathed Brazil its language and Catholicism. Brazil itself developed the rest on its own, including a Dionysian spirit–a happy sense that all the squalor and conflict will end—or at least be suspended—in a samba.

There are vast cultural differences between a tourist and a local. For example, there have been as many as 10,000 homeless children that live in the streets. And it did so with something that most of the United States lacks: a Dionysian spirit, a happy sense that all the squalor and conflict will end—or at least be suspended—in a samba.

I went on a business trip to Brazil, and spent the weekend in Rio in 1986. A homeless kid threw some dirt on my shoes and then offered to polish them. When I pulled my money clip out to tip him, he grabbed it and ran through the streets of Rio uphill toward the favelas. At the time I was a triathlete and the child—possibly 12 years old was not going to outrun me, so he pushed over an old woman and threw the money clip in the air, escaping up a side alley. As I helped the old woman to her feet, she remarked, “Never feed the street rats—you only encourage them!”

It was then and there that I realized that there are certainly some different cultural issues from Rio and the USA. Upon my return, I researched the country to find that there are over 10,000 homeless kids in Rio alone. Thanks to Brazil’s juvenile codes, it’s almost impossible to prosecute and lock up a child under age 17, and so crime has proliferated through the decades. Stephen Brookes has an excellent blog on this subject. A brief excerpt from his article:

Armed with that virtual guarantee of impunity, kids as young as 5 and 6 years old have taken to crime in droves. Some work for drug dealers, some become prostitutes, some pick pockets and snatch purses, some form gangs and rob pedestrians with knives and broken bottles. As neighborhoods have become more dangerous, small groups of vigilantes or death squads, as they’re known have implemented their own, bloody system of justice.

Last year, according to government statistics, 492 street kids were murdered in Brazil, many of them gruesomely mutilated. Other groups, like Rio’s National Movement for Street Children, say the figures are even higher. “From January 1988 to December 1990, 4,611 kids were assassinated,” says Volmer do Nascimento, the group’s director (and a former math teacher with a penchant for quoting statistics from memory). “That’s 4.2 kids a day,” he adds. “Every day, and it’s getting worse.” The kids get killed for almost any reason. Some are thieves who prey on shopkeepers; the shopkeepers, unable to get them jailed, hire gunmen to solve the problem. Others work for drug gangs or crooked cops and get in over their heads. Some are witnesses to other crimes and have to be eliminated, a practice known as “burning the files.”

Needless to say, a country living in crescendo has to address its underbelly quickly before this issue is magnified under Olympic eyes. It startled me to the point that I wrote a musical about Rio—it’s splendor and squalor. I will be uploading Rio for your review over the next few weeks.

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