Favela Jiu Jitsu: Street Economics

Fightland Blog

By Nico Ball

[Nico Ball recently left her life as a teacher to train mixed martial arts full-time in Brazil. Originally from Pennsylvania, she attended George Mason University in Virginia and got her Masters degree studying the impact of martial arts-based social projects. She’s now living the fighter’s life and pursuing her dream to become a pro mixed martial artist, but has found a way to continue her interest in creating social change by helping organize The Tererê Kids Project, a nonprofit for the children living in poverty in the favela of Morro do Contagalo. The project is centered around jiu jitsu star Fernando Augusto da Silva, widely known by his nickname Tererê, who used the Gentle Art as a way to escape a life of crime. We asked her to send us periodic updates of how the Project is going.]

“I hate when they do that, it’s not even a real job!”

My friend’s exasperated tone jarred me from the text message that I was focused on as we made our way towards the project. I looked up to see what she was talking about to see a skinny, bare chested kid waving a freshly washed Honda Civic into an open parking spot.

It’s a common occurrence for kids from the favela to post up on corners and charge a couple of cents to help park and secure cars. This was what was apparently irking my friend, a fellow gringa (foreigner) that lives on the streets of Leblon. By the streets, I don’t mean she was homeless, no, quite the opposite, by streets I mean she lives on an actual street. That she was privileged enough not to have to defy an exorbitant amount of stairs and steep hills that lead to one of Rio’s many favelas. Living on the streets was synonymous with money; where as living up top, in hills of the favelas entailed poverty, violence, and, of course, drug trafficking.

The difference between the streets and the favela or Morro (hill) plays a major role when trying to tackle the complicated class system in Rio. Living in the makeshift and more often than not illegal housing of the Rio’s favelas is completely different than living in gated condominiums. I’ve been living in the favelas for over a year, so I’m privy to huge dichotomy that is living in “slum” alongside armed drug dealers just above upper classes that inhabit the posh Copacabana beaches.

Racial tensions were further exasperated recently when a group of black teenagers was arrested while on their way to the beach for committing what can only be considered as “through crimes”. Being young, black, and heading towards affluent parts of the city is apparently now a chargeable offense, especially with the 2016 Olympics fast approaching. In preparation for this huge international event, Brazil’s government is scurrying to hide its dirty laundry and create the perfect façade of a fun loving, samba dancing people. Instead of actually addressing the socio-economic issues and corruption sandals, military police are making last ditch efforts to pacify favelas and mask the growing crime rates.

My friend was just beginning to understand life in the favela and its inherent peculiarities, such as those that would drive a person spending hours on corners looking for odd jobs to generate income. Poverty spawns creativity, and this job that annoyed her so much was a direct result of their less than opportune circumstances. What my friend, and many other people, fail to understand is that it’s menial, illegitimate jobs that the government cannot provide like parking cards or transporting chairs, umbrellas, and ice to the beach that help residents of the favelas piece together a life outside of crime.

Before making a name in jiu jitsu, Tererê himself used to park cars on the streets of Ipanema. He often talks about watching kung fu movies and then going out to practice his first submissions on his friends from the favela as they all vied for the most lucrative street corners. Survival is hardwired into their DNA. Wherever there is a demand, someone from the favela is scheming up a way to supply it. During the world cup, for example, half of the favela was posted up on the streets of Ipanema and Copacabana selling everything from beer and water to cigarettes and joint papers.

The kid that was the target of my friend’s exasperation and dirty looks was unfamiliar, but I did recognize his oversized friend that was seated on a broken fruit crate. I didn’t know his name or anything like that, but I had trained with him several times at the project. He wasn’t a common face there, but he showed up every now and then, joked around with the teachers and got in some much needed exercise. In addition to spotting him at the project, I’d often seen him slinging drugs outside of the barbershop in the favela.

His presence on the corner was a pretty strong indication that he had gotten out of the drug trade; switching up the security of weekly pay for the meager earnings awarded from long hours parking cars.

While my friend saw a kid from the streets trying to work the system to make some easy money, I saw something else. I had seen his buddy when he had approached Tererê and I on the street last week. He was toting a little girl on his shoulder and was followed by several other small kids. He was too young to bear the burden of feeding that many mouths, but that's the case for many families in the favela.

“Hey”, He called out to us, “I want to put my kids in Jiu Jitsu, Mestre!”

Tererê just laughed and told him they were too small, but after exchanging some words he invited them to come by the project.

Since that day I’ve seen the kid that caught my friends attention posted up at several other street corners moving chairs to the beach, selling used fridges, and doing whatever else he can do to make ends meet. I still don’t know his name, but we greet each other either way.  

Everyone is welcome at the project, but only a dedicated group descends from the favela everyday to train in the arte sauve. In order to motivate the kids we provide snacks to make sure that they are well fed after each training session. We even sponsor them every month in local competitions. Thanks to donations that are received through the project’s blogs, kids are bringing home more gold medals than ever before.

This however, is not enough for the older athletes. Gold medals will not put food on the table for students with kids to feed or bills to pay. I learned this first hand one night while I was sitting in the barbershop talking to the owner, one of Tererê’s cousins and a purple belt from the project. One of the dealers, a friendly guy that often see while getting my hair cut came in the door and flipped on the news. I was absentmindedly following along as the reporter detailed some home invasion where an old lady had been assaulted. All of the sudden a mug shot of an all to familiar face flashed across the screen capturing my full attention!

It was one of the athletes from the project. I had seen him two mornings ago talking with professor Fabricio before training. He was a quiet guy and always one of the first people there when we opened in the morning. A lot of students try to avoid menial tasks at the project, but he was always there early laying mats down, sweeping the floors, or tidying up the bathrooms. I was impressed by his dedication, and that day I had brought him a hat and shirt from Deus Fight Co, one of our sponsors. When he was done his conversation, I handed over the goods and asked to take a picture for the sponsors. Something was noticeably wrong but he obliged, forcing a smile for my picture and then disappearing before training started.

I was shocked to see him on T.V., especially involved in an armed assault. He great at jiu jitsu and was always so dedicated to the project. Being good at jiu jitsu, however, doesn’t pay the bills, and while we try to help as many people as we can, there are always some that are lured into the life of easy money. I asked the barber what was up. Apparently, he hadn’t been apprehended yet, but the police were looking for him (they would later go to the project to try to find him).  

A few months later as I was passing by the dealers in a dark area of the favela, the words DEUS (God) written in bold white letters across a dark T-shit caught my eye. I stopped in surprise. It was him, and he was wearing the shirt that I gave him. I smiled, said hi, and continued on my way home.


Check out these related stories:

Favela Jiu Jitsu: The Crew

Favela Jiu Jitsu: Tererê Kids Project Dispatch 4

Favela Jiu Jitsu: Tererê Kids Project Dispatch 3

Favela Jiu Jitsu: Tererê Kids Project Dispatch 2

Favela Jiu Jitsu: Tererê Kids Project Dispatch 1