“Tell me who you’re with, and I’ll tell you who you are”
This is an old-school Spanish saying that I’ve heard many times. It’s reminder, that to be successful in life, you have to surround yourself with like-minded people. Your circle of friends or your community, provide the foundation for building a stable future. The favelas are poor neighborhoods known for their tight cohesion and unwavering loyalty to the laws of the land. Members of the communities, like Mestre Tererê, grow up together, forming life-long bonds and creating a unique culture within each favela. Time and time again I have seen people give what they barely have, share what they desperately need, and welcome strangers as if they were family. Many people consider the word “favalado” (coming from the Favela) to be derogatory term, but in reality, the people from the favelas, or the slums as many people call them, are rich in culture, character, and charisma. It is only by breaking through the stereotypes and seeing with our own eyes what it is like to overcome adversity that we can truly being to understand the real value of these marginalized communities. Through his social work, Tererê is opening the doors to the community by creating positive interactions between kids from the community and the rest of the world.
It was 1:30 A.M. and I was posted up on a street corner next to a cop car texting my friend about some martial arts related nonsense. It was probably not the safest place to be at that hour, but considering I was only a block away from the alleyway entrance to the favela, I wasn’t too concerned. The local gang, Commando Vermelho, doesn’t allow robbery within the proximity of the community, so I sat enjoying a slightly misplaced sense of security while watching the occasional taxis pass by on the deserted streets of Ipanema.
Since meeting Tererê, late night rendezvous and off-the-wall encounters like this one have become commonplace in my life. Thankfully, he was somewhere giving seminars because the idea of calmly waiting by the metro, even at this late hour, was substantially less terrifying than the idea of racing through Rio with my brother behind the wheel. Tererê’s driving is a lot like his jiu jitsu, explosively fast and highly aggressive (with loud music and little dancing).
It was nearly 2 A.M. when I looked up from my phone to see a tall figure approaching from the right indicating the completion of my late night mission.
Ten minutes later, after hauling 4-5 suitcases up multiple flights of stars, I sat stuffing my face with the sweet taste of America (peanut butter, Reeses, and Skittles), while Fernando Reals and his family unloaded their suitcases and accommodated their 2 years old son in preparation for their month long stay in Rio.
I met Fernando last year when he made his first pilgrimage to the mecca of jiu jitsu as a recipient of the Fund For Teachers Fellowship, a grant allotted to him thanks to his work at with the kids in the Bronx, New York. Fernando is a brown belt under Vitor Shaolin and one of the head instructors at Bronx Jiu Jitsu, a small academy in the northernmost borough of NYC that also runs a social project offering free jiu jitsu classes to South Bronx youth. He brought his family to Rio to learn more about social projects and teaching jiu jitsu straight from the source. While he trained at various academies and visited a number of social projects, he found a home here at Tererê’s academy in Ipanema.
No one can resist Tererê’s charm, so naturally once schools let out in New York, he headed straight back to the Mecca of BJJ, and this time he brought a small crew from New York to experience Favela Jiu Jitsu first hand.
While most gringos regard the favela with a sense of fear and uneasiness, Fernando and his friends embraced the Carioca lifestyle and plunged head first into the community. Only a week after their arrival I was passing by the local corner boys, when they called out to me asking where my friend was. I greeted them with a confused smile. Apparently, Pablo Carela, a purple belt who had mastered an impressive amount of the Portuguese language, had abandoned Fernando and the crew and was off wandering around the favela with Gabriel Peixoto, a 17-year-old student from the project.
I was impressed. Language barriers mean I generally have to babysit most transactions that occur between “gringos” and the kids from the project, but Fernando’s friend Pablo, a Dominican purple belt raised in the Bronx, was apparently able to use his linguistic skills to delve right into the community. When I finally did catch up with Pablo again he was immersed in a conversation outside of the project with Peixoto who was regaling him with an anecdote from training.
Two days after my late night encounter with Fernando, I found myself posted up two blocks away waiting from my friend Moz. Moz, legal name being Andrew Morris, is a purple belt under Tererê who hails from Huddersfield, England. I met Moz shortly after arriving to the Connection Rio/BJJ Hostel two years ago and we have been kicking it ever since. He has helped me improve my subpar jiu jitsu skills and I have tried to school him in the Portuguese language. After spending a year training with Tererê and receiving his purple belt, Moz went back to England and started smashing the European competition scene while also teaching kid’s BJJ classes and blogging on the side.
If it was not for Moz, these words would definitely not be being written right now, and Tererê Kids Project would never have reached the platform that it has (not to say that Tererê wouldn’t still be doing his thing). It was Moz who, after months of badgering me about going to meet his hero, convinced me to face the 45-minute bus ride from Barra da Tijuca to Ipanema to meet the legendary Tererê for the 1st time.
Now a year after his stay, Moz is back for the summer and he is putting in work to help pave the way for athletes from the Project who want to make it big in the jiu jitsu world. During his first weeks here in Brazil, Moz got together with HT from BJJ Hacks and arranged to do some filming with Jhonathan Marques, one of the superstars from the Project. Jhonathan was able to pencil in a meeting after his morning conditioning and before his school midterms to school Moz on his favorite Berimbolo back takes.
I was excited about the arrival of our international visitors, not only because of the peanut butter and the allure of late night rendezvous, but because it’s through these types of interactions and sharing of ideas that Terere’s Kids Project has slowly begun to grow, gaining more and more international support.
Through positive interactions within the jiu jitsu community the kids from the favela learn to expand dreams beyond the narrow confines of their blocks. Jiu jitsu has opened their eyes and encouraged them to extend their dreams to the international community. Through jiu jitsu, they become ambassadors to people like Fernando and his family. Through jiu jitsu, they teach outsiders that being from the favela doesn’t diminish their capacity and value in life. That is the spirit that Mestre Tererê seeks to embody in the idea of Favela Jiu Jitsu.
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