Translations and Expectations

View from the summit of Dois Irmãos, a beautiful hike that begins in the favela of Vidigal and looks over the entire Zona Sul (South Zone) of Rio.

In the interest of documenting a holistic picture of my time spent in Rio de Janeiro, I am going to begin the tradition of commencing my blog posts with a bit of creative non-fiction, both for a creative outlet of expression and to present a more detailed account of my experiences beyond the office. I’ve had no shortage of applicable experiences since I’ve arrived, and they deserve a mention in this space!

I am loving my time in Rio de Janeiro. Over and over again I find myself thinking that somehow this city is in the process of making me a better person: more comfortable in my own skin, more connected with others around me. So many obstacles still stand ahead of me: the impending research project, my knowledge of Portuguese; my goals for myself and my future. But in this moment I rejoice that I have found myself in the exact place that I wanted to be, and have a momentary grasp on the ever-fleeting question of what I want to do next. The answer, for now, is to stay here and continue learning through experience, both in the office and the city.

This weekend I went for the first time to the favela of Maré, a favela in the city’s north zone (Zona Norte). My housemate Martino invited me to come to an event hosted by various NGOs involved in favelas across the city of Rio de Janeiro, all congregating in Maré to sponsor an event centered around community mobilization against police brutality. Maré is a favela complex that is notorious for violence between police and drug traffickers. Today, although formally pacified by UPP forces*, many favelas within the complex still see incredible amounts of violence and civilian deaths. The initiative was called “Somos da Maré: Temos Direitos!” (We are from Maré: We Have Rights!) and is an awareness campaign with the objective of achieving public security in the favela, with particular focus on police violence in the favela. Volunteers and staff affiliated with a number of NGOs went door-to-door around one of the favelas in the complex, Ramos, handing out flyers and talking to people about public security. Although we arrived late and could not help canvas, we still met many of the people involved in the campaign. It was striking to see community members and NGO staff alike rallying around such an important cause, particularly during a time when Rio is preparing to mobilize huge numbers of security forces in preparation for the Olympics.

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The volunteers and community organizers from the Somos Da Maré campaign.
A view from the passarela, or overpass, of the motorway that runs through the favela of Ramos, one of the communities within the complex of Maré. To the left is Piscinão de Ramos, the neighborhood where the organizers met.

The day after, I hiked the Zona Sul mountain Dois Irmãos with three Italian friends from my house. The day was beautiful, and the crowds were minimal (with only two weeks to go until the Games arrive, walking the still un-crowded feels like the calm before the Olympic storm). After taking in the view, we began the winding descent through the favela of Vidigal, regularly encountering and remarking on the extent to which gentrification has altered the architecture and the energy of this pristinely-located and picturesque favela. Although still home to majority Brazilian inhabitants, the buildings gave away much more about the changing demographics than the people on the street: half-finished construction sites revealed new designs of darkened wood and polished glass in sleek, modern shapes that scoffed at the classic conformation of traditional favela architecture along the winding and grooved hillsides on which they were historically built. I wondered about the future of gentrification of Vidigal, the carry-over impact on Rocinha, and UPP’s role in sponsoring these changes.

View from the Dois Irmãos trail over Rocinha, the largest single favela in Latin America, with between 100,000 and 300,000 residents.

*Unidades da Policia Pacificação, or Pacifying Police Units (UPPs) were introduced to favelas across Rio de Janeiro starting in 2008. The UPP was created by the State Public Security Secretary José Mariano Beltrame, and backed by then Rio de Janeiro state governor Sérgio Cabral. As of April 2016, 38 UPPs were in place in favelas across the city of Rio de Janeiro. The government UPP website describes the UPP as a force dedicated to “permanently [retaking] communities dominated by drug trafficking, as well as guaranteeing the proximity of the state to the population.” The site says that “pacification has a key role in social and economic development of the communities, as it precipitates the entry of public services, infrastructure, social, sporting and cultural projects, private investment and opportunities.”


The last few days I have been translating documents associated with the official LINEA project proposal, which will be sent for review by an ethics committee that approves research initiatives involving subjects. This work manages to be both mindless and simultaneously mentally draining, particularly in the case of academic writing, the style and structure of which differs greatly from Portuguese to English. Portuguese sentences combine a great number of details in a stark and direct manner, and are often constructed in a passive tense that translates awkwardly into English. The translation of a project proposal can sometimes feel like an original composition, making me feel simultaneously accomplished and nervous that an ethics committee is reading and reviewing my abridgement of an originally Portuguese project proposal.

Moving forward, I continue to learn more and more about the research project and change my plans to better match up with its initiative. The LINEA research project is actually a two-and-a-half-year initiative that will provide ground-breaking research in a field that has seen very little research or exploration—namely, social norms around sexual exploitation in Latin America. Thus, pending logistical adjustments, I now plan to spend 6 months in Rio instead of 3, which will allow me to stay for a larger proportion of the Promundo research and observe/assist in more of the fieldwork than if I only stayed for my original 3-month timeline. Come August, the city of Rio de Janeiro will essentially shut down: bus lines will change to accommodate the tourist influx, offices will close (including both that of Promundo and the ethic committee reviewing our project proposal) and many of the Promundo staff will be going on vacation. I plan on using to continue reading and conducting background research on the topics of LINEA, social norms theory, and commercial sexual exploitation in Latin America and Brazil. My immediate project goals over the next few weeks are the following:

  1. Assemble an annotated bibliography on sources related to LINEA, social norms, and sexual exploitation (possibly adding to this as my research continues),
  2. Begin a literature review of these collected sources,
  3. Assemble a list of contacts of professionals and academics in the above subject areas and begin writing interview questions,
  4. Continue learning Portuguese, both through self-taught methods and language classes I am currently enrolled in,
  5. Continue posting regular updates to this blog about my research project as it unfolds.

Although regrettable that the city will be shutting down, the pause may be an apt time for me to assemble some of this practical background research and ensure that I am up to speed when work picks back up in September. As of now, the research timeline has set fieldwork to commence in August, pending the approval of the ethics committees that review our project. Fieldwork will involve a variety of focus groups in all three communities, separated out to include groups of young men and women, adult men and women, and young and adult LGBT groups. These groups will be asked a series of questions about their perceptions of gender roles and romantic relationships within their favelas, and the separation based on gender, age, and sexual orientation is meant to ensure that the individuals can respond more openly to the questionnaires.

I still have several remaining doubts and questions about the structure of these focus groups, particularly concerning the LGBT groupings. While the decision to include LGBT voices is sound, the grouping of all individuals falling under the very wide umbrella of LGBT (that is, individuals who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transsexual) strikes me as a somewhat dubious grouping. The commonality among these diverse groups is simply that none of them are heterosexual, but beyond that, there are glaring points of contrast that beg more attention before this research can be carried out. Why should it be assumed that a 26-year-old lesbian woman shares even the slightest bit of common experience with a 60-year-old transsexual male? Although I have no background on the expressions of sexuality in Brazilian culture other than my own observations and experiences, I would imagine that these two individuals have very little shared experience and thus it does not make a lot of sense to group them together. I aim to bring up this concern at the next meeting or whenever I find it appropriate.

I have a further concern over the LINEA initiative at this moment, related to the initiative’s approach to defining the term “sexual exploitation”. The research proposal states that “it is important to note that for the purpose of this study, researchers will not “predefine” the notion of sexual exploitation or what constitutes SECA practices and/or violence. Rather, researchers will allows respondents to define for themselves what they consider this to be (these conceptions and the surrounding norms will constitute part of the analysis).”[1] The idea behind the decision not to predefine SECA is that we will gain more knowledge about what practices or traditions are or are not viewed to be exploitative by favela residents. However, in lacking a predefined concept of SECA, we forgo a frame of reference for comparing residents’ perceptions with the actual definitions of SECA as defined by international consensus. Without a firm framework in place to draw the line between what is and is not sexual exploitation, I question whether we will actually be able to effect strong and lasting change in regards to the social norms that perpetuate these practices.


[1] LINEA project proposal.


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