Brazil New Suburbs

Photographs by Mirko Cecchi


Condo Coimbra is the latest in a series of six blocks of each other almost identical buildings, which are located on Avenida Palmares, a country road surrounded by nothing, in the suburbs of Santa Cruz, in the West Zone of Rio de Janeiro. To enter you must pass a gate and be recognized by the keeper pointing the name and registration number on a log.


In Brazil these kind of buildings are named “condominios fechados” and are normally only inhabited by rich people who want to keep their doors out real or perceived dangers of the street. Here, however, seem cages and people living within, almost as if they were imprisoned, come exactly from there, from the streets so full of insecurity, violence and injustice that until recently was their home.


We arrived at Coimbra on a Friday afternoon. Streetlights, between a block and other buildings are already on and emit a dim light. In the winter sun sets early in Rio de Janeiro. Children scream and play “pipas” (kites), more popular than soccer balls in the Rio suburb. Fatima and Mary, two black and stout women with smiling faces, have finished to install their small kiosks and they are ready to cook and fry. There are also mousse dessert: lemon, strawberry and passion fruit. Mary prepares fifty servings every day except Sunday, which is a rest day.

Men at work in the West area of the city where new condos are springing up.

We come here to try to understand how people live in the new housing developments that are emerging in recent years on the outskirts of Brazilian cities. One million homes designed for the lower classes of the population that ex President Lula decided to build in March 2009, when with the Minister Dilma Rousseff launched the “Minha Casa, Minha Vida” project and allocated 34 thousand million Reais (over 10 billion $) to its construction.


According to data provided by the office of the municipality for housing policies from the beginning of the operation in Rio de Janeiro are planned 66,270 units (delivered or under construction ). Of this total, 33,363 are families with monthly income of up to 1,600.00 reais ($ 720) and 90% of them are in the West Zone of the city. Coimbra was opened just over a year and is the result of that operation.

Leandro Ferreira was the first to reach Coimbra, in May 2012. Has 33 years old and lives with Gabriela who is 25 and is the mother of four of his six children, three boys and three girls. In eight they share a living room, a kitchen, a bathroom and two bedrooms: 50 square meters house in total, like everyone else.
Leandro is tall, very thin, the teeth and face consumed, brown eyes and brown skin. He dresses in a blue bathing suit, a shirt with long sleeves and faded pair of black “chinelos” (flip flops).


Leandro is the administrator of Coimbra. He deals with the collection of money for the expenses of the condominium and the organization of the building. But above all, he tries to mediate the positions and demands of the people, who often disagree.
“I wanted this assignment because even when I lived in the favela I was accustomed to handle difficult situations: brawls, fights… Here I try to make all agree, but it is difficult. There are people who come from different places, controlled by many different commandos, and even though we are no longer in the favela they still feel enemies. When he speaks “commandos” Leandro refers to groups of drug traffickers in Rio de Janeiro who fight each other to gain control of the drug market.


Leandro has spent his entire life in a difficult, abusive, steeped in misery and degradation environment: “In City of God we lived in a shack in an area of the favela with other families we had invaded. We used to call “the graveyard” because traffickers threw the dead there – he remembers – I think that what the Government has done for us giving us a home is a good thing, here we are much better than before. But there are so many things still do not work.
Kiosk inside and outside of the condos are the only places where people can stay together. No clubs, bars, restaurants. Just a square at the end of the road, where Friday night the music, strictly funky, comes directly from the big boxes that the the young people have mounted in the trunk of their cars.


Leandro takes us to see a field of land between a building and another, covered with grass and trash: “We are trying to get permission to organize here a small market where people can assemble their booths and sell which produces: food, crafts… Here instead – says pointing to another space left – was to build a medical center, but the works are stopped.
Putting together all residents of the new condos are almost 10,000 people, we need a hospital, schools for our children and a training center for adults.” Santa Cruz is a major industrial center in Rio, where there are large mechanical and chemical companies that need skilled labor. “Many of us in the favela have always survived with little jobs. And if one day you were unlucky there was the “restaurante popular” where you can have a soup kitchen for 1 reales. Here is different, now we have to find a way to live with a real job but we do not have the skills, we are not trained.”


During the weekend Coimbra boiled humanity. Adults do not go to work and the kids are home from school. The few shops that are installed along the Avenue Palmares are open. Right in front of our condo there is a small supermarket that sells everything. “Things are more expensive than in the city – a lady admits choosing a salad – but there is no other place we can go for shopping”.


Later there is a bakery, the comings and goings are constants. Mainly sells candy and soft drinks in cans. Fruit juices, which in Brazil are located in every corner thanks to the abundance of raw materials, there are none here.
In the store we meet Waldomiro. He is an old man, he wears a wool cap with blocks and big glasses. He lived in Guaratiba, another district of the West Zone, but much closer to the sea and the city center. “My building has been demolished and, in exchange for my house, they give me this apartement”. He lives on the second floor of Block 02 in the Condo Almada, near the Coimbra. “My children come to me rarely because this place is far, I’m lonely and want me to go. Do you want to buy my house?”.
“According to the regulation made ​​by the Government, the people receiving accommodation are required to stay there for at least five years only paying 50 reales per month, after that time officially become owners and will be able to sell it or rent it, but few comply the agreements.
“50% already sold at price of “bananas”.


“I came here a year ago and I’ve had three different neighbors” tells Alinia, another inhabitant of Coimbra who in her home has mounted a hairdresser. She come from Providencia, the oldest favela in all of South America, partially “cleaned” to make way for urban revitalization project “Porto Maravilha”. “They will do a cable car for tourists” explains while drying Marcia’s hair, her neighbor and client.
“Is prohibited working at home, I know, and if they find out we throw, but how can we survive?” In Providencia I won 1,500 per month ($ 630), here the most I can ask is 7 reales for a cut. And I take care free of the kids with head lice. Here there are families who are starving. “Our refrigerators are pools, inside there is only water,” adds her friend laughing.

From Maré, a complex of favelas developed near the international airport, come Janaidas and Cidicley. They’ve been married 25 years and with some friends have organized a backyard barbecue. Janaidas is happy with her new life: “I found a job at a cleaning company in a condominium near here. I like Santa Cruz, is quiet and I’m not afraid for my children. There is no smugglers, they can spend all day outside. And life is cheaper. In the favela the van that took them to school cost me 240 reales per month ($ 100), here I pay 70. ”

Cidicley is a carpenter in a construction company and still lives in the Maré. “I come for the weekend, but I can not live here. It’s too far, if I move I lose my job.”

Susan, a 16-year-old has instead left Salvador de Bahia to come to Coimbra. His older brother moved to Rio years ago and when the government granted him a property her mother thought that for her the life in Rio would be much better. But she was wrong: “Since I’ve been here I’ve stopped going to school cause in the schools in the area there is no space for me” Susan confesses. “Have you been to the beach before? – I ask – “No, it’s too far away and my brother would not have time to take me”.


The Coimbra was inaugurated since not even two years, but it seems to wane. In several neighborhoods of “Minha Casa Minha Vida” project, people have received by the Municipality economic aids also for the furniture. Here in Santa Cruz apartments were not only empty, but they had not even the floor and the kitchen window. The ground was just cement.

Gabriel lives in block 17. It’s hard not to notice him. He’s leaning on the sill of the stairs leading to his apartment with an open book. All around, the music and the sounds of a normal Saturday afternoon did not seem to bother him. He greets us and invites us to visit him. If you want to know how people live in Coimbra he has some things to talk about.
Gabriel is 37, but looks younger. He lives with Mary and her teenage daughter. Mary is much older than him, her face is scarred, her hair disheveled, and when we enter she get nervous. “She do not like visitors.” Maria whispers to herself and looks at us with suspicion, but Gabriel starts talking and goes straight to the point.


“Here is the militia that controls everythings and lay down the law. No drugs, no burglaries and no domestic violence. They maintain order is true, but we live in fear like when we were in the favela”. Militia also pretends every family pays a monthly fee, typically 20-30 reales. “They are like private security guards but if we do not pay they threaten us with death. We are forced to turn to them for gas cylinders and cable television, and if we go anywhere we have to take buses that are owned by them. We have no choice.”

A lady along the country road that new buildings to Avenida Brasil, 3 km away.

Isolation is the main disease afflicting the people of Palmares Avenue. The main street, Avenida Brasil, has the bus line leading to the center, but is two miles away. Walking, it takes over half an hour. The prefecture has constructed buildings, but did not think the natural need for mobility of the new inhabitants, so that the militia took advantage of it and creating its own fleet of trucks, buses and motorcycles. Each ticket costs 2 reales and no discounts.

Gabriel is from Niteroi, the city across the sea connected to Rio de Janeiro with a 13 kilometers bridge, the longest in Latin America. He met Mary in the neighborhood of Lapa, famous for its bars, clubs and nightlife. They both sold peanuts at a stoplight.
Gabriel never lives his book: Biology II. “I am studying because I want to try to pass the exam to public servant. If you are poor and black in Brazil you have to work hard, twice. “Gabriel has no family, his parents are dead and his brother fled the community in which they lived for crime-related problems. The sofa on which we sat down to talk is worn and covered of small wooden boats.
“I make them to sell for 20 reales. It’s fine.” Maria begins to complain of our presence and Gabriel takes us down.”Let me tell you one thing I’ve never told anyone. When I was little I won a competition organized by my language school. An article was also published in the newspaper but I did not want anyone to discover I’m smart. I’d rather people thinking I’m a mediocre, so when I will reached the end they will be surprised and will say: Look at that guy… who could imagine!” He greets me and points in my notebook his e-mail: “Augusto is my middle name, while B612… is the planet of little prince…”

On Monday we came home, 60 miles from Santa Cruz, in the Rio de Janeiro that all the world knows and who falls in love so easily. Lying languid overlooking the ocean, embraced and protected by the Redeemer Christ who never looks at those behind him.