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Rio de Janeiro Favelas Re-Study

Dr. Janice Perlman is just completing a book on her follow-up study of the people she interviewed in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro in 1968-1969.
Description of Book
As a young graduate student in 1968-69, during the height of the Brazilian military dictatorship I lived in three favelas* in Rio de Janeiro and interviewed 250 residents in each. The book that grew out of this, The Myth of Marginality: Urban Poverty and Politics in Rio de Janeiro (UC Press, 1976), won the C. Wright Mills Award. The book sold 1,679 copies in hardcover and 11,918 in paperback. It has been translated into over a dozen languages (in its 5th edition in Portuguese - Editora Paz e Terra, Sao Paulo). The foreword was written by Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who became President of Brazil (1995-2002).

I discovered that the prevailing stereotypes of favela residents (which I termed the myths of marginality) were "empirically false, analytically misleading and invidious in their policy implications" -- as they were used to justify the eradication of favelas. My book created a paradigm shift from "blaming the victim" to recognizing migrants as highly motivated urban pioneers and from socio-cultural modernization theory to structural dependency theory.

Thirty years later, I returned to do a re-study of the same people and the same communities.** Due to the trust and friendships I had maintained over the years, the strength of community ties, and the help of local residents, I was successful in finding 41% of the interviewees – although only half of them still lived in the same communities. Using an up-dated version of the original questionnaire and a life history matrix, I interviewed them, their children and grandchildren (2001) and added a random sample of current residents within the boundaries of the original communities (2003). The results provided a longitudinal panel over three generations and snapshots of the same places at two points in time.***

How has life changed over the last three decades? To what degree is poverty passed down through the generations? Who were the most successful, and what strategies did they use? Has re-democratization empowered the urban poor? How have drug and arms trafficking changed coping mechanisms of everyday life? How have the communities themselves evolved over time?

The answers are paradoxical. While the material condition of life has improved, the human condition has deteriorated. The fear of favela eradication has been replaced by the fear of being killed in the cross-fire between drug gangs and the police. Despite the return to democracy after the 20-year dictatorship, people feel more excluded and say they have less bargaining power than before; and despite community upgrading, the poor feel more marginalized than ever.

I draw upon personal narratives of the most successful people to complement the survey data and life histories in tracing the inter- and intra-generational dynamics of urban poverty. I use photos, maps, poems and song lyrics as illustrative. The chapters address the changing meanings of marginality; the mixed mobility; the deception of democracy; the consequences of violence; and the optimism that prevails despite all. The concluding sections explore the limitations of public policy, the quest for identity as "gente" (a person); the favela / "asphalt" divide; and the relevance of the Rio findings for other cities. Successful experiences from 20 other mega-cities are highlighted, and I end with some new directions for thought and action.
* Favelas mean squatter settlements or shantytowns, called "subnormal agglomerations" in the census.
** Support for the research came from two Fulbright Fellowships, the Tinker Foundation, the World Bank, the British Aid Agency (DFID) and the Dutch Trust Funds. The analysis was funded through a Visiting Scholar position at the World Bank, and the writing was supported by the Ford Foundation and a Guggenheim Award.
*** The total sample size is 2,182.
To learn more about this forthcoming book, click here.

People of the Rio Favelas
Several of Dr. Perlman's original 1969 research participants, who have maintained contact with her ever since, were interviewed again in 2002. The paricipants included Adetrudes Justino de Souza ("Tio Souza"), Paulo Cerqueira ("Paulinho"), and Jose Manoel da Silva ("Ze Cabo"), as well as a person who lived in the housing projects and was helping to locate the former interviewees, Sebastiana Rosaria Jesus Souza ("Tiana"). Their stories, and videos of these interviews can be found at


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