A 38-year-old woman was killed last week by a gunshot wound to the stomach outside of her home in the Complexo do Alemão, a massive community of favelas in northern Rio de Janeiro. Another man and two military police officers were also injured inside the neighborhood that same afternoon.
News of Vanessa de Abicassis death was carried by some local dailies, but the first outlet to break the story was the favela’s community newspaper: Voz das Comunidades or “Community Voice” in English. Through their emergency hotline, which uses the popular mobile messaging app Whatsapp, several people alerted the website and sent in their pictures and first witness accounts. Some said they believed the police shot the mother of two on purpose, others that she was the victim of a stray bullet.
“We are facing a very violent and chaotic period in Alemão right now,” Daiene Mendes, 25, a journalism student and senior reporter at Voz das Comunidades, said. “Not a day has gone by this year where we haven’t heard reports of gun shots.”
Mendes and I met near the newspaper’s headquarters, which recently moved to a small street-level house after an arson attack destroyed their previous office in the heart of Alemão. She wore sneakers and a black dress with the phrase “not I nor anyone deserves to be murdered” printed across her chest in portuguese.
Mendes said there had been reports of a shootout between police and drug gangs a few hours before my arrival. Despite the palpable tension, she remained friendly and calm.
“Given the current situation, it’s been impossible for us not to talk about the violence we are living,” Mendes said, as she adjusted her thick purple-rimmed glasses. “This is not our focus though. We want to show the social problems that affect us on a day-to-day basis like the lack of water, power and basic sanitation in the favela. We want to show that there are people living here who are doing incredible things and whose basic civil rights should be respected.”
The Alemão Complex spreads over several mountains in northern Rio. It includes sixteen smaller favelas and is home to roughly 200,000 people. Its name, which translates to “German” in Portuguese, dates back to the 1920s when a Polish man named Leonard Kaczmarkiewicz purchased the then-rural land for farming purposes. Due to his fair features and untranslatable surname, the locals gave him the nickname “Alemão.” With the opening of a nearby factory in the 1950s, migrant workers from the northeast began to build their homes in the area. Kaczmarkiewicz left soon after and parceled off his land to the community, which named the neighborhood after him. However, the local government considered its residents to be squatters and staged aggressive police raids to destroy the emerging slums and evacuate the people.
In 1983, Rio de Janeiro elected populist governor Leonel Brizola who made it illegal for officers to enter the favelas, thereby halting the removals. By the time he left office in 1994, Alemão had grown into a small metropolis on the edge of central Rio. Subsequent administrations criticized Brizola for incentivizing the expansion of the city’s favelas and leaving them abandoned and lacking in basic services. As the sale of cocaine became more and more profitable, powerful gangs established a parallel government within the favela.
MAKING THEMSELVES HEARD
Voz das Comunidades began as a school newspaper created by editor and chief Rene Silva. Its fate as the neighborhood’s watchdog was sealed when Silva and his team live tweeted during the 2010 police occupation of Alemão.
Similar operations had been successfully carried out in nearly a dozen other favelas throughout Rio. The initiative, known as pacificação or “police pacification,” consisted in evacuating the drug traffickers from the favelas and installing permanent community police units. The clean up was part of a state effort to prepare Brazil’s most iconic city for the 2014 FIFA World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympic Games.
The Alemão siege was met with more resistance from the gangs. Helicopter images captured the shootout in real time and the attention of major national and international media outlets. Voz’s reporters were the only ones with access inside the impenetrable favela and became overnight sensations.
“This was a watershed moment for Voz,” Mendes said. “We never stopped growing after that.”
Since then, the state has installed three police pacification units (UPPs) and a million dollar cable car system that connects the hillside neighborhood to the city’s suburban train line. Voz has become an important news source both inside and out of the favela. It has more than 180 thousand followers on Twitter alone and thousands of daily clicks on its website. It recently launched a monthly print version in order to reach residents who don’t have access to a computer.
Most of the paper’s volunteer staff are under thirty and residents of the favela. The stories and topics of each edition are selected in weekly staff meetings. In a recent op-ed piece, Mendes chose to open up a debate on the legalization of marihuana.
“The reality in which we live shows that this effort to fight drugs is inefficient, violent and selective,” she wrote in the column, which was published in Voz’s February issue. “We are always submissive to the opinions from the outside world: academia, Congress and the innumerable public hearings that take place on this topic while we are stuck in traffic, working or taking care of our kids. What are we, favela residents, left with? the consequences of political choices that were not made by us.”
During our interview, Mendes revealed she personally supports the legalization of marihuana and believes it should be handled as a health problem and not a security one.
“There is this whole apparatus mounted right now that is designed to fight the war on drugs,” Mendes said. “But who ends up in the crossfire of this war? those of us who live in the favelas.”
TO THE BEAT OF HER OWN DRUM
In addition to being a senior reporter, Mendes is one of five people on Voz das Comunidades’ board of directors and the only woman with this title.
“I didn’t want to be seen as just a mulherzinha (little woman), I wanted to be one of the guys,” Mendes said with a broad grin. “Ever since I was a little girl I fought to be treated as an equal with the boys,”
Mendes grew up in what she described as a “deeply religious” Evangelical home. While most of the neighborhood girls played with dolls, she preferred to kick the soccer ball or practice music on her drum set. When she was eighteen, she came out of the closet and her family kicked her out of the house. She moved to a small apartment in the Nova Brasilia region of Alemão, where she learned to accept herself as who she really was.
“Being forced to adapt to what everyone expected of me was killing me inside,” Mendes said. “I was living in this tiny space all alone. I had to find a way to accept who I really am.”
She cut her long brown hair and adopted a stylish pixie cut, that she still wears today. Mendes said the new look helped her feel more confident and assertive about her sexual identity.
“I feel much more feminine with my short hair than I ever did before,” Mendes said, as she ran her fingers through her bangs. “This is who I really am, this is how I see myself.”
Nearly five years after leaving home, Mendes met Cissa, a graduate student and lawyer who grew up in a “completely different world.”
“It was as if she was from Japan and I was from Brazil,” Mendes said, referring to Cissa’s upbringing in the middle class Rio neighborhood of Tijuca. “We were so different, but she literally lit up my heart.”
Shortly after their first encounter, the two started dating and got married within the year. They recently celebrated their first anniversary, but still live in separate homes.
“Once we both finish school in a couple of years, we will figure out our next moves,” Mendes said. “She likes coming here to Alemão though, but I’ve been more worried recently.”
Mendes has since reconciled with her family and is back in her childhood home. However, she was not welcome back into the conservative Evangelical church.
“You would think they would have kicked me out for being gay, but it was before that,” Mendes, said with a sarcastic smile. “The reason the pastor expelled me is because I got a tattoo.”
The music note between her shoulder blades is now one of several tattoos inked around her body. Although she lost her place of worship, she learned how to stand up for herself and speak her mind.
“The pastor wouldn’t hear me out, so we got into a big argument,” she said. “The ironic thing is that I was doing it to honor the music I loved from church.”
A NEW VOICE
In addition to reporting on Alemão, Voz das Comunidades organizes several charity drives within the favela. It recently became an NGO, which Mendes also administers.
“I take care of all the boring paperwork no one wants to deal with,” Mendes chuckled.
Her next goal is to make Voz self-sufficient and compensate her reporters so they won’t have to rush off to other jobs.
“We’ve lost a lot of good people due to financial issues and we want to avoid that by supporting their passion and providing them with some form of compensation,” Mendes said. “We know it is difficult for many of them to support this as a hobby.”
In terms of her own passions, Mendes smiled and briefly looked down at her silver wedding band.
“This violence we are living is so cruel, but I love this place and can’t see myself turning my back on my history and the trajectory I have made for myself,” Mendes said. “I have infinite dreams for the future. I want to keep learning and sharing with friends. I want to see new places and build a life with my wife, but I don’t want to abandon my roots. This is my home, it’s where I belong.”