Brazilians dislocated by Rio Olympics try to rebuild lives and communities

Maria da Penha Macena stands outside her new home in Vila Autódromo. She won’t move in until modifications are completed to her taste. The house is temporarily being used as a museum documenting residents’ struggle to prevent forced removal from their community.
Maria da Penha Macena stands outside her new home in Vila Autódromo. She won’t move in until modifications are completed to her taste. The house is temporarily being used as a museum documenting residents’ struggle to prevent forced removal from their community.

This small waterfront community used to be lined with coconut palms and fruit trees. There were 11 streets with names such as Pit Stop and Piquet that referenced a nearby Formula One racetrack, corner grocery stores, beauty salons, bars, auto repair shops, and the sounds of bustling street life.

For Maria da Penha Macena, her working-class neighborhood was “paradise” before the 2016 Olympics came to town. Now all that’s left of the Vila Autódromo community is a single street of small white-washed homes, a Catholic church around the corner and wide, empty spaces.

Nearly the entire community was demolished to make way for entrance roads and parking for the Olympics.

For years developers eyed Vila Autódromo — a favela, or informal, low-income neighborhood, on the shores of Lake Jacarepaguá — as prime real estate amidst fast-growing Barra da Tijuca with its Miami-style shopping centers, car dealerships and luxury high-rises in the west zone of Rio de Janeiro. Nearby favelas had been removed beginning in the 1990s, ostensibly because the communities were causing environmental damage.

And when Rio de Janeiro won its bid for the Summer Olympics, it seemed that would be the fate of Vila Autódromo’s 600 families, too, because their neighborhood sat in the path of access roads and parking for Olympic Park.

To make way for Olympic and transportation construction, tens of thousands of Rio residents were dislocated. Most of them lived in poor or working-class neighborhoods. Their Olympic legacy has been forced remoções (removals).

Part of the social legacy of the Olympics was supposed to be the upgrading of all Rio’s favelas with more than 100 homes, bringing them social services, land titling, and improved water and sewer systems. But critics contend little was done under the Morar Carioca (Carioca Living) program and some upgrades that it was credited for were actually carried out during a previous favela program.

“Instead, evictions became a huge problem,” said Theresa Williamson, a city planner who is executive director of a nonprofit called Catalytic Communities. Its goal is to give greater visibility to favela voices. During the run-up to the Olympics, it frequently published stories on its news site, Rio On Watch, about how construction was impacting the favelas — home to about a quarter of Rio’s population.

The number of evictions eventually reached 80,000 as a result of preparations for the 2014 World Cup and the Olympics, Williamson said. They included people displaced to make way for the TransOeste bus rapid transit line and removal of those living in the Metro Mangueira favela, which was deemed too close to Maracanã Stadium. Since the Olympics, the soccer stadium was closed and vandalized. It’s reopened now but is only being lightly used.

The bulldozers arrived in Vila Autódromo, too, reducing most of the favela to rubble. While most residents in the community of about 3,000 people threw in the towel and moved out, 20 families held out. They didn’t want to move to nearby public housing and they didn’t want compensation. They just wanted to stay.

This concrete block house is the only one left from the original Vila Autódromo community. It was spared because it is the subject of a lawsuit. Mimi Whitefield

“We stayed here 2  1/2 years in the middle of the destruction with the dust and mud. When we wanted to leave our homes we had to put plastic bags on our feet,” said Macena, 52. “We had no lights, no water. But we stayed because we wanted our rights to be respected. I thought why should I leave for the Olympics that would last one month when I’ve been here for 23 years. The Olympics were just an excuse to try to remove us.”

Rafaela Silva dos Santos said she was told by authorities she had no choice but to leave Vila Autódromo. “As I had four children, and a baby — she was only a month old — they said they would send the Civil Defense into my house and I would get a fine.”

She finally felt that if she didn’t give in, she would be “sacrificing” her children. She was moved to government housing in Parque Carioca. Her story was one of 100 eviction tales tracked by Publica, a Brazilian investigative journalism agency.

Other neighbors held protests, scrawled anti-government graffiti and “Nem todos têm un preço! (Not everyone has a price!) on walls, waged social media campaigns, and hoisted Brazilian flags, even as the homes of neighbors came tumbling down. When the community center was demolished, they taped their mouths shut in silent protest.

Some people were roughed up by municipal guards and the neighborhood increasingly looked like a war zone.

Amnesty International condemned the municipal guard’s violence and also forced removals in general. “It’s unacceptable that the city of Rio de Janeiro, on the eve of receiving the Olympics, tramples over human rights and violates the rights of residents of Vila Autódromo, a neighborhood next to the future Olympic Park,” said Atila Roque, who was then director of Amnesty International in Brazil.

In the process, the plight of the community attracted the interest of the Brazilian and international media, and finally authorities agreed to let the holdouts remain in the spot where they had built memories and lives.

Former Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes said $950,000 would be used to build them new houses under the Minha Casa, Minha Vida (My House, My Life) program. The only buildings left standing in the community were the church and a three-story concrete block house that is the subject of a lawsuit.

The holdouts got the keys to their new houses just days before the Olympics started. Now they live in a single street of new homes surrounded by four super highways, a fetid rerouted canal and barren fields where their neighborhood once stood. Nearby, a new Marriott Courtyard and the main press and broadcast center for the Olympics, rise over their row of homes.

A Marriott Courtyard and the broadcast and press center for the Rio Olympics can be seen in the distance from the single street that is now the Vila Autódromo community. Mimi Whitefield

On the first anniversary of the day the Rio Olympics opened, Macena pointed to the entrance roads to Olympic Park that hug the lake. The houses that were on the shore were in poor repair, she conceded, but Olympic builders could have just taken those to build the new roads, rather than level the whole community.

“The city really wanted them out. Most of the land [where Vila Autódromo stood] is now unused,” Williamson said.

Slowly Vila Autódromo residents are trying to rebuild a community. One elderly neighbor, Donna Dalva de Oliveira, says it’s too painful to talk about the past, that she just wants to focus on the future now.

Neighbors have become close along their single street, and they have begun to customize their homes, adding front patios and starting to paint fences and a few facades with vibrant colors. One neighbor has opened a barbershop in his home.

Some neighbors along the single street of the new Vila Autódromo neighborhood have begun to customize their small white homes by painting the fences. Mimi Whitefield

Eventually there is supposed to be a playground and cultural center built, but a year after the closing of the Rio Olympics there has been no progress on those projects.

Instead, Macena’s husband, Luiz da Silva, has planted trees around the denuded site and hung a rope swing from one of the few large trees that remain. Neighbors have put together what they call the open air Museum of Removals. They have fashioned a sculpture from the debris of their razed neighborhood, and made a wall of plants growing in discarded plastic bottles.

“We continue with the fight. It’s complicated and difficult,” said Macena. Soon after residents moved in, they noticed cracks developing in some walls and they complained until the cracks were fixed.

Macena and her extended family had six houses in the old community. Three family members left, and she and her mother and daughter chose to stay. Now she and her husband live with her mother in one of the neat white houses while her own house is being personalized to her taste. Boxes of their possessions are still stacked in the corner.

Maria da Penha with her adopted dog Nina. The dog’s first two families moved out of the community as it was being razed to make way for Olympics construction. Mimi Whitefield

The couple has adopted a yellowish dog from the old neighborhood and named her Nina. Like them, the dog is a survivor. Her first family left and then the dog was adopted by a second family who also moved out before Macena and her husband took her in.

“I’m happy here today, but I liked my old house better. It was my history. My house was constructed for me; it wasn’t programmed,” she said. “Still, this house does taste like victory. While life continues, there is always hope.”

Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi

Whitefield traveled to Brazil as part of an exchange program sponsored by the Washington-based International Center for Journalists.

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