Rafaela Silva was known as a troublemaker in a favela notorious for its troublemakers.
Her temper was as quick as her fists. She constantly got entangled in fights and came home with a bloody nose or ripped shirt.
In the Cidade de Deus favela, which one does not enter without demonstrating allegiance to Rio’s powerful Red Command gang, Silva was a prime candidate for grooming by traficantes, drug dealers who recruit tough, fearless urchins as lookouts and messengers.
Silva was often suspended from school. She turned games of pipa combate — aerial kite duels in which kids try to cut an opponent’s string with pieces of glass — into fisticuffs.
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Silva’s father, desperate to find a way for his daughter to channel her energy and anger, enrolled her in judo classes at the neighborhood gym. Sensei Geraldo Bernardes knew immediately that he had a champion on his mat.
“She possessed coordination from all her running around and climbing walls,” Bernardes said. “She was also aggressive and feeling anxiety from living in a place where she’d seen dead bodies in the streets. I knew she could be in the Olympics.”
Eighteen years later, judoka Silva won Brazil’s first gold medal of the Rio Games by defeating her Mongolian opponent 10-0 in the championship match.
She is one of two dozen favelados on Brazil’s Olympic team. Boxers, soccer players, wrestlers, a badminton player and a gymnast are among the athletes who represent the one quarter of Rio’s population who live in 1,000 shantytowns.
Rio is a city of extremes — extreme poverty sits right over the fence from extreme wealth. The beauty of granite mountains shooting out of spectacular Guanabara Bay contrasts with the despair of favelas stacked up on hillsides.
“City of God,” the Oscar-winning 2002 film, depicts what it’s like in one of Rio’s largest and most dangerous favelas, where shootouts between gang members and police keep residents living in fear: “If you run, the beast catches you. If you stay, the beast eats you.”
The violently graphic movie made the favela famous.
“But now we hope Rafaela has made us famous for another reason,” Silva’s aunt, Cristiane Silva, said from the house where her niece grew up, proudly showing off front-page photos of Silva’s victory.
As she and Rafaela’s uncle, Marco Antonio Rosaria da Silva, walked around the neighborhood, they pointed out where Silva used to climb trees, kick soccer balls and pick fights. An old Volkswagen van packed with bananas for sale rolled by, so did a car with a speaker on top hawking propane. Vendors selling brooms and towels made a circuit of the blocks of crudely constructed houses, dodging piles of trash, streams of sewage and mangy dogs. The sound of fireworks caused a momentary cringe — but it’s just that, fireworks, before Brazil’s soccer game vs. Germany. A boy flew a kite. A girl bounced a basketball. A man drove by on a motorcycle brandishing a gun.
Here, Silva is a hero.
“She’s one who got out,” said Douglas Luiz, 16, who juggles tennis balls and sells snacks at intersections to make money. “She raised the status of City of God. She has a real-life story. Very few people leave the favela. Her message is always fight and never give up.”
A parade in her honor is planned for Sunday. A nursery school has been inaugurated in her name. Kids respect and admire her.
“Nobody messes with Rafaela, she’s cool,” said Aleffy Silva (no relation), 16, Luiz’s friend.
They were at a community gathering and cookout to watch Silva’s matches, which were projected onto a bed sheet hanging from a wall.
“We were shaking with joy,” Luiz said.
Silva, 24, has a tattoo on her right bicep: “Only God knows how much I have suffered and what I have done to get here.”
Bernardes said she and many of the kids he trains at his Instituto Reacao gyms in favelas have been traumatized by what they’ve witnessed.
“They are hard, but they are vulnerable,” he said. “We want to give them direction and discipline.”
Judo, the sport of the “gentle path,” was ideal for Silva as it is for other favelados.
“She had a very uncertain future,” Rosaria da Silva said. “Lots and lots of her friends ended up on the caminho errado [errant path].”
Silva said she had “no objectives” when she started judo.
“My only dream was to have a bike and some cool clothes,” she said. “Judo changed my life and became my life.”
Silva’s sister Raquela was a promising judoka, but she had to drop out when she became a teen mother, which is how Bernardes — who paid for many of Silva’s expenses out of his pocket — loses too many of his students.
Silva, daughter of grocery store workers, suffered more when she was disqualified for an illegal move at the 2012 Olympics. She was subjected to racist taunts and threats by her own countrymen. She fell into a depression and considered quitting but was encouraged to press on by Bernardes, 2004 bronze medalist Flavio Canto and soccer star Neymar. She won the 2013 world title.
“I was a victim of hate,” she said. “People said that my place was a monkey living in a cage. This medal is my response. This medal has set me free.”
The prejudice that confronted Silva exposed the hierarchical fault lines in a society often praised for its spectrum of skin colors.
“Many people who said horrible things need to be shut up,” said Luiz Gaviao, a judo fan among the spectators who turned the Olympic Carioca arena into a cauldron of screaming, drumming and foot-stomping during Silva’s 10-0 victory over Mongolia’s Sumiya Dor. “She deserves this medal more than anybody in Brazil.”
Said Canto: “We unfortunately still see those kinds of things, but I’d rather not give voice to those kinds of people, they’re worth nothing.”
The Instituto and its branches, nurtured by Bernardes and Flavio, serve about 1,200 favela athletes. The one at City of God has a poster of Silva on the wall. They are advocates for more social programs in Rio, such as the Todas na Luta (Boxing for Everyone) gym in the Vidigal favela and the badminton gym in Rocinha.
“The government needs to invest more in facilities and activities so kids can develop skills and goals,” Silva’s aunt Cristiane said, pointing out the small soccer field and basketball court in her community.
Silva has never forgotten her roots. She’s expected to ride a fire truck in the parade.
“Sports has the power to change the world — I think [Nelson] Mandela said that a long time ago,” Canto said. “Rafaela is not just an example for the Institute or for Brazil. She is an inspiration for those who believe in sports as a tool for human development and social change.”