The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How judo champion Rafaela Silva turned the City of God to gold

Children fly homemade kites on the street where Rafaela Silva grew up in the “City of God” favela on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Moments after winning Brazil's first gold medal of the Olympics, Rafaela Silva broke down, wiping away her tears with a bandaged hand, and told her celebrating nation that if it wasn't for judo, "I could still be playing in City of God."

Five miles away, in the "City of God" neighborhood, a 44-year-old doorman named Claudio "Piri" Roberto joined a crowd watching the ceremony on a small television on the sidewalk. A national hero was a rare thing in the slum, made famous by a 2002 hit movie that depicted its drug traffickers, poverty and gun violence.

This favela of concrete homes and corrugated roofs, with a trash-filled canal running through the middle and gang graffiti tagging its walls, hasn’t shed its reputation. But with the 24-year-old judo master’s win, Roberto said, “you forget about your own suffering a little bit.”

“For this community, her victory means everything,” said Tony Barros, a photographer and community organizer in City of God. “What other legacy will we get from the Olympics?”

Olympic organizers may boast of Rio's white-sand beaches and majestic peaks, but the Games have also put a spotlight on the city's favelas. The Opening Ceremonies depicted these poor neighborhoods, so visible in their tight clusters on Rio's steep hillsides, as a font of music and dance, the home of samba and baile funk. But the drumbeat of news about stray bullets and armed robberies has also highlighted the everyday dangers of these ramshackle neighborhoods.

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When Silva’s smiling face appeared on the front pages of newspapers Tuesday morning, the rubber bands of her braces in the green and yellow of the Brazilian flag, the country erupted in national pride. Brazilians were seeing a face from a segment of society often ignored or mistreated. "City of God and Gold," read one headline.

Almost one-quarter of Rio's inhabitants live in favelas, whose residents tend to be poor and black. After Brazil was awarded the Games in 2009, city officials promised projects that would provide a better life for residents of favelas as part of the legacy of the Olympics.

Some would stretch well beyond the Games. A program called Morar Carioca was to bring running water, a sewage system, paved streets and public lighting to all favelas by 2020. But by mid-2014, that program died, journalist Juliana Barbassa writes in her recent book "Dancing With the Devil in the City of God." Meanwhile, some favela residents lost their neighborhoods as construction transformed parts of the city for the Games. An estimated 60,000 people were displaced to build the stadiums and infrastructure projects for the Olympics.

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The City of God got its start through a government program. In the 1960s and '70s, authorities built public housing projects along Rio's periphery, moving residents from precarious wooden shanties located near wealthier, beachfront neighborhoods into sturdier concrete homes outside of town. Many saw the projects as an effort to move poor people out of sight.

Silva’s father, Luiz Carlos, arrived at City of God with his family in 1966, when he was 3 years old, after his parents’ home collapsed in another sprawling favela, Rocinha. The neighborhood lacked many basic services.

“We used to run out of light all the time when I was a kid, run out of water. I had to go far away to buy cooking gas and carry it back,” he said in an interview.

Silva worked all sorts of jobs: in a pharmacy, at a Mr. Pizza restaurant, in a Honda office. He and his wife, Zenilda Silva, put their two daughters, Rafaela and Raquel, into sports classes at a young age to keep them away from trouble.

“We saw bandits fleeing from the police and raiding our house. We couldn’t even play in the street like other children could,” Rafaela Silva told reporters on Wednesday.

As a child, she lived in a three-story yellow concrete house on Jesse Street. She was tough and rambunctious: She chose judo at the local community center over dance classes. After she learned a few moves, angry parents called her home.

“The mothers were complaining because she was beating up their boys and they didn’t like it,” her father said.

Some of Rafaela Silva's friends got pregnant at a young age, she said, and others got involved with the drug gangs. When she started training, her talent was undeniable. She moved to a judo school opened by a former Olympic medalist and blossomed into a junior champion. She and her parents moved out of the favela not long before the film "City of God" came out.

In 2009, City of God was the second favela to benefit from a state program to provide rough neighborhoods with "Police Pacification Units," which were intended to protect residents and disrupt the drug trade. The units adopted tough tactics, including shutting down parties and temporarily banning motorcycle-taxis, since they were suspected of moving drugs. Some police officers also alienated residents by demanding bribes and racing their armored vehicles through the narrow streets.

The UPP program, as it is known, was ultimately credited with bringing periods of calm. But as Brazil has slumped into economic crisis in the past two years, the violence in City of God has flared again.

“If you stay here around 7, 8 at night, you will hear the gunshots,” said Patrick Leão, 25, a barber whose shop is down the block from the Silva family home.

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Just past the Silva home, graffiti is spray-painted in black on a concrete wall. It warns police to be careful where they park, because “you are being watched.” It is signed “CV 15,” initials from the Comando Vermelho, or Red Command, one of the prominent drug gangs in Rio.

Another neighbor, Luiz Elias dos Santos, said his daughter usually leaves at dawn for classes at Rio’s federal university. Some mornings, the gunbattles keep her home.

“I avoid going outside very often,” Santos said. “The gunfire’s too much.”

On the day after Silva won her gold medal, her relatives gathered on the sidewalk outside the family home — cousins, uncles, a grandmother in a wheelchair, sharing photographs and old newspaper clippings.

“Thank God her father invested in her,” Christiane Silva, her aunt, said. “Thank God she’s still in this career.”

Silva considered quitting judo after losing at the 2012 Olympics in London. She was disqualified for using a move that had once been common but had recently been prohibited. The heartbreak was compounded by comments hurled at her on the Internet, taking aim at her dark skin. One said that “a monkey’s place is in a cage, not in the Olympics.”

The vitriol devastated her. She stopped practicing. Her relatives and psychologists, even Brazilian soccer star Neymar, all encouraged her to go back to the sport.

After a few months off, she resumed her path to the Olympics.

“She showed everyone she is a proud human being,” said her aunt Christiane.

“We’re really happy for her; we’re happy for the City of God.”

Dom Phillips contributed to this report.

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