Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

18 in Latin America: From a Favela to the World, Via Social Media

Reading Time: 5 minutesHow Sabrina turned love of community, a way with words and a talent for communication into a career.
Reading Time: 5 minutes

Calé Merage

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Ler em português

This article is adapted from AQ’s print issue on youth in Latin America.

Sabrina takes her place on stage. Under strings of decorative Christmas lights, with a broad grin and rounded cheeks, she looks younger than her 19 years. But as she starts to perform, her voice picks up the staccato rhythm of rap to spin a very grown-up tale: of a young woman killed by her own boyfriend in Alemão, a favela in Rio de Janeiro’s north side.

By the end of her short recital, the slender black teenager is leading the crowd in verbal jabs against sexism, against police violence in the favela, against racism: Basta, she chants, enough.

More: Young women like Sabrina build communities, with or without the government.

Off stage, mingling with the hip young people drawn to the cultural evening in Rio’s posh south side, Sabrina is all smiles again, her hands flying as she talks, enthusiasm overflowing — a teenager once more. She was one of the organizers of that night’s event, and of many others like it; she’s clearly at ease in the diverse crowd that includes young people from Alemão, where she lives, but also more affluent cariocas.

Despite the hard stories she tells, being from a favela, one of the poor neighborhoods that drape Rio’s hills and fringe its outskirts, “is reason for pride,” Sabrina said. “Everyone helps everyone else. It’s a way of life.”

More: Latin America needs more young women and minorities creating – not just using – new technologies.

In her blue braids and bright yellow T-shirt that says, in Portuguese, “My name is favela,” it’s clear Sabrina has that pride, and more: She has spun her love for words and for her community into a budding career as a communicator and a cultural producer. A natural on social media, she’s uploaded her spoken word pieces to Facebook, where followers know her as MC Martina. Free community courses in documentary production and website design gave her the tools to tell stories on other platforms, and she recently won a government grant to produce a short film about the neighborhood. It’ll be shot and distributed entirely on cell phones so it’s more accessible, she said. By scraping together resources and applying herself, Sabrina has done much to build the future she wants. But she’ll need more than focus and free courses to make it beyond cultural events and Facebook posts. The racism, the violence, the inequality she denounces in her poems — they’re her reality too. They threaten to push goals that are difficult just out of reach, and make every day an exercise in dodging and making do.

Alemão is one of the most dangerous areas of a city that has devolved into greater violence since the 2016 Olympics ended, and the world looked away. Shoot-outs between police and gang members are routine; they shut down classes for days and keep residents locked indoors. When Sabrina’s mother worried that walking to the website design class took her daughter past gang members and police, Sabrina agreed to a 45-minute detour. On the day she won the grant to make her documentary, she’d been tense, worried about a clash between government officials and favela residents.

More: Rio’s Complexo do Alemão and the failures of the “war on crime.”

There are also routine acts of exclusion. She knows her white friends get more calls back than she does when they apply for the same jobs, especially when she shows up with her long, braided hair. She knows hip-hop circles — like the website design classes — are largely boys’ clubs. She goes anyway. At home, she’s expected to keep house for the family as well as help with the bills. Her mother works all day as a school janitor. Her stepfather and brother don’t do household chores. Sabrina doesn’t argue. She does the work. Then she raps about it — and plans a different life.

More: The skills young people need to succeed are too costly. Here’s a solution.

The way out and into the career she wants is through college— and the way into college is through the ENEM, Brazil’s stringent public university entrance exam. Those who can, pay for prep courses and private tutors. Sabrina studies by herself at night, after doing the dishes. She’s failed it twice, but she’s persistent.

“I’m going to study harder,” she said. “I’m going to keep trying until I make it.”

Dominguez is a journalist based in Brazil

Tags: Latin American Youth
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