A museum built from rubble

Residents of one of the favelas destroyed for the Rio olympics opens a museum to remember their struggle.
Photo .Peter Kaminski / CC BY 2.0 / Source: Flickr

Bulldozers fed at one of Rio’s historical favelas decreed as an “an area of special social interest” while residents clung to their houses in protest and used creative forms of activism to resist the unwanted changes. The reason? Building a stadium for the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Imagine instead of a mass of crumbled bricks where your house once stood, a tribute to the family who once lived there. Instead of a mountain of debris when your neighbours once chatted, artwork depicting the community’s fighting spirit. And instead of a mound of rubbish where your children once played, a sculpture of an Olympic torch representing the very event that caused its demolition.

The bulldozers took over

In the lead up to the Olympic events, there were a number of infrastructural developments in the city to make way for the Games that led to the eviction of many families from the favelas.  

The government justified large proportions of this as of public need or social interest. Theresa Williams, founder and Executive Director of the Rio-based informal settlements NGO CatComm, estimated that “80,000 of Rio’s poor were moved from their homes to make way for the Games”.  

Rio’s poor also faced isolation, violent policing and long and painful protests against the city’s preparations for the mega-sporting event. They saw very little of the promised benefits. One community, who faced wins and losses in the “sanitization” battle, has commemorated and continued the fight to keep their favela by opening a museum.

The favela that resisted

Villa Autódromo, a favela set meters from where an Olympic stadium was being built, gained huge media attention due to the strength of its protests against the forced relocation.  

To oppose the evictions, residents met with city planners and the Mayor, proposed Deutsche Bank Urban Age Award winning alternative plans and organised protests and marches, some 4000-people strong.  

With plans unchanged and evictions underway, Villa Autódromo pushed for more media attention by using the space to hold events such as cultural festivals and a football tournament in solidarity with the resident’s continued resistance. Local and International media attention also increased when residents were victims of more aggressive actions which resulted in injuries to both residents and the police.  

The majority of the families had to move to the outskirts of the city, reluctantly leaving their vibrant, generations-old community to be torn down. 20 families of an initial 600 refused to move after years of intimidation and pressure.  

As a solution, the government built new houses for them on the same land. These houses were white-brick and uniformed – a world away from the colourful, ramshackle buildings there before which might have given the impression of a poor and underdeveloped Brazil, something the government did not want.

The Rio city government was also accused of hiding other favelas and poor communities from visitors by building walls justified as sound barriers and changing bus routes to limit certain areas’ access to the city centre.  

A museum built from rubble

Villa Autódromo citizens continued their resistance by opening the Museu das Remoções (Evictions Museum) made from materials left behind from the demolitions, some standing on the same piece of ground as the building it memorialised.  

They range from symbolising the Neighbourhood Association, a reinvented Olympic torch made of bricks, metal poles and other debris from the demolition site, to a sculpture epitomizing the house and place of worship of Heloisa Helena.  

Helena’s house used to be a sacred religious site for the Afro-Brazilian religion Camdomblé before it was destroyed to make way for the Olympic stadium.

Residents and supporters came together to create the museum. Together, they built the the representation of the children’s park, one of the last public spaces left in Vila Autodromo before demolitions.  

Remaining residents hosted events, local bands played while supporters recovered children’s park equipment from the rubble. The museum was intended to preserve the memory of Villa Autódromo and the struggles this community faced, from children playing in the park to hosting human rights representatives.  

Act of Resistance

Considered a “nucleus of resistance” according to XXX,  the Evictions Museum demonstrates how museums can become an act of resistance.  Villa Autódromo has used it both to hold on to memories and to continue to resist the Rio city government’s developments by occupying space and further inspiring other threatened communities to act.

Heloisa Helena stated that “the Evictions Museum helps people be remembered for the struggles they fought” and resident Luiz Claudio Silva said to Rio on Watch  that it’s “not right that everything [the community] went through be forgotten”.  lthough the Olympic stadiums have been neglected, the neighbouring residents continue to rebuild the community of Villa Autódromo.

Brazil is not alone in being criticised about its treatment of poor communities in the build up to the Olympics, particularly the forced evictions, but the strong resistance against the evictions and the drive of the population not to forget this forced segregation through continued activism should be a lesson to future holders of mega-sporting events.  

Roz Lytham

Roz is an International Relations and Development graduate from the University of Sussex. She has been working in the charity sector since graduating from social housing to the resettlement of Syrian refugees on the government's Syrian Vulnerable Persons scheme. She now works on humanitarian and crisis issues for Save the Children. Roz has extensively travelled in Latin America and Asia, as well as volunteered on community development projects in Nigeria. She is passionate about human rights, having volunteered for Amnesty International, and empowering people to create positive social change.
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