In order to gain a better understanding of the diverse experiences of Latin Americans and the OU organizations that serve them, I went to one of the Latin Americanist Lunches hosted by the Center for the Americas in the College of International Studies. Many students and professors in attendance were native Spanish speakers and were speaking Spanish before and after the presentation, which was both exciting and discouraging, because I feel I have not had very many chances to use my Spanish since returning from Ecuador just a few months ago.
This lunch was incredibly interesting to me, as it merged my interests in Latin America and international economic development. The speaker brought in was Dr. Bianca Freire-Medeiros, a native of Rio de Janeiro and currently a visiting professor at the University of Texas at Austin. The title of her program was “25 Years of Favela Tourism.” At the event, I learned that a favela is the Brazilian equivalent of what we in the United States would think of as slums. These are the areas with high crime rates, vast gaps in socioeconomic status, and, unfortunately, a higher percentage of black residents. Since approximately the Rio Summit in 1992, favela tourism has become increasingly popular and profitable. Throughout this UN Earth Summit, two cannons were pointed at the Rocinha favela as a flex of power over a region of the city deemed unsafe. Local government called this an act of racism and decried the event. Environmental activist organization Greenpeace at this time offered free trips to the Rocinha favela to show Summit attendees that much of the fear was unfounded. The popularity of these trips led others to begin offering them for a fee, and they continue to this day.
These favela tours in Brazil are only a small picture of the many ways that the first world glamorizes and profits off the lives of the poor in the third world. Latino students from tourist-heavy countries like México, Puerto Rico, and Costa Rica already know this all too well. American tourists head to the white sand playas of their nations to stay in relatively cheap five-star resorts, while those who work in the hotel often stay in much more humble accommodations in a sector of the city kept out of sight from the tourists. For those families looking for better opportunities elsewhere, though, the situation does not get easier when they arrive to the United States.
This event was very interesting to me as it describes a phenomenon with which I am somewhat familiar (socioeconomic discrimination and segregation) in a country which I know honestly too little about. Unfortunately, this discrimination is all too prevalent in all corners of the world. This event reinforced in me the desire to work in some way in economic development as an adult. I’m still trying to figure out how that will look and where life will take me, but it’s something I know I want to do.