The two most common questions I get asked lately are: “Why do you want to move back to the US?” and/or “Is Brazil safe?”
They may not appear related on the surface, but the questions are very intertwined to me. I don’t want to leave Brazil because I feel it’s unsafe, but the safety of the United States is, of course, a huge draw. On the flip side, I hesitate to ever say that Brazil is dangerous, because I feel like the situation is much, much more complicated than a simple yes or no answer. However, for most Americans, is Brazil more dangerous than the US? For the most part, yes.
After one very recent conversation about why I want us to move the the US, I came across this article (in Portuguese) that says one person is shot every 6 hours in Rio de Janeiro. It’s a difficult read and a huge reality bomb. The examples they report on show just how much these acts of violence don’t discriminate by age, neighborhood, gender, and so on. It’s absolutely heartbreaking.
When people ask if Brazil – or, more specifically Rio – is violent, I get the feeling that they have some movie-like picture of warfare in their mind. There are no trenches or loud machine gun fire. People are not fighting in the street. There is, however, a general feeling that something could happen at any moment in time.
Danger and violence in a developing country isn’t as clean and clear cut as we would like it to be in our first world minds. It isn’t contained in one neighborhood, nor can it be solved with one political reform. For Gustavo, and his family even, their relationship to the violence we see (and hear) is very different from my own. It remains a shock to me, whereas he takes it in stride much more easily than I do. In many ways, it makes me sad – I don’t think hearing gunshots should ever feel normal for anyone, and yet it’s a privilege to think that.
There are scares that happen, sometimes weekly, sometimes once a month. Just before I left, there was a robbery on our street that went wrong, resulting in the death of someone who lived in our building. It was tragic and, on a personal level, it took something that I knew to exist and put it right up in front of my face. There was no where else to look.
At night, it’s not uncommon to hear traçantes, or tracer shots, which are mostly used as a warning. While the purpose is generally not violent, the sound is. Any gunshot sounds like an aggression to my ears. There have been a few close calls though, including two instances of being right next to a shooting while in a cab. In my experience, witnessing such a thing is simultaneously tragic, surreal, and heartbreaking. It’s as if time stops – being next to, but not directly in, a life or death situation brings a feeling of “there’s nothing else to do.” You hope for the best until it’s passed.
The longer I stay in Rio the less I notice the behaviors I adopt to give myself a sense of protection. Once I’m back home in the US, I feel relief as I take my phone out of my pocket on a busy street and scroll Instagram – a luxury I do not give myself in Rio. I look over my shoulder a little bit less. I allow my mind to wander while I walk. I wear whatever I want to wear, with little worry as to whether or not it looks like I might have something to steal. I don’t mind going out alone.
It may sound silly or frivolous to mention clothes or social media when talking about pervasive violence, but I don’t think it is. Part of safety is wanting a better quality of life for everyone. That includes being able to walk in the street without fear, no matter what you may choose to be doing at that time. Being able to listen to music, message your friends, take a picture of a pretty sunset without fear of being robbed – possibly violently – isn’t just a luxury. It’s a sign that you’re in a place where your quality of life has taken priority over meeting basic needs. Luxuries mean that the necessities are taken care of.
Yet as I say all this, I still want to defend and protect Rio by adding the caveat that it’s not always dangerous. Again, it comes back to how we picture danger in our minds as Americans (in my case, as a white American, to be more accurate). There can be a shooting two blocks away, but everything is fine where I happen to be standing. It’s a crapshoot and, because of that, it’s always on your mind.
The luxury of not having to worry is something that I want for myself, and my family. No, that’s not quite true. The luxury of not having to worry is something that I want for everyone, but I can’t fix it for everyone – at least, not by myself and not right away. Instead, now that I know the difference exists, I try to focus on myself and those around me first.
I also think it’s important to talk about in a way that’s honest and transparent. Rio is a dangerous city, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad city. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t visit it. That doesn’t mean you should put time and energy into resources that can help the root cause of the violence. The violence and social problems of Rio don’t, and shouldn’t, overshadow it’s cultural contributions and the example it sets for other cities in the region as people do work – very hard – to provide safety and a better life to those around them.
Nothing is ever so simple as a yes or no. At times, New York is also a dangerous city, just as America can be dangerous for many other people, especially depending on your background and how you look. It’s important to look at these issues with the level of complexity they deserve and, after that, stay open-minded about what can, or should, come next.