Carmen and Eduardo’s story could be an allegory for the rise and uh-oh moment of Brazil’s new middle class – except their tale is a real one, one that ends with a really nice savory fried pastel that’s become a midnight munchie hit with their neighbors in Rio’s iconic City of God (Cidade de Deus) favela.
The pair’s life together started early; they met when Carmen, now 30, was just 12 years old; moved in together when she was 14; and both converted to evangelical Christianity and married in a church when she was 18.
They came to the City of God, well-known from the book and film of the same name, looking for a more economical housing option. When built in the 1960s, it was a housing project that received poor Brazilians removed from other favelas, often in high-value areas across Rio’s posh South Zone. Strong-willed governor Carlos Lacerda promoted forced relocation of the poor and accepted funds from the U.S. government’s Cold War-era “Alliance for Progress” – meant to stave off socialism in Latin America – to build housing projects across the West and North Zones. Those included cheeky exercises in euphemism like Alliance Villa (Vila Aliança) and Hopefulness Villa (Vila Esperança). One, which now abuts Rio’s most notorious jail, has a replica of the Statue of Liberty inside it and to this day carries the name of its first yanqui benefactor: Vila Kennedy. The City of God got its own dose of ameliorating nomenclature in the religious vein: Plaza of the Prophets, Miracle Road, Mesopotamia Crossing.
But those distant colonies meant to house the poor in out-of-sight-out-of-mind suburbs – a housing policy Rio still implements today – didn’t quite follow their planners’ plans. The city grew up and around the City of God, and the housing project se afavelizou, as Brazilians say: it “favelized.” Rio’s West Zone is now the fastest-growing region of the city in terms of population, and the shiny, almost-complete Olympic Park is about a 20-minute drive away.
Rent was originally 300 reais (US$165) a month for Carmen and Eduardo when they moved there in 2008. That amount doubled shortly afterward when the favela became “pacified,” which meant it received a unit of cops meant to be trained on human rights and community policing. Those cops were to occupy themselves with diminishing shootouts and the number of weapons on the streets, both in the hands of drug traffickers and, in the program’s original idealization, the cops themselves, who would use dialogue and conflict mediation methods as their first line of defense. Barack, Michelle, Sasha and Malia Obama visited the favela in 2011 in a bid to show their support for the community policing effort and Rio’s stated goal of integrating favelas into the growing middle-class landscape of this metropolis.
There are many reasons to believe such perkiness about pacification is now in its twilight; deaths are mounting both amongst favela residents and the cops sent to “pacify” them at the barrel of an assault rifle, and honey pots of drug money are as tempting as ever for low-salaried but heavily armed police officers ready to demand their share. The question that locals asked around the time Carmen’s rent spiked – “But will the cops stay even after the 2016 Summer Olympics?” – has of late turned into: Can we get them out already?
In the meantime, Carmen and Eduardo saw their fortunes rise and fall through careers in sales. She worked at clothing stores like Lacoste and Folic, a somewhat dowdy yet pricey womenswear brand, in one of the many malls in the upscale West Zone Barra neighborhood. (Carmen said she was never the top saleswoman in their on-commission system, usually coming in around fourth or fifth place.) Eduardo sold imported cars in car-loving Barra, which earned him fine enough commissions that the couple decided she could stay home so they could have a child.
Along with the baby, though, came the Brazilian economic crisis and a rather unpropitious time to be in the luxury vehicles market.
“I stayed home but I was in agony. I can’t not do something proactive,” Carmen said in the partially covered garage that’s become City of God’s most popping pasteleria. She thought about doing a hairstyling course, but was impressed by a capricious pastel joint she dined at during a trip to the nearby city of Teresópolis. Cariocas love their pasteis, thin, crispy fried pockets filled with meat and cheese; Carmen took note of the Teresópolis joint’s use of a comanda, an ordering slip, to tick off a primary filling followed by up to five sub-fillings. At Carmen’s, that may mean shredded chicken with cream cheese, corn and hardboiled quail eggs, or ground beef with olives, cheddar and parmesan. The possible permutations are so daunting in a monolithic uni-filling pastel culture, Carmen says her customers often consult her with trepidation before ordering more experimental varieties of a product that usually sticks to the basics.
Carmen’s brother told her no one would pay attention when she opened up her home as a late-night pasteleria and that she would “only get bugs.” But she thought Cidade de Deus residents wouldn’t look down on ways to eat closer to home when they came back from work in the city or late-night bailes and church groups on the weekends.
They came. On a Saturday night she’ll get as many as 500 orders for her pastel, a satisfying golden-crisp flaky-layered shell that’s long and wide enough to hold the Santa’s sack of treats inside.
The pasteleria only opened in November but has already gotten a boost from a most influential proponent. Carla Siccos, a community journalist in the City of God, studied coding through YouTube videos and created the app CDD Acontece, a news and messaging board for the favela’s tens of thousands of residents. Carla posted a positive review of the pastel at about 9:30 p.m. one summer night; Carmen’s garage was soon swarming with her neighbors. “I was up until 3 a.m.,” she said, “and never sat down.”
Carmen’s clients are nowadays exclusively from the City of God, but she says she’d like it if more outsiders were willing to take a stroll through the iconic favela, be they gringos or Brazilians for whom the community is as unfamiliar as it is for any foreigner.
She recalled one day when she called her cell-phone service provider to register a complaint about her plan. When Carmen gave her address, the customer-service representative broke her monotone to exclaim: “That one from the movie?”