Missing my Providência

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“I miss my Providência,” exclaimed Eron César dos Santos, who has lived on the hill for 44 years, or his entire life. A man with glasses and a burn mark on his left arm, Eron is caretaker of the Our Lady of Conception Church, on the upper right side–when using the Central do Brasil bus terminal as a reference–of the 104 year-old favela.

His father from Sergipe and Portuguese mother met in the Brazilian capital, then Rio de Janeiro, in 1950. Having searched for work in São Paulo to no avail, he moved to Rio where he fell in love with this Portuguese woman with a mental disorder whose treatment was not possible in her homeland, hence leading to her secret migration to Brazil–with someone else’s ticket and passport–to get treatment at the Santa Casa de Misericórdia.

Married, they went to live in the old hillside favela and later moved to a parochial home where Eron, their youngest son, lives today. “That church is one of the oldest in Rio. I remember the priest, from the time when my father was the caretaker of the church, would say that the church was built in 1913, but my father and I both believe it was built before that,” he says.

Despite Eron’s house belonging to the church, there is no title. “Many residents had to leave because City Hall didn’t let them stay, and that is creating a pretty ugly fight. I try not to get involved in those issues, my thoughts differ from those of the people leading this movement,” he explains, occupying one of the homes which has been spared the looming set-for-eviction marker labeled with ‘SMH,’ “I would like to own the land, it would make things a lot easier. My father renovated this house, and I take care of it, with the help of donations, and keep it functioning, as well as keep the church functioning.”

Morro da Providência, rich geographically and historically, awoke in Eron a desire to write a book with his stories and legends. In love with the project, he spent the last year collecting childhood stories as well as stories from the oldest residents. “The draft is almost done. I am going to go after an editor to release the book,” he says enthusiastically.

“All my life, my childhood, my relationships, everything was here. I miss the Providência where the children played without fear, where people could get together and talk outside their homes until they were tired,” he remembers while we walked down the stairs taking the children to school: Arthur, his three-year-old son and Beatriz, his 10-year old niece. “I always take them, and any other child whose father, mother, or aunt is too busy. They would do the same for me. On the way back, my sister brings them home.”

Pacified by Rio’s UPP community policing unit for a year now, Providência actively depends on this new security, but memories lead residents on the hill to remain concerned with the excesses of police power: “here, just as in any favela, there is more fear of the police than of the thieves,” Eron said in a lower tone.

One of the greatest complaints, not just from Eron, with the arrival of the UPP, is the feeling of instability that now probe the alleys. “I am in favor of having the police here in the favela, when they act correctly. We have to behave in a legal manner. But there are very problematic elements in this project,” he says, “On the street, there is this air of suspicion of what is going to happen in 10 minutes. We are not allowed, for example, to have birthday parties past ten o’clock at night. And we are afraid to leave our kids alone. When the hill was split by the drug traffic, we knew what to do and where to go. With these men here in uniform, we don’t know how to act,” he confesses and changes the subject quickly.

Arriving at ADRIO, the school of Father Francisco da Motta, at the foot of nearby historic Morro da Conceição, Eron says bye to the children and before leaving for the supermarket, says goodbye to me too.  He talks about his capoeira project in front of the church: “The majority are children three to eight years old. Every Saturday we are there with our capoeira circle. I find it very important, not just as a sport, but as a cultural rescue of Morro da Providência. The music for capoeira is written in relation to what is going on in the community, also to incentivize children to learn more about the history of the neighborhood,” says the proud capoeira teacher of 16 years.