Citizenship Fight Project: Martial Arts in Chapéu-Mangueira and Babilônia

Martial arts teacher Zé Milton trains with Penca.

In the communities of Chapéu-Mangueira and Babilônia in the South Zone of Rio, a group of children dream to be trained martial arts fighters.

This dream has its origins in the Projeto Luta Cidadã (Citizenship Fight Project), which offers free martial arts training to children aged 8 to 18. Founded in 1998 by Marcelo ‘Penca’ da Silva Carvalho, a Chapéu-Mangueira born-and-raised Muay Thai fighter, the project seeks to channel children and adolescents’ energy and prepare them for adult life.

“If these children weren’t here, they would be unprepared for the world…I am teaching them how to defend themselves,” Penca said.

A black belt in Jiu-jitsu and a professional Muay Thai fighter with the organization Brazilian Top Team, Penca has traveled and lived in Europe, including Greece, the Netherlands, and France, but he returned to Chapéu-Mangueira because he wanted to do something important for his community.

Penca believes there is good in people but also believes that most of the time the world is a dog-eat-dog environment, so he wants to teach the children in his community to harness the good and be prepared for the worst. With this mentality, he has almost 100 young students from the Chapéu-Mangueira and Babilônia communities enrolled in Projeto Luta Cidadã. He also offers classes to adults.

“It is not an easy task, convincing these children to join, but once they do they see how much of a difference it makes,” he said. “Their physical, mental and spiritual health improves and it is hard for them to leave.”

With all the recent talk of Olympics, Penca believes Jiu-Jitsu and Muay Thai are sports that should be included in the Games with some alterations. “There needs to be a decent federation and an organization is essential for the sport to be official,” he said. But he worries the sport would become elitist if this happened.

He said: “Take Judo, for example; a kimono is expensive, supplements, mat, everything is very expensive and this price only tends to increase with popularity.”

Chapéu-Mangueira and Babilônia are an attractive spot even to international fighters. Portuguese professional boxer Atílio Coelho, also known as Gladiator, was born and raised in an informal settlement near Porto in Portugal. Now, he trains seasonally in Chapéu-Mangueira and Babilônia and says that most fighters come from low-income backgrounds.

“One percent [of professional fighters] gets rich, the other 99% are prepared for a life of hardship,” he said.

Despite the lack of financial reward, both men grew up experiencing the benefits martial arts training can bring. They believe the sport teaches an individual how to be respectful, smart and strong.

Since he founded the project in 1998, Penca has positively influenced over 500 children in his community. Despite limited financial support, he dreams of further expanding his program’s reach in the future, employing more teachers and moving to a bigger training facility in Chapéu-Mangueira.