The Olympic games were in full swing in sprawling Rio, but on a humid day high above the noise and traffic, nobody at the Casa do Jongo in the Madureira suburb was paying attention to them. A few dozen teenagers were playing and dancing jongo, the Afro-Brazilian music that many say is the grandfather of samba, and not a single smartphone screen was lit up with tiny images of the athletes on the green fields below.
Nobody in Rio was much paying attention to the Casa de Jongo, either. The gleaming new cultural center houses community archives from the past 80 years, a dance hall, music studios and an auditorium for jongo. The music’s rhythms are an undercurrent in Brazilian popular culture, from the spectacle of Carnival to the policemen who blow their whistles to a samba beat in the swank beach neighborhoods of Copacabana and Ipanema as they direct daily traffic.
But its perch atop a mountain in a poor community sets it far apart from the glittering venues below: when I visited earlier this week, I was only the 44th person to sign my name in the guest book. And that is representative of the monumental gulf in Brazil between rich and poor, black and white, and entitlement and resignation. Rio’s Olympics are costing nearly $12 billion, and critics argue that even its enduring projects—a new metro line, bus highway and the development of the immense new venues in the city’s distant, sparsely populated westernmost edge—have done little to improve the lives of the city’s poor. Certainly people at the Casa do Jongo don’t expect to see any benefit from it.
“These are the two sides of our reality,” said Dilmar Jose, the center’s music and art director, and researcher. “On one hand the Games make us excited to show our hospitality and the best flavors Brazil has to offer,” he said. “On the other, we have a situation that brings me shame.”
Jose was referring specifically to the impeachment proceedings of President Dilma Rousseff, who is accused of shifting federal budget money to fund popular social programs when she was running for reelection in 2014. But there have been so many more problems, of course, since Brazil was awarded the games in 2009 during a time of unprecedented economic growth and political stability. In the past five years, the economy has crashed due to the collapse of two of its top exports: fossil fuels and soybeans. As federal coffers have withered, so have funds for policing in the city’s favelas, and drug violence there has surged. The country has been hard hit by the zika epidemic, and some of the country’s top politicians, including interim president Michel Temer, and Rousseff’s predecessor, Lula da Silva, are under investigation for a political corruption scandal. (Rousseff is not.)
The Olympics throw a spotlight on the growing inequalities of Brazilian society, too. In his two terms as president beginning in 2003, Lula’s Worker’s Party platform restructured the economy, and brought millions of Brazilians into the middle class. (The past two decades have also ushered in a new class of the super wealthy, one the writer Alex Cuadros calls “Brazillionaires.”)
"I’m an optimist, and I’m having a good time during the Olympics,” said Fred Monteiro, the taxi driver who took me to Madureiro, and who also lives there. “But I also see the improvements made for cariocas down below and know there is so much to be done here,” he said, using the Brazilian term for Rio natives. He waved to his neighborhood streets. “We need more hospitals. We need better schools. We need clean water. And I say this as a taxi driver: We need better public transportation.” He winds from beachside condos to the poor communities that ring the city’s mountains. It is difficult to ignore who will benefit from the Olympics. “Not dark people,” he said, pointing to his bronze arm.
Since the mid-20th century, many have described Brazil as a post-racial society. Nearly 5 million enslaved Africans arrived in Brazil between the early 16th and late 19th centuries, more than 10 times the number who went to North America, and today more than half its citizens identify themselves as mixed race or black. (After Nigeria, Brazil has the second highest number of citizens of African descent.) The vast majority entered through Rio, the nation’s largest port.
Superficially at least, Brazil lacked the violent racial separation that so marked the U.S., and when the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig fled the Nazis, he settled in Brazil. He became so enchanted with the its external racial harmony and magnificent beauty, he wrote a book called Brazil: Land of the Future. The next few decades, as the country endured a repressive military regime and rampant inflation, Zweig’s title morphed into a depressing joke: “Brazil is the land of the future—and always will be.”
The people gathered at the Casa do Jongo represent both the country’s future—and its past. Damiana Alves, the center’s cook and educational guide, greeted me with a kiss, and cariocas’ renowned sense of self-deprecating humor, when I arrived unannounced. “Welcome!” she said. She offered me a small cup of the sweet, strong coffee Brazilians call cafezinho, but the thermos was empty. “Guess you’ll be having water!” she said, and handed me a cup for the giant metal water cooler. She took my hand and showed me mementos of some of Madureira’s late beloved icons: spectator shoes and a suit jacket from one jongueiro; the pipe and photos of the late community matriarch and healer, Maria Joanna. She jumped up to remove a bolero from a rattan-covered wall, and insisted me to wear it. “It will give you strength!” she exclaimed. “Let me take a picture!” (I declined, so she put it on her head instead.)
She introduced me to students, her daughter, two grandchildren, and adults who are dedicated jongo instructors. One of her colleagues, teacher Karin Rodrigues de Melo, danced as she led me to show me a cache of brilliantly sequined costumes. “We are part of the beautiful, diverse history of this city, too,” Rodrigues de Melo said, “and we want people to know about it.”
Jose, the researcher and musician, did not mince words about what was taking place in the city below. “It’s just a diversion from what is happening here,” he said. “Let’s all have a good legacy of the Olympics, with high taxes for the Brazilian people, without having to count. It’s a farce.”
“I have regret for what could have been better,” Jose said.
He gestured to three boys playing congas in a small studio. “Some try to destroy, while others do everything for growth.” He sighed, then smiled. “We planted jongo in the world, and want to make sure it is here to stay.”