How a Social enterprise in a Favela paved the way for youths to reach the Olympics

It takes a village to raise a child (and an Olympian). Favelas are no exception to the testament of community will, personal perseverance and social transformation. Here’s the story behind the medals of two Olympic boxers from Vidigal whose paths were paved with the help of a social project at a local gym.

Brazil’s first Gold win in the Rio Olympics 2016- won by Rafaela Silva , a black woman from the favela Cidade de Deus, was a fresh breath amidst all the negative portrayal of Rio de Janeiro,in general, and specifically of the Favelas. However,Rafaela was not the only Olympian with roots in a Favela.

Michel Borges, 25, and Patrick Lourenço , 23,are two Olympian Boxers and lifelong residents of Morro do Vidigal Favela who made their way to the ultimate competing stage — the Olympics- with the help of a gym open for kids to take free boxing classes in Vidigal.

A Glimpse into the Favela that raised them

View froom Vidigal Overlooking Ipanema Beach

It is important to note that there is Vidigal and then Morro do Vidigal. The spaces accessible to public transportation- accessible period- is Vidigal. Here you have the Sheraton Hotel and very nice and expensive Mediterranean-like houses. Then once you steer away from accessibility you have Morro do Vidigal. Here you need either a moto taxi, collective vans, or a car… or really strong legs to reach Morro Vidigal as it is a very steep way up the hill. The further you go up , the houses and the streets fall of a planning grid, defy principles of urban planning- and also go off the public and government concern. Today , Vidigal is categorized as one of the “pacified” favelas in Rio de Janeiro. Its “pacification,”which entails police presence started back in 2012. You can easily roam through Vidigal even for foreign tourists today.

Vidigal is home to more than 40,000 residents. It is a city within a city. But no two favelas are the same. And it’s important to distinguish this. Vidigal is not the same as the favela Alemão and Santa Marta Favela. Each favela, like each neighborhood, has its own characteristics, histories, and character.

It’s strategic location and its Dois Irmãos ( two brothers) hike that gives a panoramic view to remind you why Rio de Janeiro has the nickname Cidade Maravilhosa has made Vidigal one of Rio’s top attractions. One thing to take in beside the view is also the extreme inequality living side-by-side in Rio de Janeiro. On top of the Hill of Dois Irmãos you see Rio’s biggest Favela, Rocinha, and also Rio’s most expensive neighborhoods coexisting but of two different worlds of infrastructure.

Inequality from above- to the left is the Rocinha Favela, Rio’s largest Favela, and to the right you have Gavea, one of Rio’s elite neighborhoods.

View from Vidigal’s Dois Irmaos Mountain Top overlooking Rio de Janeiro South Zone

Vidigal Is more Than Breathtaking Views

Overlooking the view of Ipanema beach, amidst a tight urban sidewalk, and growing presence of construction happening , there is a beautiful graffiti painted on a roof that serves as an art school for local youth . Ana Lima, founder of Trilha Dois irmãos , and lifelong resident of Vidigal makes sure that tourists take in the mesmerizing view that Vidigal offers as much as the stories of the community.

“ The View is, the City is, Make your Life be also Marvelous”

Looking out and seeing the future space of what will be an organic farm, the guide tells the group of tourists, “the social projects aims to make a better life for the residents”- but he makes the point that a “ better life doesn’t mean to leave the favela..because life here is a Maravilhosa”.

Vidigal has various social projects run by NGOs, community associations , and foreign and community members. One these projects just happened to have not one but two of its participants make it the Olympics. The other theater NGO, Ana pointed out, has also had some of its participants featured in the movie City of God- the film based on the favela Cidade de Deus that is the favela where gold olympian Rafaela Silva grew up.

A Gym with a Purpose for the Favela

Close to the entrance of Vidigal, there is a gym and a social youth project created by Raff Giglio a resident of Vidigal for the youth of vidigal.

Instituto Todos Na Luta ( All in the Fight Institute) is a social project founded by a local resident of Vidigal a project whose purpose is to serve the youth of Vidigal. It is an NGO that offers boxing classes to more than 95 local youths from Vidigal. Michel Borges and Patrick Lorenzo boxing career started here.

“Improbable is not Impossible”- the wall in front of Instituto Todas Na Luta

The story of Instituto Todos Na Luta started as an offspring of a boxing school founded by Raff Giglio in the 1990’s. Originally from Leblon, Raff Giglio, whose background is in physical education and started in Boxing at 17-years-old , moved to Vidigal almost two decades ago after a marriage split prompted him to move. He went on to marry a local woman from the neighborhood and in 2010 officially established Instituto Todos Na Luta through running his boxing gym. At the time of the early days of the boxing school, violence was much rampant and Raff Giglio welcomed local youth free access to use the gym as mean to give them an alternative space to the violence in the streets.

Michel Borges and Founder of Instituto Todas Na Luta, Raff Giglio

While he first began financing without any outside funds, others started to chip in when times got rough.The social project for youth began running with the proceeds of the gym memberships of the gym. However, during the 2004 violent rift among Vidigal and Rocinha, he stated in an interview with Riowatch “the gym almost went bankrupt. It had been surviving thanks to students from ‘the asphalt’ who paid monthly fees. And with what I saved from the proceeds of the gym, I kept my program going with the Vidigal kids. I financed it. Then when the war was on, I couldn’t pay rent anymore. But the condominium’s owners lent it to me and I kept using it that way for a few years.”

“ A lot of faith in the youth of Vidigal”

In the wall facing Instituto Todas Na Luta is a message written saying: “ A lot of Faith in the youth of Vidigal” Boxing: Sport, Amor, Inclusion, Perseverance, Art, Union, Inclusion, Discipline etc.

Today you can easily walk through Morro Vidigal without much concern. It is a booming community and you can find hostels and even pricey accommodations in Vidigal these days. It is also looming with the concern of gentrification as there’s speculation looming over its prized views and growing popularity as a tourist-friendly zone with strategic proximity to Rio’s elite neighborhood of Leblon and the rest of Rio’s Zona Sul upper-class neighborhood. It is also hold one of Rio’s best views. So much offering, that rumors have it that David Beckham also owns a piece of property here.

Back in the institute’s early days ,however, Vidigal was not a space you can easily roam around.

In an interview with boxing league , Patrick Lourenço, who lost his father at age 3, described his upbringing in Morro do Vidigal as “ My childhood wasn’t easy. The neighborhood wasn’t easy. The drug trafficking, the violence and the poverty were very present”

My mother gave me a lot of help. She was always supporting me, leading and advising me. After I found boxing my life changed completely. When my friends were going out, I was going to the gym. Boxing saved my live.
I want to become APB World Champion. I want this belt and I’m sure that I will bring it to Vidigal”.

Pride of the Favela

Michel and Patrick like Rafaela are a sense of Pride for the Favela. Ana, my guide, even took out her cell phone to show me the video of Michel boxing- it was a video of her recording her TV- when Michel Borges won his last match. The video was a bit shaky as you can tell she was jumping when Michel Borges was announced the winner. You get the sense that the win was not just for Michel, but a victory for Vidigal.

But the champions are far more than Rafaela, Michel, and Patrick. There is also the Favela and its residents and the projects and the people and business who support this network of social transformation for a better life within the favela. They too have won a space of pride and recognition “ in the fight” in a media and society that has overlooked and distorted their stories for way too long.

The wall reads: “I resist in the favela because I believe in its transformation”- Acme

How to Support initiatives like these?

  • Ensure to book with community-based travel operators. You can check out local NGO’s and community-based operators around the world at visit.org. and book tours such as with Trilha Dois Irmãos who is owned and operated by people from the community you are visiting and investing their profits back local projects like Instituto Todos na Luta.
  • Special thanks to Ana Lima and Pedro for the guidance into their neighborhood of Vidigal!
  • For more community reporting on Rio and Favelas, please check out Rioonwatch.org