Favela Jiu-Jitsu: The Hill Of Champions

Nico Ball
In association with Favela Jiu-Jitsu, a 501(c) nonprofit organization that advocates for the transformative power of the sport in disadvantaged communities, we present the second in a series of articles about jiu-jitsu in Rio de Janeiro's favelas.

Here we visit Projeto Social Cantagalo Jiu-Jitsu, situated in one of the most iconic favelas in Rio and home to many of the sport's top stars. 

The Socio-Economic Divide: 'The Hill' vs. 'The Asphalt'

The favelas of Pavao-Pavaozinho and Cantagalo, often referred to as PPG or just as Cantagalo, are located high on the hills above the world-famous Copacabana and Ipanema beaches in Rio de Janeiro. They are home to a surprising number of jiu-jitsu black belts who found the power of sports as a survival mechanism.

Due to its popular location, Cantagalo was one of the earliest favelas to be "pacified" in 2009. Pacification meant an increase in police presence in the community, formerly a no-go area. But despite the noble initiative, open drug trafficking and armed disputes between police special forces and drug dealers are still a common problem.

In the absence of formal government organizations to provide educational and recreational programs to foster children's development, residents have banded together to make sure that various social projects continue to serve the kids from the "morro" (which means "hill" in Portuguese). These projects ensure the kids have the same opportunity as the wealthier kids that live in the affluent areas down below, colloquially known as "the asphalt."

Life on the hill

You can find small groups of kids all over the favela playing soccer, flying kites, or barreling down the narrow passageways at breakneck speeds on skateboards and bicycles.

Kids run barefoot and bare-chested, weaving their way through motorbikes, parked cars, and the men carrying building materials to construction sites hidden deep inside the growing labyrinth.

In the late afternoon, kids start appearing from the narrow alleys with gis in hand. They slowly make their way toward the top of the street that bisects the favelas, dividing Cantagalo from Pavao-Pavaozinho.

​Gis drying outside the Catagalo Jiu-Jitsu Social Project. Photo: Nico Ball 

The older kids herd their younger brothers and the occasional sister up the street, past the police station and down the sidewalk that leads to the local Center for Integrated Public Education (CIEP). The CIEP, also known as Crianca Esperanca, is the remnant of an educational initiative meant to bring more cultural, educational, and recreational programs to some 2,000 marginalized kids from the community.

The little information available on the program talks about the failing indicators and increasing neglect of the facility and its programs. A walkthrough of the building will reveal a rundown basketball court, a long-abandoned but recently restored pool, and makeshift accommodations for a small family somewhere in the lower reaches of the basement.

The building is an odd assortment of abandoned spaces, small businesses, impromptu restaurants, and salvaged areas that the residents have turned into social projects -- programs that serve as the heartbeat of the community.

At the entrance of the vast building, off to the right and hidden behind a small wooden door that's easy to miss, is the Cantagalo Jiu-Jitsu Social Project.

Cantagalo Jiu-Jitsu Social Project

Cantagalo, despite its small size, is home to a surprising number of social projects. And not just jiu-jitsu; the favela has programs for dance, surf, music, and capoeira and even a famous boxing gym run by Mestre Claudio Coelho, a place where almost every single Gracie has trained at least once and where most of the major MMA fighters have come to pay tribute.

Cantagalo Jiu-Jitsu is one of many projects located inside the favela. Although the name, location, government support, and team affiliation have all changed over the years, the project has been functioning -- thanks to the piecemeal support of the community -- since 2000.

​Photo: Nico Ball

Douglas "Trator" Rufino, Sandro Vieira, and Adailton Vieira are the current instructors. Together they are trying their best to ensure that more kids from the hill have the same opportunities as some of the big names to hail from the community, famous competitors and teachers such as Fernando "Terere," Jackson Sousa, Alan "Finfou" Nascimento, and Bruno Matias.

They all call Cantagalo home, but thanks to jiu-jitsu they were equipped with the skills to circumvent and rise above the violent circumstances that brought about the death or demise of many of their childhood friends.

The project was the first place in my life that gave an opportunity to work my way up towards something good and that I love.
-- Alan Nascimento

Alan "Finfou" Nascimento is the last remaining male member of his family. Having lost his father and two brothers to gang violence, he could have very easily let the pressure and the stress of these tragedies break him. Finfou started out jiu-jitsu in a social project in Cantagalo with the legendary Terere. Finfou makes a living through teaching the arte suave and raising a beautiful family in Sweden.

"I don't really know how my life would be today without jiu-jitsu and without the opportunity that my teacher gave me," Finfou says. "He believed in me before anyone else. Even I wasn't strong enough to believe in myself as much as he did and today I live my dream life because of that."

Finfou, like so many others, is a product of social projects, initiatives that are essential tools for giving kids the opportunity to keep dreaming.

Politics of pacification

"I can't tell you if pacification worked," Sandro Vieira says. "Things got worse. Nothing changed. To today, no one from the poor communities in Rio knows what peace is."

For many growing up in Rio's favelas, local gangs and the organized structure that they provide are a highly appealing career opportunity. Consistent wages and stable hours (along with the working close to home) provided financial stability that many young men and women needed to support their oversized families.

Black belt instructor ​Sandro Vieira sweeps the mats at the Cantagalo Jiu-Jitsu Social Project. Photo: Nico Ball

"Jiu-jitsu changes the lives of kids from the community," Vieira says. "It's important to have the help the teachers because a lot of times there is no mother or father present."

Seeing the success and opportunities that were afforded through sports is one of the few beacons of light in a world where ostentatious drug dealers and inhumane police practices are the status quo.

Vieira, a 32-year-old black belt under Rico Vieira, was caught off-guard when asked what he would be doing without jiu-jitsu.

"Maybe working as a moto taxi," he says. Working as a moto-taxi driver, parking cars, or construction and manual labor are the usual options for young men from the favela.

Training in the favela is different

In Cantagalo, much like other favelas, there is a greater sense of urgency, a hunger, a need to be better in order to have a better life, not just for the kids but for their teachers as well. These instructors depend on successful competition careers to provide for their families, help their students, and invest in their community.

That's why, at almost any part of the day, the door to the project is open. If there isn't a class going on, then someone is drilling or teaching a private lesson.

Cantagalo Jiu-Jitsu has helped hundreds of kids. Helped them find gis, helped them learn jiu-jitsu, helped them learn to sit still and follow directions, helped them to cope with the anguish of losing loved ones and helped them as they climbed their way to the top of the podium to claim their gold medals.

They recently sent 27 kids to compete, 25 of whom returned to the favela with medals hung proudly around their necks.

"Competition is important," Douglas Rufino says. "It gives them a taste competing, for winning medals, and then when they're older they're already familiar with competition."

​Photo: Nico Ball

He went on to about how they come home and boast proudly to their families about their medal count.

"Brazilian Nationals, that's in Sao Paulo, they LOVE that competition," he says. "They get the chance to travel, leave the favela, get to know another state. They all stay together, cramped together in one room."

It's an experience that many of them will cherish for the rest of their lives: walking back up the hill in small hoards, their arms wrapped around each other, fingers sticky from popcorn, candy and other celebratory treats, clutching their prized medals. For days, they retell and reenact their victories and defeats to anyone who will listen.

Cantagalo Jiu-Jitsu has helped send hundreds of kids to local tournaments and given other aspiring athletes the opportunity to travel internationally to competitions that they wouldn't be able to finance otherwise.

Maintaining the project is a collective effort that has been anything but easy. However, thanks to the love from the community and the support of friends, they have been doing an amazing job for over 15 years.

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