Maré is a favela people forgot about. It doesn’t boast a scenic cityscape from the top of a hill, doesn’t have an aesthetic arrangement of stacked multi-colored homes, it doesn’t conjure an artistic dissonance between poetry and poverty. Maré mostly has only poverty.
Spread across a flat landscape, it is a compilation of 17 neighborhoods, one of the largest complexes of favelas in Rio de Janeiro. I first arrived after a rainstorm. The streets smelled like they were rotting, the sewers overflowing. It felt like many of the other communities I’ve been to in Latin America. This was Olaya. This was Callao. These were all the places that the boxers on my journey had lived. I walked through nine blocks of people mean mugging the shit out of me, but nothing more beyond that. When I first arrived in Rio, my friend Gilberto told me, “nobody will steal from you in Maré. It is the code of the favela.”
I stood awestruck at the doorstep of my destination. Fight for Peace, an organization that I’ve been in correspondence with for over four years. I’ve read all their annual reports, watched every media release, and used their videos in a workshop that I give every year at Franklin High School back in Seattle. I remember first stumbling across the organization while surfing the web in Bogotá thinking it was too good to be true: A gym planted in the middle of one of Rio’s most dangerous favelas aimed at using the sport of boxing to provide disenfranchised youth with more options in life. It was basically everything I’ve ever tried to communicate through my art embodied into a non-profit.
I kept the place in mind as I continued traveling, dropping the name whenever someone from the boxing scene would propose a similar idea. Lima. Bogotá. Nicaragua. People throughout the world could see the benefit of the sweet science. “Can you connect us with them?” they’d always ask. “One day,” I’d say. “One day I’ll work with them.”
Walking to the doors of the center was like walking onto a movie set. I stood outside the gates for a moment and took in a deep breath before going through the doors, greeted with huge smiles from everyone inside. I kept telling the staff that I recognized them from the videos online. To me they were celebrities. They all smiled shyly in return.
The one staff member who wasn’t so shy was the gym’s head coach, GB, a short Afro-Brazilian with a scruffy voice and workman like demeanor. His eyes scanned me up and down, trying to determine what to think.
“What are you like, a middleweight?”
He looked at me like he didn’t believe me. Shit, I didn’t believe myself. Welter was back when I was in shape. I have no idea where I stand now.
One of the gym’s rising stars, Michel, walked through the doors. GB led him over to me and said, “Here, your new sparring partner. He’s a welter too.” Equipped with two giant-ass banana hands at the end of a pair of long, wiry arms and some freakish Gumbi-like flexibility, this cat could seriously fuck me up, and he oddly had the same name as my sister.
But he flashed the kindest grin when I spoke one of the only three French phrases I knew. Michel had been here training in Maré for over a year since moving from Cameroon. I asked him if he ever thought about becoming a professional fighter. “Oh man, that’s like a dream,” he said with kiddish excitement.
It made me think about his experience as an exchange student in Brazil. I wonder if he would talk about the beaches, the samba, the Sugar Loaf mountain, the Redeemer, if he would talk about late nights out in Copacabana or strolling on the beach in Ipanema. I wonder if outsiders would know about where he trains, the conditions people have to live in, if they know the other side of Brazil.
The academy is located two blocks from the dividing line between two of Rio’s largest drug factions: Comando Vermelho and Terceiro Comando. The surrounding buildings are peppered with bullet holes and a public school sits oddly in the middle of it all. Locally, it is referred to as the Gaza Strip. Not many NGOs would place themselves in the middle of that kind of situation.
Throughout boxing literature, it has been said in many variations that "the boxing is gym is where kids go to be safe." The saying couldn't be more fitting now. When you wear the academy's t-shit around the neighborhood, it's like waving a banner of peace. You get a pass because people know that you are part of something, they know that you are trying to better yourself, and for the most part, human beings are generally supportive of seeing their communities excel.
I feel like everything I’ve ever done for the past decade of my life has been for this moment. The writing, the research, the sparring, all of it. I was nearly brought to tears seeing this place in person for the first time. It is a negotiator for peace, casting a vote for something better in a world where so much has already been broken.
Boxing saves lives. I've said it for years. This project, right here, does exactly that. I just need some time to show the world how.