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Brazil’s ‘Rolezinhos’ Want Room in the Palaces of Consumerism

Batman, a familiar character in demonstrations in Rio de Janeiro, supports the “rolezinho” in front of Shopping Leblon with a placard reading “We are all equal.” Credit: Fabiana Frayssinet/IPS

Batman, a familiar character in demonstrations in Rio de Janeiro, supports the “rolezinho” in front of Shopping Leblon with a placard reading “We are all equal.” Credit: Fabiana Frayssinet/IPS

RIO DE JANEIRO, Feb 7 2014 (IPS) - They poured into shopping malls en masse to have some fun. But the reaction, a mixture of fear, admiration and heavy-handed repression, brought a new youth movement into being in Brazil: the “rolezinhos.”

In Brazilian youth slang, “rolar” means to go out with friends on a leisurely stroll, and the call to join these mass outings has become, in the view of some, a revolutionary movement, while for others it mirrors the consumerist longings of the emerging middle class.

It started in December 2013, when a group of young people used Facebook to plan a rolezinho (little outing) at a shopping centre in the southern city of São Paulo, “to have a bit of fun” in a country where entertainment and cultural events are expensive. Six thousand youngsters showed up. 

For social organisations and those on the left, rolezinhos express popular discontent or the fight against discrimination.

Police repression and the Brazilian government’s fears for the FIFA World Cup it will be hosting in June and July 2014 have only caused rolezinhos to spread to other cities.

“We came to prove that poor young people are consumers too,” Iata Anderson, a geography student, told IPS when a rolezinho took place Jan. 19 in front of the upmarket Shopping Leblon in Rio de Janeiro, leading to its preventive closure, in spite of the low numbers who came.

Anderson, like many other rolezinhos (a participant in a rolezinho is also called a rolezinho), is under 20. Although he lives in a “favela” (shanty town), he represents the new Brazilian middle class, who are studying at public universities and have access to the internet, credit and purchasing power, thanks to a decade of leftwing governments under former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2011) and current president Dilma Rousseff.

“I came to support the rolezinhos in São Paulo, which are being met with tear gas and police beatings. This only happens because the participants are Afro-Brazilians from the periphery, who are seen as out of place in the luxurious sophistication of the shopping malls,” he said.

On Jan.11 militarised police used rubber bullets and pepper spray against some 1,000 young people engaged in a rolezinho at a shopping centre on the periphery of the city. There were 60 arrests.

The Brazilian Association of Shopping Centres (ABRASCE) says the malls are “democratic spaces catering to people of all social profiles and different ages” and that they “welcome diversity and social inclusion, frequently in areas with few entertainment options.”

They are also “meeting places for the majority of young people,” it said.

In the view of sociologist Ignacio Cano, of the Laboratory for the Analysis of Violence at the University of Rio de Janeiro, the police reaction “was disproportionate”, as was the closure of shopping centres in order to thwart rolezinhos.

This episode was “in contradiction to the historical tendency of shopping malls, which are temples of consumerism and now also entertainment centres, which increasingly attract ever more diverse people, whether or not they make purchases, and recently are also providing public services,” he told IPS.

Cano says it will be disappointing if shopping centres lose their “universalist” vocation and become “more elitist” instead.

However, for many people that is already the case.

“A dark-skinned person at a shopping centre is immediately targeted for close watching by the security staff, who think we are probably going to steal something,” cargo assistant Diego Meier told IPS, adding that he regards these malls as “palaces of the bourgeoisie and capitalism.”

“At times I am badly served by staff and I notice that it is dark-skinned Afro-Brazilians who work the security shifts or clean toilets. We must have the same rights, independently of skin colour, social class and purchasing power,” said Anderson, an Afro-Brazilian like Meier.

Rousseff herself criticised the harsh police response and prejudice against poor young people.

Minister for Racial Equality Policies Luiza Bairros said that rolezinhos were “peaceful demonstrations” and that black people should not automatically be associated with the idea of crime, as is customary.

“The problems arise when white people are afraid of young black people,” she said.

“The shopping centre is a novelty. We want to get to know a place that used to be only for the upper classes,” information technology student Waldei Teixeira told IPS.

Brazil’s middle and upper classes associate the presence of overwhelming numbers of poor black youngsters in public spaces like the beaches, with the danger of “dragnet” attacks by mobs of thieves.

But rolezinhos do not loot or steal or destroy.

“There are much larger crowds in the shopping malls during the Christmas shopping season. Is that a threat to the security of the shopping centre?” asked Anderson.

What started out as a collective way to have some fun evolved largely because of the way it was repressed, which “creates a political goal, because when young people feel challenged they try to overcome the prohibitions against them,” Cano said.

The upcoming world football championship and the presidential elections next October make the rolezinhos a political instrument, Fernando Gabeira, a journalist and former member of Congress for the Green Party (Partido Verde), told IPS.

“Small movements can grow into big movements, as happened in June 2013, with the outbreak of large protests against fare increases in public transport and corruption, and demands for better health care and education,” he said.

At first, the reason for the rolezinhos was “to democratise the space for whoever wanted to enjoy the beauty of the shopping centres,” said Gabeira. Now, in his view, everyone tags the phenomenon with “his or her own political and ideological aims.”

For social organisations and those on the left, rolezinhos express popular discontent or the fight against discrimination.

The government, on the other hand, views them as “an expression of dynamism, social mobility and the changes that have occurred in Brazilian society in recent years.”

This mobility is expressed in the consumerism of this new “niche market”, which paradoxically, is being catered to by the shopping centres themselves, consisting of a new middle class avid for cellular phones, computers, the latest televisions or stylish clothes.

In Gabeira’s view, rolezinhos are clamouring for their right to consume, as part of the consumer society.

The transformation from a social class that up until recently had no future, into another that has dreams, is expressed in the music that young people taking part in rolezinhos listen to at top volume in the shopping centres.

The lyrics and videos of “ostentation funk” proclaim that the road to happiness involves climbing the social ladder, marked by the possession of luxury goods and, afterwards, going out with blondes.

“This kind of funk was a preview of the rolezinho phenomenon. It shows a desire, conscious or unconscious, for social integration. But it’s also part of the culture,” film student Gonzalo Gaudenzi, who studied the history and origins of the genre, told IPS.

Brazilian funk (inspired by U.S. rap music) was born in the urban peripheries with lyrics on everyday topics such as drug trafficking, narcotics, police repression or sex.

But with the spread of social welfare, it began to reflect the aspirations of many of the 30 million people, in this country of nearly 200 million people, who were lifted out of poverty thanks to an economic model based on domestic consumption as the springboard for growth.

“If the music they listen to all day is telling them that to get the best girls and the highest social status they have to have the best cars, clothes and watches, even if they can’t buy them they will want to get close to that world and feel its presence. And where can they do that? At the shopping malls,” said Gaudenzi.

 
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