Heloisa Helena Costa Berto stands in the remains of the Vila Autódromo community, which is right next to the Olympic Park in Rio de Janeiro. Berto’s house was recently demolished in the area. 
Kiratiana Freelon

Two years ago, a simple Candomblé religious rite revealed to Heloisa Helena Costa Berto her future in Rio de Janeiro.

When the mãe de santo (mother of the spirit) threw her cowrie shells onto a table, Berto saw a vision of her house through the formation of the shells. It didn’t look good.

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“I saw that my house would be demolished,” Berto said. “I was shaken. I cried a lot.”

As with many favela families who built their own houses in Brazil, Berto’s house was very special to her. Her mother in 1985 moved to Vila Autódromo, a favela community in the far west of Rio de Janeiro. Berto followed her, and raised her family in the house. She expanded the building to include rooms for her religion, Candomblé.

In 2011 the Olympic Park construction began—in an area of 1.18 million square meters right next to Berto’s house—on a hotel, seven new sports venues and a park. Berto and other members of the favela community of Vila Autódromo did not fit into developers’ post-Olympics plans to replace the favela with high-rise gated communities.

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This is the story of how one woman lost her house in a painful removal process that made her a fighter. She did this as an Afro-Brazilian woman who practices Candomblé and lives in a favela. She did this as a person who experiences significant discrimination in Brazil. But her identity didn’t hurt her; it even helped her.

“The spirits said that my house would be demolished and that I would fight it,” Berto said. “I would fight a lot.”

Candomblé

Candomblé is a Brazilian religion that has roots in the Yoruba religion of West Africa, brought to Brazil by slaves. It’s celebrated as a cultural patrimony, but as a religion, it’s persecuted in a country that is becoming more evangelical.

As a mãe de santo, Berto provides spiritual assistance to her followers as they progress through life. She helps people determine their orisha (deity) and reads their future through the jogo dos buzios, or throwing of the cowrie shells. When Talita Custodio, 31, was distraught over her deceased grandmother, she turned to Berto for spiritual and emotional guidance. She became Berto’s first filha do santo, her chosen daughter.

“She’s always helping me to make choices that will help me be happy, safe and healthy in life,” Custodio said.

Berto’s home in Vila Autódromo was also her spiritual center. In the back, she grew sacred herbs and African trees for her religion. She also had seven dogs and three cats. The large terrace provided space for her and her worshipers where they danced to the rhythms dedicated to the orishas.

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“I ate, prayed and slept in the house,” Custodio said. “I felt like it was my own house.”

Spiritually, it was the location of the house that most benefited Berto and her worshipers. The house stood on the edge of a lagoon where she also held Candomblé ceremonies. Berto’s own orisha is Yalorixá Luizinha de Nanã, the great-grandmother of all orishas and the goddess of mud and water.

“I am the daughter of Nanã. Nanã is responsible for my existence; she is the one who owns the small piece of land which I care for,” wrote Berto in a letter published on Rioonwatch.

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Berto and her husband, Clemilson, raised two daughters and two sons in the community, all of whom—unlike most black people in Brazil—attended prestigious public colleges.

Education was so important to Berto that she also enrolled herself in college when she was 40 years old. After graduating, she started working, after being a housewife for more than 15 years.

Community Removal

Like most favelas, Vila Autódromo was an unplanned community. Fishermen settled in the 1960s near the lagoon, then still clean and full of fish. Construction workers remained after building the nearby Formula 1 racetrack, which was demolished to make room for an Olympic hotel. Others moved in simply because of the affordability, tranquillity and proximity to nature—also reasons that the area was always under threat of development.

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After Rio de Janeiro was awarded the Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2009, Vila Autódromo was named as the only community to be removed. This was a blow to the 3,000 residents. Early Olympic drawings portrayed their community as intact. They held titles provided by the state government that owned the land in 1994. They went to court and won a ruling to remain.

But by 2014 the city began offering families money and apartments elsewhere to leave. The longer residents held out, the bigger the offer. Residents with more “social capital” received bigger offers. One car-repair-shop owner, whose father was a judge, received almost 3 million reais ($824,000) to relocate.

The city immediately demolished houses of families that left the community. When the ex-wife of one resident took the offer, her upstairs part of the house was demolished, leaving the resident with an unlivable house. Vila Autódromo started to look like a bomb site. Water ran sporadically. Electricity lines were cut down. But Berto and some of her neighbors, including Maria da Penha, held out, refusing to leave the three-story compound.

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“I’m happy only in this community,” da Penha said. “Happiness doesn’t have a price.”

Negotiations That Went Sour

After the cowrie shells showed a vision of her demolished house in mid-2014, Berto began negotiations with city representatives. She hoped for enough money to buy land and rebuild her Candomblé spiritual center nearby, still close to the lagoon. She traveled countless times to the center of Rio, more than an hour away, to meet a city representative who didn’t offer her enough money to rebuild. Once, she waited nine hours.

The pain of leaving one’s home is never easy, but Berto’s story is unique.

“She has not been treated equal to other members of the community,” said Theresa Williamson, executive director of Catalytic Communities and publisher of Rioonwatch. “They intentionally caused her pain beyond what automatically comes with eviction.”

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In a letter published on Rioonwatch, Berto charged discrimination: “Sometimes I think he has something against my religion,” Berto wrote. “ … I was told he called me a macumbeira [derogatory term for someone who practices Candomblé], but that’s not something I can prove.”

Over time, Berto became frustrated. Her longtime back problems worsened from the stress. When she finally thought a deal had been reached, the city representative failed to finalize it and compensate her, as the city had done for people in similar circumstances.

“I felt like I would go mad from so much pain in my soul,” Berto wrote. “I felt I was losing everything, dying, and that there was no one to take care of me. I trembled and cried uncontrollably on the floor in the middle of the reception.”

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At the end of 2014, having been told that a deal would go through and under threats of demolition, she closed her spiritual center and moved into a small apartment. The next year was the most difficult of her life. A lodger in her home who had to move, too, threatened to kill her for not giving him compensation. Berto’s husband, Clemilson, died from a long battle with lung cancer. Her godmother, Doraci Coelho, 88, also died after she moved away from the Vila Autódromo community. Several older former Vila Autódromo residents died soon after they left the community. Neighbors blamed all the deaths on the stress of leaving their beloved homes.   

But Berto has not given up. She is fighting to return to Vila Autódromo. She published her complaints in three letters that were translated into English and published on Rioonwatch. Dressed in the sacred white of the Candomblé religion and a turban, she also testified before Brazil’s Senate Committee on Human Rights. 

In January of this year, Berto helped lead a protest march in Vila Autódromo, and she continues to support the community members in their fight to remain there or return.

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“She didn’t just become a warrior,” said her son Pedro Berto. “It was something that was always in her and then it flourished in the last two years. It was beautiful to see this.”

Until February, Pedro Berto regularly joined his mother in getting a security pass to make their way—she limping, with a cane—5 kilometers through the Olympics construction to their former home, which still held many religious and personal items. By this time, the house had become isolated on the other side of the park. They visited several times, knowing that their house and spiritual center could be demolished any day. 

That day came Feb. 24. Police accompanied Berto when she made repeated trips to retrieve her belongings. A video from that day shows dozens of police officers standing outside Berto’s door, and city workers calling her belongings, some of them sacred religious items, “trash.”

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“I felt revolted by the city people who were humiliating me in that moment,” Berto recalled. “I felt pain in my soul.”

Out of the original 700 families in Vila Autódromo, just 30 remain. All of the houses near the lagoon have been demolished. Berto is the only evictee from a long-standing, demolished home to not receive the compensation she has been promised.

Despite losing her house to the Olympic Park, Berto professes her love of the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

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“I’m in favor of the Olympic Games. I think they will be marvelous,” said Berto, whose favorite event is synchronized swimming. “I’m just not in favor of removing 700 families for 20 days of an event.”

And her family still wants to return to Vila Autódromo.

“I want my home back, I want my lagoon back. I want the peace I felt when I was out in my yard watching the lagoon with my cats and dogs around me,” Berto wrote.

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Kiratiana Freelon is a Rio de Janeiro-based multimedia journalist whose work focuses on social issues, international news and sporting events. She has published two books: one a travel guide to black Paris, and the other a travel guide to multicultural London. Visit her blog and follow her on Twitter.