When it comes to books about fascinating places, I’m a big fan of what I call insider/outsider’s perspectives. These are by former residents (almost always journalists or former journalists) who, after being away for significant periods of time, return home to write about everyday life in their place of origin . With a blend of familiarity and objectivity they serve as our personal tour guides to cities like Detroit or Mumbai, or countries such as Iran or Zimbabwe.
A few weeks ago I was in the mood for one of these books. Luckily for me, I spotted at the public library an available copy of Juliana Barbassa’s 2015 book Dancing with the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro on the Brink. I’m glad I read Dancing with the Devil because honestly, I didn’t know a lot about Rio or even Brazil before diving into her book. (My Latin American politics class in college covered Brazil, but that was a million years ago and I’ve pretty much forgotten everything I learned. On a more positive note, I have fond memories of the Brazilian movies City of God and Central Station. The Brazilian documentary Bus 174 is grim, but good.)
In 2010, not long after it was announced Rio would host the 2016 Summer Olympics Barbassa, a journalist and Brazilian national, after spending 20 years abroad moved back to her childhood home of Rio in order to cover the county’s run-up to the 2016 Games. Whenever a country is entrusted with hosting the Olympics, especially the Summer Games it’s a sign that country has joined the roster of elite nations. But was Rio and the rest of Brazil ready? And if it wasn’t did it have the political will and resources to address the nation’s lingering challenges like pollution, urban poverty, corruption, and drug-fueled gang violence before 2016? Besides needing a multitude of new sports arenas and Olympic-related facilities Rio’s fractured infrastructure was long overdue for a massive upgrade. (A higher percentage of Rio residents have access to cell phones than do clean water.) Oh, if that wasn’t enough, in 2014 Brazil is also hosting the World Cup.
So, with all that in mind Barbassa spent the next four years or so running around Rio interviewing countless people including hard-line police chiefs, low-level gang members, transgender prostitutes, political and social activists, and environmentalists to see if Brazil and the city of Rio is able to overcome the many deep-seated obstacles standing in the way of successfully hosting the upcoming Olympics. While doing so Barbassa explored Rio’s politics and society in depth, addressing issues related to gender, sexuality, race and class. And perhaps above all, the nation’s obsession with soccer.
I’m happy to say I enjoyed Dancing with the Devil and came away with a deeper understanding of Rio and Brazil. If you follow my lead and end up reading this book I highly recommend you also check out the series of eight articles posted on the online news publication The Intercept dealing with Operation Car Wash, a high level Brazilian political scandal that sadly has been largely ignored by American media.