Poverty in South America by LIFE

We look back at a photoessay that sparked a geopolitical rivalry between the United States and Brazil during the Cold War.

On June 16th 1961 appeared in LIFE an eight-page spread entitled, “Freedom’s Fearful Foe: Poverty.” After the Bay of Pigs, Latin America looked vulnerable to a communist takeover. LIFE decided to explore the socioeconomics situation there in a five-part series titled “Crisis in Latin America”. That summer, LIFE had sent its first African American photographer, Gordon Parks, to South America for Part II of that series, dealing with poverty.

LIFE sent him with a specific idea. Parks was asked to go to the Rio favelas and “find an impoverished father with a family of eight to 10 children. Show how he earns a living. Explore his political leanings. Is he a communist, or about to become one?” Parks was uncomfortable with this prompting, but other photojouranlists assured him that he could largely ignore the instructions. Those were the halycon days of international reportage afterall.

So Parks did just that. At Catacumba Favela, he ignored instructions to focus on the father of a poverty-stricken family and followed the children of the family. He was there when the children woke up. He photographed them in the rudimentary kitchen. He even took them by car to Copacabana. The famous beach was just 15 minutes away, but they had never seen it. Nine children of the da Silva family — including Isabel, Abia, Zacarias and Mário, having just been bitten by a dog — were endearing, but it was the asthmatic 12-year old son Flávio that stood out to Parks. He had large yearning photogenic eyes and in many photos, he seemed to be the one caring for his siblings.

When he presented a powerful photoessay featuring Flavio’s severe asthma attacks, his large family sleeping in one bed, and other horrendous conditions in the favelas, his editors were less than enthused. They wanted to severely truncated the story, with Parks threatening to resign if they did so. The impasse was solved when the weekend before the Secretary of State Dean Rusk wrote an editorial in The New York Times denoucing Latin American poverty as radicalizing influence towards Communism. LIFE now had a perfect story that underscored Rusk’s anxieties.

The piece was hastily put together and rushed out. It elicited a huge emotional response from the readers; letters poured into LIFE’s offices. Many contained money; others included offers to adopt the boy. LIFE published excerpts from the letters in a subsequent issue, under the headline “A Great Urge to Help Flavio”, with an appeal for more donations so that the Da Silvas could move out of the favelas into a modest new home. A hospital in Denver arranged for Flavio to be brought to its facilities — where his asthma would be treated for free — with President Kennedy himself intervening to expedite the visa process. Parks flew back to Rio to bring the boy back. At Parks’s hotel, Flavio had his first-ever bath (“The water was black,” Parks noted).

21 July 1961

LIFE put out a follow-up edition, with photographer Carl Iwasaki documenting the first days of Flavio’s life Denver, including hospital visits, schooling, and a visit to an amusement park. The photographs were designed to make America feel good about itself and its generosity.

Flavio’s story was often told as an uplifting tale of photographs changing lives for the better. We should be skeptical of this narrative. Flavio was treated, returned home, and packed off to a boarding school in São Paulo paid for by LIFE, but he pined throughout for his better life in America, begging Parks and others who befriended him to adopt him. The family was also able to move out of Catacumba, but Parks recalled a neighboring asking him: “What about us? All the rest of us stay here to die!” The donations set up a $300,000 fund for Catacumba, but the local resident association only built cement stairs. The rest of the money simply disappeared.

In 1961, there were 205 favelas in Rio, housing a population of at least 700,000 people. Today there are twice as many favelas, and estimates of their population range from 700,000 to 2 million.

The photos would also sparked controversy in Brazil which we will explore in the next post.

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34 thoughts on “Poverty in South America by LIFE

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