Cantagalo Jiu Jitsu: School of the Hard Knocks

Published on by Nico Ball

Photo by GIlmatic

The socio-economic restraints of living in the favela render most kid’s dreams of becoming professional athletes obsolete. In most poor communities, due to the pressure to help support their families, it’s not uncommon for kids to abandon not just sports, but school as well.

The state of Rio recently declared a state of calamity due to fiscal shortages and is having trouble adequately supporting the growing number of peripheral communities in the city. Lack of government-funded solutions mean citizens are forced to turn to other outlets to provide safe educational and recreational outlets for their kids.  Since schools don’t offer athletic programs or afterschool activities that are commonly found in the U.S., sports based social projects have had a huge influence on the lives of athletes like Rafaela.

Jiu Jitsu in Rio’s Favelas

Jiu Jitsu, unlike soccer or other sports, is a luxury. The Brazilian minimum wage is about $200 dollars a month and that’s for people with legitimate jobs, which are a scarcity in Rio’s declining economy. The majority of the people from the communities survive thanks to the ability to supply a temporary demand, whether it be selling water, beer, or cigarettes during the World Cup or parking cars on busy streets in downtown Copacabana.

The newly remodeled project

Disposable income is nonexistent for most families that are struggling to make ends meet. The average kimono costs about $78 and academy fees run around $60-100, well over half of the minimum wage, so it’s easy to see why most kids from the favela are found playing soccer on concrete courts instead of working towards becoming World Champions.

Fernando Terere was one of the first big names in the sport to rise from the favelas, but he didn’t do it on his own. It was thanks to financial support from Alliance’s Alexandre Paiva that Terere was given an opportunity to learn Gracie Jiu Jitsu.

In 2000, as a blue belt, Terere founded Amigos do Morro, the first Jiu Jitsu social project in the Cantagalo, Pavao, Pavaozinho favela. Alongside his cousin Leo Martins and Checkmat’s Rico Vieira, Terere began giving free classes in the community. As time passed the three went their separate ways, but the foundation was laid and more makeshift projects and black belts dedicated to teaching the arte sauve (gentle art) began popping up all over the favela.

Left to Right: Terere, Andre Galvao, Rolando "Jacare" Souza and Jackson Souza

Building a Better Life

Projeto Social Cantagalo is a small project that is located at the top of the community in a run down government facility that boasts a breathtaking view of Ipanema and Lagoa. There is no sign for the academy, so it’s easy to miss the small door nestled in between a mobile office and a pile of construction materials.

The broken glass windows and worn mats may seem like a safety hazard, but the kids maneuver around these obstacles with an expert level of agility learned from being born and raised in a decaying concrete slums.

Maintaining an academy in the favela is anything but easy, especially considering the lack of building codes and engineers, but recently they been able to undergo a huge restructuring, making it a lot safer for the kids.

The team was once affiliated with Rico Vieira from Checkmat, but now the school is run by of Douglas “Trator” Rufino and Sandro “Bala” Vieira.

They do the best they can with limited financial resources, often times relying on help from other people like Cantagalo natives Alan “Finfou” Nascimento and Bruno Matias. The project also counts on the support of Caio Terra a native of Rio, who currently owns his own academy in California.

Although Terra isn’t from Cantagalo, he grew up alongside Matias and Nascimento and understands the importance of the work that the project has been doing in the community. Terra plans on visiting the project this November when he travels back to Rio. In the future he plans on sponsoring athletes to come and train in California with the hopes that they will return to the community and be able inspire other young athletes.

“I want to show them that there is always an amazing path for the people wanting to work hard and do something great with their lives.” Say Terra while discussing his involvement in the project.

“The Project is meant to teach kids Jiu Jitsu with the hope that they will become black belts and be able to make a living outside of Brazil like Finfou.” Says Rufino Douglas. In the wake of the Olympics there was been an increase in violence, not only in the favela, but also in the surrounding neighborhoods of Copacabana and Ipanema. Now, more than ever, it’s important for kids to have a safe place and strong mentors to keep them off the streets and away from the ever-present drug trade.

Bruno Matias, Alan Finfou, and Jackson Sousa are all products of the Cantagalo social project. Matias has been living in Sweden for the last 9 years alongside his wife and children. He teaches in different academies and travels Europe giving seminars and participating in training camps. Alan Finfou also lives in Sweden where he teaches at Prana BJJ and has had the opportunity to work with UFC fighters like Alexander Gustafsson.  Jackson Sousa, another Cantagalo native and black belt competitor, has been traveling around Europe to all of the major competitions when he is not at home in London training at London Fight Factory or managing the new Checkmat Berlin affiliate.

All of these athletes serve as an example that limited resources should never limit their dreams.

“It’s more than Jiu Jitsu.” Rufino elaborated, “it’s an education for them and it's very important”.

Jiu Jitsu is more than just a sport for the kids from the favela, it’s an equal opportunity for them to train, compete, and dream alongside the upper and middle classes. It’s the opportunity to travel and conquer podiums in California, Lisboa, or Abu Dhabi. It’s a career that could help them provide for their families and make their own kids proud.  For a lot of poor kids from the favela, Jiu Jitsu is the only real education they get and it all starts on used mats with a hand me down kimono and the kind words of encouragement from teachers like Rufino to help get them through life’s challenges.

Make sure to follow the project on Facebook and Instragram to find out more about the athletes from Cantagalo!