Difference Maker

'Tinha' Carvalho uses martial arts to show kids from Rio slums a wider world

A celebrity gym owner in Rio de Janeiro teaches martial arts to entice kids from the favelas to stay in school.

By , / Correspondent

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    Ricardo ‘Tinha’ Carvalho became a famous local celebrity by training big Rio personalities, including soap opera stars and newscasters, in his popular boxing gyms. He has also started, at his own expense, free gyms for at-risk youths in low-income areas.
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Celebrity trainer Ricardo "Tinha" Carvalho will not budge on the price to become a member at his gym: one report, signed by the school principal, proving that the child is regularly attending class.

That's a privilege Mr. Carvalho, a high school dropout in a family of 10, didn't have himself growing up.

On his gym wall hang the pictures of his career's "peak moments": a chummy photo with popular former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and another with Kevin Richardson, formerly of the Backstreet Boys pop singing group, who trained with Tinha while on vacation here. But when Tinha reached the status of local celebrity himself, he chose to turn his time and money back to the poor communities he first called home.

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As the youngest child in a family living in a small favela (shantytown) house on a steep hill behind the Ipanema beach neighborhood, Tinha had dropped out of school in his mid-teens to make early-morning deliveries for a local bakery.

"I snuck milk and bread [to eat because] sometimes I myself was delivering bread without having eaten breakfast," the now-hulk-of-a-man says laughing. His dad was a doorman and his mom was a maid.

"Everyone my age [in the favela] either entered into crime or found something to do," he says. "But my mom ... always showed what was right and wrong."

Tinha recalls hearing early-morning shootouts between rival drug traffickers as he descended his morro (hill, common Rio slang for its hillside shantytowns) down to the asfalto (the wealthier neighborhoods on paved ground below). Though he later returned to school to earn his high school equivalency, he still takes classes to try to improve his written Portuguese.

Tinha had studied a year of martial arts when a friend of his mother suggested that he fix up a decrepit gym attached to the school in Cantagalo, the favela where he was raised. He knew personally about poverty. "I saw that all the children of the community of Cantagalo, [and the neighboring favelas of] Pavão-Pavãozinho were still having that same difficulty.

"So I said, man, I'm going to try," he says of starting his judo and boxing academy.

As his morro gym took off, residents of the asfalto below started to take note.

"When my work started to get articles, interviews on the TV, [new clients] started to get my phone number," Tinha says.

This was years before Rio's much-touted new policing program, which cleared the streets of certain favelas – like Cantagalo – of armed traffickers and opened them up to outsiders. His students soon included a newscaster, soap opera actors, lawyers, policemen, and judges.

With the physique of a nightclub bouncer but the calm voice of a nurse, Tinha towers over the svelte beachgoers in this posh area, Rio de Janeiro's version of Sunset Boulevard. He's at ease as he greets each store owner and neighbor from the morro down to the Ipanema asfalto.

His next move was far away from the beach, more than an hour's drive from his paying clients. Four years ago he rented a bare studio lit only by five fluorescent bulbs and the streetlights that shine through its big broken window.

He pays the rent out of his own pocket. The grade-school-age kids who attend bring only their principal's notes to join the daily afternoon workout sessions.

Tinha asks the dozen students – from muscular teenagers to skinny wide-eyed girls – to form two lines. They pump doll-sized dumbbells and alternate between crunches and punches. An older boy leads the counting – "um, dois, tres!" – in an exhausted huff of a voice. The tiniest girl, Thamires, stands up straight and practices with cartoonish, oversized boxing gloves.

"He's not like those other teachers who yell. He goes along calmly," says one 9-year-old girl. Tinha later explains that this student began coming to the gym the week before, telling him her mother was working and her father had left her home alone.

"Here they have ... their second home," says Tinha, a father of four himself. He says his dream is to buy uniforms for the kids. But this is a bare-bones operation. "If I do [that] I'll be owing on the rent."

Tinha's fellow boxer Rosolieres Junior has donated 12 pairs of gloves. The value of the project, he says, is to get kids out of their communities and introduce them to something larger.

"Brazilian society is one of exclusion," Mr. Junior says, adding that for years the armed traffickers and police kept a climate of fear of going between the morro and the asfalto. "The child will get into this social project, doing sports, doing a percussion class, rather than just staying at home," Junior says.

Tinha points out how the girls watch, mesmerized, as an older girl, Luciana, a competitive boxer herself, does more intense exercises with the guys.

These local projects are what will keep this generation from turning to crime, Tinha says. Each child "has already formed a new identity there," he says of his gym. "He won't want to go back. He'll see the world, embrace it."

Ricardo Carvalho's website (in Portuguese): http://comesp.org.br/. E-mail him at ricardotinhas10@hotmail.com.

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