When Art Conquers The Hills

 Rocinha, a favela in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (Source:   GFDL )

Rocinha, a favela in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (Source:  GFDL)

Other than the statue of Christ The Redeemer towering over Rio de Janeiro, the favelas are unmistakably among the more interesting sites that tourists encounter in this city of more than 6 million people.

A favela refers to a slum or shantytown located within or on the outskirts of Brazil's large cities, including Rio and Sao Paolo.  In Rio alone, the NGO Catalytic Communities estimates that 1,000 favelas exist and are home to 1.5 million people. That's about a quarter of the city's total population.

Most tourists are oblivious to the history and controversies behind the favelas, or the living conditions experienced by the residents such as inadequate fresh water, sanitation and electricity.

Visitors are in awe of the extent of structures built on hills, but more so, the panoramic view they provide to those who have a keen eye for art. The favelas are often described as a giant art mural, not by accident but by design.  The structures have been colorfully painted to effectively mask the problems and conditions from within.

New 'favelas' have arisen in the last several decades -- not in Brazil, but in the Philippines, particularly Baguio City and its neighboring La Trinidad Valley. These shanties (and now, increasingly concrete structures) share similar history, controversy and living conditions with Brazil's favelas.

Growing up in Baguio City in the ‘60s, I had a front-seat view of Quirino Hill from our family home.  That was a time when pine trees and sunflowers adorned what we would call "Carabao Mountain." On weekends or during school break, we would often venture to the hill to pick flowers and pine cones.


New “favelas” have arisen in the last several decades, not in Brazil, but in the Philippines, particularly Baguio City and its neighboring La Trinidad Valley.

When I first returned to Baguio after an absence of 25 years, I couldn't believe what I saw.  Quirino hill as I knew it was totally gone.  In its place were shanties and structures that filled every inch of space in this once-upon-a-time natural beauty. A short trip to La Trinidad revealed a similar scenario.

Well, there's no going back.

If you can't lick 'em, beautify 'em!  And that's exactly what was done in La Trinidad and is being planned for Baguio's Quirino Hill.

La Trinidad

What many considered an "eyesore" has now been turned into a colorful mural: houses on the hill in the sitios of Stonehill, Botiwtiw and Sadjap (together known as STOBOSA) of La Trinidad's Barangay Balili were painted in various colors and patterns as part of an ambitious project by the Department of Tourism and the Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR). It was inaugurated in the summer of 2016.

 STOBOSA Before (Source: choosephilippines.com)

STOBOSA Before (Source: choosephilippines.com)

 STOBOSA After (Source: choosephilippines.com)

STOBOSA After (Source: choosephilippines.com)

Artists led by Jordan Mang-san painted the houses using environment-friendly paints provided by Davies Paints and paintbrushes and other materials donated by the local government. Some say, the SOBOSAN 'favela' is even more colorful than those of Rio.

A similar project is planned for Quirino Hill.

Baguio City

Around 2,000 houses in four barangays at the Carabao Mountain will have their roofs painted white and the walls with earth colors. The project, which encompasses Barangays Upper, Lower, East and West Quirino Hill, is being dubbed "Project Puraw." "Puraw" is the Ilocano term for "white."

Originally, the plan was to paint the houses white and green, but after consultation meetings with barangay officials and homeowners, it was agreed that the roofs of the houses will be painted white and house owners can select their desired earth colors for the outside walls.  Colors include Makati Haze, My Sanctuary, Robin’s Hood, Matted Rug, Oliverio, Stepping Stone, Dusty Trail and Ginger Bread which are all shades of brown, green and yellow.  The paint will be provided by Boysen.

Baguio City Mayor Mauricio Domogan says that white helps mitigate the harsh rays of the sun by absorbing sunlight and reflecting it back to the atmosphere.

Like the La Trinidad project, Project Puraw is part of the DOT-CAR’s Revitalize Bloom or Rev-Bloom program. Barring any delays, the Quirino Hill project will be completed in time for next February’s Panagbenga Flower Festival in Baguio which attracts up to 2 million visitors.

 Quirino Hill, before and now (with friends and family, left; with friends, right. Photo by Rene Astudillo)

Quirino Hill, before and now (with friends and family, left; with friends, right. Photo by Rene Astudillo)

Once again, I will have a front-row seat from our family home.  This time, not of pine trees and sunflowers, but a cool and refreshing mural of white and earthen colors that will help me reminisce time I've spent in snow-covered mountains in America.


Rene Astudillo is a writer, book author and blogger and has recently retired from more than two decades of nonprofit community work in the Bay Area. He spends his time between California and the Philippines.


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