“Our community was inaugurated on April 10, 1990, soon after Mandela was released from prison,” said Denaide Alves da Fonseca, one of the favela founders.
“Here, more than 70 percent of the population is black and that’s why we chose his name,” said the 66-year-old best known by her nickname “Tia Pretinha” (“Black Auntie”).
Mandela, who died Thursday aged 95, spent 27 years in apartheid prisons before being elected president of South Africa in 1994 and unifying his country with a message of reconciliation after the end of white minority rule.
The Rio neighborhood that bears his name was originally made up of 500 homes built to relocate residents living in a dangerous part of a nearby slum. Today, more than 10,000 people live here.
“I used to live on a house on stilts on the river. After flooding we moved here,” said Alves da Fonseca.
She went on to organize a carnival drum group called “Batuqueiros do Mandela” (“Mandela Drummers”) because she said she “admired those who fought for the rights of black people.”
“I am a bit of a Nelson Mandela here. In Brazil there is racism but one has to forget skin color and move on,” she added.
Her group even printed Mandela’s image on its T-shirts.
Life is tough in Nelson Mandela, located next to Varginha, a favela Pope Francis visited in July.
Life expectancy is just 66 years, according to government figures, well below the 80 years for residents of wealthy Rio neighborhoods.
Local businessmen built a pool but police closed it down because there was no life guard on duty “and now on days of much heat the children swim in the river, which is polluted,” said resident Rafael Motta.
While authorities have kicked out drug traffickers, promised social projects are slow to come, the 33-year-old added.
Mandela visited Rio de Janeiro in 1991 with his wife Winnie when he was leader of the African National Congress — but didn’t come by the favela.
He also didn’t make it when he returned to Brazil as South African president in 1998.
“My dream was to meet him, to introduce him to our group,” Alves da Fonseca said.
Thursday was her birthday but for the first time ever she didn’t celebrate because it coincided with Mandela’s death.
Another resident, Claudio Eugenio, moved to the slum from Angola nine years ago. He currently owns a small store in the community.
“Mandela will be the most remembered black man in history because he fought for all of us,” the 26-year-old said.
“We are sad because we lost a leader.”