Brazilian Elitist Gated Communities as the New Version of the Colonial Portuguese Fort

October 4, 2016

Since the 1970s, luxurious enclosed housing developments have proliferated throughout Brazil and have become one of the preferred housing options for the elites.  What is the allure of gated communities for middle and upper-class Brazilians? Why is this important? 

Renowned cultural anthropologist Laura Nader recommended in her groundbreaking essay, “Up the Anthropologist” (1972), that anthropologists (and social scientists in general) should be as concerned—or perhaps even more concerned—about asking the question “Why are some people poor?” as the question “Why are other people so affluent?”   Likewise, economist Marcelo Medeiros argues that studying the economic, social and cultural elites is a pathway to understanding and combating inequality and poverty, especially in a region with deep disparities, as is the case of Latin America (2005).  Nevertheless, and in spite of important contributions (Caldeira 2000; Dunker 2015; Medeiros 2005; Shore and Nugent 2002), there is much left to learn and understand about the wealthy in Latin America. 

This article summarizes recent research1 conducted in gated communities in mid-size cities2 in the states of Paraná and São Paulo in 2015. We propose that gated communities constitute a contemporary heterotopia (Foucault, 2009; Low, 2008) that rest on an apparent feeling of (in)security, anchored in a surveillance device that recreates the archetype of the Portuguese fort.3 Gated communities are not part of an isolated phenomenon; they are the residential version of a new form of segregation in contemporary cities: that which Caldeira (2007) calls “fortified enclaves.”  The ways of life of residents of gated communities in Brazil are governed by a “total life” lifestyle that features isolation, fortification, safety and security. 

Gated Communities as Heterotopias

Gated communities were most likely invented in the United States. The earliest gated communities date back to the 1850s as Victorian vacation homes for the wealthy.  They began to proliferate during the country club suburb period from the early 1900s until about 1929.  For anthropologist Setha Low (2008), gated communities in the United States provide their residents with the symbolic sensation of being in a safe port or a sanctuary, free from danger and protected by closed walls.  Gated communities manufacture the illusion of security and physical protection, where locks and guards are only important for the residents’ peace of mind and assurance of social status. They also create compensation by offering eternal vacations from daily encounters.

In Brazil gated communities or condomínios fechados have become one of the most desired housing types by the metropolitan elites, as well as by elites in state capitals and mid-size cities (Sposito and Góes, 2013). The first gated communities appeared in Brazil in the Alto de Pinheiros neighborhood in the city of São Paulo in the 1970s (Caldeira, 2007).

Most gated communities are located in the southeastern and northeastern regions of the country. Most are found in the state of Rio de Janeiro, with 280,000 houses; São Paulo occupies the second place with 182,000, followed by Paraná with almost 72,000. In contrast, Acre has only 763 units of this type (IBGE 2011). In general, gated communities have between 300 and 2,000 square meters of built area, designed and built by owners in villas with at least 100 units. They have swimming pools, barbeque areas, saunas, and several garages. The IBGE (2011) estimates that in 2010, there were one million homes of this kind out of 57 million households registered. These communities had 3 million residents and were mostly located in urban areas. About 90 percent of the families living there had 4 members. Around 3.4 percent of the residents earned more than 30 times the base salary per month (R/.880, or approximately 244 dollars since February 1, 2016), or the equivalent of 316,800 reais (88,000 dollars) per year.

Wealthy Brazilian gated communities have three prototypes as architectonic and urbanistic sources of origin.  The first one is the garden cities that sprang up in the United Kingdom at the end of the nineteenth century.  In Brazil, this prototype was promoted by the City Company which, starting in 1912, built garden-neighborhoods for the super wealthy in São Paulo.  The second prototype is the vila operaria or workers’ village, also from the nineteenth century. This model was meant to isolate each family for health reasons and to eradicate the presumed immorality of collective housing. The idea of well-built, hygienic and inexpensive homes became the housing model, especially with the purpose of controlling workers’ behaviors. The notion of hygiene obscured an unambiguous social division of urban spaces that benefitted the elites.

The third prototype and the strongest influence is the US suburb. Home design and prohibition of outside walls within the houses are present even today. One of the most famous gated communities built in suburbs is Tuxedo Park in New York; its emblematical counterpoint in Brazil is Alphaville, an enclave of circa 35,000 residents built in the 1970s in São Paulo, complete with shopping malls and offices. Currently, Alphaville is also a full-fledged real estate company that has reproduced its pattern throughout the country.

Although there are important similarities between gated communities in the United States and Brazil, perhaps the most important difference is that a life in common without a community characterizes Brazilian elitist gated communities. Another difference is the fact that the high value given to social homogeneity does not translate in architectonic homogeneity in the Brazilian case.

The Colonial Portuguese Fortress as Archetype

Gated communities function as colonial Portuguese forts did in the past, with three purposes: to render impossible the entrance of the undesirables; to hide the existence of strategic wealth, and to facilitate surveillance of the enemy (Dunker, 2015).  Brazilian gated communities for the elites do not represent merely a housing preference but a “total life” lifestyle, the production of “separate worlds”.  In the last four decades—about ten years before crime rates grew significantly, that is during the 1980s when Brazil returned to democracy—real estate companies, supported by the media and the neoliberal market, have produced the discourse of “the new housing concept”, which includes indispensable characteristics such as isolation from city life, security, multiple services, and social homogeneity.

These housing spaces are built as ordered islands to which its owners can return every day to escape from unavoidable interactions with heterogeneity, alterity, and the undesirable, as well as from the chaos, confusion, and dangers of the city. These fortified enclaves foster a socially homogenous atmosphere. Its residents value living among people from the same social group, away from movement, danger, diversity and multiplicity.  A relationship of separation and repulsion is cultivated in these enclaves, which are true transformers of the essence of public spaces and interactions in the city.

At the end of the day, the privileged few can enjoy an exclusive and pleasant world among their own. Paradoxically, life within the walls is devoid of interactions.  Our research indicates that the inhabitants of these enclaves do not share residential space and do not make use of the gated communities’ common areas, which are so prominently marketed by the real estate apparatus.  Moreover, gated communities tend to lack sidewalks; which propels residents to enter and leave the neighborhood in their cars, minimizing encounters. The function of spaces in gated communities is primordially residential; most of the social interactions of its residents are built outside the walls where they reach for those they truly consider their peers.

Gated communities are independent, autonomous, and flexible in relationship to their surroundings, as a result of their surveillance system, dependent workforce, and communication technologies.  “Total security” is essential for this lifestyle and to keep the undesirable away. Security is a synonym for walls, electric fences, wires, 24-hour private surveillance by car and motorcycle, security cabins, double door garages, video monitors, portable searchlights, and digital control measures for entrance.

This security apparatus not only protects against crime but also creates segregated spaces where exclusion is rigorously practiced.   (Im)penetrability is guaranteed through this complex apparatus of security and surveillance.  They guarantee the right to be unperturbed by the life of the city and its encounters with beggars, homeless, and favelados. It is not surprising that Caldeira (2000) calls gated communities “self-contained universes”, which enclose everything that their inhabitants might need and thus allow them to avoid as much as possible the encounters with public life.  All these characteristics transform the heterotopia of the gated community in sophisticated clubs.  


Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (2012) have studied four figures of subjectivity resulting from the triumph of neoliberalism: the securitized, who operate under fear and only feel safe surrounded by the surveillance apparatus; the indebted, who are the result of the dominance of the world banking system; the mediated, who are the result of control over communication networks and information, and the represented, emblematic of the current crisis of democratic models, who are depoliticized and naïve about what happens around the world. The Brazilian resident of elitist gated communities is a great portrait of the subjective figure of the securitized.

Contemporary heterotopias such as Brazilian condomínios fechados operate with a system of aperture and closeness, characterized by illusion and compensation, in confrontation with life outside its walls. Gated communities become a kind of “door to another dimension,” where residents experience uttermost presentism, forgetting about history and even their own history.  The gated community as heterotopia catalyzes presentism, privatism and fear as modulators of the total lifestyle of the Brazilian elites, all of which produce a minimal aperture to alterity and public life. Two aspects are highlighted in these spaces: the eternal thematic vacations from the everyday, and the escape from the habitual. These aspects transform gated communities into paradises, refuges, safe ports and sanctuaries for a few, in contrast with possible urban solutions for many.   

Brazilian gated communities have two critical roles to serve: as sanctuaries and refuges.  An elitist gated community is a sanctuary because it transports its residents to an immortal and eternal space-time, anchored in presentism and characterized by perpetual leisure. It becomes a sacred space reserved only for the chosen ones.  Gated communities are also refuges; however, we consider refuge to be a euphemism for protection. Gated communities warrant the protection of the colonial Portuguese fort with the three functions mentioned previously (rendering impossible the entrance of the undesirable; hiding the existence of strategic wealth, offering surveillance of the enemy), but with an added purpose, that of defense from public life, exposure, and the assumed excessive, marked socialibity that characterizes life outside the walls.


1 This article is based on original ethnographic research conducted by anthropologist Rafael Estrada Mejia, as part of an ongoing postdoctoral research project carried out at the Universidade Estadual Paulista (UNESP) in Brazil and the Department of Anthropology of the University of Delaware (Newark, DE, United States), with financial support from the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP), Grant # 2015/25915-7. A full version of the article has been submitted for consideration to a peer-review journal.  For further information on this topic, please refer to Estrada Mejia, Rafael (2015), "El Miedo Devora las Almas: Subjetivacion y "Comunidades" (Auto) confinadas en Brazil", IV Congreso Latinoamericano de Antropologia, October 2015; and Estrada Mejia, Rafael (2012), "Micropolíticas, cartografias e heterotopias urbanas: Derivas teóricometodológicas sobre a aventura das (nas) cidades contemporâneas", Revista Espaço Acadêmico, vol. 11, no. 132.

2 The United Nations defines mid-sized cities as those that have between 100,000 and 1,000,000 inhabitants; in terms of their function, mid-size cities play an important role as mediators in the urban network (Sposito 2007).

3 Etymologically, heterotopia means ‘another place’. The concept was coined by pathologist and anthropologist Rudolf Virchow in the mid-nineteenth century to refer to a congenital anomaly of the position of an organ or tissue located in a place other than its habitual position (Estrada Mejia, 2012: 5).  The concept was then reinvented by philosopher Michel Foucault in the 1960s. In a few words, heterotopia refers to the multiple layers of meaning of localized utopias.  Foucault proposed this concept to identify and analyze those spaces that did not submit to the common spatial regime: that is, those ‘other spaces’ that form gaps in the hierarchical, divided, and organized spatial systems of our industrial world (Michon, 2012; Estrada Mejia, 2012). 


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About Author(s)

Rafael Estrada Mejía's picture
Rafael Estrada Mejía
Rafael Estrada Mejía is a cultural and applied anthropologist trained in Europe and Latin America, and specialized in the ethnography of knowledge and biographical methods, urban resettlements, social ecology, and migration and transnationalism (Colombia, Brazil, Spain, Italy, France). He is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Geography of the Universidade Estadual de São Paulo (UNESP), and Visiting Scholar in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Delaware. He has published numerous book chapters and articles in edited books and professional peer-reviewed journals in English, Spanish, and Portuguese.
cguerron's picture
Carla Guerrón Montero
Carla Guerrón Montero is a cultural and applied anthropologist trained in the United States and Latin America, and specialized in the African diaspora, the anthropology of tourism and the anthropology of food (Panama, Ecuador, Grenada, Brazil). She is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Latin American and Iberian Studies Program at the University of Delaware. Dr. Guerrón Montero has published a book (The Color of the Panela: Study of Afro-Ecuadorian Women in the Afro-Ecuadorian Andes), edited a book, and published extensively in English, Spanish, and Portuguese in professional journals and edited volumes. She is currently working on a book-length manuscript on the construction of Afro-Antillean identities in the context of the Panamanian tourism industry.