Brasil Pra Mim

-“Tudo bem?” The flight attendant asked me with a smile if all was well in Portuguese as I boarded the plane.
-“Beleza,” I replied. “Vôcé?”
-“Jooooya. Bem-vindo a bordo.”

I welcomed this brief interaction as a sign I was heading home to Brazil. Flight attendants have been assuming I’m Brazilian for some time, and now that I actually live here and have a decent amount of Portuguese in the repertoire, it’s nice to have them be somewhat right. For anyone who’s known me for a while, my desire to live in Brazil is old news, and the actual move more of an eventuality than a surprise. Brazil has long held for me a sense of belonging, of place that I can relate to as an ethnically-mixed Diasporic African: watching blondes dancing samba and practicing capoeira amongst the crisp angles and curves of Brasília illuminates the innate African-ness of the country and reinforces the inextricable bond among the three founding populations that collided and colluded to produce that magnetic cultural force known as Brazil. After my first trip to Salvador Carnival in 2005, I knew I was home.

Though I grew up in Jacksonville, I never really feel at home when I’m there. Of course, I’m at home-home in my parents’ house―that type of familial comfort will never go away. But the city and I have parted ways, socially, culturally, politically. People at stores and restaurants now ask where I’m from, despite the remnants of a local accent when ordering my sweet tea. They ask why I travel so much, why I like going to the “third world,” why I speak other languages. Most of the very few people from high school I keep in contact with have families, and the others struggle to create some semblance of sophistication in a doggedly provincial place.

Of course, there’s The Big Issue that pervades everything else in the city to the point that the church congregation I grew up in, and those of a handful of other black churches in the city, are pretty much the only groups of people who don’t want Obama out of office “by any means necessary.” While I understand (and teach) the history behind the racial divide, after living away from the U.S. version for so long, it’s disheartening and nerve-wracking to encounter it again. I can see it in the strained smiles at the airport or the DMV or other places where people have to interact; that forced politeness which barely conceals the contempt. I think there may be only four or five American cities that don’t give me the heebie-jeebies anymore.

I also searched for that feeling of place for four years in Colombia, and didn’t find it. I never felt I could break out of the “gringo” box, no matter how well I spoke Spanish, how well I danced cumbia, or even how flaky I got about keeping appointments. “Pero el es un gringo,” I’d hear people say, drawing the line they’d not allow me to cross and encapsulating everything they thought they knew and were interested in knowing about me in that one misused word. I learned daily that ignorance transcends all human-devised categories.

By no means is Brazil immune from the isms that plague less-paradisical locales. Even here in Fantasyland, I struggle daily to understand a culture, a language, and a people that get more and more complex the moment I think I’ve got them pegged. Their conflict-avoidance annoys me, as does their interminable noisiness. But the ubiquitous optimism mixed with melancholy―saudade―is soothingly infectious, and Anglo-Saxon stoicism stands no chance in the face of tropical emotion.

See, I’m not just on vacation here; I live here. I’m developing relationships with the people and the place. I have friends in other cities who ring me regularly and want to know when I’m coming to visit. I flew to Brasília, got into my car, and drove to my apartment (where I rested for, oh, five minutes before being whisked off to watch our team get spanked by the Netherlands).

And there are people who automatically assume that I belong here. They speak to me in Portuguese, then look at me in semi-disbelief when I relay my true origins, then smile, compliment me on my pronunciation, and tell me they’re glad I’m here. They accept my dueling and complimentary identities without question and they’re as open to learning my way as they are about teaching me theirs, their jeito brasileiro. It’s not so much that I’ve found a home in Brasília―São Paulo’s more my brand of Sodom―it’s that I’ve found a homeland in Brazil. I love this country, warts and all, and I always want to have a presence here, even if I end up living somewhere else for a time (NY, I’m tawkinna you). Because I feel claimed here, I belong here, and that’s what home feels like.

I called my mom to tell her that I made the flight to Brazil (see this post), and before telling her I loved her and I’d shoot them an email once south of the Equator, I said I felt like I was heading home, to my home. “That’s good,” she said approvingly. That’s all I needed to hear.

The Queen of Brazilian Music, Elis Regina, extolling the beauty of Brazil and of nappy hair:

This entry was posted in Brasília, Brazil, Expat Life, Latin America, Moving Overseas, South America, writing and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Brasil Pra Mim

  1. steve matlock says:

    Love your blog. You have a great sense of adventure and wide-ranging set of interests. I always enjoy reading your updates.

  2. Shannon says:

    Excellent piece of writing. You’ve captured (quite eloquently) exactly how I feel about Brasil. It’s just home. I didn’t know it as I was wandering the streets of Salvador, but I knew it as soon as I left. My heart beats differently when I’m there, my soul feels calm. Even in the middle of the constant chaos that Salvador brings, I feel a certain belonging that I never even knew that I yearned for. I know that eventually I’ll have to move to my beautiful Brasil. It might not be Salvador, but somewhere. It’s only a matter of time…only a matter of time.

  3. The Letter "B" says:

    I had an East Asian Studies concentration during my college years ,however, Brasil was my first extended stay outside of the U.S. I taught English to Brasilian missionaries in Belo Horizonte. I have often been mistaken as a resident in my travels. This occurred on a regular basis in Brazil and I loved it! I was born and raised in the old capitol of the Confederacy in the U.S. which has caused me to be acutely aware of being black. Brasil spoiled me for three months. I was shocked back into the color conscious system when I hit Miami International Airport on my trip home. Enjoy Brasil for me, until I can return!

  4. Bartira says:

    Ainda estou esperando a sua visita a Vitoria, pra você ficar ainda mais apaixonado.

  5. I totally know the feeling of being confused for a local. I lived in Salvador for a year as an exchange student. The fun part was hanging out with my very white exchange student friends and being assumed to be the tour guide or translator–or unfortunately a maid on a few occasions.

    Anyways, I’ve just recently come across your blog, and from the little that I’ve read, I can tell I will enjoy it especially, when you talk about Brazil.

    And I still refuse to admit that the team got spanked by Holland. It got spanked by MELO and then Holland squeezed in a shot while Brasil was in shock at the sheer stupidity.

  6. That’s amazing – I’ve been in Italy 18 years and still would NEVER cut it for an Italian, except maybe the looks (that is, before they all went blonde)…

    Anyway, if your posting about languages – thought you might want to post some funny stories to this site, too: There are plenty of examples of Portuguese mistakes between Brasil & Portugal!

    Cheers –

  7. Fly Brother says:

    @Steve: Thanks a lot for reading! Do you have a blog?

    @Shannon: It is indeed only a matter of time. When the place gets in you, it never leaves. A Baiana friend of mine calls the saudade she feels whenever she’s away from the place “the Brazil Blues.” The only cure is moving here!

    @Letter B: Richmond, represent! I wouldn’t exactly categorize Brazil as not being color-conscious; I’d say they’re more color-conscious here and we’re more race-conscious in the US. I know they might seem the same, but they definitely discriminate based on shade and phenotype here, whereas in the States, only blood quantum has ever really mattered (ergo Adam Clayton Powell, Vin Diesel, Mariah Carey, Rosa Parks, etc.). I’d love to hear about your experience in BH and definitely let me know when you’re headed back down!

    @Bartira: Brigado, linda! Vitoria esta no plano! Te ligo pelo final de semana que vem.

    @Sherise: “Oh, the stupidity!” LOL. Thanks for stopping by! I’ll have to check you out. It’s kind of cool when folk think you’re the Brazilian amongst a group of foreigners (or amongst a group of Brazilians), but it ain’t cool when they think you’re a prostie/garot@ de programa or a drug dealer. Hope you do enjoy the blog!

    @Francesca: Thanks for commenting and for the link; the site is very funny! LOL @ the Italians going blonde. That’s a Brazilian plague as well.

  8. Vanessa says:

    We all need to feel connected to something. If you feel Brazilian, go for it! My time in Brazil was very interesting, as a result of me being African American. I didn’t feel “home”, although I can say I could have made a lot of money on that trip :).

  9. Fly Brother says:

    @Vanessa: I’m African-American as well and I never felt more “Brazilian” than when people confused me for a rentboy on the beach in Rio. 😉 Seriously, though, places are like people and each experience is different and personal. I didn’t actually say I felt Brazilian, but I do feel at home here because I feel like we as Diasporic Africans are all connected, from LA to NY down to BsAs, and of all the places in between, I feel our culture more vividly here than almost anywhere else in the hemisphere. I also chose to move here indefinitely, so I think that has something to do with my perception of this place as home as well. Thanks for coming by; I like the college tips on your blog!

  10. etubbs says:

    Hey E,

    Excellent post!!!! The more I read your posts, the more inspired I become. I just wanted to remind you that people are living through your experiences. I totally agree with you in that there is no place like home, even if you don’t speak the native language. I got the same feeling when I was in Ethiopia and the DR (I know those are totally different cultures but I got that feeling). Please keep these posts coming as I know you will. I enjoy them all.

    By the way, if you have started already, get started on that project. You should know what I’m talking about.


  11. Ariel says:

    Try New Orleans, I’ve never been to Brazil but there’s a reason there’s many Brazilians here. It’s something a little different, though I can’t quite put my finger on it.

  12. Fly Brother says:

    @Ariel: I think it’s because New Orleans is the most “Latin” of American cities in the sense that it was founded by the French, who, like the Spanish and Portuguese, were much more open to cultural and racial miscegenation than the British. The music, the food, the architecture, and the language are all hybridized, with strong elements of the African, indigenous, and European strains clearly identifiable in the culture. No other American city has that same organic mixture (Miami is only “Latin” in the sense that people from Latin America have moved there). New Orleans fits squarely on the list with Havana, Kingston, and Salvador da Bahia as a cultural capital of the Diaspora.

  13. Hi!
    I’m so glad I found you! I first saw a RT on twitter via @blackatlas and I had no clue you lived in Brasil! I have been in love with the way the Brasilians treat me in NC for some time now and I must visit! The thing I love most is when I go to dinner,parties,gatherings with my Brasilian ppl in the states they are of all shades and in our group lighter doesn’t make you better or being darker. I love it! Anyways I just started following you on twitter. I’m at @mashawnda maybe we can chat in portueguese on there at times? I have so much mire to say! I’ll see if you have a email on here.

  14. Fly Brother says:

    @Mashawnda: Thanks for coming through! Yes, I just move here in March, and it’s definitely been a ride. Socially, Brazilians are amazing to hang with; it’s only on a socioeconomic level that you see the still-unchanged effects of colonialism and inequality (not a coincidence that all the maids, security guards, nannies, construction workers, etc. are much darker than their employers). Still, I’d love to have an unending conversation about this incredible place!

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