Author Archives: Jeffrey Andrés Guzmán

Don’t Stand Still: New Adventures in America Post-Abroad

My last week in Brazil was unbelievably draining. I felt a hollow in my chest which stayed all day, every day until I landed back in the US. I hate goodbyes and that week I said goodbye to many people: my professors, CET staff, my roommates, friends. Even saying goodbye to the staff at the local bakery we frequented daily felt hard. But to my surprise, my weeks in the United States feel normal – like nothing changed. It is because my abroad experience transformed how I think so much that it changed my approach to life’s transience. I said goodbye to physical people and places, but the experiences and lessons I learned will stay with me for when I need them.

I kind of skipped the period of reverse culture shock when you are supposed to feel frustrated, angry, or lonely, because I often felt that way before going and being abroad actually helped place my emotions into perspective. I realized how privileged I am – even as a queer, Latino, first-generation student. The fact that I could go to another country, learn from it, leave, and incorporate what I learned is a big privilege. So, more than angry or frustrated that the experience is over, I am just grateful that it happened in the first place, because not everyone, especially not most people like me get to have that. I am already at the stage where I am incorporating what I learned into my daily routine so that I can live as the best me possible and make the best out of every situation.

  • Being a career go-getter.

I encountered many professionals – in love with their careers – who positively impacted my career passions. Walking through the streets of downtown Sao Paulo, I noticed how differently Brazilians approach the balance of creative expression and professionalism. It was common to see professionals in more “traditional” fields sporting tattoos, piercings, hair dye, and fashion-forward clothing. All this fab was far from the drab gray suit life of the US. This was clear with the abroad program’s staff,  who not only had creative license with how they showed up to work but in what they did. They did not have your typical 9-5 desk job but were often about the city planning cultural activities for us. I always thought I would want a job that allows me to express myself more freely and which keeps me creative, but now I for sure know it.

I put these feelings into action when I came back by packing my bags and spending my summer in my college town of DC, even though I had a secure and comfortable paid internship I had done for the past six years. I need growth and something that meets me where I am today. Currently, I am just working at a restaurant for the summer, but I have more of a go-getter mentality. I have been busy working on applicatoins for the fall, going to conferences, networking with people, and really trying to get everything right for when college ends. I often leave things for the last minute, but I am doing what I could do tomorrow today and I learned that in Brazil.

  • Finding ways to be more creative.

There were so many new stimuli I came across during my semester abroad. The list is truly expansive: new people, new food, new city, new rhythms, new sounds, etc. It was all challenging and rewarding at the same time. The previous semester I had taken a media entrepreneurship class and my main takeaway was to channel the ups and downs of life into something new and useful. That is what did in Brazil. I launched a blog where I kept track of my experiences and frustrations in a new country. I hope people can learn and grow from it the same way I have. While the blog was inspired by my abroad experience, I plan to keep it going and to use it as a vehicle for creativity long-term. I’ve learned there is so much to explore just in your own backyard or city and if you channel that stimuli in a productive way it can open many career and social doors.

  • Seeking out more culture.

I knew I had a short amount of time, only four months, in Sao Paulo and I sought to make the most of it. I traveled around the country with friends (and sometimes alone), so that I could really soak up as much as possible. I don’t do that enough back home, because it is very easy to get stuck in a bubble and routine. I always think I have a lifetime to explore a place. But, now that I am back, I want to really take on the city. That’s part of the reason I decided to stay in DC for the summer too. With all this free time since I’m not in class, I have no excuse to not go out to new bars and clubs, or to visit more museum, or to bike down to the monuments, or to go out in Maryland and Virginia. There is so much more to see out there than in the comfort of my home on Netflix and I am really going to take advantage of that now because a lifetime is short.

  • More emotional maturity and honesty.

I was hit hard by the realization that despite thinking I’ve lived it all I have not. As a queer, Latino, first-generation student I sometimes get so caught up in how much people like me struggle and how hard we must work to get to where we are that I assume there are no more challenges left for me. But Brazil was a challenge and I experienced quite a bit of culture shock. I did not know how to be comfortable with not being OK at first. When I was feeling homesick I kept it to myself until a friend said, “I feel sad” and then another and another. Soon, I realized culture shock is very normal and it is OK to not feel OK. The emotional honesty I was gifted by my other program friends really made me open myself up more to other people and my own self. I feel like I understand myself more now and I am constantly journaling to keep things that way (which is why this blog is kind of long). But I find it so necessary and healthy to just write and speak on what you feel. It is beautiful to understand and share that connection with others.

  • Financial responsibility.

I wouldn’t call myself a shopaholic, but clothing definitely for me is an expressive outlet that makes me feel better but does not make my bank account feel all that great. During my semester abroad, I really hustled and got a Gilman scholarship along with some other grants. Because I was unable to work during the semester abroad, I started a budget. “Broke in Brazil” sounds like it would be a fantastic sitcom but I’m not trying to be in it. I kept to that budget all semester and realized, one, how easy it is to keep one, and two, how many stupid, unnecessary expenses I have. Now that I am back in DC, which is significantly more expensive – oh, how I miss Brazilian prices – I am implementing the budget into my day to day routine.

  • Physical flexibility.

Things like cooking and exercise have almost always felt like work to me. But in Brazil, I learned to approach them as parts of my daily routine that can be fun, social, and unwinding. One of my Brazilian roommates was very into cooking and he would always make us different desserts or shared his meals. I picked up quite a few tips from him and his love for cuisines really inspired me. I now cook more and take creative liberties. As for fitness, I started going to the gym in Brazil, which always felt overwhelming for me in the states and is why I normally work out alone in the comfort of my home. But the gym goers in Brazil were a lot less intimidating, many were actually quite helpful and I even made some friends, which made me appreciate it more. Now I finally understand why some people are “gym rats”. The gym can be quite the social space.

  • Social outgoingness.

While abroad, I had no international data plan. So, rather than just texting friends while I was out and about by myself, I talked to strangers. This opened my eyes to how many amazing conversations can be had with people you don’t know. Especially, when you come from different backgrounds. I am someone who is very open to learning about different cultures, but I often don’t make the effort into going into those spaces or approaching people myself. While abroad I was forced to because there was no alternative – I either got out of my comfort zone or I would have been lost and miserable the whole semester. I also realized how much I missed family and friends. So, I made a better effort with them. I picked out souvenirs for them and in the week I was back home in New York visited each person individually to share my experiences rather than just texting them. I noticed, too, how much more meaningful our conversation now and how our relationships have the potential to strengthen.

I plan on traveling more – both internationally and locally. Traveling opens up so many windows into the world, but also into the self and I can’t wait to keep this growth going.

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Embracing Awkwardness and the Unknown: How Brazil Changed Me

“Yeah, abroad, like, changes you. I’m just, like, more sophisticated now… I just feel, like, I’m, like, supposed to be from abroad.” She stumbles through the rest of her monologue which lists the reasons she feels transformed. Those include getting a boyfriend, seeing tourist sites, and drinking. Speaking of drinking, she is saying all this while holding a glass of wine in one hand and twirling her hair with the other. Doesn’t sound too convincing, right? Prior to going abroad – to Brazil – several Facebook friends tagged me in this comedy sketch that heightened the often annoying and all-knowing way people talk about their study abroad experience. I never thought I would be that person. Yet, abroad really did, like, change me. Not, because I got a Brazilian boyfriend (that did not happen) or saw two wonders of the world (this did happen), but because the people I spoke to, the stories I heard, and the sights I saw truly transformed how I approach life now.

Long before going to abroad to Sao Paulo, Brazil, I embarked on another journey: one of self-improvement, or rather, self-empowerment. I sought to better understand myself so I could be my best self. For this, I was constantly reflecting on career paths, creative interests, social relationships, financial needs, and mental and physical health. But after being in Brazil I realized where I had been failing in that journey. I was retreating inward to find those answers and was not allowing anyone else (not family or friends) in. I figured all that reflecting should be done in private, yet, as a naturally extroverted person I was cutting myself short in doing that. If you are physically lost and without phone service, you ask people for directions. It makes no sense to try to find your way alone. Being in a new environment made me realize that. I both figuratively and literally (I had no international data) cut myself off from the comfort and talked to people to find my way to where I am now. Here is what I learned.

I was often really overwhelmed by the question, “What do you want to do after school?” I am a rising senior and while finding a job has never been a point of anxiety for me, finding a job that I truly love has. All my life I thought I wanted to go into the political field, specifically, run for office or work on a public officer’s team. I have had three political internships and although I enjoyed myself, made friends, and learned a lot, the most important thing I learned is that I was not inspired to do this for the rest of my life. What does inspire me is affecting and seeing change on the ground. I learned this after working six summers at a community-based health center. Again, while I loved the team and am grateful for the invaluable skills I gained there, after six summers I felt burnt out and empty. Especially, because the nonprofit sector requires people to wear so many hats at once, which while rewarding can be exhausting.

In my semester abroad, through interactions, observation, and theory, I have gained a better sense of what I want to do or just more generally, how to approach my career path. First, what immediately struck me, visually, about Brazilian professionals as I walked down Avenida Paulista (their Fifth Ave) is the amount of leeway afforded to them regarding identity. The stiff, stuck-up, snobby professional culture that is so prevalent in DC and most of the US was absent. Young professionals were much more fashion forward. It was not uncommon to see them tatted up or with a dozen piercings. I don’t necessarily want that for me (all the tattoos and piercings), but I did generally vibe well with the openness, particularly as a gay man. I want a workspace like that. One where I can take more creative liberties with style. That kind of expectation definitely informs career paths. You are hard-pressed to find a lawyer or public official who has those liberties. Yet, in the public relations (PR) field there is much more self-expression because while there are rules to the profession, it is a creative and communicative one. Expressive people are at its heart. So, at least, I know I have that right.

In terms of where I want my PR degree to take me in May, I want it to take me into the sector I always said I refused to join: the private sector. For my Poverty & Inequality course, I wrote a paper about philanthropy in Brazil. In writing that paper, I learned so much about the ways in which the non-profit sector, which I always saw as honest and sacred, does wrong. In so many non-profits, little to no money actually reaches the communities it needs to reach. Additionally, because of government bureaucracy, so many non-profit initiatives cannot gain traction. Since the government generally, but especially depending on who is in power, does so little to reach underserved communities, but promotes the business/private sector so much, I have figured, why don’t I go into that sector and make my change there? Because there is less bureaucracy, decisions are made faster and projects move faster – and many of those decisions and projects can help stimulate development and growth. Change does not only come out of political movements but out of business. Creative businesses are especially crucial as they support the distribution of messages and resources that affect change.

While I have become ambivalent towards identity politics, I do believe that the more queer, Latino, and first-generation people (who are truly down with the cause) we can get into all sectors (including private) the better off the world will be. A diversity of experiences allows us to truly work as a better, more cohesive team. The diversity of experiences are not just limited to identity, but previous career paths too. I learned while abroad that I want to work somewhere where I can work with and learn from a variety of causes, not just one. I learned this, again, through my essay for Poverty & Inequality, where I learned about several nonprofits and businesses that were joining resources into coalitions with the common goal to combat poverty, but each focused on different communities. For that reason, a coalition or something like a firm (with different community-based clients) would be ideal for me.

That diversity of experience is also achieved by simply working somewhere else. Prior to study abroad, I never considered working somewhere outside of the United States, but now it feels like much more of a possibility. From a young age, the United States has been forced down my throat as the only land of opportunity by other Americans, but also by my own parents who immigrated from the Dominican Republic. But after being in Brazil and seeing how similar (and at times better) the work can be, my mind has been changed and expanded. My roommate, Joao, told me that at his internship he gets a monthly salary, a lunch card, a commute card, dental insurance benefits, and half of his gym membership paid. That is not just his internship. That is a standard. I can barely find internships that pay, let alone ones that offer all that. So, working abroad, particularly where the cost of living can be so much lower than in the United States, as is the case in Brazil, is a new possibility.

Being abroad afforded me an amount of emotional maturity and social competence I thought I already had but was clearly lacking. As bad as political matters may be in the US, in my day-to-day, I am comfortable. I know how to navigate different settings and structures at home well. I adapt easily. Culture shock? I don’t know her. That is how I approached going abroad. But I met culture shock. A lot. Especially because I arrived knowing no Portuguese, I was thrown into uncomfortable and messy situations all the time. So, I was forced out of my comfort zone and into the awkwardness I so often fear.

No longer could I just go about my day inside my head and protecting myself from the outside world via my headphones. I had to put my music away so that I could be really attentive. There were so many new stimuli to soak up which I would have missed had I hid behind my headphones. New stimuli include new people. By taking off my headphones, I became so much more approachable to people and had really impactful conversations. So many people were looking for the same cultural exchange I was. As a foreigner, I was just as interesting to them as they were to me and I learned it was only fair to open myself up to them as reciprocity for being allowed into their space – and Brazilians really do let you in I learned. On my first day, my Uber driver called his daughter for me because he spoke no English but she did. She offered me advice on where to eat, where to go out, and what to sight-see.

I felt much more emboldened to do things for myself. I took those tips I received on the first day and went out, taking myself on “mini-dates”, many times. I did make really great friends with other students, but I knew that if I hung around them all the time I would not grow, because they represented a piece of home and were comfortable. One pretty bold thing I did was plan a long-distance trip completely alone. I chose to go to Iguazu Falls, which I had wanted to go to my entire life, but finances and scheduling did not work for many of my friends. Rather than sit on the plan like I might usually do, I went anyway. While I traveled alone and was disconnected from the Internet, I was not truly alone. I talked to many other tourists while there and even became really great friends with my Airbnb host. We still talk to this day. The trip was a truly immersive, reflective experience. I learned you can’t wait on life and sometimes you just have to pack up your things, set out, and explore.

This all is not to say you can never learn from what is comfortable. One of the most worthwhile things that came out of the trip was my friendship with three other Dominican girls. Those roots, my Dominican roots, I realized have often been missing from my college experience. So, being with three other Dominicans brought them right out in me. I learned so much about what is currently happening in Dominican pop culture, how to incorporate self-care routines and fitness activities better suited to me with this background, and stopped code-switching how I speak to appease hegemonic white culture all the time. Being around the girls also made me realize how much more I should be appreciating my family and so, I called my mom basically every day, instead of waiting the week or two weeks I would normally because I was “too busy”.

Missing my family, and other things from home which seemed small, such as my bike or a favorite restaurant, was hard at first. The first few weeks I rode a definite high because everything was brand new and Carnaval was happening, which is the best distraction, but after that, I hit a big low. A lot of my friends in the program hit that low and that solidarity – that shared feeling – was very conducive to my growth. I realized it is OK and normal to not be OK 100 percent of the time. My friends in the program were very emotionally honest and forward about their feelings. This pushed me to be that way as well. I learned that communicating how you feel, even if awkward and uncomfortable, helps you avoid misunderstandings with people you care about in the long run.

I learned so much more about myself than I expected during my time abroad. What I most looked forward to when applying to the Brazil program was learning about the country and culture. Besides my PR major, I am working towards a Sociology minor and the subject matter of the program fit my interests really well. We discuss matters of poverty, politics, inequality, and society basically every day be it in class, with roommates, or through interactions with NGOs or even strangers. All this intellectual and emotional stimulus has pushed me to use the same tools we have been using to analyze those topics on myself. I have basically left my own body and have been watching myself – how I relate to Brazilian culture, to other Americans, to other Dominicans. I have had so much time to analyze myself and I am so unbelievably appreciative for this opportunity. I feel like I will leave a much better version of myself that can go out into the world better equipped to now enact that change I am always longing for and aiding people to feel more comfortable in their own skin as well.

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Coffee & Milk: Race in Brazil

“Why is that slave White, if slaves were Black and Brown?” I asked my mother when watching A Escrava Isaura (2004), one of the many dubbed Brazilian novelas she watched. Set in the 1850s, the story-line, to my astonishment, centered on a White slave. My mom explained how the media whitens our narratives to make them more palatable and how people of color are often refused leading roles. This was my first time realizing it is not only some White Americans that “other” people, but these very “others” perpetuate strata of power and privilege within their communities. I understood that even to other Latinos I am “other” because of my skin. Consequently, the history, culture, and geography of Brazil have always interested me. When applying to study abroad programs, Brazil was easily my first choice. I wanted to study race, society, and inequality. I wanted to see how I would fit in.

Almost a bit illusory, I expected to fit in just fine. I thought that in a country where more than half the population identifies as Mixed and Black that I would finally find my place. My expectations were not necessarily met. That is not necessarily a bad thing. I still enjoy Brazil and in many ways do find myself more comfortable here than in the United States. I enjoy being able to deconstruct my experiences. But, I must admit that I have found the pervasiveness of White supremacy here a bit disappointing.

Afro-Brazilian grafitti in Rio

The privileges of White Brazilians first became evident when I boarded the plane that would take me from New York to São Paulo. I was one of the few Brown people on the flight and a majority of the passengers were White. My first impression was that perhaps these individuals were Americans going there for tourism or more likely, business since São Paulo is an international economic center. But I found that a majority of them spoke Portuguese. It was evident that this was a native Portuguese too. There was little accent and additionally, their mannerisms were much more Latin than American.

Upon landing in Brazil and traveling to Perdizes, the neighborhood where I am staying, I again found few Brown and Black people. The only ones I did interact with then and who I continue to see around in the neighborhood are laborers. They sweep the streets or work as cashiers. The school, PUC, is no different. I have predominantly seen White students and my Current Social Issues professor informed me that it was not until Brazil adopted affirmative action policies in the early 2000s that the few Black and Brown students at PUC started to be admitted. The lack of diversity is visible not only amongst students but professors too. This same professor noted the irony that she is White, yet is the person teaching us about the lack of opportunities for non-Whites in Brazil. That is true throughout. There are few Black and Brown higher education professors because of the access to higher education and the teaching market.

Banner reading diversity outisde of school on first day

What has aided me in feeling at home is the presence of other Black and Brown American students. Of the 16 students on this trip, 12 of us identify as Black and Brown. We are in similar shoes and the mutual struggle we all know is comforting, it is familiar. Together, we pick up on different social cues and together break down our experiences. All of us came to Brazil already interested in race, so these conversations come to us naturally. They are as daily as Brazil’s bread. Similarly, many of the Brazilian students we live with are Brown and Black. Also, all of them come from city peripheries and this provides them with a more socially conscious perspective which has provided me with a lot of context to what I experience.

My rock - the other Black and Brown students

But even though, we are all read as Brown and Black in the United States, how Brazil looks at race has complicated our experiences and they are in no way similar to how they are the United States. We are read differently here. While the United States uses the “one drop rule”, by which if you have any African descendants you are Black, Brazilians use more of a spectrum. In the most recent Brazilian Census, more than 100 racial categories emerged. People categorized themselves as white, pink, yellow, brown, coffee, caramel, black, double black, and a variety of other different colors and descriptions. Because of the existence of this spectrum and the fact that on average Brazilians are darker than Americans, racially we have all shifted. Many of us are considered White in Brazil and processing this has been quite the experience.

In the United States, I nor anyone would really consider me White. But here many people do. One Uber driver in Rio de Janeiro talked to me about how he has found Black Americans to be ruder than White Americans….as if I were not Black? But on the other hand, what I have perceived in going out to bars and clubs, particularly gay ones, is that people like me or like my friends who look like me get overlooked in preference for White people, especially those who seem foreign.  In the US it is a lot different because it is people like me who get fetishized and sexualized. What I think this reveals is that here, someone with my skin color can be anything – while in the United States I do not think there would any question. It demonstrates just how arbitrary race is.

In Rio

So, I appreciate the spectrum in which race is viewed in Brazil. I think it provides individuals with more agency. Yes, it is possible that some Black and Brown people might use this spectrum to disassociate from their origins, but also where do we draw that line? How can I truly say a Black person is trying to de-Black themselves if there is no definitive definition of what Black is? I am no one to claim that someone is Black or not, especially coming in with my outsider perspective. I find solace in the spectrum because my race has never been so clear to me. Some see me as Black, some as Brown, some as Latino, some as mixed. But I should be the one with the power of dictating how I identify and in Brazil, I have found that power. So, despite some of the other missteps I have found Brazilian society to have regarding race, I have found solace here.

Next week, we will be traveling to Salvador de Bahia, a city where 80% of the population is Black. This is the city where it all started: the slave trade, Brazilian culture, and the nation of Brazil itself. I look forward to seeing how pervasive Afro-Brazilian culture is here. Capoeira (a martial arts dance), Candomble (a religion), Samba (a musical genre), and much of Brazilian cuisine originated here and is still celebrated here. As of now, I am expecting this to be the dominant culture, but I will be on the lookout for the Whitewashing of said culture.

practicing capoiera

The reduction of Afro-Brazilian culture to its simplest, darkest parts became evident to me when going to an Afro-Brazilian museum in São Paulo. I expected to see contemporary Afro-Brazilian culture celebrated, but the exhibits mainly touched on colonialism and slavery. Yes, these are undoubtedly important, but I think it is necessary to highlight positive contributions too. Especially, considering how much Brazilian culture is Afro-Brazilian culture at its root. But in Brazil, the narrative is solely about the victimization of the Black community which is one I think we see in the United States too with how a lot of Black narratives are prison or slave narratives.

Outside an Afro-Brazilian exhibit

I look forward to discovering more about the culture as told by those at the center of it, not as dictated by White people. Look forward to my next blog regarding Bahia!  


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More Than Just A Party: The Cultural and Political Significance of Brazilian Carnaval

Ra ra ra! The United States’ biggest party just concluded. Every February, hundreds of thousands travel to America’s Paris to indulge in drunken debauchery, sexual rebellion, and unrestricted self-expression. By now you should know I am referring to New Orleans’ Mardi Gras. For those who attend the week-long celebration, Mardi Gras is a once-in-a-lifetime, unforgettable moment in time. But did you know there is a rival festa (party) that upstages New Orleans every year? The biggest party in the world, attended by millions, takes place at Brazil’s Carnaval. This year I took to this world stage with my CET groupmates. Follow my journey through the feather and glitter laden acts of Carnaval, deemed “The Greatest Show on Earth”, and you too will be saying ai, ai, Carnaval!

But first, let us understand the context in which Carnaval exists. Carnaval is historically a Christian holiday which originated in Europe. In colonizing the Americas, the Catholic nations of France, Portugal, and Spain spread the tradition here. Mardi Gras (French for Fat Tuesday) is the most famous Carnaval day, but celebrations are week-long. Fat Tuesday is given such a name because on it people ate and drank their body weight in food and alcohol. Why? The subsequent 40 days mark Lent, a season of abstinence from alcohol, meat, and sex. This practice commemorates Jesus’ 40-day trek through the desert. Carnaval allowed people to indulge those guilty pleasures in bulk and purge them from their system in time for holy reflection.

Eating Japanese-Brazilian fusion food in Liberdade

I don’t think this is how Carnaval is understood in the 21st century. In a few weeks, people will wake up hungover from St. Patrick’s Day parades and in 9 months, new Scorpio babies will be added to this world. The expectations surrounding Lent have not held up well. The meaning and significance of Carnaval have completely shifted from religious to cultural, as well as economic. But I am not complaining. I will not be the one to ask that we recreate Carnaval in its intended form. I very much like how we do it now and a lot of Millennials, being mostly areligious, will probably agree. Plus, the cultural and economic aspects of Carnaval are just as important and informative as the religious ones.

In fact, deconstructing Carnaval’s socioeconomic elements reveal that it has more depth than just alcohol, food, and sex – only adding to the fun (at least for my nerdy interests). Carnaval, both in its old and new forms, can be understood as offering a commentary on gender, race, sexual expression, and wealth. Because this is only a blog and not a dissertation, I will not drone on about all the intricacies but will cover some findings using my background in sociology, my Catholic upbringing, and anecdotes and observations gained while in Brazil. Of course, I must always recognize that I am foreign to this culture, so I am no expert.

Besides holding religious significance, Carnaval was a time in which society’s most marginalized could be joyous and freely express their feelings without controversy. Women could be in command of their sexuality and queer individuals could be out without fear. How was this possible in the Middle Ages? In an assessment of Carnaval activities, clinical psychologist Gayle Haynes says that the exaggerated masks and costumes of Carnaval were disguises that protected people from any social repercussion for their socially unacceptable actions. Sex in the middle of the streets or market was common. No one batted an eye at whether it was two men, two women, or five people.

Carnaval’s grandeur juxtaposed with peasants’ debauchery also served as a mockery of the establishment, according to Nadia Sussman and Taylor Barnes of the New York Times. Performances often depicted the rich being punished or simply acting the fools. In colonial Brazil, Carnaval festivities were open to free Blacks and slaves, who used it to criticize the system of slavery and their former masters. At Carnaval, all people were anonymous, autonomous and equal.

Amar Sem Temer is Love Without Fear

The liberal essence of Carnaval is unquestionably visible in Brazilian today. Bloquinhos (block parties), of which there were nearly 500 in São Paulo alone, are free-of-charge and open to all. The blocos are diverse and political. Signs and shirts centered around Black Power, consent, feminism, and queer liberation were all abound. The blocos themselves are themed – some of them around costumes, but many around cultural identities that are neglected by Brazil’s mainstream culture and government. My friends and I attended one Afro-Brazilian party with a pop-up thrift store that sold artwork and clothing. We also attended several queer blocos where butts, kisses, nipples, and open containers were aplenty.

While the bloquinhos are more representative of how the average Brazilian celebrates Carnaval, there is another common celebration that is marked with elitism: Samba parades. These parades are reminiscent of the U.S.’ Rose Parade. At large arenas throughout the country, Samba schools display floats and perform this traditional Afro-Brazilian dance for a shot at the top prize. However, the Samba parades are a manifestation of capitalism’s overhaul of Carnaval. Although Samba is an integral part of Brazilian culture, the parades are more open to foreign tourists than they are the general Brazilian populace. In a reversal of Carnaval’s original intentions, the Samba parades benefit the rich and further separate them from the poor.

The bloquinhos and parades exist as two separate worlds. Both the Brazilian public and private sectors invest millions into organizing and promoting the annual Samba parades. Accordingly, seeking a return on investment, the companies make entry prices expensive (often hitting $1,000 USD). In 2017, an estimated $5.8 billion were generated from Carnaval. The bloquinhos are meanwhile free. The parades are televised nationwide, but the bloquinhos are more likely to get airtime only if arrests occur. Samba is seen as high brow, but Brazilian funky, popular at bloquinhos, is looked down upon for originating from favelas (ghettos) and being comparable to hip hop. Groups have even petitioned it be banned.

The irony of this all is that like Samba, funky and much of the culture at bloquinhos has its origins in Black and Afro-Brazilian culture. I would not be surprised if in a few years funky is present at the Samba parades, considering that it is attracting significant attention outside of the U.S. and that what those running the Samba parades most seek is to attract foreigners. According to my roommates, funky is already undergoing appropriation by White artists born outside of the favelas as well, which means that it will soon be whitewashed enough for the consumption and validation of Brazil’s elite. It is what happened with Samba, which 100 years ago was illegal.

While Carnaval mostly benefits the elite, off of the backs of the Black and poor, Carnaval still manages to provide the most marginalized with some economic stimuli. The Samba schools provide inner-city and small-town kids with an escape from poverty. Outside of dancing, designing the clothing and floats also provides jobs. Discount shop stores like those along Rua 25 de Marco see upticks in revenue. Rua 25 do Marco is actually where I went to buy my 5 costumes for no more than $50. Street vendors also make money, although getting licenses is complicated and many unapproved vendors are often run out by police detail. While this is all good, it does beg the question of what happens after? In the months between the end of Carnaval and the beginning of pre-Carnaval in January, how successfully can individuals sustain themselves?

Carnaval store in Rua 25 do Marco

Carnaval takes place anywhere from mid-February to early March and while it officially runs from Friday to Wednesday (Ash Wednesday), pre and post-Carnaval activities make it a month-long celebration. The Samba schools turn their practices into shows and there are bloquinhos long after Ash Wednesday. White collar workers are off that Segunda (Monday) and Terca (Tuesday) and have a half-day on Quarta (Wednesday). Of course, blue collar workers and the unemployed don’t necessarily have that luxury and Carnaval is their period to hustle. With over 1 million foreigners visiting Brazil and 2 million people attending daily Carnaval activities in Rio de Janeiro alone, there is a lot of potential.

While large cities like São Paulo, Rio, Salvador, Fortaleza, and Recife are usually the center of attention during Carnaval, beach towns become an escape for locals. Carnaval comes at the end of summer, just before the school year starts, so many locals take advantage of this to have one last vacation and get away from the craze of Carnaval. The CET students, unable to do Carnaval everyday (yes we are young, but livers can only take so much), followed this lead and visited Ubatuba, 3 hours away. However, the craze of Carnaval was just as present there in the massive congestion and traffic we hit.

CET students dressed as the rainbow

I was happy to be back from Ubatuba for the end of the Carnaval festivities. In all, I went to Carnaval five times and each outing felt more freeing and uninhibited than the other. I completely fell in love with the bloquinho culture of Carnaval. Regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation or background, everyone there felt and acted truly equal. We talked to, danced with and got numbers from complete strangers. It felt normal. Gender and sexual fluidity which still feels so regulated in the U.S. felt normal here. Carnaval felt like one giant middle finger to elitism and structure. This gave our drunken stupor some purposeful action. That is why Brazilian Carnaval is “The Greatest Show on Earth.” No longer do masks and performances hide our real identities, but they are rather used to  amplify our true colors.

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Nossa! My First Two Weeks in Brazil


Warm! Hot! Sizzling! All on their own, these words capture my first two weeks in São Paulo, Brazil well. The weather is tropical and stays a comfortable 70 to 80 degrees. The food is continuously cooked to absolute perfection and every bite leaves you yearning for more. The Brazilian people are gorgeous inside-and-out – exhibiting an always helpful, sunny deposition. My experience has been overwhelmingly positive despite the language barrier; I speak English, French, and Spanish, but no Portuguese. So positive that I have yet to experience much culture shock, but rather, I feel awe, love, and envy for a culture I have found in many ways to be better organized and more progressive than America’s.

The charming character of the Brazilian people became evident as soon as I hopped off the plane at GRU and jumped in the Uber. “Are you here for the first time?” I understood the driver ask. I confirmed that I was and that my Portuguese is very limited. He called his filha (daughter) who speaks English and had me talk to her. She told me that her pai (father) calls her when passengers do not speak Portuguese, so that she may talk to them and make them feel more comfortable. After telling her I would be in São Paulo until June, she gave me her phone number, so that I may ask her for advice on places to eat and travel. Feeling more comfortable, I got over my initial hesitation and spoke to the driver in my broken Portuñol (a jumble of Portuguese and Spanish) for the rest of my ride.

The language barrier is also present with my roommate, João. In fact, I do not think I or any of the others in the CET program have truly mastered the pronunciation of his name. He jokingly clinches his nose when he practices it with us, because like much of the language, it has a very nasal intonation. João does not speak English, but did start taking classes when he signed up for the CET program, which is very sweet. Fortunately, my Spanish has provided me with a smaller learning curve than would have most and I have been able to pick up the language quickly. Thus, our conversations are flowing much better than on Day 1. I have also agreed to help him with his English, yet, just the curse words and slang have stuck.

Four others live in Apartment 13 with us. Despite the omens associated with that number, I feel fortunate to live with my suitemates. Being gay in a foreign country worried me. Brazil is said to be progressive, but so is the US and my experiences there are not always safe. Accordingly, I asked for suitemates who identified as I do and the CET program came through; all of us are queer. Relating to my suitemates makes the exchange easy, because we instinctively guide each other through the aspects of our cultures that already feel like home. Our Brazilian suitemates have shown us Brazilian drag queen Pabllo Vittar’s music videos and on our second night we went to a gay dance club. Meanwhile, we have shown them episodes of RuPaul’s Drag Race (which is available on Brazilian Netflix…take notes U.S.) and Super Bowl performances from artists like Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, and Madonna.

I’ve learned that my concerns are far from the truth. Brazil’s mainstream is very queer and as result, queer individuals are well accepted. In fact, statistics show that 1 in 5 men living in Rio de Janeiro are queer and that last year’s Pride Parade in São Paulo was the world’s largest with more than 5 million people attending. Artists like Pabllo Vittar appear in nationwide commercials and have millions of views on their videos. On the streets of São Paulo, I see queer couples holding hands and kissing and walking their children. Being “visibly queer” was concerning as I do dress fluidly, but I found that even people who are not part of the queer community, embrace non-conventional expression. In São Paulo, I don’t get the same double-takes I would in U.S. queer havens like New York and Washington, DC.

Budgeting for this trip was also a concern as I depend on wages to maintain myself throughout the semester, but I am not allowed to work in Brazil on my student visa. I hustled and was fortunate enough to receive grants from the CET and Gilman programs, but even then study abroad fees and airfare ate into a lot of that money. To my surprise, my suite-mates (both the American and Brazilian students) come from working class backgrounds and must also “ball on a budget.” The CET program selects only students on 100% scholarships to PUC as roommates for the program. This is special because it affords those on the program insight into the lives of individuals who are more approximately situated to the average Brazilian. Additionally, these suite-mates better understand how to navigate Brazil on a budget and have been helpful at getting us out to activities and sights that are cheaper.

These connections with the Brazilian suite-mates have made conversations about inequality, poverty, and race as daily and substantive as Brazilian bread. Just about anything we see in the news or in the street sparks up a deep, meaningful conversation about the legacy of slavery (Brazil was the last Western nation to emancipate slavery) and how there are still structures in place to keep people of color (which is politically correct in the United State, but not in Brazil) behind. It was surprising, yet comforting to see that this progressive, anti-fascist movement is alive all over the world and that my suite-mates were familiar with the works of many of my favorite activists, theorists, and writers.

In all, the people involved in the CET program – teachers, Brazilian roommates, and American students – share truly caring, inquisitive, and thoughtful qualities. It doesn’t feel like anyone came on the trip for the sake of traveling abroad, which I found surprising, because that is often the sense I gain from hearing others talk about their abroad experience. This is telling of the kind of culture and material the CET program has established for itself. It seems to naturally attract students that seek to truly immerse themselves and understand the other side of Brazil. Yes, Brazil has world-class beaches, great food, and beautiful people, but as I mentioned earlier, also a lot of inequality. CET Brazil has dedicated its curriculum and activities to understanding the what, when, where, who, why, and how of that inequality.

All this said, I do not aim to mislead. While my experience has been positive, I must recognize that I live here as an American, am attending one of Brazil’s best schools, and reside in a predominantly White and rich neighborhood. My experience is marked with many privileges that are exclusive and rare for most of Brazil’s population. Though I am read as Black in the US, in Brazil, I am read as a light-skinned foreigner and will accordingly be shielded from unequal treatment. In come CET’s classes on economics, history, politics, and society. Those classes have not yet started – yes, you read that right, I’ve been abroad for two weeks and still have yet to do much schoolwork. But once classes begin, that intercultural conflict will take the front seat of these blogs, while my own experience serves to supplement.

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