Author Archives: Jeffrey in Brazil

About Jeffrey in Brazil

Oi! I am Jeffrey Guzman. A true East Coast boy - I am from New York and attend American University in Washington, DC. There I study Public Relations & Strategic Communication and minor in Sociology. However, this semester I'll be hitting the books and streets (camera in hand) in vibrant São Paulo, Brazil! Follow me on my adventure through the biggest city in the Americas.

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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