Author Archives: Ricardo in Brazil

About Ricardo in Brazil

Hi! I’m Ricardo Martinez. I hail from the University of California, Davis, and am studying abroad in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (PUC-Rio). I study Political Science and Philosophy, and have a minor in Latin American studies. I hope you enjoy my adventures through the pieces I will be writing. Let’s go!

Then and Now: An Open Letter to Brazil

“Why pick Brazil, though? I wish I could go to the United States” countless Brazilians told me. From students at PUC-Rio to Uber drivers and locals. It always riled me, taking me a few seconds to answer. But every time I responded with the same answer: “Because Brazil (and any other Latin American country for the matter) is enough, even better; you only need to invest in it.” Most never understood what I meant, and those that did smirked with a shrugged thinking I was naïve because their country is corrupt and without opportunities to provide them. Maybe Brazilians are right.

Yet, I don’t believe I am naïve nor idealistic. Americans from Latin American descent and our American peers in North, Central, and South America, must re-learn our shared history and worthiness of who we are as a people with roots in the Americas. I long sought to come to Latin America to study abroad, ultimately choosing Brazil to learn a new language and understand the history of ‘the U.S. of South America’ and its relationship with the world. Europe was never in my mind to study abroad, as it is for many of my peers back home in the states, especially Latinos and people of color. I specifically point out this fact – as I’ve done previously– because Latinos have a duty to be boldly audacious and travel to the lands where our ancestors were exploited and robbed, displacing future generations.

Brazil is wondrous. My experience in the country – from Rio de Janeiro, to Ouro Preto, São Paulo, among other places – has deeply changed me. Meeting people from all walks of life and re-learning and learning what I never imagined possible has been eye-opening. To say that I experienced Brazil’s culture fully would be false, however; that is unattainable within the span of a year in a culture that spans centuries. But I have learned Portuguese, made friendships with many locals and foreigners, many from Latin America and others from Europe too.

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The most profound experience however will be the wide and indescribable inequality that permeates not only the streets of Rio de Janeiro but its prestigious institutions such as PUC-Rio. Some Brazilians, especially Blacks, working the most minimal tasks, trapped in unnecessary positions as employment is necessary to their nourishment. They know there’s more to life but there’s a sense of destitution and apathy towards something they see as very remote. I could never be in their shoes and completely understand them, but it reminds me of the countless times when Brazilians at PUC-Rio and European peers questioned whether I am American, always rebutting with a: “Yeah, but where are you really from?” Maybe they are right. Because I am American but also much more than that.

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The country and the experience has empowered me. I left the United States in a set mindset, still holding to a dream of furthering my studies in U.S.-Latin American relations to springboard a career in the Foreign Service, or other U.S. government agency to fundamentally change, I believe, an antiquated long-standing U.S. foreign policy towards Latin America. In Brazil, I realized that where I could make the biggest impact was not there but outside in the community where lack of organization and leadership continue to persist in Latino and people of color neighborhoods. I now know where I always should have been, and I could never repay this to my time abroad and the people I met in a country that too remains yearning for fundamental change.

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Valeu Brasil! [Thank you, Brazil!]

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New Friendships & Memories

When I first arrived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, my policy was to always meet new people and never reject making time to chat with new peers. In fact, on the way from the airport to my host mom family on the first day, I met students from the states that I keep in touch to this day. The experience in Rio over the next months and now over the past year would create lasting memories with people that over a year ago I did not know existed.

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During the first semester, for example, I met students from the University of California system, but even more from PUC-Rio and Europe, where I made friends with French and German students, as well as Brazilians. Usually at PUC-Rio everyone goes to school only to attend classes, leaving for home, an activity or the beach soon thereafter. I hung out with most people usually outside of school where we would spend some afternoons at Copacabana or Ipanema beach. On Monday nights we’d go to Centro, in the center of the city, to an event with live samba music and some caipirinhas, a famous Brazilian alcohol drink with a lot of sugar, ice, lemon (or other fruit like strawberry and passion fruit), and Cachaça, a famous Brazilian alcohol fermented from sugar cane. Samba is a unique Afro-Brazilian music genre with diverse sounds and dances with roots from Africa. It is widely known as part of Brazil, seen and heard everywhere throughout the country especially in the North.

On Tuesdays, foreign students and locals go to Canasta, a bar in Ipanema where we can drink some beers, talk for long hours about anything and practice Portuguese at the same time. Next up is ‘BG,’ or ‘Baixo Gávea,” a small like-park near PUC-Rio located in Gavea where students go every Thursday to hang out. In Rio de Janeiro there is always somewhere to go, and that somewhere to hang out is usually next to a bar with music and a lot of strangers. I never consistently went to every event or place every week because of time and money, but I tried my best to meet new folks and find new relationships and friends. That’s my policy, to stay open to meeting people, and it worked out perfectly. Aside from the weekly events outside of PUC-Rio where I hung out with new friends I also spent time with some at the beach on the weekends and during class.

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During Carnival, I met even more people from all over the world. The event in Rio de Janeiro is gigantic and meeting people left and right was very common. I met complete strangers from Canada, Germany, France, Brazilians from Minas Gerais, friends of friends from Argentina, and a bunch of other folk I jumped into through friends and walking around in the crows of “blocos,” street parties. Soon after I headed for my trip to Patagonia. Then I explored Santiago, Chile, and Buenos Aires, Argentina. There too I met a whole bunch of other strangers whom with time became friends I keep in touch through Instagram and other social media. Many of them traveling the world. That’s one thing I will be taking from studying abroad, that I should be traveling twice a year at least because there’s much to explore in other societies and even inside the states.

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This second and last semester in Rio too has been the same. I’ve been here longer and I  know some people, but I still try to make new connections, making some good friendships with students from the states and some more Brazilians. I also finished my internship and became more involved in Brazilian jiu-jitsu practices and my graduate human rights course where I recently completed a paper on US foreign policy with respect to human rights towards Central America after 9/11. The friendships I have made abroad will be for a lifetime and I can’t wait to repeat these moments in Brazil, Argentina, and Chile, where I hope to see everyone again.

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Carnival 2018 in Rio de Janeiro


This past February, Brazil’s largest festival – Carnival – was celebrated all over Brazilian cities, from Rio de Janeiro to Bahia, Salvador. Carnival 2018 officially began on Friday, February 6, 2018; though pre-carnival festas (parties) began back in January and continued to the end of the month. Carnival officially ended on the 18th of February. According to Guinness Worlds Records, Rio de Janeiro’s carnival event is the world’s largest, with millions of Brazilians and foreigners in the streets of Rio enjoying their time with family and friends, dancing and listening to a variety of of Brazilian and foreign music.

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Carnival’s history dates back hundreds of years when Egyptians celebrated the beginning of Spring. Thanks to Alexander the Great, the Greeks would adopt the festival thereafter, and soon too would Romans (after having converted to Christianity), creating a food festival attached to Christianity where all types of food were eaten before the beginning of Lent. In fact, it’s said Carnival means ‘carne vale’ which translates to ‘farewell to meat.” It is thus largely celebrated in western culture with a large population of Christians. However, today Carnival represents something completely different, for no longer is it attach to religious orthodoxy but people-to-people relations, with each carnival varying from society to society with a uniqueness of its own.

In Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the Portuguese brought Carnival with them, yet would-be Brazilians (in large part African slaves) would wholly transformed the festival as it is known today in Brazil where people are one in the same and can pretend to be who they want, and what they want, for a few days. The cultural clash between Portuguese, Africans, and Natives, even created Samba music in the early 20th century, with Samba schools opening up years later and ‘Sambódromo’ (Sambadrome) being established decades after as a venue for incredible Carnival parades. I attended one of their parades the first weekend of the competition and they were incredible. They are the life to Carnival itself; representing a key part of the city of Rio, with every parade from different schools filled with metaphors and messages to Brazilians and outsiders from the working-people of Brazil. Though many locals do not attend the show, it attracts thousands of visitors from around the globe. Below is a picture of my favorite parade, by the samba school Paraíso do Tuiuti, in which they criticize the government, elites, and discuss slavery, posing a question to society: “Is slavery really extinct?”

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From the first day of Carnival I enjoyed time with friends, going out to different ‘blocos’ with different types of music every day and experiencing a one in a lifetime event. The culture of Carnival is all about forgetting, enjoying precious time with people and pretending everything is perfect. It’s essentially Brazilian culture times one hundred, one of the hardest aspects of brazilian culture I’ve had to adjust; for in the states efficiency, quickness top.

Disparities during Carnival, however, are even more evident; with dozen of parents and teenagers during blocos selling alcohol, water, and whatnot  to support themselves, while other Brazilians and foreigners alike enjoying the festivities at mere feet away. In one of the most memorable moments during Carnival, a pair of three Brazilians adolescents, after having worked the whole day in the streets selling goods, waited for the bus one night while a group of Brazilians around the same age were drinking and waiting outside the metro to head to another bloco. In all, Carnival is something to experience, a place of festivities and enjoyment where I made new Brazilian friends, and even connected with some Americans and Canadians who were visiting, meeting an array of people and having the time of my life.

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A Small Glimpse into Higher Education in Brazil

Back home in the states, higher education in communities of color is the hallmark for success. College is an end goal that students of color are pushed to reach, finding out later that higher education is only the beginning. Yet, even before attending college, conditions are set in the family, community, neighborhood, and even in oneself, that put someone able to only do so much. I wanted to figure out how students in Brazil get to be students at the university level, specifically at PUC-Rio, a private university; and even more precisely, students of low-income communities. For instance, what programs are offered to them? Do students of color – particularly brown and black people – find difficulty in the process? How’s life at the university and what are some student activities? How are their studies, and are students able to find a job quickly after graduation?

Higher education in Brazil (as in any other country) is of paramount importance to closing the financial and social inequality gap that permeates Brazilian society. It is a ladder to success. Here at PUC-Rio, the same can be said. There are students from all social and racial classes, though the disparities among low-income students and wealthy students is striking. There exists a very extreme but subtle inequality, one you can feel but not see. For instance, Brazilians are famous for not resembling a face, per se, representable of Brazilians, given that there are White, Brown (mixed-race), Black, Asian, Brazilians. In short, Brazil represents a multiracial powerhouse among worldwide societies. But walk around campus and speak with students, and there is minimal to no interaction between that of a wealthy student and an underprivileged one.

Brazilian high school students typically go to college after having taken the ENEM exam, or ‘Exame do Ensino Medio,’ (High School Examination) an SAT-like standardized national exam, that began operating throughout Brazil in 2009 as an entrance admission exam to hundreds of public and private universities in the country. Though not all universities – for example, PUC-Rio – accept the ENEM score as its only admission exam to the school, it is a major factor for Brazilian students to expand their pool of options in several higher education institutions. ENEM works on a determinant system whereby the students’ score on the exam directly affects their school options in a mechanism called Sisu, or ‘Sistema de Seleção Unificada’ (Unified Selection System). Sisi in fact only allows students to see which top three universities they can apply based on their ENEM score. PUC-Rio, like some universities, however, also offers its own entrance exam.

Once accepted, students graduate within four to five years. Importantly, some of these students enter universities in part through affirmative action policies. The system was implemented during former President Lula’s administration and requires public universities to reserve 50% of their yearly enrollment to low-income, black, brown, indigenous, and disabled students – the other 50% is open to any other applicant. These quota policies were implemented to curb the inequality within Brazil and give an opportunity to deprived Brazilians, an action still highly contentious to this day. The students who entered the university through these affirmative action policies live a different life than that of the student whose parents are wealthy and provide for their financial stability. They pay their education through available financial assistance from the government and university, and are dependent on working outside school to make ends meet, such as paying for rent and food. A very similar reality of life in the states to first-generation college students, but one that is more severe and evident. For instance, where buses and the metro are the predominant vehicles to arrive and leave campus, it is very common knowledge wealthy students prefer to call an Uber, citing other means of transportation as dangerous.

On campus, student life is different than that of the states. Life on campus is minimal to none existent, other than for going to classes and the in-between time students use to chat before their next class begins. For instance, here at PUC-Rio, there aren’t any residence halls where students live and share their experience, nor does there exist a big campus sports culture, even when soccer here dominates everyday life. Brazilian students tell me it’s more apparent in public universities, making PUC-Rio, a private university, an exception. One peculiar fact I learned is a hazing game called ‘trote’ Brazilian students perform on first-year students wherein they have to do something at the behest of another student to ultimately organize a ‘chopada,’ a beer party, to celebrate the new students’ arrival; a dangerous welcoming that every year results in the deaths of Brazilian students. It is well known, and very popular among students, and although the government and university officials have denounced it, it is not illegal. Though these are more dominant at public schools, the experience at PUC-Rio is minor. Here at PUC-Rio, and in other schools as well, efforts have been made to change the trote into a well-intended tradition by organizing food collection through the new students or performing undemanding games.

In terms of their studies, students obtain a bachelor’s degree between four to six years. In the case of ‘pre-med’ and ‘pre-law students,’ as students intending to become doctors or lawyers are called in the states, Brazil follows a somewhat European model curriculum where its students begin on track to become doctors and attorneys all in one school without requiring them to obtain a bachelor’s degree first. After their six years, for medical students, and five years, for law students, they are full-fledged doctors and lawyers; though Law students must take an exam like the bar exam to be able to practice law; the exam is called ‘Brazilian Law Order Exam.’ Medical students are not required to complete residency but can do so for a specialization. Students pursuing a bachelor’s degree in psychology, or engineering, for example, graduate within five to six years and receive their diploma without having to take an exam like law students, much as it is for countless other majors.

After graduation, finding a job is easier said than done. Most students with previous experience in internships end up working with the same organization or company, though others struggle to find a well-paid job to accommodate their needs. Law and engineering students find it easier to find an internship, most of which are paid, though others have complications and further minimize their chances at a good paying job. Students too may pursue a master’s degree after undergraduate studies, and unlike the US, they must first obtain a master’s degree to apply for a Ph.D. program. Notwithstanding, Master and Ph.D. programs are fairly like those at home, with universities having their own applications and method of choosing candidates based on their academic, professional, and research experience.

Lastly, the most notable fact I found about education in Brazil is that low-income students predominantly attend public schools throughout their K-12 education, yet, switch to private ones in higher education. They do so because public universities are impacted with wealthy students with a robust K-12 education they received from private schools; the K-12 educational system is considered inadequate and thus most wealthy students are sent to prestigious private schools with a higher level of value compared to public ones. The value of education thus flips, though there are some exceptions, such as here in PUC-Rio, where the private university is the same, if not better, than other public universities. This fact too is highly contentious, as underprivileged students struggle to compete with wealthy, better-educated students, in entrance exams for universities across the country and abroad.

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Interning Abroad: A Stimulating Undertaking

In late September I accepted an internship position as a research assistant at the BRICS Policy Center. Its name comes from the BRICS countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. They are countries with emerging economies and increasingly regional and international influence. At the BRICS Policy Center, administered by the Institute of International Relations of PUC-Rio, researchers perform short and long-term studies on the BRICS countries and their intricacies. Now more than a month since the internship began, the experience at the BRICS Policy Center has been stimulating.

I first learned of the center’s existence while attending an event on Brazil-US relations in Washington D.C. this past Spring; as soon as I arrived to Rio de Janeiro I began preparing to apply for the application and after it became available I immediately applied and heard back in September. I joined their Social-Environmental Platform team, specifically under an international relations professor working on a project to study the presence of China in Latin America. My research therefore has been to study why and how China has become such a strong actor in Latin America, one that to this day continues to invest and increase its economic and political partnerships with Latin American countries. The project is in its preliminary stages, but what I am learning has been captivating and though the reading is burdensome and time consuming, I thoroughly enjoy reading the various literatures on China in Latin America.

When I applied to PUC-Rio, I indicated to my study abroad advisor my interest in interning while abroad in Brazil, though I never would have imagined how difficult it would be. Difficult in terms of the large commitment of my time while having to also simultaneous commit myself to four courses, a completely new life, and the constant invitations of friends to go enjoy the experience of living in a foreign country. Interning abroad can therefore be draining, yet I have enjoyed the experience, and though it has limited my time substantially, I’ve organized myself in a way that I can make time for various activities while at the same time fulfill my duties. I spend around two to three afternoons working from home every week on various readings, and then meet once a week to discuss the literature with the professor and two other student researchers. The discussion takes place in Portuguese and I can understand most of it, though when it comes to explaining what I read, and I am personally not able to thoroughly explain my thoughts in Portuguese, I change to English.

Long having heard of the acronym ‘BRICS’ during one of my courses at UC Davis, never did I imagine I would be able to work alongside Latin American researchers looking at China and its presence in Latin America, specifically Brazil. BRICS no longer is an acronym, for these countries have and continue to amass significant influence worldwide, and at the BRICS Policy Center I hope I will continue to learn more about their relationships with one another. Students should consider completing an internship during their time abroad, I highly recommend it.

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by | November 9, 2017 · 7:33 pm

Brazil in 3 Months, My First Impressions

Hi! I’m Ricardo Martinez. I hail from the University of California, Davis, and am studying abroad in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (PUC-Rio). I study Political Science and Philosophy, and have a minor in Latin American studies. I hope you enjoy my adventures through the pieces I will be writing. Let’s go!

I arrived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on July 5th with two suitcases, a carryon, my backpack, and big plans. I came prepared, I thought. PUC-Rio officials were in the arrival area waiting for exchange students, and as soon as there were enough students to fit in two vans, some from the states and others from Europe, we departed to our host family’s locations.

I arrived at my new home and was impressed by the room my host mom provided me with. There was a big desk, a huge closet, and a full-size bed with a giant window where I could see Copacabana beach. Over the next couple of days, however, my excitement ended with frustration, home sickness, and weariness. Prior my arrival to Brazil, I had little time to prepare, much less rest my mind. I knew I was going to Brazil, but I did not know what I would face and the time I needed to thoroughly prepare for the program. I was a bit in disarray the first couple of weeks, my mind still back in the states.


I kept moving forward nonetheless and did the best I could to enjoy the new experience. Brazilians are very nice people, and so adjusting to them has been a lot easier than I thought. The culture is also very different, for example, Brazilians enjoy taking their time, be it patiently paying at the cashier, or waiting for the elevator that takes one to the third or fourth floor. You really must witness it to know what I am saying. In any case, Brazilians, or Cariocas here in Rio de Janeiro, are laidback and genuine people. The term ‘carioca’ is given to those that are native to Rio de Janeiro, meaning they were born and raised in Rio. It’s also a way of speaking, living, and being, really. Cariocas are always casual, tan every day, and to my surprise, dislike cold weather. If it rains, you’ll find them in their homes watching novelas.


At the Pontifical University of Rio de Janeiro, or PUC-Rio, there are students from all over the world, and though it is a small campus, it’s compact and in the middle of trees and green life. There’s even small monkeys jumping around the trees, much as we have squirrels in the United Stats across many campuses, at least we do at UC Davis. The students are very open to speaking with foreigners, and so every now and then I get to practice my Portuguese. Portuguese really is unlike Spanish, I was surprised. Both languages may be from the same tongue but Portuguese enunciation, and some vocabulary, has made it difficult for me to grasp. Whenever I speak “Portuguese,” to Brazilians it’s ‘portunhol,’ meaning that it’s a blend between poor Portuguese and Spanish.

But it is all part of the adjusting process, as has been my forty-minute bus rides to school because the campus is in Gavea, completely opposite of Copacabana. The bus rides have therefore been an adjusting process, especially because it really takes an hour to get from my host mom’s home to class, in the states for example I could bike to campus in the span of ten minutes. The food as well is different, with little spices that make me miss my grandma’s food. I must say it is healthy and balanced, yet black beans and rice are always included in any dish. There’s also bread and coffee at any corner shop, and the coffee I have enjoyed indeed. My favorite food item however is acai, a healthy snack composed of a blend of purple berries from the Amazon with ice and some addon toppings such as granola and powder milk.


Most recently, I obtained a research assistant internship position at the BRICS Policy Center. I will be doing research regarding Chinese developmental investment in Brazil and Chile. I also enjoy my classes, two of which are the processes of regional integration, taught in Portuguese, and Brazilian foreign policy. These experiences have been very enriching, and above all, my stay in Brazil eye-opening. Now onto what’s in store for the next couple of months.

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