Category Archives: Ricardo in Brazil

Back in the Homeland: Both of Us Different?

“Ta…” I responded to my sister when she told me we would go grab lunch. The word is a response Brazilians say after agreeing with somebody – in full it’s ‘esta,’ meaning alright. I’ve been repeatedly saying it over the past weeks along with others, yet that’s not the only thing. I genuinely miss Brazil. I’ve really been readjusting back to life in California. I didn’t originally believe in reverse culture shock, but I adamantly admit it now. The feeling of remembering the country and the lifestyle, from the beaches to the acai.

When I first arrived in Brazil last year I felt homesick not weeks after my arrival, but months. It took me a good few months to adjust to my new lifestyle there in Rio, with new friends from town and foreigners. Now here in Los Angeles the same is true. The food is not the same as in Brazil, my routine is totally different, I am now driving after one year of busing, and am reconnecting with old friends and especially making new ones. Also, I missed In-N-Out.

I’m also back living at home, home, not in Davis where I was a student, but with my family in Los Angeles and searching for jobs – that has been an experience. The study abroad program was my last project I completed during my undergraduate career. I therefore came directly to my hometown in Los Angeles and haven’t been in Davis for a long time. I’m currently working part-time and hoping to find an internship while I continue my search for a career job in Los Angeles or Washington D.C. I’ve got to add that it has been very difficult finding a job but the experience in Brazil most pointedly stands out during job interviews. I’m now trilingual and can confidently speak of my fluency in Portuguese.

Moreover, I learned this sort of awareness about American materialism and values and certain attitudes. Now a 300ml soda drink is more than enough for me, for example – I did tell some about 7-Eleven’s massive Big Gulp cups. I’m also much more direct and open now than when I left, which is difficult to grasp because Brazilians are often known to foreigners as very laid back and relaxed. There’s plenty of stress now given the job hunt, but its healthy stress after a year of exploring and been adventurous in a foreign country and not really knowing anybody.

Home is also different. I’m back but busy and not in my most recent home, Davis. The city of Davis had been my home for a very long time now. Friends I saw regularly are far and away, with some in a different country altogether. I’m back in my family home, not in the new home I made where new and fond relationships were created. Plus, the country too has changed. Values and traditions seem upside-down, with old ideas at the forefront of political debates. The homeland has changed, my home has changed, I have changed, yet for the better we will only know tomorrow.

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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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