Category Archives: Uncategorized

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.

Then and Now 2

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.

Then and Now mobile

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.

Then and Now 3

Valeu Brasil! [Thank you, Brazil!]

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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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Filed under Jeffrey in Brazil, Uncategorized

Race in South Africa: Colonialism, Segregation, and Apartheid.

Ah, the issue of race. It’s kind of a loaded topic. Not only is it a big issue in America, but a big issue everywhere, especially in South Africa. The impact of the topic is so significant, it is one I absolutely feel the need to touch upon while I am here.

As we know, race does not have any biological basis, it is a socially constructed classification our society has created. Perhaps that is the reason the issue remains so problematic. However, the method in which we classify race varies from state to state. For example, in America there are 5 common race classifications: White, Black, Hispanic/Latino, Asian, and Native American. While in South Africa, the racial categories are as follows: Black, White, Coloured, and Indian. Note the race category ‘Coloured.’ In the U.S., not only is this NOT a race classification, but it is a derogatory word notoriously only used as a racial slur. Americans hear the word ‘coloured’ and our minds automatically think, ‘racist.’ However, in South Africa the word is so common it’s used everyday. Why is that?

The answer to that is a bit complex.

A Concise History Lesson

Alright so to answer that question I will have to go on and teach you guys a quick lesson in South Africa’s History.

If you’re anything like me you’ve definitely heard of Apartheid, but how much do you actually know? Before my journey here, all I knew about it was that it was some sort of racial injustice that involved segregation. In my mind, I compared it to Jim Crow laws in the United States. I didn’t really know what it entailed, it was more an unclear subject I knew the general idea of, but nothing specific. This is 100% the reason why I was so excited for this trip. I yearned to know more! I could finally get down to the nitty gritty details. What was Apartheid?

So here you have it, ladies and gentlemen! I give you the South African tea! Ready to be spilled for your reading pleasure. 

kermit tea

Here goes my attempt at a concise history lesson.

It begins with British Imperialism. Doesn’t it always?

South Africa’s Colonial Era reigned from 1652-1910, the first to invade were the Dutch. However, as my teacher put it, “it was the British who were responsible for South Africa’s misery.” Ultimately, it was the British who conquered over the land, took charge over Parliament (government), and they who would go on to write the constitution.

And so South Africa’s constitution was written by the colonizers. The laws within it reflected the White agenda, as they were designed to preserve White identity and maximize their opportunity. Unfortunately, this would be the demise for the Black people of South Africa. In order to ensure a thriving economy, Parliament would implement laws to extract cheap labor from the Black citizens, as well as enforce a migrant labor system.

What’s a migrant labor system and why did the White people need to create this? Money.

Diamonds and Gold were found in South Africa in the late 1800s. White people in South Africa needed cheap labor for the mining industry and got this from Black South Africans. But there was the problem of theft: what’s to prevent workers from sneaking a couple diamonds into their pockets in order to make a profit? Loss prevention, among other reasons, was the reason for the migrant labor system. This system provided very basic housing, comparable to that of prison. Workers were constantly under surveillance and given a pass that granted them permission to work/live there. Can you believe that? Permission to work and live within their own land. This sent a message from the White community to the Black community: you are no longer the ruler of this land, we are. Black South Africans were only here to work; the entire system had been engineered to enforce White supremacy.

This ideology of White supremacy was one that would remain dominant in South Africa for years to come, even after it’s Colonial Era. This would lead to the Segregation Era in South Africa, lasting from 1910-1948. Ultimately keeping separate the Whites from the Blacks by placing the Coloureds in between. Sounds like laundry, but no, we are talking about people. Real people with real injustices done to them; real trauma, real heartache, caused simply by the colour of one’s skin. Black Africans kicked out of their homes, banished to far away lands which would come to be known as Townships.

In order to make sure they wouldn’t return, their homes were bulldozed to the ground, leaving nothing but rubble. Many times families watched as their homes were reduced to nothing. One place in particular is known in Cape Town for this particular atrocity, District 6.

District 6

And so they left with only what they could carry, forced to build homes of their own, distant from the White oppressor. Communities known as Townships were built during the Segregation Era, separated by race as well. There were Black Townships which were the most impoverished and Coloured Townships which were less poverty struck.

White people in South Africa flourished at this time, as they would claim the land that was most sought after. However this era brought much frustration to the Black and Coloured South Africans, rightly so, and they would begin to oppose the system. Black opposition came in forms of organized political movements as well as flight of entire communities from townships to urban areas. This opposition brought anxieties in the White community to an all time high in the 1940s. This fear within them led the National Party to win the Election of 1948, after this time Parliament would implement what we know today as Apartheid.

Apartheid began in 1948, it was a system enforced by the government that allowed racial segregation and discrimination. Now what kind of laws exactly made up Apartheid? Here’s a small list of what I’ve learned so far:

  • The Population Registration Act of 1950 classified South Africans into 1 of 4 groups: White, Black, Coloured, and Indian.
  • Interesting fact: Chinese and Japanese were known as “honorary Whites”
  • Interesting fact #2: Coloureds were made up of those who were of Mixed races or racially ambiguous
  • Interesting fact #3: Within the classification there were sub-classifications, for example: Black: Zulu, Xhosa, Basotho, Bapedi, Swazi Khoisan, Venda, Tswana, Tsonga, etc.
  • The Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act prohibited South Africans from engaging in sexual or romantic relationships across racial lines.
  • Apartheid and Segregation enforced even in prison. Prisoners would receive different meals depending on their race classification.

However, the function of Apartheid was different than that of America’s. While it was definitely cruel and relied on the ideology of White supremacy, the intent was not to kill Black Africans, but to preserve them in order to preserve the labour force. Capitalism. They needed the economy to thrive, so the National Party of South Africa utilized racism as an instrument of capitalism. White prosperity depended on the exploitation of black labor. Thus, a low wage system was emplaced and maintained an effective economy in the beginning. However, this was a trap for the Apartheid system, as cheap labor only works in the beginning of a nation.

While I would love to tell a brilliant tale of Apartheid’s cataclysmic demise, there is no such story. The fact is that there was no explosive undoing to this great injustice, rather it just fell apart. The economic system could no longer hold without all race classifications coming together. This brought the National Party to meet with Mr. Nelson Mandela, leader of the African National Congress (ANC). Parliament showed Mandela the state of the economy and the two began to negotiate. The Nationalist Party agreed to step down and give the ANC political power, while they would maintain the capitalist hegemony. While the ANC would be given leadership in the political sphere, the Nationalist Party controlled the money. And we all know that at the end of the day, the only things that matters is who controls the money. Despite the rather unfair deal that took place, a negotiation was finally reached. Thanks to the peaceful efforts of Nelson Mandela, Apartheid officially came to an end in 1994.

So it can be said that the issue of race has been ingrained in South Africa’s history and furthermore, remains within its culture today. I can attest that it still feels pretty intense. I see the effects of colonialism everywhere. I see it in the buildings, I see it in the townships, I even see it in the workforce. Townships still exist, still separated by race. Not because the laws enforce it anymore, but because the effects of segregation and Apartheid are still prevalent and run deep.

I feel something must be done. As long as Townships remain, so does the segregation. As far as I know, there hasn’t been any major type of integration process introduced to the people who were forcibly removed from their homes. Actually, I might have heard something about Parliament possibly buying land from White home owners in order to give Black South Africans property. However, I haven’t done much research on the topic. Perhaps that’s one I’ll cover next time.

Anyway, I hope this history lesson was accurate, enjoyable, and articulate.

I’ve completely fallen head over heels crazy in love with history and I needed to share that with you all.

Until next time…

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Filed under Africa, Michelle in South Africa, Uncategorized

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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Riddu Riđđu – A Small Storm On The Coast

Welcome to Riddu Riđđu (translates to Small Storm On The Coast) – the international indigenous music, arts, and culture festival in Kafjord, Sapmi. Though the festival is hosted by the Sāmi community, it is in this place that my scholarship was immersed in traditions gathered from around the globe – to offer solace and an opportunity to decolonize our Western ways of perception.

As I stand before the grand valley, I am to behold the glory of this summer: birds are at play, mountains stand righteous, a river slithers down and out into a distant lake. Some still snore while others brush their teeth – joy and community permeating the human collective.

Overlooking the festival grounds after a long night

Overlooking the festival grounds after a long night

The morning that “the storm” was to ensue, I find myself joining some of my colleagues in a familial stroll down the mountain with one goal: coffee and food. The scenery is nearly too much to bear, reminiscent of the Pacific Northwest where I currently study but altogether it’s own. We are home and not home; strangers but not strangers.

After breakfast, I wander about a festival ground beaming with a prismatic luminescence – Gakti clothe the Sami, their contrasting colors dazzling. The clouds break and the Sapmi sun warms my being as I mosey past one lavvu (portable Sami dwelling) after another where Joik courses, tea ceremonies, documentary showings, and metal smithing may be ensuing at any given time.

A theatrical performance from Greenland draws my attention, the female performer taunting the audience with her grotesque makeup, wild barking, and sexual deviance on display. What could this all mean? I sit beside an old man as we admire the woman as she moves to a drum played by her troupe mate. After the performance, I spoke with her for a half an hour over tea brewed with fresh flowers. She explains how her people would use these performances to instill courage and understanding of the ways of things to their children. These children would soon be expected to drive a spear into the heart of a polar bear to support their community…a situation where fear will not serve them.

Later on, I find myself in a lavvu (kind of a north American teepee) with a professor from UiT who held the largest registry of yoiks in the world. The yoik is uniquely Sami where the performer does not own the song, but rather is more a voice through which the yoik itself is able to enter the sensory realm. One does not make a yoik about their friend, one yoiks their friend. One does not composed a yoik that is for the wolf – one yoiks the wolf. Being a musician myself, I was eager to better understand the structures and differences between the various Sami communities whose geographic spaces influence the ways in which they yoik. After all, the sound of place is the title of this course and the yoik is my primary subject of study.

Inside the yoik archive llavu with a distinguished literary professor

Inside the yoik archive llavu with a distinguished literary professor

After a power nap and reindeer kabab, the opening ceremony began. After welcoming all in English, the Minister of culture, Trine Skei Grande, continued her speech in Norwegian. It is the first time the minister has been to the festival and it is an opportunity for a representative of the nation state of Notway to gain insight into various parts of the festival program.

And then…the music began. The first performance was comprised of a very traditional series of yoik. “Zoya Nosova, born on Motka Bay, now living in Verkhnetulomskiy is the last native speaker of the language and all its dialects. It was an honor for us all”.

Next was my personal favorite of the evening – Suõmmkar. “Suõmmkar is a new skolt sámi band with Leu’dd perfomers Anna Lumisalmi and Hanna-Maaria Kiprianoff in front. Lumisalmi and Kiprianoff represent the new generation of leu’dd performers. The band aims to both record and publish leu’dd, and has started recording their first album”. The instrumentation in combination with yoik elevated me; shepharding me into a transcendental state. Babies were smiling, old folk danced, life was good.

The next performance was by Resirkulert, a local band of young Sami men that had all the young girls running to the front of stage. This is one future of yoik, where contemporary pop and alternative-rock style provides the foundation for uplifting, boyish crooning. In their final song, the singer told the audience that this song will be a yoik of his grandfather whom he owes his Sami education and identity most strongly to. And might I say, his vocal performance was best when he was evoking his indigenous truths.

Between performances we would visit the beer garden, discussing the music and politics over Sami Pale Ale by Mark Microbrewery. My colleagues and I were growing closer with one another and with new friends from all around this world.

The next performer may be one that my North American readers are familiar with. DJ Shud, formerly a member of A Tribe Called Red, is from Six Nations of the Grand River in Canada who were ´Northern Indigenous peoples of the year ´ in 2015. He combines EDM with native vocalization and percussion to synthesis something all it’s own. After ten minutes of the crowd pleasantly watching in place, his ‘hype man’ in neo-traditional headdress and garb lept off the stage and into the center of the crowd. This is when the PowWow began. Everyone was moving to the beat, creating a circle within which concert goers would take their turn at dancing. A “conga line” line ensued where happy sweaty people held hands and revolved around a common center. DJ Shud truly brought the people at Riddu Riddu together, opening the hearts and minds of all.

DJ Shud's hype man leading the powwow

DJ Shud’s hype man leading the powwow

The final performance of day 1 was by Biru Baby. Biru Baby describes themselves as “a revolutionary band with bizarre style and a unique sound image from the ice-cold Finnmark tundra”. “When you go to a Biru Baby concert”, says the MC, “you never know what you’re going to get…but you know it’s going to be good”. High energy, choreographed dance, pitch corrected vocalization, sexualized, punk rock, pompous, and “new” are words that come to mind. They command the stage while masked female dancers wave the Sāmi flag.

The stage presence of Biru Baby

The stage presence of Biru Baby

The following two days were filled with a growing population of festival goers as well as the eclectic representation of culture through music and art from nearly all parts of the world. Baker Boy – an aboriginal rapper, Tyva Kyza – the only Tuvan throat singing ensemble comprised of women (a defiance of gender role expectations meeting culturally traditional music), and Marie Boine – the Sāmi “Beyonce” (or is Beyonce the American “Marie Boine”..?).

I saw a Sāmi hip-hop dancer put on a special performance with two Māori dancers from Aotearoa (New Zealand). I heard the “Young Artist of the Year”, Ánná Káisá Partapuoli perform Sāmi slam-poetry. I made friends with two really nice guys from Spain and they shared their sandwiches with me. I even ate whale meat which, as an environmentalist, never thought I would ever do (Minke whales are not endangered, but rather abundant in the waters in which they are fished, so in terms of conservation it isn’t an ecological crime). It tasted like fish steak.

Each night I’d make a quick stop at the party camp and Club Lavvu to meet locals, practice the language, and have an all-around great time. And every night, I made the lone journey up the hill and into the little tent where ear plugs and eye mask cleansed the sensory pallet. What we have all done is taken a leap into what felt like an alternate universe where sound decolonized our perceptions of what arts, culture, and life itself are. I believe that holding these types of international indigenous festivals in the United States would encourage everyone to broaden their minds and experience beautiful modes of living.

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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.

Frienships and Memories 1

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.

New friendships and memories 3

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.

New friendships and memories 4

 

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Arriving in Cambridge

I arrived at King’s Cross with an owl tucked under my arm and my Hogwarts invitation in hand. Okay, so it was actually an enormous backpack and my acceptance letter to Cambridge University in England, but Platform 9¾ at King’s Cross was indeed mobbed with tourists pretending to be the newest Gryffindor students. Boarding a train at the adjacent platform 9, I sat down near a kind British couple and spent the next hour discussing with them the differences and similarities between England and America. I was surprised to learn that English citizens have up to four weeks of vacation time per year, where American citizens only have two weeks. The woman worked as a software developer and it was a dream of hers to work in the Silicon Valley to see how the California corporate environment differed from her male-dominated team. Having just lived in the heart of the Bay Area tech industry for five years, I described the fast paced and innovative startup culture of America. Finally reaching Cambridge, we said goodbye and exchanged contact information.

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These two images were taken at the farmer’s market in the center of town. Vendors were selling locally grown gooseberries and currents, which are a rare find at my farmer’s market in California.

Stepping out of the train station I was greeted with jubilant cheers and song. It wasn’t my imaginary fanfare rejoicing my arrival, but rather the locals celebrating the English football team’s pivotal World Cup win and their advancement to the semi-finals. As a life-long soccer player I immediately felt at home. While I am here I hope to play with the locals and plan to watch the final games of the World Cup at the pub across the street from my room (which happens to be where Watson and Crick discovered the structure of DNA).

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The Eagle is the pub where Watson and Crick announced their discovery of the double helix structure of DNA. As a biology major it is a true treat to see this pub from my window every day.

As the taxi shuttled me to my dorm, anxieties about my living accommodations bubbled to the surface. My program only provided a single picture and sentence about each room type, so before I left America I did some serious Google sleuthing. But there was no need to worry, as the driver left I was completely stunned by the grandeur of my living accommodations. When I walk out of my room I see the King’s College Chapel, a massive gothic structure that often has beautiful choir music drifting from its stained-glass windows and I take my meals in a dining hall that has soaring ceilings and walls adorn with portraits of past headmasters. I am continually awed by the beauty and traditions of Kings College and Cambridge University.

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The King’s College Chapel and the entrance gate to King’s college. I see this every morning when I leave for class.

Living and studying in Cambridge feels unreal. I have spent the last five years studying molecular, cellular biology at the University of California Berkeley and will be finishing my undergraduate degree with this six week program. Concluding my degree in a foreign country might be untraditional, but it feels like the perfect stepping stone from college into the “real world”. I may be handing my acceptance letter to a boarder control official instead of Hagrid, but Cambridge is permeated with a different sort of magic, one that is powered by choirs in ancient chapels and friendly strangers on trains.

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Me taking photos in Paris one day before leaving for England.

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