Although school just started two days ago, I don’t feel as though I am jumping the gun by saying that I have been receiving a quality education since my arrival here in Brazil. Though Rio de Janeiro is just a microcosm of the Brazilian experience, it is a very all-encompassing one. With well over six million inhabitants, a bit of the entire country is there. Surprisingly enough, in any given neighborhood, sometimes all that you have to do in order to witness all of the different walks of life here is to speak with some of the people that live and work in your apartment building.
For example, within your very own apartment you may find that your host mother is carioca, or originally from Rio, and that your host father is from a city like São Paulo, and were somehow able to put aside their regional rivalry and different pronunciations, and merge their mixed European heritages, to create a beautiful home in Leblon, the richest neighborhood in perhaps all of Brazil.
Once a week, at the very least–I mean, you are living in Leblon after all–, a robust Parda (of mixed African, European, and/or Indigenous heritage) woman or two, who probably used to take your host family’s children on afternoon strolls along Ipanema beach when they were mere tots, comes to keep house and prepare a scrumptious feast before heading back to any one of the numerous favelas that you’ve been warned not to ever step foot in since your arrival in Brazil. With your belly full and your spirits high, you wonder how a woman so kind could ever live in such a horrible place as a favela, but once you realize that you’ll never go outside of these gated security of Zona Sul to investigate the favelas for yourself, you quickly let your body succumb to the effects of food coma that generally accompany the ingestion of carne assada (grilled meat), arróz (rice), and feijão (beans).
After a few hours or so, when your body has recovered from the heaviness of the Brazilian cuisine, you decide to go window-shopping on Avenida Ataúlfo de Paiva, because even though the dollar is worth about 1.67 réis, you know that there’s something about dropping 200 réis for a nice shirt that just doesn’t cut it for you. On your way out, you smile and say “boa noite” to the doorman, or porteiro, who then waves to you and replies the same. Grinning, you recall the first day that you arrived in Brazil when the porteiro buzzed you in and threw a barrage of questions at you with an accent that you had never before encountered at Georgetown, and how you had stood there like a bumbling fool as you stuttered your responses in halting Portuguese. As the pleasant breeze from the ocean cools the ever-present perspiration on your forehead that goes hand-in-hand with living in a tropical climate, even during its supposed winter, you marvel at how far you’ve come in just a month and at the fact that not only can you carry on brief conversation with the chuckling doorman, but that you also know that he’s from Ceará, in Northeastern Brazil, and thus that you now have the ability to name at least one more of the (number) states of Brazil. Walking along the uneven stones of the white and black calçadão, you realize how much you love living in a country as diverse as Brazil and you wish that everyone in the world could live in such perfect harmony with one another…ordem e progresso for everyone.
And then, if you’re lucky,–I guess it depends on how you look at things–, you start to think about why it is that this pattern never fails to repeat itself here in Rio de Janeiro. I personally have been agonizing over this for some time now and have been in a desperate search for answers.
Back when lived in Leblon, every day when I descended the hill to walk to school, I would see something upon the faces of these Black, Pardo, and Northeastern workers (because if they’re walking around Leblon at seven in the morning and aren’t in workout gear or business casual attire, then they obviously don’t live there) that completely dismissed the image of Brazil that the media likes to cast upon it. I saw frowns. Sadness. Disappointment. Unhappiness. The prospect of a long day’s work in a house and for a family that they had to put above their own for most of the day bore heavily upon them and I, for one, felt bad knowing that one of them would be cleaning my room at some point during the week and that I was thus party to their condition. Perhaps it was my own paranoia, but I couldn’t help but feel that they often looked at me with imploring eyes, wondering why I was going down the hill instead of ascending it with them, by their sides. And on those days when I was feeling especially guilty, I oftentimes felt the same.
My privilege here is undeniable…until I step out of the house, that is; then I am treated the same as any other Black Brazilian/American/male in a wealthy neighborhood: with a mixture of curiosity, suspicion, and even fear. The fact that I sometimes try to emulate the style of Brazilian youths, although it helps me to blend in even more, it doesn’t necessarily help me in any way. Purses are still clutched more tightly, people move/don’t move out of my way when the time calls/doesn’t call for it, and then of course, there are always the lingering looks and the conversations that are put on mute until I pass. I try not to dwell on this too much on a daily basis, but it’s hard not to when just last week, while in the line in front of a club in Leblon and I was dressed in pink and black, I politely tapped an Australian girl’s shoulder to inquire about the cover and, upon turning around and seeing my face, she jerked her shoulder to shake off my hand, jumped back several feet, and screamed bloody murder…
Yes, I am flattered that I look Brazilian (who wouldn’t be?) but deeply disturbed by what that means.