Monthly Archives: August 2014

Stela Connections

I realize my last post was really more of an unfinished thought, but I wanted to get some ideas down as a bookmark to return to later. For me, Cidade de Deus was a movie I needed to write about even though my ideas aren’t yet fully formed. I couldn’t move on to the next post without jotting down some thoughts. It feels like it ties in with all too relevant (to the US) themes of subtle racism and invisible privilege, but maybe that’s just because that’s been my recent academic focus and is on my mind. I would love to hear anyone else’s thoughts sometime!


For today though, I wanted to write about something much lighter. I want to talk about some really wonderful new friends I’ve made thanks to my tutor. Stela may be my Portuguese tutor, but where she really shines is in hostessing and connecting people. When she invited me out to Piazza Italia to watch Brazil’s first World Cup knockout round game with a few of her friends, I was nervous to go alone. Usually, as long as I’m actually invited, I am not too shy to walk into a group of people I don’t know, but this felt a little different. Even though Stela invited me, I really felt like I would be crashing a party. The people there, many of whom were family or had known each other for many years, would all be Brazilians bursting with national pride. I was just an American, with no real connection other than a tutor who had invited me to learn a little more Portuguese in real time.

When I arrived for the match, however, the scene was a little different than I expected. The whole restaurant was filled with yellow and green shirts and toy vuvuzelas. There were families with young children climbing from one adoring set of arms to another and young professionals dressed up in sparkly “Brazil” tank tops and miniskirts (well, maybe just the women). The minute I walked in, Stela screamed as if this was the most exciting moment of her life and gave me a huge hug, escorting me to her own table at the very center of the action. During the game, there were of course still circumstances that made me feel like an outsider—should I refer to the team, saying “we” or “you?” Am I allowed to speak critically about the Brazil side, or is that akin to criticizing someone else’s mother when only they are allowed that offence? But none of these concerns were at all brought on by my tablemates, who, between lively rounds of yelling at Neymar to chuta or vai, would ask me about myself or talk about their home state in Brazil and lie to Stela that we were only speaking Portuguese, whenever she returned from her last flutter around the room.

A tiny slice of the cheering section

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Cidade de Deus

On Paula’s recommendation, I made the mistake of watching Cidade de Deus a few a days
ago. Now I want to smack myself a little for my last post—don’t you hate when a movie forces self-awareness (gee thanks, Paula)? There’s nothing like a movie about children killing each other in the slums, and bragging about it no less, to make you realize how lucky you are to be born into the life you have.

There are a lot of really thoughtful full reviews on imdb, so I won’t try to write my own here,IMG_1878 but what the movie did really effectively for me was to convey the idea of an almost parallel universe of dreams and ambitions. In my extreme naivety, I had mostly assumed that people performing acts of violence, like those in the movie, simply knew no other way to get the money they needed in order to live or to buy the drugs they are addicted to. Probably they’d never had good role models or the education that would help them make a different choice or even have the opportunity to make a different choice. While I am sure this is often the case, what really shocked me were the children who wholly reveled in violence and causing pain to other people. As a young child brags in one of the more famous lines, “A kid? I smoke, I snort. I’ve killed and robbed. I’m a man.” Maybe I just haven’t seen enough mafia movies (or need to re-read Lord of the Flies?), but this film made me realize that growing up in a favela can give you a very different idea of what success is. Sure there are some kids, like the narrator, who want nothing to do with the drug wars and just want to get out of the slums, but it seems like the greatest ambition of the vast majority is to be the biggest “hood” with the most power.

Continue reading Cidade de Deus

Born in the USA


I can’t pretend to be the model citizen who diligently writes my senator to voice my opinion (sorry, Mom), researches every election down to the last city council member, expresses my frustration through music or art, or even really uses my background in biology or toxicology to actively engage with my community. As an idealistic high schooler back in 2003, I did take a bus to NYC to protest the war in Iraq, but aside from this one glimmer of activism, I’ve remained your pretty standard American who prefers to kvetch about bad foreign policy and the theft of women’s reproductive rights, from the comfort of my own home, preferably only with people who I know will agree with me.

Still, when I left to study abroad in 2005, I was extremely frustrated with my country. To my mind at least, we had entered the war in Iraq with little justification other than our anger about the Sep. 11th terrorist attacks and the need for a scapegoat, accompanied, quite conveniently, with a desire to oust Saddam Hussein. That’s not to say there weren’t important things I truly appreciated about the US, like peanut butter and oh, maybe some of the people, but overall, I felt pretty ready to escape the “Patriot Act” mentality.

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When my Brazilian friend texted me “Oiii!” back in April, I thought he was angry with me. To be fair, I think that can be somewhat attributed to my family’s 7-month sojourn to England; there, “Oi!” really is at its best in expressions like, “Oi! Stop taking the mick!” Still, I might have known the word for “hi” in Portuguese.

Clearly when I decided in June that Brazil might be on the docket, there was a lot of work to be done. Thanks to the second-hand teachings of Carolina, the Brazilian exchange student my family hosted when I was studying abroad in Sevilla, I knew the words “feijoada” and “obrigada.” And my Brazilian friends at Duke informed me that the appropriate way to sign off any conversation, verbal or written is by giving “beijos.” Maybe that’s all I really needed to know, given that this extensive vocab would not only allow me to enjoy a tasty meal but also to show my appreciation for it, and all while making an affectionate exit. Heck, armed with “oi,” which by the way, Margaret, has been added to the scrabble dictionary, I could have even politely entered the conversation in order to request said feijoada.

Despite this near fluency, I responded, on a whim, to a craigslist post offering tutoring in Brazilian Portuguese.  Enter Stela, an energetic, Jill of all trades, who, immediately after I finished telling her I used to be pretty proficient in Spanish proclaimed, “Great! You know nothing! That will make you much easier to teach.” Initially affronted by this remark, I learned pretty quickly that Stela is not alone in her assertion that Spanish is of little use when learning Portuguese. At the risk of generalizing, Brazilians tend to be very proud of the difficulty and uniqueness of their language, even while telling you in the same breath that, “It’s a useless language.”

Continue reading Portunhol

O Brasil não é para principiantes

That “Brazil is not for beginners” is well known by gringos, brasileiros and the media alike (Seriously—just pick a language and google it). These immortal words, coined by “The Girl from Ipanema” composer, Tom Jobim, seem to be something of a point of pride among Brazilians and an obligatory post title for anyone in the blogosphere (and far be it for me to buck the trends—see below). The phrase seems to apply especially to business and government and more generally, to the extreme bureaucracy encountered when trying to get anything done in Brazil.

I don’t know which came first, jeitinho or the incredible amounts of red tape, but at this point they seem to go hand in hand. Jeitinho, the diminutive of “jeito” or “way,” refers to the manner in which Brazilians tend to find a “way” to get what they need, even though (or especially when) it involves circumventing the rules or the law. When I first heard “Brazil is not for beginners” spoken with pride by my Portuguese tutor, it seemed at odds with all the warm, extremely welcoming Brazilians I have been lucky enough to befriend over the past year or so (including my tutor). But the biggest component of jeitinho derives from this very factor; Brazilians will do anything to help out a friend or relative, from helping them cut in line to getting a job or a visa. And many times the only way to accomplish these goals in one lifetime is by employing jeitinho.

Continue reading O Brasil não é para principiantes