Whatever happened to Xuxa?

I’m going to blame Larry and Michelle for my renewed addiction to Gilmore Girls, a show famous for its rapid-fire dialogue (Yes, Dad. I know. No one talks like that) and its many pop culture references. It is interesting to now re-watch the show from an adult perspective. This is not just because I’m finally seeing the Gilmore girls for the brats they are but also because I’m realizing just how many cultural references I missed the first time around. In one episode, in an attempt to derail her mother’s line of interrogation, Lorelai’s mutters the random aside “whatever happened to Xuxa?” Now I have never been abreast of the latest trends, but until I started tutoring with Stela a few months ago, I had never heard of Xuxa, the wildly popular Brazilian model-turned kid’s television star from whom many Brazilians of my generation learned their ABC’s.

“Friends” in my English textbook! The show is so popular here that a “Friends” bar/cafe just opened on Rua Augusta

Xuxa is just one small example of the cultural interaction between Brazil and the US. While Brazil seems to import our music, films, and even English expressions, very little of Brazil’s rich cultural heritage seems to make its way back up north in return. There are certainly great things about the US for sure, but I find that it is often idealized here. Many Brazilians have asked me what in the world I’m doing in a country that is so behind the times when I could live in the US! I (finally!) went out dancing last weekend, and partway through the night, my friend whispered to me that the group of girls we were dancing near wanted me to go join them. I won’t pretend that I haven’t forcibly entered strangers’ dance circles before, but an actual invite from a group of girls? This has NEVER happened to me in any country anywhere. The girls were visiting from the northeast and I think they likely just wanted to meet people and be friendly, but there may have also been a kernel of truth to my (Brazilian) friend’s hypothesis that they wanted to meet me because Brazilians have a fascination with all things American.

Everywhere I go, signs of American culture are sprinkled in with the green, blue and yellow
t-shirts, shops and signs. Radio stations play Seether and Maroon 5 and Rihanna (just can’t seem to escape that one), and in a taxi the other day, my driver was blasting Ozzy! In Quebec City this summer, the situation was similar, making me wonder what it would be like to grow up somewhere where you’re surrounded by music in a foreign language. I am pretty certain the preponderance of American English here does not do much to improve English fluency, as I know many people who just enjoy the beat and the music of a catchy American pop song without understanding any of the lyrics. Needless to say, however, Brazilians are clearly getting an interesting perspective of American culture through our music and films. I showed my school’s administrators a picture of Will and Paula at a Northwestern football game, and they exclaimed, “it’s just like the movies!!”

Of course Bradley Cooper would be selling Haagen-Dazs at the shopping mall

What does Brazil want to be when it grows up?
What does Brazil want to be when it grows up?

While Brazil is slowly increasing its presence in the world sphere, there is currently extreme frustration, made readily apparent by the heated election season, that growth is stagnant and government corruption still reigns supreme. When I try to express optimism with regard to Brazil as a growing and emerging economy, many Brazilians will grumble that Brazil should already be developed. Still, with regard to the spread of culture, Brazil is beginning to hold its own, if not as much yet in the US, then more so in Europe. Not surprisingly, Portugal is the primary consumer of Brazilian culture. Many of my Brazilian friends and students say that it’s actually quite difficult to understand Portuguese from Portugal, whereas the Portuguese have no problem understanding Brazilian Portuguese, in large part because they import Brazilian culture in the form of soap operas, films and music. Furthermore, books that are translated into Portuguese are only translated into Brazilian Portuguese. This might seem trivial, but Portugal uses whole verb tenses that Brazil has all but forgotten (like “tu,” or “vos”, the informal and formal tenses for “you.” Brazilians use the “he/she” form for nearly everything, even “we” in colloquial parlance). The cultural relationship between Portugal and Brazil therefore, is also quite unidirectional.

Irina trying out the new craze in Sao Paulo

And there also remains the question of whether the world cup, while clearly failing to engender any national pride for Brazil’s football club, was successful as Brazil’s coming out party. If you were following the US news back in late June then you mostly heard about the protests, the political pessimism and the post-loss flag burning. However, in terms of World cup attendance, Americans were second only to Brazilians, indicating that more and more Americans are experiencing at least a piece of Brazilian culture in person. Yet it’s hard to say if this experience did much to expand the American view of Brazilian culture. Most are already aware of Brazil’s passion for football, Caipirinhas and samba. Many can also appreciate Gisele Bundchen (more so than most Brazilians, I’m learning—I’ve gotten blank looks when I use Gisele to define the word, “beautiful.” Angelina Jolie is instead the paragon of beleza here) as well as fancy Brazilian BBQ for a special occasion.

As Brazil continues to establish itself on the international scene, the rest of us have a lot to learn and even more to look forward to. What really struck me back when I started learning about Brazil back in June, is how little Brazilian culture I had been exposed to growing up, especially things that are absolutely ubiquitous here like pão de queijo and coxinha, Michel Teló, Brazilian Funk out of the favelas (Warning: “Funk do Brasil” makes Miley Cyrus look like Hannah Montana), and Globo TV. On the train the other day, a woman leaned over to tell me I look like some famous person (I think. I hope?). When I said, “Sorry, who?” She responded, “You’re not from Brazil are you?” So maybe I should stop worrying about the cultural edification of the rest of the world; I have a looong way to go!

A very international city: from Angry birds, Hello Kitty and Malcolm Gladwell to Caipirinhas, Havaianas and Starbucks!

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