Warm! Hot! Sizzling! All on their own, these words capture my first two weeks in São Paulo, Brazil well. The weather is tropical and stays a comfortable 70 to 80 degrees. The food is continuously cooked to absolute perfection and every bite leaves you yearning for more. The Brazilian people are gorgeous inside-and-out – exhibiting an always helpful, sunny deposition. My experience has been overwhelmingly positive despite the language barrier; I speak English, French, and Spanish, but no Portuguese. So positive that I have yet to experience much culture shock, but rather, I feel awe, love, and envy for a culture I have found in many ways to be better organized and more progressive than America’s.
The charming character of the Brazilian people became evident as soon as I hopped off the plane at GRU and jumped in the Uber. “Are you here for the first time?” I understood the driver ask. I confirmed that I was and that my Portuguese is very limited. He called his filha (daughter) who speaks English and had me talk to her. She told me that her pai (father) calls her when passengers do not speak Portuguese, so that she may talk to them and make them feel more comfortable. After telling her I would be in São Paulo until June, she gave me her phone number, so that I may ask her for advice on places to eat and travel. Feeling more comfortable, I got over my initial hesitation and spoke to the driver in my broken Portuñol (a jumble of Portuguese and Spanish) for the rest of my ride.
The language barrier is also present with my roommate, João. In fact, I do not think I or any of the others in the CET program have truly mastered the pronunciation of his name. He jokingly clinches his nose when he practices it with us, because like much of the language, it has a very nasal intonation. João does not speak English, but did start taking classes when he signed up for the CET program, which is very sweet. Fortunately, my Spanish has provided me with a smaller learning curve than would have most and I have been able to pick up the language quickly. Thus, our conversations are flowing much better than on Day 1. I have also agreed to help him with his English, yet, just the curse words and slang have stuck.
Four others live in Apartment 13 with us. Despite the omens associated with that number, I feel fortunate to live with my suitemates. Being gay in a foreign country worried me. Brazil is said to be progressive, but so is the US and my experiences there are not always safe. Accordingly, I asked for suitemates who identified as I do and the CET program came through; all of us are queer. Relating to my suitemates makes the exchange easy because we instinctively guide each other through the aspects of our cultures that already feel like home. Our Brazilian suitemates have shown us Brazilian drag queen Pabllo Vittar’s music videos and on our second night we went to a gay dance club. Meanwhile, we have shown them episodes of RuPaul’s Drag Race (which is available on Brazilian Netflix…take notes U.S.) and Super Bowl performances from artists like Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, and Madonna.
I’ve learned that my concerns are far from the truth. Brazil’s mainstream is very queer and as result, queer individuals are well accepted. In fact, statistics show that 1 in 5 men living in Rio de Janeiro are queer and that last year’s Pride Parade in São Paulo was the world’s largest with more than 5 million people attending. Artists like Pabllo Vittar appear in nationwide commercials and have millions of views on their videos. On the streets of São Paulo, I see queer couples holding hands and kissing and walking their children. Being “visibly queer” was concerning as I do dress fluidly, but I found that even people who are not part of the queer community, embrace non-conventional expression. In São Paulo, I don’t get the same double-takes I would in U.S. queer havens like New York and Washington, DC.
Budgeting for this trip was also a concern as I depend on wages to maintain myself throughout the semester, but I am not allowed to work in Brazil on my student visa. I hustled and was fortunate enough to receive grants from the CET and Gilman programs, but even then study abroad fees and airfare ate into a lot of that money. To my surprise, my suitemates (both the American and Brazilian students) come from working-class backgrounds and must also “ball on a budget.” The CET program selects only students on 100% scholarships to PUC as roommates for the program. This is special because it affords those on the program insight into the lives of individuals who are more proximally situated to the average Brazilian. Additionally, these suitemates better understand how to navigate Brazil on a budget and have been helpful in getting us out to activities and sights that are cheaper.
These connections with the Brazilian suitemates have made conversations about inequality, poverty, and race as daily and substantive as Brazilian bread. Just about anything we see in the news or in the street sparks up a deep, meaningful conversation about the legacy of slavery (Brazil was the last Western nation to emancipate slavery) and how there are still structures in place to keep people of color (which is politically correct in the United State, but not in Brazil) behind. It was surprising, yet comforting to see that this progressive, anti-fascist movement is alive all over the world and that my suitemates were familiar with the works of many of my favorite activists, theorists, and writers.
In all, the people involved in the CET program – teachers, Brazilian roommates, and American students – share truly caring, inquisitive, and thoughtful qualities. It doesn’t feel like anyone came on the trip for the sake of traveling abroad, which I found surprising because that is often the sense I gain from hearing others talk about their abroad experience. This is telling of the kind of culture and material the CET program has established for itself. It seems to naturally attract students that seek to truly immerse themselves and understand the other side of Brazil. Yes, Brazil has world-class beaches, great food, and beautiful people, but as I mentioned earlier, also a lot of inequality. CET Brazil has dedicated its curriculum and activities to understand the what, when, where, who, why, and how of that inequality.
All this said I do not aim to mislead. While my experience has been positive, I must recognize that I live here as an American, am attending one of Brazil’s best schools, and reside in a predominantly White and rich neighborhood. My experience is marked with many privileges that are exclusive and rare for most of Brazil’s population. Though I am read as Black in the US, in Brazil, I am read as a light-skinned foreigner and will accordingly be shielded from unequal treatment. In come CET’s classes on economics, history, politics, and society. Those classes have not yet started – yes, you read that right, I’ve been abroad for two weeks and still have yet to do much schoolwork. But once classes begin, that intercultural conflict will take the front seat of these blogs, while my own experience serves to supplement.