Blog • Let Language Be Your Compass, Not Your Weapon

Pictured: Aura Mercedes “Mechy” Abreu, my mother

“It’s a vegetable that grows on the ground. Sometimes it’s purple, but other times it’s black. About this big. It’s round and slimy. When cooked it goes well on pizza or with pasta.” Maybe you understood I was talking about mushrooms, but the staffer helping me at Sonda, a popular Brazilian supermarket, certainly did not. My explanation was in Portuguese, but it was met with a confused stare. Many of my interactions with Brazilians go as that one did. Either they do not know what I am saying or I do not know what they are saying. After asking the other person to repeat what they said about three times, I will usually nod along – still not knowing what was said, but trying to end the awkwardness and move the conversation along. The word for mushrooms is cogumelo, by the way. Thank you Google Translate (sometimes).

Other times, I have the right words, but the way in which I order or pronounce the words gives them a completely different and embarrassing meaning. In Portuguese, pãomeans bread. It is a good word to know because Brazilian cuisine is heavy on pão. I order pão for breakfast almost every day. Well, actually…during my first few days in Brazil I was unknowingly ordering penis at the paderia (bakery). The Portuguese word for penis, pau, sounds quite similar to pão – it just has less nasality to it. Unaware of that variation, I kept asking my waiters for penis, instead of bread.

I can laugh at these interactions (lost in translation) now, but I almost cried during my first hour in Brazil. My 10-hour long plane ride from New York had concluded and I was now at São Paulo International Airport. The newness of the country was exhilarating, but also frustrating. I ordered an Uber, but in the largeness of the airport could not locate it anywhere. I asked around for the Uber stop. I called the driver. I read the signs. None of this proved fruitful. Eventually, my Uber was canceled and I spent about an hour aimlessly lugging my bags around before finding the right spot. Moments like this one no longer get to me. Over the past month, I have built up my vocabulary and confidence. I can proudly say that I am now an intermediate Portuguese-language speaker. Well, at least in the classroom, because on the streets I am still very obviously a gringo (foreigner).

My experiences learning Portuguese and navigating Brazil with my Portuñol (jumble of Portuguese and Spanish) are equally as telling of who I am as they are of how society treats me because of who I am. I chose to study abroad in Brazil for four months knowing I spoke not a word of the language. “Not a word” is no exaggeration. A few weeks before flying over, I wore my Brazilian jersey to a concert and was approached by a girl who said, “Brazil!” All I could muster was, “Oui.” That is not even Portuguese. That is French. However, I assumed that being a native Spanish speaker and having six years of French under my belt would make up for my lack of Portuguese expertise. The three languages are similar enough was my logic. A very privileged logic.

I am privileged in that I am coming to Brazil as an American. I am privileged in that I know English. I am privileged in that I know two other languages. Nearly anywhere I go in the world I can expect to find someone that speaks English and if not, I can expect that the staff of whatever establishment I am at will do all they can to try and accommodate me. Yes, a lot of the world hates American imperialism. And yes, perceptions of American people have certainly changed after Trump’s election. But it is undeniable that America’s political, economic, and social power make Americans (seemingly) important. The business and tourism Americans bring with them as they go abroad are highly valued. Regardless of how a nation views America, most cannot afford to cut economic ties.

In America, I am gay, poor, and Black. These are not universally valued traits. I am the other. But in Brazil, I am an American first. I am almost revered. Those other identities that make me secondary in America are secondary when I am abroad. What people first know about me, from the moment I open my mouth to speak, is that I am not Brazilian. “De onde você é?” they ask. I reply, “Americano.” That answer instantly and positively changes everything about our interaction. People go out of their way to please you when you say you are American, because regardless of your true financial background, the perception is that all Americans are wealthy.

In fact, an Uber driver here said to me, “Brazil is too expensive. I want to go to America someday. It is cheap over there, right? You can save up money and get a nice car, a decent home.” I almost laughed, but did not, because that perception is actually more sad than anything else. The American Dream – the idea that you can come to America with nothing and work your way up the ladder – provides people all over the world with such an illustration of America that is so far fetched from what it really is. Actually making it in America is just as much luck and privilege as it is hard work – maybe more so. And when you do not know English, your opportunities become even fewer. My mother, the hardest-working and most inspiring human I know, can tell you this first-hand.

While I have had a private education which affords me with the opportunity to explore the world, my mother has had to work since stepping off the plane from Dominican Republic to JFK in 1994. Not a desk job either. She works with her hands. She cleans those desks she longs to be behind. While I can take classes about the culture and history of Brazil, my mom has to learn about American culture as she goes. And even then, after learning all that can be learned about the United States in 24 years, she is told she cannot pass the Citizenship exam, because she cannot speak fluent English. However, if you asked the average American to take the test, one in three would not pass. While I can take classes on the language of countries I am visiting, she cannot find the confidence or time to do the same. Brazilians have been very nice and understanding about the language barrier, but I cannot say the same about most Americans.

Conservative commentator Tomi Lahren tweeted last year, “I do have a frustration with those that are living in this country and taking advantage of the greatest nation on Earth that don’t feel it necessary to speak English.” What I wish people like Tomi would understand is that immigrants do not learn English for not trying. It is much more complicated than the simple narrative she perpetuates. Immigrants have their time taken up by children, work (my mom at one point had three jobs), and other responsibilities. Additionally, Americans do not ferment a positive learning environment. I remember one instance, during which my mom and another driver got into an altercation and the man yelled at her to “learn English or go back to where you came from.” Another time, I was told to “speak English”, while on the phone with my mom at school.

While Brazilians have been friendly and welcoming thus far, I wonder what the experience would be like for my mother. Or more so, what the experience would be like for a Latino immigrant who comes to Brazil straight from their native country. Brazil does, in fact, have a large number of immigrants from Bolivia, Paraguay and other South American countries. As was my mother’s case, they immigrated here in search of economic opportunities. Brazil also sees a large number of refugees each year. These are two different circumstances than that of traveling here as a tourist. While I have been treated well, I do not seek to sugar coat the experience of living in Brazil long-term. A significant portion of the population lives in poverty, and racism is still prevalent, so I can easily imagine that as in America and Europe, immigrants and refugees do not have an easy adjustment. Tomorrow, I start volunteering for Adus, a refugee resource center, so I look forward to learning more about their perspectives.

Language is one’s bridge to learning about other cultures. With language, you can open yourself and your background up to others. But more often than not, language is used as a barrier, as a form of exclusion. It makes very little sense to me because your positioning is all relative. Somewhere on this planet whatever language you speak at home is not the main language. If you travel elsewhere right now, everything that you take for granted, that you know and which comes easily to you will become much harder. In that sense, universally, we all have the potential to be lost in translation. Important to remember too is that many of the main languages in the world are rooted in colonialism. It was only through violence and war that languages like English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish came to form part of the fabric in the Americas. So stop repping them so hard. Do not think that speaking English makes you special. Take it from one privileged, but lost American in Brazil. English will only get you so far. You will still need to put in the work and learn the language of wherever else you go. You will want the people there to be easy with you. So, be easy with those in the States. Let language unite, not divide.

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