264 days in Brazil: a retrospective

I returned home early Sunday morning, stepping foot in the United States for the first time in 264 days. I’ve had a few people now ask me how my experience has been, which presents the daunting task of condensing the past nine months into a quick, socially-acceptable soundbite. I’m still working out how to best respond.

But overall, I feel incredibly proud and grateful of my time in Brazil. I’m proud of having completed the grant and worked to the best of my ability. And I’m thankful for all the people who shared their homes and lives and communities with me, which has enabled me to truly feel like I carved out a space for myself in Caxias do Sul.

By and large, I’m going to miss living in Brazil. I’m going to miss the daily challenges of navigating a new language and culture, as well as the reflexive insights they bring. I’m admittedly also going to miss the sense of being foreign and interesting, of being an expert on a lived experience that everyone wants to hear about. And of course I’m going to miss my family and friends in Caxias, with whom I’ve been lucky enough to build real, lasting relationships.

That being said, I’m also glad to be back in the United States. Having grown accustomed to the daily struggles of living in a foreign country, I’m amazed at how frictionless my life in the US can be. I’m realizing I now feel this sense of competence and agency that I rarely felt abroad: I know exactly how everything works and what’s expected of me in any given situation. I’m suddenly no longer constantly trying to bridge some sort of cultural gap. Everyone, effortlessly, is on the same page as I am.

The tension here, of course, is that I learn so much outside my comfort zone—but it’s also far, far easier to remain within it.

I’m really glad that I finally got the chance to do Fulbright. It wasn’t always easy, and I recognize that it’s not for everyone. But for me, the benefits of my experience have far outweighed the costs. I’m honored to have been chosen to participate in it, and thankful and proud.

If you’re considering applying to this program, or would like to hear more about my experience, I’d love to talk to you. Please email me at avincen1@villanova.edu.

It’s been a pleasure sharing this blog with you. The grant may be over, but let the story continue!

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10 ways Brazil is sort of goofy

One of my host mom’s favorite Facebook pages is O Brasil Que Deu Certo, a collection of various oddities that people submit from around the country. The pages showcases Brazilian ingenuity at its best, but also the country’s shamelessness at its most ridiculous. It’s kind of great.

I’ll be honest: Brazil can be a little goofy sometimes. I try to limit my comments about this, because Brazilians I meet are all too ready to critique their country (while maybe unfairly lionizing others), and I don’t see it as my place to contribute. But that being said, after 8 months here, I’ve seen some things I have to share.

Bathroom signs

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I’ve seen this sign in a number of (men’s) bathrooms all around Brazil. It reads:

Warning:
– Do not urinate on the floor
– Throw toilet paper in the trash
– Flush after use
Keep the bathroom clean

I don’t know why one needs to be reminded not to pee on the floor.

Toilet paper bins

In Brazil, you don’t flush toilet paper. Instead, you stick it in a little garbage bin next to the toilet. Does it make sense? Sure—plumbing here apparently isn’t capable of handling the extra load of toilet paper. Is it sanitary? Almost definitely not.

Dental hygiene

Brazilians seem to be really into dental hygiene. Brushing after every meal isn’t uncommon—I’ve eaten dinner with a student, only to have him duck into a bathroom to brush his teeth before class. I’ve also seen people of all ages with braces. This hygiene strikes me as a little ironic when you’re willing to leave used toilet paper sitting around.

Elevators

Why was Law No. 13.413 passed? Who knows. But evidently it mandates a warning be placed on all elevators that reads “Attention: before entering, check that the elevator is stopped at this floor.” I can only imagine the story behind it.

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Managing university risks

On a similar note, I also spied a risk assessment posted in Bloco L, the building at UCS where I give nearly all my classes. I was heartened to see there were no “big” or “medium” risks; however, there were small risks of “falling on the same level” and an “ergonomic risk” of “inadequate posture.”

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Power outlets

Meanwhile, at UCS, you can spot two types of power outlets—sometimes right next to each other. Brazil used both European and US power standards up until 2011, when it decided to standardize by adopting a third (!) unique standard. However, there still isn’t a nationally standardized voltage. Across the country, the voltage and outlets you find are thus dependent on the age and location of the building you’re in.

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Pizzas

I’ve lived in a lot of places where people have strong thoughts about what pizza should be. I try to be diplomatic; pizza in Rome and pizza in New Jersey are two different types of food, each with their own merits. But pizza in Brazil, however, is something else entirely:

Granted, that picture’s an outlier, the creation of a meme-minded pizzaria in São Paulo. But it speaks to a lot of Brazilian pizza’s hallmarks:

  • Multiple topping combinations (commonly four per pizza)
  • Unusual toppings (including gobs of a cream cheese-like substance, canned tuna, corn, and stroganoff)
  • Overflowing toppings
  • Dessert pizzas (topped with some combination of mozzarella, chocolate, doce de leite, bananas, pineapple, and ice cream)

I think most of the pizza I’ve had here is pretty good, but it can very easily be too much.

Cheddar cheese

I asked Elaine to buy some cheddar for me to serve alongside some chili I was preparing for her. Here’s what she came back with:

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The label said “cheddar,” but the product inside was very clearly American-style processed cheese product™.

Installments

Okay, this one is actually sort of interesting: practically any non-food item here you can purchase via parcelas, or monthly installments. I don’t think credit cards are as common in Brazil as they are in the States, so parcelas are a way for people to afford more expensive purchases. But in reality, nearly anything can be parcelado–as long as the store takes credit card and the monthly payment is at least like US$3.50.

The reason parcelas are on this list is because you can buy a US$8 iron, for example, and then spend two months paying for it.

Motels

As far as I can tell, motels are used exclusively for sex. It makes sense; young adults will often live with their parents up until their own marriage, in apartments that can also contain grandparents or other members of extended family. If you want a little privacy, you basically have to go somewhere else.

However, the marketing around motels I find a little amusing. I’ve seen ads for a motel that featured a fancy lunch and dinner, but I especially like the “stay for four hours, pay for two ” deals that all the local motels seem to run.

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A video ad I saw fairly frequently on the bus

This country can definitely be a little goofy, but I’m going to miss it.

The weirdest places I’ve slept in Brazil

This post is intended as a sequel to “Oh, the places I’ve been (in Brazil).”

What do a sorority house, the Amazon jungle, and a swanky gated community all have in common? They’re all places I’ve laid my head over the past three months.

CA sorority house (Ouro Preto, MG)

Ouro Preto (“Black Gold”) is a small university town nestled into the rolling hills of the state of Minas Gerais (“General Mines”). Once the center of Brazil’s colonial gold rush, its 18th-century population exceeded those of New York City and Rio de Jainero. Its onetime wealth is still evident in its art and architecture, Baroque revivalism featuring plenty of gilded churches that have earned the city the title of UNESCO World Heritage Site. Ouro Preto was also the site of an early (failed) plot for Brazilian independence. Given the city’s historical importance, one guidebook likened Brazilian tourism in Ouro Preto to Americans visiting Philadelphia.

Anyway, I experienced this delightful town from the vantage point of a sorority house. This fact was not disclosed on my Airbnb listing, and it was something I only discovered when another woman walked in while my host was showing me to my room. We made some small talk, and I asked her if the house was a hostel or something. “No, it’s a republica,” she told me in Portuguese, before switching to English when she saw my puzzled expression: “Like a fraternity.”

The sorority’s inhabitants were pretty nice, but I still felt distinctly out of place—especially because the bathroom in my private room had no sink, and so I had to use the one right next to the women’s communal bathroom. The real problem was their neighbors, who played music (at one point so loud it literally shook the walls) until the early hours of the morning. This prompted my ever-gracious host to insist that I swap rooms for the second night, moving to the side of the house farthest from the obnoxious neighbors. I landed in a clearly lived-in double and displaced its proper inhabitants to who-know-where.

After leaving Ouro Preto, I also visited the nearby capital of Minas Gerais, Belo Horizonte. My living situation there was much more reasonable, a spare room in an apartment building that was exactly as advertised. Highlights included the Municipal Market, which featured amongst other animals, half-grown ostrich “chicks” for sale; Mirante do Mangabeiras, a beautiful lookout over the city from a neighboring hill; and A Pão de Queijaria, a restaurant serving the cheese bread that both the region and Brazil is known for. (I got a pão de queijo sandwich with pulled pork inside, along with pão de queijo ice cream.) I also rented a bike to ride around one part of  Lake Pampulha, another UNESCO World Heritage (albeit a sort of disappointing one) that’s home to a collection of modernist buildings designed by the famous Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer.

The Amazon jungle (Manaus, AM)

Manaus is the capital of the state of Amazonas and a popular portal to the Brazilian Amazon. I splurged on a three-day stay at a jungle lodge (which included an overnight stay in the forest), but that was during the latter half of my stay.

For the first two nights of my stay, I had the single weirdest Airbnb experience of my life. It featured a nonresponsive host and eventually being shunted off to his mom, who did not seem to understand that the address they gave me, when fed into Uber, spit me out in a pharmacy about a half-kilometer away. After being retrieved in a Christian book store by a Venezuelan housemate, I was given a tour of this crumbling Portuguese-style mansion that featured a political campaign office, round motel-like beds in every room, and a giant framed picture of my host’s mom (probably taken at least thirty years ago) captioned by the Proverbs verse about a virtuous woman being more valuable than jewels.

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Where I slept the first two nights in Manaus

It was just weird, weird, weird. Half the upstairs was trashed from a previous occupant who’d been on the autism spectrum. My host’s mom asked (pointedly) if I had already paid, indicating she didn’t know how Airbnb worked. And my Venezuelan friend insisted on coming into my room to speak Spanish with me (and try to give me a foot rub), which I think he thought was a way of being friendly with me, but really just made me anxious about spending too much time in the house.

It’s always an adventure in a cheap Airbnb.

Anyway, the second half of my stay was a lot more fun. I stayed at Amazon Antonio’s Jungle Lodge, which has the sort of name that should turn you right off but the universally perfect reviews on TripAdvisor to draw you right back in. The lodge I stayed in was on Rio Urubu, a black-water Amazon tributary we spent forty minutes traversing via speedboat after driving two hours outside Manaus. I was joined by a dude from Wales and a couple from the Netherlands (netting me a R$300 refund in transportation costs that I deeply respected the company for repaying me), which actually made for a fun little foursome.

I could go on about this experience for hours, but highlights were:

  • Catching piranhas that we then ate for dinner
  • Paddling through an impenetrable fog at sunrise, watching submerged trees loom into view
  • Tricking a giant tarantula out of its borrow, which helped me get over my fear of them by showing they would rather just hang out in their little hole than go on the hunt for wayward Americans
  • Spending a night in the Amazon jungle

After the jungle tour, I had a bit more time in Manaus—visiting the famous Teatro Amazonas and taking full advantage of all the fresh juices on offer.

Swanky gated community (São José do Rio Preto, SP)

My last Brazilian excursion was with Elaine and Barbara to Elaine’s sister’s house in São José do Rio Preto, São Paulo (a city you may recognize from the sidebar!). Elaine’s sister and brother-in-law live in a gated community that looks like what I imagine a fancy California tech suburb would be: sleek modernist architecture, manicured lawns, various tropical flowers and trees. We took a few trips into the city center, but we spent most of our time in the house.

We ate really well—one day Elaine’s brother-in-law made churrasco for us, the next evening I made Kroll’s chili, and the following morning Barbara and I fixed an American brunch for everyone:

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Also, we got to visit the farm that Elaine’s brother-in-law kept, eating mangos and blackberries straight from the trees. Elaine’s sister even knocked down and hacked open some coconuts so we could drink the water inside. I know life there was sort of charmed (two women came in every morning to help cook and clean), but it also felt a lot more like what I think most people would consider Brazil to be.

Clearly, there’s a whole lot of Brazil outside Caxias. And even if that means sleeping in the odd bed, I’m happy I get to experience it.

Cultural programming in comic books: practicing Portuguese with ‘Turma da Mônica’

So after one of my students gave me a few collections a couple months back, I’ve been turning to Turma da Mônica (“Monica’s Gang”) to practice my Portuguese. In print since the 1960s, Turma da Mônica is a beloved comic-strip universe portraying wide cast of characters in their day-to-day lives. The majority of strips focus on the antics of Monica and her friends, but others focus on the (as far as I know) self-contained worlds of a caveman, an angel, a ghost, and a dog who hosts his own TV show.

In addition to being great for language practice (the drawings help me pick up on vocab and follow the story so much more easily), I think comics also offer really interesting cultural insights. Because they’re made for kids, they’re designed to be accessible—mirroring the life kids already know. Although Turma da Mônica can occasionally be meta or subversive, I’ve observed that, for the most part, the archetypes it uses seem to reflect some broad patterns of life in Brazil.

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A spread of Turma da Mônica titles lent to me by a participant in English & Chill. Each collection focuses on a different character and has its own special storylines.

So like, for example, here’s an excerpt from a story where Mônica’s dad agrees to house-sit for his wealthy boss. Mônica doesn’t want to go, but her family packs up and moves to the boss’s fancy condominium—only to be swarmed by far-flung family members suddenly deciding to drop by for a visit. In the end, Mônica’s parents tire of having their new apartment overrun, and they decide to return to their old house instead. The final panel depicts the family’s welcome-home party, their house again crowded with people—but this time, close friends.

I think this storyline is interesting on a number of levels. First, it gives an example of what a fancy home is supposed to look like in Brazil: a nice gated condominium, complete with uniformed staff.

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Second, the storyline shows one dimension of familial relationships in Brazil. I’ve talked about how Brazil is much less individualistic than the US, and how there seems to be an expectation that you grant favors to the people close to you—so it’s reasonable that Mônica’s relatives would show up with warm smiles and open hands. Of course, the family members are depicted as inconsiderate and mooching, but I don’t think the story would work if this sort of behavior wasn’t already thought to be common and/or normal.

Digging somewhat deeper, I think this story also hints at how Brazil deals with class differences. Like the US, Brazil can sometimes feel status-obsessed and materialistic. And clearly, there’s a lot of income inequality here, with the rich and poor coexisting in much closer proximity than maybe is common in the US. But in Turma da Mônica, the lesson seems to be that having more money does not necessarily make you happier.

Here’s an advertisement on the back page of the same comic book, paid for by a Brazilian personal-finance organization. The blonde girl is telling Mônica and Magdali about her plans to go to “Bisney” during the holidays. (Among Brazilians, Disney seems to be the most-advertised and most-visited US destination.) When Mônica and Magdali say they’re going to stay home, the blonde girl says “How come?! It’s the holidays, you have to enjoy them!” Mônica and Magdali tell the girl that they will, going on about their plans to have a picnic and  hold seven-day game tournament and play with their new toys and watch movies with popcorn and juice. In the end, the blonde girl says “You want to know something? …I changed my plans! Is it too late to join you? Bisney can wait!”

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These advertisements provide some interesting additional insight. For example, check out the Turma de Mônica-themed nail polish. You can see from the puzzles in the middle of the collection that the book is targeted at a fairly young audience. Turma de Mônica is a cultural touchstone, but I don’t think anyone over the age of 10 would be super into using Turma de Mônica-branded makeup. So looking at this book, you could reasonably conclude that it’s culturally appropriate for young girls to wear nail polish.

I recognize this conclusion might not be super surprising, but I included it as a simple example of the sort of exercise I try to do with basically anything I encounter in Brazil.

Speaking of culturally appropriate things: I find it fascinating how some international stereotypes change when looking through the lens of a new culture. For example, there’s a whole rivalry between Brazil and Portugal (you know, colony/colonizer) that’s completely absent in American ideas about Portugal. But on the flip side, some stereotypes are exactly the same.

Check out the first page of this story, where “Master Zen” teaches Mônica to control her characteristic anger (and stop whacking her friends with the stuffed rabbit she carries everywhere) through some generic East Asian training at Temple Ding-Ling Ding (!):

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What won’t be immediately apparent to non-Portuguese speakers is that, in addition to being squinty and buck-toothed, the temple monks speak with an accent that swaps Ls for Rs. (Ls are pronounced super gently [if at all] in Portuguese, almost like Ws.) This depiction should be super familiar to US readers, and I was honestly shocked to see it portrayed so brazenly in print. But then again, who knows if Brazil’s had the same history of anti-Chinese sentiment as the US has had.

This storyline wasn’t the only one that relied on some tired tropes. In another story, blue-haired Rodolfo joins a gym just to talk to a woman he saw going into it—only to end up in a fitness class so difficult that he faints from overexertion and has to chase down this woman at her house to get the chance to ask her out. Chasing down women seems to be the schtick of all of Rodolfo’s storylines, but this particular arc was worse than normal. Check out the top-right panel:

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This woman, whom Rodolfo has been chasing for the entire story, doesn’t speak until this page. “Hm, weren’t you at the gym?” she asks. Rodolfo replies with an enthusiastic “I was!” before launching into pick-up lines that we don’t even get to hear. His dialogue is just a squiggly speech-balloon saying “And… blah blah blah blah blah blah blah…” All we know is that he successfully won her over, as he leaves her in the next panel happily declaring “So, see you tomorrow!” Who this women is isn’t important; all that’s important is that Rodolfo wanted to go out with her, and she said yes. Also, you get a pretty clear idea of the relative importance of beauty standards with strip. I haven’t spoken a lot about Brazil’s sense of machismo (my impression is it’s somewhat muted in the south, especially among the Brazilians I spend most of my time with), but it’s on full display here.

By focusing on these outliers, I don’t want to obscure the more everyday adventures that fill the majority of Turma da Mônica collections. Most of the stories are just about the antics that Mônica and her friends get up to, devoid of any overt conversations about class or gender or race. For example, you can check out the picture below, which is literally about Mônica and her friend Magdali playing hairdresser:

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But as Turma da Mônica shows, even simple texts like a kid’s comic book can carry messages about the culture they were produced in. But what’s harder to remember is that this pattern is equally true for books and movies and TV shows that I see back home—the messages they carry are just so much more invisible to us, like water to a fish.

Lessons in language, culture, and critical-thinking—I don’t think you could ask for much more from a comic book. Turma da Mônica‘s pretty great.

The “Brazilian Trump” and what it feels like to relive the 2016 election

October 7 marked the first round of voting in Brazil’s presidential election, with a race that many commentators have compared to the US’s in 2016. It’s, uh, a frustrating time to be here. I don’t claim to know a whole lot about Brazilian history, culture, or politics—but I still have certain experiences and perspectives, and those make it difficult for me to navigate conversations about what’s going on.

(A disclaimer to any Brazilians reading: I know it can be frustrating to read about a foreigner spouting off some half-informed opinions about your country. I know I’m no expert; I’m just trying to synthesize what I’ve heard and learned and read.)

I’ve observed three major trends with this election: no one is happy with the candidates, fears are swirling with varying degrees of founded-ness, and the international comparisons I’ve heard are as a rule pretty terrible.

So first, some background

This is not Brazil’s finest hour. The country is still emerging from its worst-ever recession, its murder rate has hit an all-time high, and its current president, Michele Temer, regularly garners single-digit approval rates. Meanwhile, the country is still reeling from 2014’s Operation Car Wash (Lava Jato), an investigation into a sprawling corruption scandal that has implicated over 500 politicians and cost more than US$2 billion 

It’s not an exaggeration to say everyone’s upset. And when politicians are so baldly corrupt, when crime and the economy are getting worse, and everything tends to just end in pizza—I can understand why I haven’t heard a single person express pride or hope in the immediate future of the country. Instead, I’ve found that if a conversation veers anywhere near politics, people are quick to share their frustration and disgust with the corruption they see as endemic to nearly every level of politics.

The national mood in Brazil hasn’t always been so dire. The first time I can really remember learning about Brazil (in a high-school presentation) was in the context of the BRICs, a group of economically ascendant countries. And indeed, in the early twenty-first century, Brazil was experiencing a lot of growth:

During the two‐term, 2003–10 presidency of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (popularly known as “Lula”), Brazil’s GNP saw steady growth as millions of poor Brazilians experienced unprecedented upward economic mobility (Loureiro 2012; Pochmann 2012; Souza 2012). Neri (2014) estimated that poverty fell by more than 55% during the Lula years, with nearly nine million households (more than thirty million people) rising out of poverty…

Economists have explained these poverty reductions as the combined result of commodity and consumer debt–driven economic growth, labor market expansion, new social welfare and education programs, and increased minimum wages. During the first twelve years of PT [the Worker’s Party] governance, the overall unemployment rate decreased from 13.0% to 5.0%, informal employment decreased from 22.5% to 13.0%, and unemployment insurance coverage increased by 99.0% (Weisbrot, Johnston, and Lefebvre 2014). Growth in formal‐sector employment allowed millions of Brazilian workers to receive mandated labor‐law protections and benefits for the first time (e.g., pensions, paid sick leave, disability benefits, and regulated work hours and conditions). Additionally, through various educational reforms, average school years completed rose from 4.98 in 1992 to 7.46 in 2011, and the number of enrolled university students increased from 3.04 million to 7.04 million (Weisbrot, Johnston, and Lefebvre 2014).

(Klein, C. H., Mitchell, S. T., & Junge, B. (2018). Naming Brazil’s previously poor:“New middle class” as an economic, political, and experiential categoryEconomic Anthropology5(1), 83-95.)

In 2011, Lula left office with an approval rate of nearly 90%. In the years since—which have seen the recession, the Lava Jato scandal, the impeachment of Lula’s successor, and the jailing of Lula himself—that number has tanked.

Here’s where things get hazy, depending on your political views. Either PT’s corruption caught up with them, or their leaders were the target of a political coup.

To hear supporters of this theory tell it, the coup kicked off with Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff, getting impeached in 2016. The official charge was some budgetary subterfuge, technically illegal but also widespread among Brazil’s politicians. As I understand it, Dilma was really the only one to face any consequences. Meanwhile, her vice president  (Michele Temer, whose party was in coalition with Dilma’s) declared his intention to run against PT in 2016. When the senate voted to impeach Dilma, Temer’s party controlled the most seats.

The second part of this coup hit the following year. In July 2017, as part of the Lava Jato probe, Lula was sentenced to ten years in prison for accepting bribes from an engineering firm (in the form of a US$750,000 beachfront apartment). Lula’s lawyers argued he never actually owned the apartment. In January of this year, the conviction was unanimously upheld by a court of appeals; in April, the supreme court ordered (in a narrow 6-5 decision) that Lula be imprisoned, sparking protests around Brazil.

Up to this point, Lula had been considering running for a third term in October. And like, being in jail didn’t stop him. PT went so far as to nominate him in early August, and he wasn’t officially barred from running, despite the recommendation of the UN Human Rights Committee,  until 37 days before the election. Polls at the time suggested he was easily the most popular candidate. When he dropped out of the election, he endorsed ex-mayor of São Paulo, Fernando Haddad, as PT’s candidate.

What happened during the first round of the election

Unlike in the US, where the electoral college means that you can theoretically be elected president with just 22% of the popular vote, Brazil has a two-round direct election. About a dozen candidates run in the first round, and if no candidate receives 50% of the vote, the top two candidates have a run-off election a couple weeks later. Also, voting is permitted after turning 16 and mandatory for everyone between 18 and 70. (The fee for not doing so, however, is laughably small—less than a dollar.)

On October 7, during the first round of the election, PT’s Haddad garnered only 29.3% of the vote. The majority of votes (46%) went to the candidate of the right-wing Social Liberal Party (PSL), Jair Bolsonaro: the so-called “Brazilian Trump.”

A former army captain and current congressman for the state of Rio de Janeiro, Bolsonaro is a—to put it lightly—divisive figure. Like… just look:

And like, these aren’t isolated incidents. As far as I can tell, Bolsonaro returns to these themes over and over, doubling down on his violent, dehumanizing rhetoric. (It should come as no surprise to anyone that his campaign has ties to Steve Bannon.) He has degraded basically every minority group in Brazil and openly flirts with what I would call fascism. And yet, he nearly won the first election round outright. So the question then becomes “…why?”

The lesser of two evils

Really quickly, I’m going to sketch out the most benign case for Bolsonaro. First and foremost, he’s not corrupt—or at least, he hasn’t been involved in a corruption scandal yet. He’s also the law-and-order candidate, which understandably resonates with people who are sick of living in a constant state of fear. And finally, he’s something different—a a fiery new variable in a political equation that hasn’t managed to yield the answers it should.

For many people, it seems that a vote for Bolsonaro is really more a vote against PT. Brazil’s growth during the Lula administration coincided with a commodities boom that financed many of their social programs, but its recession during Dilma’s term led many to believe that PT was mismanaging the economy. Meanwhile, PT has racked up its own history of corruption, including the Lava Jato investigation and a 2005 vote-buying scandal called Mensalão. Critics also decried the Brazilian National Development Bank’s generous loans to Venezuela and Cuba (among other countries), which don’t really look like they’re about to be paid back.

I’ve talked to a number of people who voted for Bolsonaro, some of whom admit they don’t know a lot about politics. But for them, PT (and in many cases, Lula) is synonymous with corruption—and they can’t bring themselves to vote for more of it.

However, Bolsonaro also channels some pretty ugly political currents—the sort of naked racism, homophobia, and misogyny that I’m frankly shocked to hear spoken aloud. Bolsonaro hasn’t created these prejudices, but I think he has emboldened the people who hold them. Just as hate crimes in the US increased alongside Trump’s rise to power, there’s already been a spate of politically motivated violence by Bolsonaro supporters in Brazil. And I think there’s a lot of racism bubbling underneath the surface of Brazilian culture—like when my host mom’s brother-in-law told me that the problem with Brazil was that it didn’t have the “higher roots” the US had: you know, being settled by northern European colonists instead of African slaves and indigenous people.

I don’t know the extent to which Bolsonaro voters are grappling with this. I feel like the ones who are most willing to recognize his shortcomings rationalize that his power will be limited by congress, and they join Bolsonaro critics in pointing to his rather empty record of political achievements as congressman. Others suspect that his words are just hollow bluster or have been taken out of context—which I’ve found to be true only on the most technical level. I’m also hard-pressed to imagine a context in which any of those quotes would be okay.

On the other hand, the alternative to voting for Bolsonaro is voting for Haddad. Trying to capitalize on what remains of Lula’s popularity, he has portrayed himself as closely aligned with the jailed politician—and indeed, many of his critics fear he would be just a puppet Lula could control from prison. Plus, PT has the baggage of corruption and a recent history of failed economic policies, which in some ways feel like just more of what has brought Brazil to this mess to begin with.

Between the US and Venezuela

In my experience, the two countries most often invoked as comparisons in this election are the US and Venezuela. For what it’s worth, I think both comparisons are pretty bad.

To start with: it’s not hard to draw the parallels between Bolsonaro and Trump. But in comparing the two, I think you lose a lot of the insight that’s necessary for understanding what these two wildly divisive figures mean. Clearly, they have their similarities. But as a senator, Bolsonaro’s not a political outsider in the same way Trump was; similarly, Trump lacks the everyman background that Bolsonaro (who joined the army after being born into a working-class family) can boast.

These distinctions between Trump and Bolsonaro are important. Given Brazil’s history with dictatorships—which some people still defend!—and the current military occupation in Rio de Janeiro (which doesn’t really seem to have worked), I think Bolsonaro’s pro-violence and pro-dictatorship remarks are incredibly troubling. Calling Bolsonaro “the Brazilian Trump,” completely overlooks this historical context and (in my opinion) portrays Bolsonaro as more benign than he is. To be sure, I also find Trump to be an odious president—but the US government has a longevity and stability to deal with him that Brazil’s 33-year-old democracy simply does not.

Alongside these comparisons is the general sense I get that many Brazilians want Brazil to be more like the United States. A common response I get while chatting with Uber drivers is “Everyone wants to go to America; why did you come here?!” If the US has an outrageous strongman president, maybe Brazil should get one, too. Trump is by no means idolized in Brazil—in my experience, he’s treated as sort of a laughingstock, especially following the well-respected Obama—but people seem to recognize that the US economy is doing well under his administration. (I agree with them, but I also point out the economy has been improving fairly steadily since before Trump took office and that I understand it’s too early to really see the effects of some of Trump’s policies, like tax cuts and tariffs.)

If the US is the ideal, though, Venezuela is the bugbear. A common refrain among Bolsonaro-supporters in Brazil is that PT wants to turn Brazil into Venezuela—a claim that I personally find bizarre, given that I can’t imagine anyone eulogizing Venezuela’s current situation. And moreover, PT was in power for like 14 years and (as I understand it) had a track record of fairly moderate economic policy. To be sure, PT was maybe friendlier to Venezuela than hindsight suggests would’ve been prudent. But claims that they’re explicitly trying to bring Venezuela’s crisis to Brazil seems to reflect more fear than sense.

2016 all over again

With such a heated election between two terrible candidates, it feels like I’m back in the US circa. 2016. And honestly, it sort of sucks.

In Caxias, nearly 62% of voters chose Bolsonaro in the first round, compared to just 13.6% for Haddad. Over the past month and a half, I’ve repeatedly had the experience of listening to people I respect and trust—including some professors and students at UCS—say some really stupid things. It’s gotten to the point where I don’t bring up politics with some of my friends, just because I’d rather operate under the assumption that they’re decent, informed people.

By “stupid,” I don’t just mean “disagreeable.” Whatsapp is a huge vehicle for fake news in Brazil, and I can recount about a half-dozen instances of people insisting on something that I later discovered to be factually incorrect. In the moment, hearing those things puts me in an awkward situation—I suspect that something’s not right, but because there is still so much I don’t know about Brazil, I don’t feel like I have the authority to issue a judgement on it. My usual course of action is to ask follow-up questions to gauge the information’s reliability and nudge my conversation partner to think a bit more critically about it, but so far that’s just gotten me more misrepresented/decontextualized/incorrect information. It’s tiring, and honestly frustrating, especially when these incorrect statements spread misinformation about already-vulnerable groups of people.

What’s even more frustrating for me is that Brazil’s election this year is not just an analogue of 2016; it’s an echo. I deeply suspect that Bolsonaro would not be as popular now had Trump not been elected president two years ago. What I’m increasingly realizing is the degree to which the actions of the US affect the rest of the world, even just in terms of setting norms for what is appropriate or desirable. And so I don’t just get to relive the ugliness of the 2016 election here; I also get to be reminded of its ongoing global effects.

Where this all leaves me

Let me reiterate: I don’t claim to be any sort of expert on this. I feel like I’m just beginning to assemble all the pieces, but I have no idea how to weigh their relative importance, much less evaluate the truthfulness of the various narratives they make up. I also approach this election more idealistically, having never been personally impacted by events in Brazil’s recent history. (And if anything, I’ve benefitted from the real’s weakness against the dollar.) So I want to repeat that my observations and conclusions should be taken with a grain of salt.

That being said: if I had to vote, I would vote for Haddad. I agree that Brazilian politics are heavily corrupt, but I don’t think voting for Bolsonaro is enough to change an entire political system, much less the culture within it. And for me, the potential costs of a Bolsonaro victory—considering his hate speech, glorification of violence, and open disregard for democracy—are entirely too dangerous to outweigh the benefits that one non-corrupt candidate would bring.

If recent polls are to be believed, the majority of Brazilians don’t agree with me: Bolsonaro boasts leads of 16-32 percentage points, depending on who you listen to. By all accounts, he’s likely to win when Brazilians head to the polls this next Sunday.

Where that leaves Brazil… I don’t know. But I guess we’ll see.

What I learned about immigration from volunteering at a Brazilian NGO

Before coming to Brazil, I worked at a refugee-resettlement nonprofit, helped film a documentary about migration from Africa into Italy, and co-led a service-learning trip to a largely undocumented community in Athens, Georgia. All of this to say: I care about migration and have spent some time learning about it. So since I first arrived here, learning more about immigrants in Brazil–and the systems in place to process them—has been a priority for me.

Recently I started volunteering at the Centro de Atendimento ao Migrante Caxias do Sul (CAM), an immigration center that serves clients from all over southern Brazil. The clients are mostly Haitian or Senegalese, but I’ve met a Polish dude and some Turkish families, and there may be some Venezuelans arriving in the coming weeks. I admittedly don’t contribute all that much—I’m hamstrung by my limited Portuguese and lack of knowledge about Brazilian immigration law—but I’m using the opportunity to learn more about both, firsthand.

My takeaway so far? Like so many other aspects of life here, Brazil’s migration policy has so much potential but is hampered by incessant and stifling bureaucracy.

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Immigration: Brazil’s ideal

Last May, Brazil issued a sweeping new law declaring the principles and guidelines that would govern its immigration policy. In my opinion, it’s pretty great. Although its actual implementation may be another question altogether, the fact that the government has at least articulated these as ideals seems significant.

I’ve excerpted some of them (via Google Translate, with some light edits for clarity) here:

I – universality, indivisibility and interdependence of human rights;

II – repudiation and prevention of xenophobia, racism and any form of discrimination;

III – non-criminalization of migration;

IV – non-discrimination due to the criteria or procedures by which someone entered Brazil;

V – promotion of regular entry and regularization of documents;

VI – humanitarian reception;

VIII – guarantee of the right to family reunion;

IX – equality of treatment and opportunity for migrants and their families;

X – social and economic inclusion of migrants through public policies;

XI – migrants’ free and equal access to services, programs and social benefits, public goods, education, vital legal assistance, work, housing, banking and social security;

XII – promotion and dissemination of migrants’ rights, freedoms, guarantees and obligations;

XVII – total protection of and attention to the best interests of migrant children and adolescents;

XXII – repudiation of collective deportation or deportation practices.

Taken together, these guidelines and principles paint a broad picture of inclusion for migrants in Brazil. The goal seems to be to affirm migrants’ rights and streamline their integration into Brazil’s economy and society. I personally think this is a great approach to take to migration, for reasons I’ll detail later, and I can’t help feeling a little envious of it. To my knowledge, the US has no similar federal legislation outlining the values that determine migration policy.

How immigration works in the US

Before I describe how Brazil’s immigration system works, I want to briefly outline how immigration and refugee resettlement works in the US. This isn’t a complete guide, but it reflects the processes I worked with during my time at the International Rescue Committee.

So first, there’s the issue of language. I’ve noticed that people who complain about immigration tend not to use these words very carefully. So to be clear:

  • A migrant is someone who moves from one place to another (either within or between countries), generally for economic reasons like seasonal work. I’m a migrant in Brazil!
  • An immigrant is someone who makes the conscious decision to leave the country where they were born and move to a new country with the intent of creating a new life there.
  • A refugee, under US law, is someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their home country because of “persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.” (Someone who has fled their home but not their country for these reasons is called an internally displaced person.)
  • An asylum-seeker is someone who is requesting international protection within the United States for the above reasons, but whose claim has not been legally determined. This request needs to be made at the border of or within the United States. Not all requests are approved, but those who are granted asylum are called asylees.

The most common path to becoming a refugee is to register with the UNHCR, perhaps at a refugee camp. Along with US embassies and some NGOs, UNHCR recommends eligible refugees to the US government. These cases are received and processed by one of nine Resettlement Support Centers (RSCs) around the world, funded by the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM). RSCs collect biographic and background information on the refugees and their situations.

Eligible cases are then forwarded to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS, managed by the Department of Homeland Security), which reviews the information and conducts an in-person interview. This stage also includes rigorous background checks with other US security agencies.

If approved, refugees then undergo health screening (no contagious diseases allowed). Those who pass are matched with resettlement agencies in the US and are given a cultural orientation before they travel. After a final background check, refugees travel to the US (with a loan from the International Organization for Migration), and are met at the airport by workers from resettlement agencies, who then support the refugees during their first months in the US.

This entire process could take three years, and that was before Trump gummed up the works with his “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States” executive order in January 2017. I am incredibly unsympathetic toward this order, because in my experience the Venn diagram of “people who think we need to have more refugee vetting” and “people who understand the refugee vetting process” consists of two completely separate circles. The vetting process was already considered very safe by the chief of refugee admissions for USCSIS, even before the order was signed. (That link is to a This American Life transcript; the story in question is in Act Five.) The hardest way to enter the US is as a refugee.

Meanwhile, the path to asylum is a little more straightforward. If you request asylum proactively, you just have to interview with an USCIS asylum officer (after being fingerprinted and run through background/security checks). If you request asylum defensively (in response to being caught without proper documentation, for example), you appear in court and have to make your case before an Immigration Judge. By law, you should have your status determined within 180 days of making your application, but in practice, the process can sometimes take much longer.

After a year in the US as a refugee or asylee, you can apply for your green card, or lawful permanent residence status. Basically this status affords you all the rights of full US citizenship, minus the ability to vote in federal elections. Green cards can also be obtained through your employer or by being an immediate family member of a US citizen. If you want to become a US citizen yourself, you can go through the naturalization process after three to five years of holding a green card. If you pass more background checks, another USCIS interview, and English and civics tests, congratulations! You too can become a US citizen.

Of course, there’s a lot more to US immigration than refugees and illegal border-crossings. In 2016, the two countries sending the most immigrants to the US were India and China, and a 2014 report found that two-thirds of the undocumented immigrants who arrived that year were overstaying their visas. This isn’t a complete picture; there are tons of other ways to enter and/or work in the US. But I think this understanding is sufficient to understand the differences in the system in Brazil.

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A sign in the lobby at CAM: “For the migrant, the homeland is the land that gives him bread”

My work with CAM

As I’ve seen over the last couple months at CAM, Brazil’s approach to migration is very different from that of the US. Because I’ve been spending the majority of time volunteering in CAM’s legal department, I’ve seen a lot of these differences firsthand.

First, the US’s refugee/asylee dichotomy just doesn’t exist here. It doesn’t matter if you apply for refuge from inside or outside Brazil; you’re referred to as a refugee. Asylum here refers specifically to political asylum for high-level politicians and activists, and I think you literally need to get the president to sign off on your case.

Additionally, Brazil doesn’t really formally “resettle” refugees in the same way the US does. The vast majority of refugees in Brazil arrive on a tourist visa and then request refugee status inside the country; they don’t go through a formal process like they do before entering in the US. Brazil does have that reception system in place, but it has only formally resettled a couple hundred refugees over the past decade (compared to hundreds of thousands in the US). Everyone else has to figure out their own way.

That being said, Brazil’s immigration law goes beyond just “refugee.” There is also a category for “humanitarian visa,” given in cases of environmental or economic crises that aren’t included in the UNHCR’s definition of refugee. (The US has something similar—Temporary Protected Status—but as the name suggests, it’s temporary, and the Trump administration is trying hard to roll back nearly every TPS program [despite some of them having gone on for nearly 20 years].) As far as I can tell, right now it’s mostly just given to people from Haiti

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Refugee requests by country, c/o NEXO

In fact, Brazil has a lot of different standards for immigrants from different countries. Haitians can enter Brazil through the humanitarian visa program, Venezuelans (along with other countries that border Brazil to the north) can enter through the Fronteiriço agreement, and other South Americans enjoy increased freedom of movement through the MERCOSUL agreement. Citizens of other countries need to find another way in (such as through work sponsorship), while their refugee claims are evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

Especially compared to the US, Brazil is super lenient about letting immigrants stay in Brazil. Get caught entering the country without proper documents? Border police give you a notice saying you have 60 days to regularize your status. Need to regularize your status? Try applying as a refugee—the immigration office has 13 workers and gets 1,000 applications a day, so your request can take up to five years to be processed. Simply applying gets you a protocolo (sometimes within the same day), proof of your application that lets you begin to operate as part of Brazilian society: get a work card, open a bank account, apply for a CPF (like a social security number that is key to doing anything here), etc. Plus, if you get denied, you can always file for recourse, which will sometimes buy you an additional year.

The work I do at CAM

I spend nearly all of my time at CAM shadowing the legal department, which basically consists of filling out computer forms on the website of the Federal Police. We mostly request humanitarian visas and prepare documents for family reunification. This means a lot of nitpicky paperwork and a Federal Police website that is sometimes down without explanation but always super annoying to use.

Around Caxias, the majority of new immigrants are from Haiti or Senegal. I met exactly three parties who fell outside these two countries: a Polish dude applying for refugee status (I gathered because of persecution for his sexuality), a family from Uruguay trying to renew their documents, and some women from Turkey who came in to distribute treats to the kids in the school that CAM’s attached to. Many of the clients we see don’t actually live in Caxias, as apparently it’s easier to find work in the smaller cities nearby.

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The legal department office at CAM

I think most of the value I’ve brought to CAM has been by sharing my experiences with immigration in the US. I’ve offered observations in day-to-day conversations, but my biggest project was a long presentation about US’s migration policies that I gave to the entire staff during one of their weekly meetings. Its outlook was pretty bleak—border police have illegally turned away asylum-seekers, and the Trump administration has cut the refugee ceiling to an all-time low.

“It’s good that you’re here,” one of CAM’s lawyers told me when I first talked with them. “So many people see what the US is doing and think, if they all support that there, we should do it here too.”

Some migration-adjacent thoughts that didn’t fit anywhere else

I don’t know how to weave these reflections into the rest of this post, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention them:

  • Having to speak Portuguese with other non-native speakers has been a humbling experience. We talk a lot about English as a universal language, but I’ve never experienced firsthand what that meant. In CAM, I finally realized how difficult it can be to converse with someone who shares a spoken language but approaches it from a very different angle.
    • Sometimes the clients and I have enough difficulty communicating in Portuguese that we have to speak through Mari, who understands both of our respective stabs at Portuguese better than we do.
  • Immigrants can face a lot of racism in Caxias. I’ve tried to do an informal poll of the people who pass through our office about how they like Brazil, and the results are mixed. I don’t ask about racism directly, but it’s occasionally brought up; you can read about some reports that have been brought to the media/police here.
    • The only racial profiling I’ve personally witnessed was on an overnight bus to Caxias from Foz do Iguaçu. Our bus was stopped at a police checkpoint, where gun-toting military police climbed aboard. At this point, it was only me, an older white dude (who apparently is in charge of some huge ping-pong tournament in Latin America?), and a black dude on the bus. The police (who couldn’t have seen anything from the outside, because we’d all been sitting in darkness) made a beeline for the black passenger, made him show ID, and told him to get his luggage from the hold so they could go through it. The police said nothing to me or the other white guy. Soon they got off, the black passenger got back on, and we continued on our way.
  •  The hottest migration debate right now is how to accommodate refugees from Venezuela. They’re straining already-poor communities in the north, which is leading to violence against them. A couple hundred Venezuelans were recently bussed down to nearby capital Porto Alegre, but how they would be accommodated hadn’t been clear—keeping in mind the temperature differences from equatorial Venezuela and Brazil’s chilly south. Caxias ended up not accepting any.
    • Fun fact: the most moderate immigration coverage I’ve ever seen on Breitbart was about Venezuelan refugees in Brazil. Although refugees are Bad, socialism is Very Bad, and so apparently people fleeing it is totally understandable.

My ideal: a synthesis

The way I see it: people are always going to cross borders, legally or otherwise. I think the purpose of migration policy should be to facilitate this process and protect the safety of citizens and migrants alike. (This is not to say I’m for open borders, which I see as untenable and also a strawman argument to dismiss the ideas of people who want to talk about the benefits of migration.)

When it comes to migration, I think Brazil’s legislative priorities are great. By integrating migrants into society—by regularizing them and giving them the tools (such as work cards) to become productive citizens—I think you can avoid a lot of the dangers that come with immigration. Undocumented people are vulnerable people, and vulnerable people are can easily become exploited or outcast or desperate people.

However, I think the US’s resources for aiding immigrants (and not just refugees) are more robust, and our processing system, while still sluggish and labyrinthine, at least seems more transparent than Brazil’s.

Researchers agree that on the whole, immigrants (legal or otherwise) are not increasing US crime rates and are net contributors to the economy. Clearly, economics and crime are sprawling, complicated topics that depend very much on how you define and measure terms. But I think that these results at least suggest that there are real benefits to immigration, and countries around the world would do well to consider them.

I don’t know where I’ll end up once I leave Brazil, but I do know that leaving CAM won’t mean the end of my work with migration.

Cultural values: the blandest-sounding key to learning how other countries work

downloadSo I’ve harped on the virtues of the book Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind before. Using international survey data, it seeks to lay out six dimensions that can be used to measure and compare the cultures of different countries.

What I love most about this book is its commitment to values: it assumes all behavior makes sense within a cultural context, and then it seeks to identify what about that culture encourages that behavior. I think this is a great, great orientation to have toward the world—to assume that people are acting for good reason, and challenging oneself to understand it.

Anyway, I was so enamored with this book that I used it as a base for a discussion at English & Chill, our weekly conversation club. Over the course of the hour, I presented the six cultural dimensions Hofstede outlined, and then I asked our participants to talk about where they think the US and Brazil rank. I later repeated the presentation with an intermediate business English class at an UCS campus outside the city, and I was impressed—Brazilians tended to predict fairly accurately where on these dimensions Brazil would fall.

Cultural values (5)

This graph is taken from Hofstede’s website, which my co-ETA Barbara tipped me off to. You can compare the results of up to four countries at a time, and then read a brief summary explaining how the countries differ across the various dimensions. If you have a few spare moments, I highly recommend reading it.

So, because this framework has been so illuminating for me, I wanted to share it here. I’ve included the six explanation slides from my presentation, which try to boil down/share the most interesting parts of each of the dimensions. I prefaced them with a warning: cultures are never constant nor homogenous, and they don’t account for an individual’s preferences and disposition. But it is possible to draw some broad generalizations about a country’s culture, and as Hofstede argues, those generalizations can be measured along six dimensions:

Cultural values

Cultural values (1)Cultural values (2)Cultural values (3)Cultural values (4)Cultural values (6)

I know that reading this book early during my stay here helped me put language around some of the cultural differences I was experiencing, which then helped me more productively react to them.

During my presentations, I usually bring up individualism as an example—Hofstede’s research ranks the US as the most individualistic country in the world, whereas Brazil falls somewhere closer to the middle. And this is a difference I see every day. There’s less of a sense of personal space, for example—normal greetings include cheek-kisses and hugs and back-claps, even with people you’re meeting for the first time. And it’s not unusual to share drinks (sometimes by pouring a regular-sized bottle into little plastic cups), like chimarrão. Plus, inviting other people along to (or just plain showing up announced at) other people’s houses seems fairly common.

Another challenge to adapt to was Brazil’s relative femininity, or its preference to be oriented around relationships rather than tasks. I feel like I need to go through much more small talk than would otherwise be necessary in the US, and I get the impression that being direct can be seen as rude. I’ve had to learn that “what do you think?” is sometimes used not so much to solicit advice as it is to soften a request, and “could be” usually means (depending on context) either “yes” or “no.” Also, I’ve realized this importance placed on relationships contributes to everyone’s habitual lateness—you don’t want to be rude to the person in front of you by leaving, so you sit and chat longer than you maybe otherwise should.

So of course, over the past seven months here, I’ve learned to identify these patterns as normal. But thanks to Cultures and Organizations, however, I was able to recognize and adapt to them much more quickly.

If you’re interested in how other cultures work, or even learning more about your own, I strongly encourage you to give Cultures and Organizations a shot.