Sari Bellmer, Correspondent
April 24, 2011
I woke up at 5:30 this morning to go to the Wednesday morning feira (outdoor market) in Santo Antonio de Jesus, the town in which I have been staying for two weeks. I’m not sure why the market starts so early. When my friends and I arrived, though, I was delighted that I had sacrificed a little morning sleep because the scene was truly something to behold. The Wednesday market is mostly for clothing, though there is a produce section adjacent; venders bustled along the narrow pathways between stalls, hauling Santa Claus-sized sacs full of clothing to pile upon their tables. By 6 a.m., many had their stalls set up and were inviting customers to see their goods. Inviting is a polite way of putting it. Calling—yelling, really—would be more accurate. “Here! Shirts, dresses! Buy it for your sister! Your mother! Your brother! Your boyfriend! $10 reais! $10! Shirts! Dresses! Dresses!” It never ceased. Some would stop saying words all together and just scream for the sake of sound. One man was producing a noise not unlike an untrained yodel. Though I was slightly frightened by the vendors’ mad enthusiasm, Brazilian customers flocked toward it, swarming the tables of the loudest merchants like ants on a pile of fallen crumbs, pawing through piles of clothing, throwing unwanted pieces aside in a frenzy. Occasionally the vendor would throw armfuls of unopened merchandise over the heads of the crowd surrounding his table, like candy thrown at a children’s parade. It all reminded me a little bit of a mosh pit at a concert. At 6 a.m. in the morning. I was giggling throughout.
The shock of being surrounded by a completely different cultural context has subsided and I’ve had lots of time to reflect about lessons being learnt in relation to both this country and about the U.S. When I was preparing this winter to leave the States, I was confronted with a few frustrating instances of the clear misconception some Americans have about people in countries of the Global South. For example, I had one relative assure me that I certainly didn’t need to get a visa document notarized because, “people in Brazil don’t even know what notarization is.” Conversely, I had a friend question my decision to travel to Brazil because they had the impression that Brazilian culture tended to be ‘plastic’ and materially obsessed. Notions that some citizens of the Global North hold about other cultures can be extremely problematic, helping to perpetuate structural violences already afforded to a large portion of the world’s population. These incidents further convinced me how important it was to make this trip, in order to more accurately form a picture of reality about people and culture in a mid-developing country—or at least about the people and culture in Brazil.
Being here, though, I’ve found interesting the misconceptions held about Americans and the United States, this time in the hands of Brazilians that I’ve met. It’s become a joke between one American friend and I because our families repeatedly explain things about the U.S. to us as if it were they who are American. I laugh now every time my host family tries to use the fact that it is always really cold in the United States to explain any number of my habits or characteristics. I have told them over and over that, firstly, the U.S. is a huge place and that the climate varies from place to place just like in Brazil; and secondly, that oftentimes the U.S. summer is just as hot as it is in Brazil. Still, somehow the point doesn’t really get across. Climate is a relatively trivial example, but the same concepts have applied to the ideas of culture, class, and social status. My host mother was surprised when I told her that Southern states are culturally different from the North, and East from West. We had a long conversation one night about social classes, poverty, and globalization. The opinions that she had—“But everyone has money there. Americans who are considered poor have access to the things provided for the Brazilian upper-middle class”—disturbed me in the same way that I’m concerned by generalizations and unfounded assumptions about Brazilians. This time though, having lived in the home of a middle-class Brazilian family and previously having lived around people of the lower class in the U.S., I felt personally justified in arguing my point. The media image of a country is not usually entire or accurate. The United States may be a powerful country in the scheme of global power, but not all Americans are given the privileges of a lifestyle of power. Likewise, Brazil may have been portrayed in the past as an undeveloped country but Brazil’s government uses some systems more sophisticated even than those of the U.S.—such as their healthcare system. At the same time, Brazil’s recent economic growth has given some the impression that contemporary Brazil is image obsessed and culturally vacuous. Do you know what some Brazilians have told me about Americans? That they are culturally vacant, unfriendly, and bad at making food. We all know that’s not true.
It’s nearly graduation time in the U.S. and I know that students are wrapping up the year for the summer. Many of my friends are getting ready to receive their degree next week: always a bittersweet time with the satisfaction of accomplishment, anticipation of new possibilities, and the sadness of separations. I, on the other hand, am just over halfway through the semester in Brazil. I’m just finishing the structured part of my program and am preparing for departure to “the interior” for a period of independent study. Next week I will take a 12-hour bus ride to the Western part of the state, to the town of Caetité. In Caetité I will be staying for four weeks in a house that serves as the office of a chapter of a national organization called Movimentos Mulheres de Camponesas (Women’s Peasants Movement). The central mission of the MMC is to oppose the models of capitalism and patriarchy, and organize projects promoting women’s rights, ecological restoration, and sustainable agriculture, among others. One of their projects involves the use of and education about medicinal gardens and home remedies. I will be working in Caetité with the women of the MMC, researching how their medicinal gardens and home remedies project can be seen as one means used to resist capitalism, patriarchy, and globalization. I’ll be there until mid-June. I am not nervous about this journey but I expect there will be challenges to confront in Caetité, being new in a place far away, only barely able to speak Portuguese. I am nearly sure that there will be no one there with whom I can speak English. Communicating solely in Portuguese for four weeks is a bit daunting, given the broken state of my ability to speak and understand. At the same time, I couldn’t be more excited.