the single story of Brazil

I remember one evening back at Stanford University during Fall Training, the entire Global Citizen Year Brazil cohort sat down for a dinner together. One of our Team Leaders at the time asked us what came to mind when we thought of Brazil – beaches, samba, Rio de Janeiro, favelas, the Amazon, futebol, “BRIC” country status. I thought back to two summers ago when I had traveled to Northern Brazil; to Teresina, Piauí; and the poverty that I had witnessed. I thought about the beautiful, charismatic city of Rio de Janeiro. I thought of the pictures I’d seen of Afro-Brazilian culture in the Northeast.

Our Team Leader proceeded to conclude, “No matter what you think…I promise, I promise, you will be surprised.”

The crisp air turned chilly. Goosebumps arose on my arms. I put down my fork. I glanced around at my cohort; a scary reality became clear – I had no idea of what Brazil was. I had no idea of what I was getting into. And, as I have found, research would have only helped so much. No one can ever know or understand a place until they have been there (reason enough to travel. : )) We have bought a single story of the world – one basic idea about various peoples, places, histories, and cultures.

After moving to Curitiba, I began to understand that our view of Brazil is almost entirely fabricated upon a single story. Brazil is… well, HUGE. And I’ve found that this huge country is greatly misrepresented to the international community by just one city – Rio de Janeiro. The most famous contemporary movie from Brazil – City of God – takes place in Rio de Janeiro. The fifth movie in the Fast and Furious series – Fast Five – takes place in Rio de Janeiro. Songs sing of capirinhas on Copacabana beach. What have we most recently heard about Brazil in the news? Favelas being re-worked by the municipal government in Rio de Janeiro for the World Cup. Rio de Janeiro is Brazil’s face to the media, while cities such as Curitiba and Joinville carry the weight of Brazilians on their backs. I’ve seen the disdain on the faces of Brazilians who are from Rio de Janeiro when they nostalgically speak about their city before tourism consumed it. Or how some families reject the idea of Carnival and don’t care much for Brazilian music.

For the first month here, I found myself in fascinating, subtle denial – not denial that I wasn’t in Rio de Janeiro, but rather, I thought that I was being denied the “real” Brazil. A “real” Brazil that I had derived from my understandings of Brazil’s single story, one of Rio de Janeiro and the north. I struggled with the idea that I must be missing out on something. Where was the endless samba? Afro-Brazilians? The hot-humid weather? The massive inequality is not always colorful or loud. A lot of Brazilians don’t samba. The south of Brazil has a lot of European immigrants. And it does get cold down here.

We have been sold just a fringe of the world. Germany has lots of sausages. Canada has nice people. Australia is crawling with kangaroos. And Africa holds the starving. It is up to us, to you, to me, to our generation to not settle for a single story. To have higher standards, to serve the dignity of ourselves and our global counterparts. To choose to have conversations, to travel, to understand and see the world. To contribute to a greater understanding of one another’s souls rather than consuming one another’s labor under an umbrella of generalizations.

Cheers to a new year! One in which we have the courage and strength to communicate our personal story and listen to those of others.