The first time you visit a place, the spirit of adventure manifests itself in every encounter. Each new person you meet, each new taste and smell, each new sight and sound leaves an indelible impression that can be positive or negative and which always informs your relationship to the place. It’s that sense of wonder that ensnares you, the newness of everything, the exhilaration of expanding horizons and deepening understanding.
My first time in São Paulo, five years ago, was full of that wonder. I’d never been in a city as imposing, as energetic, as “real.” There was action everywhere, various planes of movement by various objects: people, airplanes, cars, helicopters, trains. Even the architecture seemed to move – the serpentine Copan Building waving like a flag, endless rows of skyscrapers sprouting with every turn like out of a pop-up book. Add to the mix hours-long conversations with new friends, nightlife that ends at 11am, and the sound of a strange, sexy language entering my ears and, increasingly, coming out of my mouth.
At times, I feel like I’m losing that awe, that constant stimulation that I’d become accustomed to as a traveler. That I’m becoming jaded. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m working my first non-education-related job since leaving grad school (Lawd, how I’m missing those Summer, Christmas, and Spring breaks, and leaving work by 4pm!). It’s easy to succumb to wanderlust – eyeing fares to Paris and San Fran, making mental note that I still haven’t been to Barcelona or Cape Town – forever looking, yearningly, out of my existential windowsill. Yearning to have more moments of wonder and discovery. To experience that high, just one thousand more times.
The challenge now is to see my current environment with new eyes. The challenge now is finding wonder where I am.
Feeling uninspired these days? Want to travel, but can’t? Eat Pray Love just not looking all that relatable to your demographic? Then check these out on DVD: four of my favorite black expat films, each one detailing an experience that I can relate to one way or another, from running away to running towards. The pickins might be slim when it comes to celluloid reflections of my particular, culture-specific type of experience, but what’s available ain’t exactly something to sneeze at.
Passing Strange (2008) – This phenomenal rock/soul Broadway production traces the true-to-life path of composer/playwright Stew, who left a place in middle-class LA in the early 80s to find “the real” in Amsterdam and Berlin.
The Josephine Baker Story (1991) – Lynn Whitfield turned in an Emmy-worthy performance in this HBO Original biopic about the first black (or any color, really) international superstar. An incredibly underrated film.
Mahogany (1975) – Proto-Beyonce Diana Ross stars as an aspiring fashion designer from South Side Chicago who makes it big first as a model in Rome, then as a designer, while being torn between her career and her love for fly politician Billy Dee Williams.
The Nephew (1998) – Hill Harper plays a mixed-race American kid who goes to Ireland in search of his relatives after his mother dies. As the Lone Negro, he’s at once cool and threatening. How many of us can relate to that?
Sorry, I couldn’t find a trailer, folks.
Netflix anyone? Any other suggestions (NOT Karate Kid neither!)?
Through all the color and pageantry of seven samba schools competing for the top prize on the first night of São Paulo’s Sambadrome competition, one dark and controversial issue reared its head in the most beautiful and touching ways. The Acadêmicos do Tucuruvi samba school (less a school in the traditional sense than a Carnival parade organization) chose to honor migrants from Brazil’s Northeast as their theme for this year’s competition: São Paulo, Capital of the Northeast. They received threatening emails because of that choice.
See, the Brazilian Northeast is basically the cultural and historical equivalent of the American South – a former slave-holding society with some of the worst quality-of-life indicators, including famine, poverty, illiteracy, malnutrition, and teenage pregnancy. Because of these ills, millions of nordestinos (Northeasterners), particularly from the drought-stricken zones of the interior, migrate first to cities like Salvador, Recife, Fortaleza, and Natal before trekking thousands of miles to the industrial centers of the Southeast, most notably, São Paulo. Here, they work as maids and construction workers, nannies and security guards. They are almost invariably mixed with African and indigenous blood, and those who come from the worst situations are typically shorter because of nutritional deficiencies during their childhoods.
Many nordestinos inhabit the slums on the outskirts of town, spending two hours, one-way, on public transportation to get to their minimum wage jobs. They are often referred to as “lazy,” “stupid,” and “slow,” and are often associated with an increase in crime. “Nordestinos” were to blame, according to many conservative paulistanos, for Dilma succeeding Lula (incidentally, a nordestino) as president of Brazil, evidenced most dangerously by a pea-brained law student who Tweeted that people should just “kill a nordestino.” “They live in packs. They’re dirty. They play loud music all the time and whenever there’s two of them, there’s a party.” Hm, that last one sounds like the stereotype of all Brazilians to me.
And it’s this hypocrisy that most annoys me about the whole nordestino issue, as if the immigrant ancestors of 80% of São Paulo’s population came to the city because they enjoy smog. They came here – from Italy, Portugal, Germany, Spain, Japan, Syria, Lebanon – to escape famine and poverty in their own countries, helping to swell the city proper’s population from 300,000 to 11 million in a century, and now want to deny that same opportunity to others. They seem to forget the fact that even the original Portuguese settlers were the second sons, criminals, miscreants, outcasts, and other assorted ne’er-do-wells from the old country. Let’s not get it twisted.
Acadêmicos do Tucuruvi courageously honored a demographic that suffers from harsh generalizations and broad discrimination on top of the physical and mental damage done by poverty. They honored it with floats depicting folkloric Brazilian art and gastronomy (all of which stems from the Northeast) and the city’s main cathedral as seen through the eyes of a recently-arrived migrant. They honored it with costumes depicting weary parents trekking thousands of miles to provide better lives for their children, folkloric festivals that are popular throughout the country, and the various musical rhythms Brazil is known for. They honored it in the touching lyrics of their samba:
Sou cabra da peste
Vim lá do Nordeste
São Paulo é minha capital
Levando alegria, eu vou por ai
Eu sou valente! Sou Tucuruvi!
I’m a bold, brash mofo
Come from the Northeast
São Paulo is my capital
Bringing happiness, I’m headed there
I’m valiant! I’m Tucuruvi!
Hearing the song over and over again as beautiful, multi-hued paraders reveled in a culture that grew over the centuries from regional to national, watching clay-covered migrants playfully sputtering through the Sambadrome in a rickety old bus with suitcases on top, I felt a wave of recognition and understanding wash over me. As a black man, a Southerner, an immigrant, an expat, an American, I know what it’s like to be stereotyped and unappreciated, even as my culture is being appropriated by the very people who revile me. I choked up for a minute and, standing in the middle of all the frenzy and glee taking place in the Brazilian city with the largest population of nordestinos, the city I love, I felt a couple of tears. The very last line of the samba: “Reconheço meu valor.”
Burl Ives got it wrong; the most wonderful time of the year, in much of the world, is upon us – Carnival. For four, five, six, even seven days leading up to Ash Wednesday, revelers in the Catholic world drop inhibitions and taboos in a frenzied, culturally-mixed-and-matched attempt to “get it all in” before having to give it all up for the forty days until Easter, and not just in Rio. The craziness starts this weekend in places as disparate as India, the Canary Islands, and Sydney. Here’s a brief video tour of just a few of the celebrations in the Western Hemisphere:
New Orleans – Yes folks, Mardi Gras is Carnival, and every year since Hurricane Katrina leveled the city, New Orleans has been slowly but showly rebuilding America’s biggest fête. King Rex, the Mardi Gras Indians, and the Zulus lead the other krewes in celebration.
Santo Domingo – With less flash and glitter than at some of the world’s other Carnival parties, this street bash is no less wild. Afro-Dominican rhythms beaten on drums or blasted over gigantic speakers keep the backsides bouncing with Caribbean tradition and swagger.
Barranquilla – Costumed bands of merrymakers engaging in Colombia’s traditional dances – the cumbia, gaita, puya, and mapalé – comprise the city’s biggest claim to fame besides being Shakira’s hometown. There’s also lots of corn starch throwing and a bit of coonery that has always set uneasily with me.
Trinidad – Despite strong British influence, Trinidad just couldn’t shake off all the French and Spanish elements from its history, no matter how centrifugal the ‘wine.’ The traditional cast of costumed characters, influenced by cultures from the Congo to the Caribbean, has been usurped these days by folks palancin’ down the street in feathers.
São Paulo – No, it ain’t Rio de Janeiro, but the Sambadrome competition in South America’s largest city is big enough, bad enough, and crazy enough to warrant two nights of back-to-back TV coverage, the amount of time Rio gets. Tune in here tonight from 9PM ET and tomorrow to see the big paulistano samba schools battle it out. Rio runs the show on Sunday and Monday.