Thoughts on the Brazil Protests, from an Ex-Gringo Paulista

Demonstrators Stage Largest Street Protests In Two Decades

      This ain’t no Carnival. People pissed! Image source: AP

Right now, Brazil convulses with the heady combination of indignation and optimism that characterizes popular movements. The People – that vast and oft-evoked abstraction made up of millions of students and truck drivers and dental hygienists and single mothers and retirees and first graders – have gotten so fed up with the economic and political oppression that has always plagued Brazil, Latin America as a whole, and, at many times in its history, the United States, that they’ve taken to the streets to voice their exasperation with the greed, corruption, official acts of violence, and woefully poor quality-of-life that have hampered the upward mobility of most Brazilians in the face of unprecedented “national prosperity” and vanity projects like the World Cup and the Olympics.

What that means, exactly, remains to be seen. Moneyed and political interests are too entrenched in the business of making money at all costs to really engage in the necessary paradigm shift even if they wanted to. And I’m just cynical enough to believe that nothing lasting is going to happen; after all, a columnist from Brazil’s largest daily reflected the general cluelessness of those in power: “From paradise, we have slipped…into limbo.”

Paradise for whom?

No, there will be no New Deal-style governmental investment in infrastructure, no nationwide jobs program, no major overhaul of the educational and health care systems. There’s too much unfettered greed infecting the country’s economical and political elite for that to ever happen. It’s a refrain in heavy rotation: “Brazil never moved away from the slave plantation.”

I have friends who were injured by police during last week’s protest in my beloved São Paulo. I have friends who live in the areas most heavily affected by teargas and rubber bullets in the center of the city. Some of the clashes between protesters and the police occurred on the street where I last lived not a full two years ago, where I last walked not a full two months ago, and where I spent several years becoming part of the city’s social fabric, another brown face popping in and out of lunch counters and convenience stores, hopping the bus to work during the week or home from the club on the weekend. That was my street and my neighborhood and my people and my city. It’s unnerving to know that I could just as easily have been shot with a rubber bullet outside my door or teargassed on my way home from work as any of my friends, neighbors, or coworkers.

It’s easy to change the channel when you have no direct connection to the events on the screen, but it’s something else when you are linked to the places and people being affected by strife. When the air clears, I’m still not sure what will have changed in terms of corruption, accountability, state-sanctioned violence, or quality-of-life. But I know that neither the powers that be, the media, nor Brazilians themselves will continue to blindly brush off indignities and injustices with a tudo bom (It’s all good) and an evocation of Brazil’s trademark deflectors: sun, sex, and soccer.

Maybe that refusal to accept indignities and injustices is the necessary spark. Hell, it only took 9 cents to finally piss enough people off. And that’s just my 2 cents.


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Parabéns to Carnival Winners Mocidade Alegre + Unidos da Tijuca!

Image: Nacho Doce/Reuters

The 2012 Carnival season in Brazil has ended with a couple of surprising samba school parade winners in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, both of which sported themes from the country’s culture-rich, rain-poor, poverty-stricken Northeast.

Yesterday, Mocidade Alegre took the title at São Paulo’s Sambadrome with a theme honoring prolific Bahian author Jorge Amado and the mystical Afro-Brazilian world evoked in his novel Tent of Miracles. Xangô, the Yoruban deity of fire, opens the presentation with power and glory:

Click here to see photos and video of Mocidade Alegre’s first-place show!

Meanwhile, Unidos da Tijuca won first place in Rio’s Sambadrome today with an homage to popular folk musician and forró king Luiz Gonzaga. The acrobatic rainbow slinky represents the soul of the accordion, Gonzaga’s signature instrument. Very cool:
Click here to see photos and video of Unidos da Tijuca’s win!

Man, I love Carnival!

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It’s Carnival Time

WATCH CARNIVAL IN BRAZIL LIVE! LINKS BELOW.

Yes, my good people, Carnival is this weekend in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo and Salvador and Venice and New Orleans and Barranquilla and Trinidad and Port-au-Prince and Panama City and Santo Domingo and the Canary Islands and anywhere else people go buck wild just before their 40 days of Lenten fasting.

Leading up to the event in Brazil each year, popular TV show Caldeirão do Huck has the queens of each samba school in Rio and São Paulo compete for the title of Carnival Muse (sash, cash and whatnot), one of the few times darker-skinned Brazilian women even appear on television. One of my favorites of all time: Luciana of Rio’s Mangueira samba school, seen here discussing her Carnival diet and the costume designed by her friend and “personal stylist” back in 2009.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Yj1JwARsl0]

Watch live streaming video of the Carnival parades in Brazil:
São Paulo (February 18-19, 9pm ET) (click Desfile Carnaval São Paulo)
Rio de Janeiro (February 20-21, 9pm ET)
Salvador (February 17-21, all day)

Have you been to Carnival?

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New Years Eve in Rio … and Around the World

Getting blessed in 2012

It’s 2012, folk! While many of you spent New Years Eve in the frigid climes of Europe or North America, I was getting my hot-and-sweaty on in Rio de Janeiro. ;-) True, it rained most of the weekend, and the transport situation from my centrally-located apartment to the beach was less than ideal – a 5km walk uphill (and down, both ways) – but I made it to Copacabana in time for the countdown, the fireworks action, and even a little oceanfront afterparty with friends from São Paulo. Here’s a little taste:

At the same time, two very fly sistas – Nicole is the New Black and Oneika the Traveller – rang in the New Year with friends and family in Europe: Nicole in bright-and-sparkly Copenhagen and Oneika in on-and-poppin’ Berlin. Take a look!


How’d you spend New Years Eve?

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Even in the Tropics


Last week, a 23-year-old gunman walked into a middle school in Rio de Janeiro and shot 12 students dead before killing himself. As a country where, despite a brutal history that included chattel slavery and the decimation of the indigenous population, high-profile violence has been relegated mostly to drug- and crime-related situations, Brazil is stunned that a US-style school shooting could occur here. I won’t say that I was stunned, but I never would have predicted it, at least not in Rio. I had a difficult time believing that the type of social alienation necessary to incite this type of violent outburst could occur in a tropical place.

When I lived in Colombia, a movie debuted called Satanás, which dealt with a real-life shooting spree that occurred in Bogotá in the 80s. Situated high in the Andes, with a year-round high temperature typically in the 60s and a population of eight million, Bogotá was the type of place where you could envision a rampage – people tended to be reserved, “cold” compared to the hot-blooded lowlanders from tierra caliente. People go about their own business and often don’t know their neighbors. It’s a place easy to get lost in, to be forgotten about, to go unnoticed until you snap. I told friends when the film premiered that a similar type of rampage would never happen in the cities of the Caribbean coast, where I’d lived the few years before. With much of life lived outdoors and with neighbors intensely interested in the lives of others, to the point of nosiness, there’s just too many damn people in your business: someone would have noticed, “that boy ain’t right” long before the boy picked up a gun. I felt like communities in hot climates or with minority populations (communities of color in the US, specifically) were too close-knit. In the black community, we tend to deal with pressure through religion or pathological self-medication/self-destruction, to varying degrees of success. Rarely does violence in these hot, teeming places manifest in such an explosive, semi-indiscriminate fashion, instead being released in countless, smaller, targeted acts. That’s why I would never have pegged Rio as the site of an execution-style school shooting, and certainly not as the site of the first one in Brazil. São Paulo, with its bustling, temperate indifference, certainly. But not Rio.

Seems, infelizmente, I was wrong.

Reconciling with Rio

The Oscar Niemeyer-designed Museum of Contemporary Art, with Sugar Loaf in the distance.

Three years ago, shortly after dusk on a crisp July evening, I left the gym and walked with a friend down a cavernous back-street in Copacabana, the gritty, dense, intense, world-famous beachfront neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro.  At that time, my Portuguese skills were nonexistent, and I conversed with my friend in an uneasy Portuñol that was more functional Spanish with a passable Brazilian accent. Being the intrepid, street-wise flâneur that I am, I dressed in nondescript shorts, a white t-shirt, basic black sneakers, and took along a Discman: a) to have some music to listen to in the gym, and b) specifically to ward off anyone interested in making even the least bit of profit by robbing me…who the hell would want a Discman in the 21st century?

Well, some ten-year-old kid shows up asking me for who the hell knows what and I told him, in Spanish, that I didn’t really have anything to give him (I didn’t). He then grabbed my arm. I flipped: “no me toques, hijueputa” I said and jerked my hand back. Then he started shouting in Portuguese, I shouted back in Spanish, and then he hit me in the foot with a rock. I swear, if I had had on a belt, that woulda been his ass, but my friend dragged me away and the kid ran off. It wasn’t until I got back to the apartment that I thought about what would have happened had the kid pulled a gun: you could have cast me in Airplane!.

Never, in all my years of travel, had I been accosted in the street by anybody. I mean, I’m a 6’2, 210-pound black man…I’m the one who makes people nervous.  In fact, it was the lack of control that was most unsettling aspect of what happened.  And it didn’t matter that I understood all the socio-economic history behind why this kid was running the streets, probably high on glue, looking for hand-outs.  In that moment, I was just a “rich” foreigner, nothing more.  I’ve not felt 100% secure in Rio ever since.

I’ve been back to the city several times; twice, I’ve rung in the New Year on Copacabana.  And there are myriad things to like about the place: the attractiveness of the people, the stunning landscape, beaches with actual waves, the history and the music.  Still, I’ve always seen Rio as Miami/LA to São Paulo’s New York: plastically attractive, with no real depth; a city full of shameless social-climbers, hooligans, and a large percentage of strivers you never meet in person because they’re working themselves to the bone while the first two groups crowd the beaches (no shade on Miami or LA, y’all).  The coolest Cariocas I’ve ever met have been ones living outside of Rio, and I’m hard-pressed to think of any person I know there who I can count as a true friend (the friend who was with me when Lil Zé tried to get at me actually spends most of the year in his hometown of Porto Alegre).

Downtown Rio de Janeiro

But the last couple of times I’ve visited the city, I’ve ventured out of chic and/or titillating Zona Sul into regions I hadn’t charted before: Downtown, full of neo-classical architecture from Brazil’s Belle Epoque that’s slowly-and-surely being restored; the hilly boho enclave of Santa Teresa, with its feijoada dives and political graffiti; futuristic Niteroi, the burgeoning suburb across the bay full of Niemeyer architecture and the vibe of Rio before the crack epidemic.  Hanging over the “Marvelous City” is an atmosphere of tense anticipation, a mixture of hope and anxiety about hosting the 2016 Olympics in a city notoriously besieged by bad management and corruption, class and racial conflict (don’t let ‘em tell you differently), and lawlessness (shooting down a police helicopter? Damn!).  There’s also the promise of an Olympic-sized renaissance, a reversal of the former capital’s fifty-year decline since losing that title to Brasília and a return to the world stage of one of Earth’s great urban playgrounds, anchored by a remarkable history as the hemisphere’s only imperial capital and an indefatigable culture of music and dance centuries in the making.

In spite of our shaky past and my status as a bona fide gringo paulista, I’m excited about witnessing Rio’s resurgence.  I hope, soon, that we’ll be completely reconciled and I can name her as one of my favorite cities; after all, Paris and I didn’t exactly get along at first, either.

Chillin' at the feet of Jesus, overlooking Ipanema.

From the AV Room: Samba No Pé

Y'all know what people REALLY come to Brazil to see.

Samba schools around Brazil are starting their practice sessions for next February’s Carnival shenanigans.  Still, during the off-season, many schools offer glimpses of skin and sequins for tourists and Sunday strollers.  Here’s (very rough) video of a tiny group from Rio’s Salgueiro Samba School, warming up the crowd with hips and syncopation on a dreary winter’s day in Copacabana.

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Vintage Travel Posters (VTP): Rio

This is the first of a new monthly series of eye candy at Fly Brother, imaginatively named VTP (short for Vintage Travel Posters). We’ll see how travel companies and bureaus have been enticing people off the couch since international leisure travel first became a bourgeois conceit. Our first destination: the marvelous city of Rio de Janeiro, where both terrestrial and corporal landscapes have been hot commodities since the 1920s.

Fly Brother welcomes your views. If this post hit the spot, please comment and/or click.

An Olympic Task for Rio

Sugarloaf Mountain, from my window seat - July 2007

I am stoked that Rio de Janeiro was named host city for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games by the IOC last week. Being the first time the games will be hosted in South America, the second in Latin America, and the third in the Southern Hemisphere is a huge cause for celebration in Brazil, Latin America, and developing nations worldwide. The physical setting could not be any more ludicrously breathtaking: undulating mountains dipping effortlessly into the sea underneath the outstretched embrace of Cristo Redentor. Besides that obvious talking point, the selection is a nod to both Brazil’s constant striving for modernity and its seemingly limitless potential. On those counts, I am exceedingly glad for my spiritual home, Brazil.

But I think my beloved Brazil might be in over her head. I was in Rio during the Pan-American Games held there in 2007 as an attempt to prove the city’s readiness for the larger event it has successfully pursued. The infrastructure still creaked, underpaid police stretched thin in an attempt to secure the Games and still provide protection to a city of eight million restless souls. Street crime is indeed rampant, and not even the unflappable Fly Brother, he of a thousand ethnicities, has escaped being accosted in Copacabana. With persistent social disparities, profound bureaucratic corruption, and an unfortunate propensity (like most Latin American nations) to go about things half-assed, my fear is that Rio won’t be able to overcome enough of these hurdles in time to avoid worldwide embarrassment. I sincerely hope this doesn’t happen, but this reality posits not-so-slight trepidation among many people who love the people and culture and cosmic entity that is Brazil, myself included. All we can do is root for the Marvelous City in her race to Olympic glory and hope that some of her esoteric magic manifests in the physical forms of infrastructure and logistics by 2016.

Check out this promotional video made to sell the city for the Pan in 2007. You’ll be trying to book tickets next week. It’s one of my favorites.

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