Israel, Stefanie

Name: Stefanie Israel
Location of Study: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Program of Study: Casa do Caminho
Sponsor(s): Bob Berner


A brief personal bio:

I am a proud native of Oregon, though in recent years I have lived in Mexico, Brazil, and Philadelphia, before moving to my new home of South Bend. I received my M.T.S. in Biblical Studies from Palmer Theological Seminary in 2011 and my B.A. from Linfield College in 2006 with majors in sociology and religious studies and minors in Spanish and Latin American studies. After college, I spent a year-and-a-half working as a social educator at a faith-based community development center in a large slum in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, before returning to study in the U.S.

I have just finished my first year as a PhD student in the Sociology Department at Notre Dame. My research interests include globalization, world systems analysis, social movements, and religion. I am especially interested in the intersection of these areas in Latin American contexts.

Why this summer language abroad opportunity is important to me:

My purpose in spending a summer of intensive language learning in Brazil is to refresh and improve my Portuguese to the point that I am capable of carrying out future sociological research in Brazil. Brazil is under-studied compared to other Latin American countries, likely because fewer sociologists are capable of conducting research in a Portuguese-speaking country rather than in a Spanish-speaking one. However, Brazil is becoming a major player in the world economy and provides many prospects for study in my areas of interest (globalization, social movements, religion, and world-systems analysis).

My Portuguese will get me by at the moment, but if I wish to conduct research without the language hindering me in any way, I need more immersion experiences like this one to help me speak more like a Brazilian and be able to understand people regardless of how fast they are talking.

What I hope to achieve as a result of this summer study abroad experience:

As it has been almost three years since I left Brazil, my Portuguese has gotten worse due to lack of practice, and has gone back to being more like “Portunhol” (Portuguese mixed with Spanish). I am sorely in need of a “refresher” and I believe that an immersion experience like this one is the best way to get back up to speed and then build from there. It is my hope that the intensive advanced Portuguese classes will polish off my grammar, while the immersion experience will increase my speaking and comprehension ability as well as cultural understanding. In short, I hope that by the end of the summer, my Portuguese will be better than it was when I lived in Brazil before.

My specific learning goals for language and intercultural learning this summer:

  1. By the end of the summer, I will be able to conduct interviews in Portuguese without having to ask respondents to repeat themselves.
  2. By the end of the summer, I will be able to speak using proper grammar without hesitation or needing to go back and correct myself.
  3. By the end of the summer, I will be able to engage in meaningful dialogue with native speakers on political and social issues pertaining to Brazil.

My plan for maximizing my international language learning experience:

I believe that most of my learning will take place outside of the classroom. Due to my future research interests, I have decided to live in a “pacified” slum throughout the duration of the program. One of the first things I will do after arriving is to take a “favela tour” offered by the local residents association. I plan to spend most of my free time getting to know my host and my neighbors, which will give me lots of Portuguese practice in addition to providing me with valuable cultural insights. I also plan to attend a local church while there, which will allow me to connect with more people in addition to being a cultural experience in and of itself. Through my host, the residents association, the language school, and other connections, I will have a plethora of community service opportunities to choose from. I hope to concentrate the majority of my volunteer service in the community where I will be living.

Reflective Journal Entry 1: 

Arrival impressions

Today marks one week since arriving in Rio. I have experienced a lot during this time. The mix of living in a pacified slum while taking language classes in Ipanema (upper-class part of Rio) has put me into contact with a wide variety of Brazilians.

One thing I have discovered here in the slum is that some rent and some own. I have already heard several stories of women and their families who are struggling due to increasing rent. Rent is going up as pacification has made the slum very safe – and the real estate itself is very desirable, being only a ten minute walk down the stairway to Leme beach, at the end of Copacabana. I can only imagine that this is and is going to be a widespread side effect of pacification, with rising property values benefiting those who own but displacing those who rent. Where do they go when they can no longer afford the rent?

I have also had the opportunity to talk with several upper-class Brazilians regarding their views on pacification. One young man who grew up in Leme, just down the hill from the slum where I am living, was very critical of the Brazilian government’s involvement in pacification. He said they are only concerned about appearance – so they only are dealing with the slums that will be visual during the World Cup and Olympics. He also said the Brazilian government does not pay for the UPP (Pacifying Police Units), but rather three companies do (Eike Batista, the richest man in Brazil, Coca Cola, and one company I did not recognize). He was in the process of making a documentary on a related topic. He was especially concerned with what will happen in the favelas (slums) after the Olympics are over.

One interesting thing I have noticed is that even when upper-class Brazilians are politically-minded like this young man, they still seem to have a very separate existence and see themselves differently than the favelados (slum residents), who are generally seen as uneducated. There are clear status differences and even cultural differences among Brazilians.

Reflective Journal Entry 2:

Task 5: Local food

Today I tried bobó de camarão for the first time at a bar here in the slum that has won several prizes for its dishes and has even been featured in the New York Times. I had previously met the owner, who had asked me when I would be back to try his award-winning food. I came back as promised and asked what he recommended. Bobó de camarão was one of the first things he listed as a specialty, so I decided to try that.

When the food came, I asked him more about how it is made, what the ingredients are, and if it is native to Rio or from another part of Brazil. Other than shrimp (camarão) it is made primarily out of mandioca (yucca), which is creamed to serve as the base for the sauce. It also contains garlic and other flavoring. It was served in a dish along with a separate plate of rice and another of salad (lettuce, tomato, carrot, onion, and xuxu – a relatively flavorless green vegetable). The dish is more popular in Bahia, in the Northeast of Brazil, but Davi said many in Rio like it, and his is the best. The ingredients are abundant locally – shrimp and mandioca – and thus very fresh. Davi told me that before he opened his restaurant two years ago, he was a professional fisherman – so he is qualified to judge good shrimp!

The dish was by far the best I have had since arriving, and all for only $9 including beverage and tip.

Reflective Journal Entry 3:

Task 2: Three interviews on a current social issue

I decided to interview three people regarding their views of favela (slum) pacification.

Santa Marta tour guide (male, approx. 40 years old), working class from suburbs (suburbs in Rio means poorer area): He had mixed views regarding pacification. He noted many positive things it had brought for Santa Marta: official ownership of homes, increased value of houses, better water supply, legal electricity, better trash service, no more drug-related violence, public spaces like sports court at top of hill, community activities like dance lessons, jiu-jistu for kids, and so on. At the same time, he noted that residents had mixed feelings about the influx of tourism into their community, especially pertaining to things like having their pictures taken. He said that those who were previously involved in trafficking were either killed, relocated to another community further out of the city to continue drug trafficking, or, in the case of the majority, “mudaram de vida,” that is, they took up a new profession/lifestyle change, especially if they had families. He noted that it was somewhat problematic that the pacification of slums in key tourist zones is pushing drug trafficking to other locations around the city and increasing the violence in those areas, like in Baixada Fluminense.

Teacher at NGO in pacified slum (female, 30, upper-middle class): She noted that pacification programs are making some improvements where they are employed, such as the end of armed drug-trafficking. However, she noted that the favelas being pacified were located in areas that would be central to the World Cup and Olympics, and the government often does things for the sake of appearance. She was also doubtful regarding the effectiveness of the UPP to actively enforce things like unarmed drug trafficking, whether it was due to being underpaid and therefore not worth their effort to go after something that was not really creating a problem, or due to making a cut themselves.

Independent filmmaker (male, upper class, early-to-mid 20s): He had very skeptical views regarding the government’s motives behind the pacification efforts – that it was merely a program to improve the appearance of areas that would be visible during the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, that is, favelas in the Zona Sul (South Zone) of the city, as well as those along major highways and near other points of interest, such as the soccer stadium. In his view, the government was not really concerned with the residents of the favelas, but with putting up a good appearance for the sake of the Olympics.

Reflective Journal Entry 4:

Task 4: Members of minority community and treatment by majority population

I chose to talk with two slum residents, or “favelados” (the sometimes derogatory term for someone from a slum), regarding their minority status and how they are treated by majority members of society. Both concurred that there is generally a stereotype that someone from the favela is uneducated – both in terms of their intelligence and their manners. Incidentally, one of these individuals was a high school graduate and the other had a college degree. One mentioned that the UPPs (Pacifying Police Units) often have this stereotype of favela residents, and told a story of how her teenage son and his friends had been stopped and strip-searched and called names by the police. However, she also mentioned that she thought some of the police were learning to respect residents as they were actually getting to know them through being on patrol in the slum. Both individuals I discussed this with noted the differences between being from the “favela” and from the “asfalto” (the asphalt, or pavement, i.e. parts of the city with adequate roads and services; anyone who is not from the favela). Those from the asfalto have mail delivered to their homes, they have trash collection service, etc. One also mentioned that taxi drivers would often refuse to drive up the hill into the favela because the preconceito (prejudice) is so strong. They generally concurred that people who didn’t know them personally would make assumptions about them and their level of intelligence if they knew where they were from.

Reflective Journal Entry 5:

One of my goals in coming here was to learn to speak more like a Brazilian. Now that my group language classes have ended, I have been getting specialized instruction through private lessons – which is absolutely fantastic as they are catered exactly to what I need. We used the first couple of weeks of private lessons to resolve any uncertainties I had regarding grammar, but now we are working on what I really need – speaking with the proper intonation in my voice. I told my instructor that I wanted to work on getting rid of my accent, and she informed me that I don’t have much of an accent, but rather, as an American, I tend to speak rather monotone, and if I speak the same way in Portuguese, it either sounds like I am mumbling or not Brazilian. She said if you think of it in terms of an electrocardiogram, English is spoken as a nearly straight line, Spanish has some ups and downs, but Portuguese is like a rollercoaster. Americans are often shy to speak with such intonation because they feel like they are being impolite or overly dramatic. This is especially a problem for someone soft-spoken like myself! If I want to sound like a Brazilian, I need to speak with the same kind of vocal influction, which feels like attitude and sass to me. I know what to do, I just need to lose my “vergonha” about doing it. I’m going to practice reading outloud to myself in Portuguese using proper intonation so that I can get comfortable with it when I am speaking with others.

Reflective Journal Entry 6:

Brazilian slang / expressions

Most of my new vocabulary that I have gained while being here consists of slang or expressions. Below are several of the new phrases I have picked up, either through conversations here in the favela or through my Portuguese course/private lessons. Not included in this list is profanity, which I have picked up simply by hearing all of the time in the favela.

Só p’ra inglês ver – lit. only for the English to see – something that is done just for the sake of appearance, often used in reference to something the Brazilian government does for the sake of international appearance that does not really do much good, but just looks good, like Brazil trying to look modern and green in preparation for World Cup and Olympics

Dar bolo – to stand someone up, make commitment and not show

Levar/ganhar bolo – to be stood up

Rato/a – sharp, someone who picks things up quickly

Estar ficando craque – to become really good at something (lit. to become an ace)

Ser uma mala sem alça – lit. to be a suitcase without a handle, to be difficult to deal with

Postcard(s) from Abroad:

Reflection on my language learning and intercultural gains:

For the most part, I either met the goals I set for myself or at least improved significantly in those areas. I started conducting interviews during my second month in Rio. For the most part, I did not have to ask respondents to repeat themselves unless they were using some slang or expression with which I was not familiar. However, I was able to note those expressions and then take them to my Portuguese instructor during my private lessons to make sure I correctly understood their meanings. My private lessons were also incredibly helpful for improving my grammar, as my instructor would stop and correct me every time I made a mistake, and after making the same mistake and being corrected enough times, I would begin to self-correct. I still make some mistakes, but the most common ones have been ironed out of me. I also used my private lessons to address cultural, political, and social questions, or anything about which I was confused. However, the culture I encountered through living in a pacified slum was very different than that of the classroom. Both my interviews and informal conversations with residents helped me to understand what it is like to be a “favelado” and how the community is being impacted by all of the recent changes.

Reflection on my summer language abroad experience overall:

My experience was unique in that it brought me into contact with people from across the social spectrum, from the extremely wealthy who had their own drivers and were not allowed to ride the metro due to company rules (and the risk of kidnapping), to young and radical upper-middle class hipsters, to the favela residents who were my neighbors. Sometimes I would interact with all of these groups in the same day. It became very clear to me that there is not one Brazilian culture, or even one carioca culture, but many, and each social group has its distinct ideas about the other. I am very thankful for my decision to live in a favela, because otherwise I would have only experienced a small slice of Brazilian culture. I would only have heard the perspective of those who are from the “asfalto” (the asphalt, i.e. paved roads) and their ideas about those who are from the “morro” (the hill, i.e. favela). I think it can be easier to see social segregation when it is in a society other than our own. I would highly recommend living with a marginalized population to anyone who does a language study program abroad.

How I plan to use my language and intercultural competences in the future:

My SLA grant experience brought my Portuguese up to the level that I need to do ethnographic and interview research in Brazil. Living in Rio throughout the program helped me to adjust to the regional culture, vocabulary, and accent, in addition to allowing me to visit various parts of the city including several pacified slums. All of this has greatly prepared me for the possibility of conducting dissertation research there in the future. I made several friends there this summer who have offered to Skype with me whenever I want so that I can keep up my Portuguese. I will also continue regularly reading news sources in Portuguese as well as academic articles and books pertaining to my research interests.