Final Reflection

I still cannot believe that my time in Rio de Janeiro has come to an end.

I’ve learned so much not just about Portuguese, but also how to learn a language. I’ve always approached language learning very academically, doing conjugation charts over and over again and learning the rules for every written sentence structure and way of speaking. In Brazil, I was more so thrust into an environment and forced to speak. This brought about a lot of failure—a lot more than I thought necessary in the beginning. But through my time, I am now confident in my abilities to not just fail, but to fail quickly and fail forward. Now whenever I make a mistake, I remember it, learn from it, grow, and move on to the next one. This helped me reach my language acquisition goals. Everyone I talked to in Brazil was extremely surprised at how well I spoke Portuguese (especially as someone from the United States!)

A piece of my heart will always be in Brazil, and I will definitely be spreading the wonderful Brazilian love I received back here in the States. I’ve already told my friends to call me “Samuca” instead of Samuel, and that we’re no longer throwing parties, but “festas.” I’m sure I will be listening to Brazilian funk for the rest of my life. I have already recommended the SLA grant to some of my friends, and the first thing I told them to do was to just go for it and make sure to find a good program. I did not realize how wonderful the Rio & Learn program would be. I could not have imagined my time being as great in Brazil with any other program.

I recently just gotten back on campus and have already met a first-year student who is from northeast Brazil (Bahia). I will continue to interact with native Brazilian Portuguese speakers in order to keep up with my language skills. My time and language acquisition in Brazil will help me in two major ways. The first is with singing. Learning Portuguese has enabled me to access different parts of my voice, using sounds that I didn’t even know I could make. This strengthens my voice as an actor and opera singer by giving me more control over my voice, and consequently more control over the range of emotions I am able to display. This will be especially important as I begin to apply to MFA acting programs in the upcoming months. Secondly, I am taking a Fundamental of Linguistic Anthropology course this semester, and will use what I learned in Brazil to help analyze and form arguments both in and outside the course.

Brazil and the United States

I interviewed three people—Theresa (my older-aged host mother), Igor (a friend in his 20s), and Thiago (a middle-aged Uber driver)—about their attitudes towards the United States.

Theresa explained to me that her attitude towards the United States was a very positive one. She felt that the infrastructure of the nation was much more foundationally sturdy compared to Brazil. She had traveled to many big cities in the United States (such as Vegas, Orlando, and New York City), and considered them some of the most beautiful places in the world. She told me that as a younger woman, her view of the United States was most heavily influenced by classic cinema from Hollywood. Her favorite was Gone With the Wind. This larger-than-life representation of the United States on the big screen shaped her perception of an “average life” in the US.

This was especially interesting to me because of my FTT education. Sean Redmond, a celebrity culture theorist, argues that “Representations are never neutral: they carry the discourses, concerns, inequalities and dreams of the contemporary age.” It was interesting to see how the initial cinematic representations of the United States shown to Theresa influence even her present worldview as if they were the natural condition of the modern world.

Igor had a different set of beliefs. He was incredibly cynical of the United States government, and was highly critical of our current president. He believes Brazil is a nation with just as much potential as the United States, though it will never be actualized because Brazilian citizens cannot help but see everything as better in the US. He also did not like how English was emphasized more as a second-language. Brazil is a country surrounded entirely by primarily Spanish-speaking countries, he told me, so the fact that English is rendered as a language more important than Spanish is simply an example of United States’ imperialism. Igor’s developed views of the United States, he says, come from a good college education which taught him to think on his own. He also hated how people referred to the United States as “America.” “We are all Americans!” he would exclaim. “America is a continent!”

Thiago loved Trump. Though he does not fully agree with everything Trump has said or done, everything potentially wrong about Trump’s past actions are virtually justified in his eyes because of how well the United States continue to operate. While discussing some of the racist things Trump has said in decades past, I noted that this is simply just an example of the present, modern-day racism that exists in the US. “Wait, the United States is racist?” is what Thiago immediately asked me in Portuguese. From there, I began to see more and more of how infallible he thought the US was. His views come mostly from what he sees on the news, and the comparisons he draws from the results and processes of the US government compared to the Brazilian government.

Challenging Words

I interviewed two people—Geovana and Igor (two white-passing friends of mine in their 20s) and Alice and Albert (two more-or-less white passing Uber drivers)—about the words “viado” and “preto.”

The word “viado” is very similar to the “f” word in English that acts as a slur towards queer people. Everyone to whom I presented the word knew exactly how the word could be used to offend. Igor says that he although he does not use the word himself (finding it incredibly offensive and inappropriate), he hears the word used a lot at bars as a slur if someone is trying to either de-masculinize another man or if they are trying to outright offend a gay person. Geovana said that the word viado, though a very offensive slur, can only be appropriately used in conversation by queer individuals. She explained to me that she used the word herself as a queer woman. Straight individuals using the word would be an automatic “no-no.” Alice said that the word should never be used and gave a similar response as Igor, while Albert was much more straightforward in saying the word. He said that he although doesn’t use it much, he doesn’t think it is as bad a word as everyone makes it out to be, as the term can also be used as a highly informal greeting amongst friends.

The word “preto” is a way to describe a Black person in Brazil. Geovana explained that the word is highly offensive and should never be used to describe a person. The word literally means “black” in Portuguese, but she explains that unlike in other languages (such as, English), the adjective black should only be used to describe objects like chairs, the sky, or a TV—never a person. Igor explained the same thing to me. He compared it to the n-word in English. When I asked Alice about the word “preto”, she began listing people she knew who were Black, throwing the term around as she pleased. Obviously, using the word was not a problem for her. When I asked her if the term was appropriate to use, she only explained that within the Brazilian Black community, there exists two types of people: “mulatto” and “preto.” Considering I had only ever before heard the term “moreno” used to described Black people of fairer skin, I instantly assumed “mulatto” was also not a word I should be caught saying to describe people. Albert simply described the word as a way to describe Black people. He also gave no hint to me that the word might be offensive.

Feijoada for Life

I told my Brazilian-native friend, Igor, about my complete obsession with feijoada, so we went to visit a local restaurant to get two good servings of the dish. At the restaurant, I engaged both Igor and the waitress, Carol, about the food, its ingredients, its history, and its preparation. Despite its incredibly good taste, Carol told me that it’s actually a pretty easy meal to make. Igor then explained that the dish originated in Brazil from slavery, as enslaved individuals mixed together the leftover scraps from unused ingredients to create meals for themselves. Since then, the dish has stood the test of time, with some slight variations here and there. Throughout Brazil, feijoada is considered food for the soul that’s good for all, rendering it a dish that transcends even economic divides, cultures, and racial lines. It is consumed by virtually all Brazilian identities. It exemplifies to me how food acts as a common thread that can bring people together. This immediately reminded me of “soul food” in the United States, which has a very similar history and function with the African-American community. Carol also told me that Brazilian feijoada is most commonly cooked with black beans. Talking about the ingredients made me admittedly sad, because I didn’t know if I’d be able to cook and eat this meal myself with the limited items I would find once I return to the states. After some talking, Carol and Igor came up with the cool idea of filming a tutorial on how to make feijoada so that I would only be one click away from Brazilian food and culture. Carol got one of the cooks to come out from the back, and he quickly recited the every quick and easy recipe to me. Following this, Igor created a video for me—out of the kindness of his very heart—explaining with great detail how to successfully prepare feijoada from Rio de Janeiro, so that my connection to Brazil will forever be just one click away.

Humanity: The Language That Connects Us All

Earlier today, I went to visit the Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloaf Mountain) to watch the beautiful sunset. While there, a Hispanic family politely approached me to ask in their language if I could take a picture of them. When I responded in Portuguese, they automatically assumed I was Brazilian. As soon as I told them that I’m actually from the US, the kids immediately began speaking in English, as I continued to speak in Portuguese, and the parents in Spanish. This has actually been one of the peaks so far of my Latin American experience.

Every language has its own unique culture, history, and select group of native speakers: differences which are all very important and should never go unnoticed; however, from my time speaking with this Hispanic family, I have realized that every language is tied by a common thread: the desire to communicate and connect with others.

Interestingly, this ties right back to the theatre education I have been receiving at Notre Dame. More than once, I have revisited one of my favorite quote from Peter Brooks’ book The Empty Space: “The word does not start as a word—it is an end product which begins as an impulse, stimulated by attitude and behavior which dictate the need for expression.” Sometimes, it’s just not about the words. Revisiting this concept has helped me get through tough conversations in which I’m not entirely sure of the right verb, tense, or grammatical mood to use. Or even in situations when I didn’t speak a language being spoken to me at all. I hardly know any Spanish, yet I was still able to understand every expression that Hispanic family was trying to convey. I believe that this process described by Brooks is the underlying mechanism that takes place in every conversation. It begins inside the person speaking and is then repeated inside the person(s) replying. Though each speaker may only be aware of the words they are using, each word expressed is in fact only “a small visible portion of a gigantic unseen formation.”

I have been improving very well in my Portuguese, and am extremely happy to finally be getting a much firmer grasp on complex grammar topics. I still don’t speak Portuguese perfectly, though, by any stretch of the imagination. I make many mistakes, including some which have been both laughable and even inappropriate. (I would share the story here, but I’ll spare you the second-hand embarrassment. Yeah, it was that bad.) What has gotten me through these experiences is the need to express myself in the language, rather than a desire to speak Portuguese perfectly. My Portuguese will perfect itself in due time.

Pão de Açúcar

Feijoada Has My Heart

Feijoada is a stew of beef, pork, and beans that is typically served with rice and serves as a national dish of Brazil. I had my first serving last Friday in Santa Teresa, a beautiful neighborhood located in the center of Rio de Janeiro. Typically, I am always eager to practice the Portuguese I have been learning each day in class; speaking Portuguese is a lot harder, however, when your mouth is filled with Brazilian cuisine.

Though I might not have gotten a ton of practice speaking Portuguese during the meal, the activities directly following provided me numerous additional chances. While exploring Rio’s historical center and beholding its magnificent beauty, I was able to discuss with my professor, Igor, numerous phrases and colloquialisms used by “Cariocas” (Rio natives).

  1. I learned that the way to say “my brother” is joinng the words meu (my) + irmão (brother) to get mermão.
  2. The word bolado means to be either surprised by something, or extremely upset.
  3. The term dar um bolo is used when someone makes plans do something with someone only to bail in the end. Synonymous to the informal term “flaky” in English.
  4. Uma caô is the slang word for uma mentira (“a lie” in English). If someone is known for telling a bunch of these, they are referred to as a caozerio.
  5. The expression Deus me livre is used in situations where a person must ask God’s protection that the situation never happens again. Similar to the phrase “God forbid” in English.

Up until now, I’ve had varying levels of anxiety with speaking Portuguese. Fortunately, Brazilians are very kind and have appreciated all my efforts. Hearing “nossa, você fala muito bem” from Cariocas while internally struggling to decide whether I should use a subjunctive conjugation or a conditional tense has helped boost my confidence immensely. The Cariocas have taken me in, taking pride in the fact that I am eager to learn their language and culture. From what I have observed, heard, and read so far, a large part of the Brazilian identity centers around a detachment and re-imagination of traditional Portuguese (i.e., originating fro Portugal), with heavy influences coming from Indigenous and Afro-Diasporic communities, all to create something distinctly Brazilian.

All in all, I initially came here with the intentions of solidifying Portuguese into my brain; however, it’s the culture, rather, that is being engraved into my heart!

Brain Says No. Gut Says Yes.

My travels to Brazil went very smoothly, though I was immediately confronted with unexpected challenges.

I was hit with a near-crippling home-sickness as I realized that everyone I know and love are more than five-thousand miles away. Loneliness also struck me hard, as my slow-paced Portuguese made it difficult to get any point across. These two things alone made my first week incredibly difficult, which was the exact opposite of what I expected. I had planned for my first time outside the US alone for this length of time to be filled with automatic excitement and adventure; yet, for the first couple of days, I was solely inclined to stay to myself, call home extremely often, and not engage with locals unless I absolutely needed to.

This coping mechanism, however, sent my already negative feelings into an even larger downward spiral. I realized I had to something. It was only the beginning, and if things continued to go this way, I’d have a looong 7-weeks ahead of me. So, in an effort to fix what had been going rather poorly, I began to do exactly everything my gut reactions prompted me not to. For me, it was similar to one big “opposite day.” You want to order food from UberEats because it’s simpler? Go to the restaurant down the street and try a dish you’ve never had before. You wish to call your mother at home for the third time today? Put the phone down and go hike a mountain with your classmates and Portuguese professor. Oh, you want to go home and stay in for the rest of the day because running into someone and having to talk to them in Portuguese will force you to confront your fear of failure? Go find a guy at Copacabana beach and start up a conversation.

Me, my classmates, and my professor at the top of one of the Dois Irmãos mountains.
Me and the guy ended up having a small meal together. He was very kind.

Don’t get me wrong, doing all of this was absolutely TERRIFYING and it infinitely compounded my stress in the moments leading up to doing them. But as I’ve learned in my acting methodology courses at Notre Dame: courage isn’t the ability to fearlessly jump off a cliff; it’s the ability to look off the cliff’s edge, be scared out of your mind until you want to pee your pants, and then jump anyways. To my surprise, the results were incredibly fruitful, and much more than I thought they could ever be. Instead of UberEats, I ended up eating authentic Brazilian cochinas at a local restaurant. They were absolutely to die for. My mini-meal with João taught me a host of new words and let me know that with low stress and a calm spirit, I speak Portuguese better than I thought I did. And it would be nearly impossible to describe in any language the beauty of the Dois Irmãos hike. I feel that any combination of words I could try to create to fully express its wonder would only undersell the experience of its true magnitude. While navigating through the thorny passage, I got to witness Rio de Janeiro from a bird’s eye perspective.

This fun will only continue. I made a deal with my professors (in the Portuguese language, of course) that in the next couple of weeks, I would 1) go surfing in the Atlantic Ocean and 2) go hang-gliding through the Asa Delta hundreds of feet in the air. I don’t prefer to swim and heights absolutely terrify me. But hey, that’s just my gut talking.

Communicating with local Brazilians is, at times, extremely difficult, and I also still miss my mother very dearly. Without a doubt, though, being here has gotten a whole lot better than when I first arrived, and it will only get better from here.