Wanted: Drumbeat (Or Multiple Ones) / Motorcycle Diaries: Brazil

Most people may not know that much of brasil is undeveloped. Naked. Barely grazed by man hands. From the plane, the western portion seems to support the claim that we forgot this one last frontier. See there, we didn't blow those trees over and there lacks a road for access. Where are the all-knowing satellites? -- even they can't find the indigenous in their amazon. It's too difficult. Only the canopies.

They tell me it's the descendants of slaves that have blanketed the junior mountains with their favelas. Favela. The word for a remarkably resilient shrub found on these hills -- much like the people will not cease reproduction. Here is where the darker Brasileros live (there is a cast system, you know). Winding up incredible heights so obvious yet invisible to those within city limits. Favela dwellers are marked by color, class, and a single address with which to go by. Try to apply for a job and the charade is over. Even the folks in the projects have mailboxes, numbers, but not more dignity. I never felt safer, except in the favelas. Mare. Vigario geral. Ciudad de deus. Quemados.

By skin let me blend. It's a good thing too because my portuguese only replied obrigada (thank you) to every audible comment. Rice and beans became my friends. Sistas' kitchens spilled out onto narrow sidewalks that sat beneath long tables of welcome. Buffets nurtured and spoke to us with unlimited plates and coca colas. We knew enough portuguese to know it was love steaming before us. Both of the sistas that cooked for us wouldn't let me clear my own plate; they shooed me away as if i had lifted a lid of one of their steaming pots. Each time they told me how much the lunch was when we ate and ate good at these sistas' kitchens, I gave more. Looking around, I wondered not only how much it cost to feed 30 hungry Americans who left no room for portuguese-speaking neighbors who wanted to stop by for a plate. I wondered how long it took to make three pitchers of passion fruit juice from scratch.

Rice and beans and fried yuca and rice and beans minus the meat for the vegs and salad and spaghetti and rolls and cold bean salad and more.

I knew these sistas like i knew my own mother and aunts and grandmothers. Forever putting more on everyone's plate -- especially the slim ones'. The only food I knew would never make me sick.

What did make me sick was the smell of piss (not urine) mingled with funk covered up with cheap hygiene tactics, wannabe colognes, cigarillos, staleness, more sourness from sweat than could be washed off with a 24-hour soaking, disease, but not the smell of disease most people sense within the walls of U.S. hospitals, but the smell of disease the thrives stronger, more resilient than the people who carry them. At vilamimosa, the stench of despair brought sea water to my eyes. Here the sistas are called programas and the sheets are rarely changed. They also tell me that they have autonomy. Independence. Choices. Who and where and when and how. Condoms are flimsy and take a 20% cut of what is "earned." So there are more reasons to do without them than to do it with them. They tell me there are no pimps. Only bar owners. The bars have back rooms that i have nicknamed champagne rooms just for irony's sake. They are breathless like vacuums and absorb all things without discrimination. Standing there. At the bottom of the stairs, overlooking the one-way street (how ironic), i mentally pointed my finger like back in the day when i used to spin around after counting to 100 before sprinting off to find the hidden ones. The blame darted like a butterfly. First, it was the men in the street. Salivating. Hungry. Law-abiding (prositution is legal in brasil for those 18+). But that was too easy. Then it was the bar owners. And then the police. Finally, the women. And then The System. And as i'm contemplating this. As the fear kindles in my belly, the police remain in my line of sight. Their guns echoing so many metaphors in my head. Then, i see her. Woman. Black. Young. Brown. Like me. Her thong framed her pear-shaped bottom and bounced the rhythm that made samba jealous. There it was. A new dance in this sista's hips. A dance so stifled... so abused. I wanted to cry for her. Because she was mine. For me because I felt I was naked like her. For the others. Because had someone untangled fate's double dutch rope, I would be her. Here. Rio. Now. Sunset. I felt the sting of my complexion and gender and race and sexuality and class and spirituality slap me across the cheek. I looked around and I was standing, but I was really on my knees praying for a better way. Praying my sistas out. Praying for healing that the condoms we brought could not bring. Praying for mercy. Praying becauses we know not what we do. And only one can repair the damage. I have never felt more uncomfortable in my entire life. I wince even now as I type this thousands of miles away from my sistas.

In Brasil, race is erased like images made with sticks in the sand. In brasil, race is as apparent as the broad noses, shapely lips and permanent tans on the faces of those you see. Race is the unerupted volcanoe on the coast. Smoldering. Patient. Sympathetic. Like catholicism and kundumble and santeria. Like the cuisine and the ocean. Brasilera or brasilero is the blanket race -- no afro or indigenous is needed to prefix it. It is already fixed. History fixed it with the invention of favelas. History fixed it with the invention of the 16 gradation caste system. History fixed it with more than eight different ways to convey the nword. History fixed it with the invention of colorism, goodhairversusbadhair-ism and balanced it with skin bleachers and lye and peroxide which can even blonde a young man's mustache hairs. History has taken good care of the brasileros because they do not obsess over it. Afroreggae, a community organization and band, seem to be the only whisper within the chaotic din that preaches Brasil's appropriate placement within the diaspora. I wonder if any one is listening. I wonder if they know people say Brasil has the most Africans aside from the continent by the same name. I wonder why no one liked my cornrows, but everyone loved the fro. They are branches of the same tree. Representation of the same legacy. Ours.

My trip to Brasil has baptized me anew. The changes are great and small. You cannot flush toilet paper in most places in Rio and it seems like even at home I use far less than before. I feel the connection to the people I was able to connect to even still like Ana Cristina who gave me her sketches of the dresses she told me she would design for me when we met again. The little boy whose mother I hugged in a semi-successful attempt to transfer energy. The brotha at the hotel who told me the best answer to the race question yet, he is: a living soul. I understand a little better my pops' incessant gripes about energies, bills, and overages.

It's hard to comprehend how I traveled to land that waits on the other side, the southern side of the equator. I struggled to speak the language. I (re)learned the dance in minutes. Brasileros are not sleeping. They are actively changing their favelas. But communication is not the stable network that it is here. Perhaps Brasil needs a drumbeat or multiple ones to unify the works that are being prepared and the progress that is being made. If so, maybe I should tell them that the folks of Afroreggae can teach them how to make drums out of whatever is lying around the favela. The aesthetics do not matter at this point --only the rhythm.


{liberatormagazine.com exclusive feature}

We're a human development centered cooperative, producing in part through the generous and faithful contributions of our North Star members. Choose your membership: Annual ($36), Monthly ($3), ($5), ($10), ($15), ($30), ($70), ($200), ($500), ($1000).