Reflections On Brazil

A call for change, one conversation at a time.

October 27, 2014
Landscape in Brazil taken by an Exeter faculty member

A Call for Change, One Conversation at a Time

By Viviana Santos, modern languages instructor

Editor’s Note: In August, 12 Exeter faculty members traveled to Brazil for a two-week immersion into a country on the brink of becoming a global economic power. One faculty member’s impressions are shared here.

Rising high above the Favela Alemao we ride the Teleferico, sponsored by Kibon, Good Humor’s Brazilian brand. From a distance the favela looks almost benign: brick colored houses, their shapes a pleasing mosaic. Beyond, the Atlantic Ocean spanning wide; behind us, the hills of Rio.

We arrive after a 20-minute ride, the only takers in this obscenely expensive distraction as empty gondolas descend, mocking the inhabitants of the favela below. As we start walking, our guide, a carioca who rose out of Alemao to become a Ph.D. candidate at one of Rio’s prestigious universities, talks about the living conditions, the cartel turf wars, the raw sewage and stray dogs that we walk around. A young girl runs up to me. She says, ”un reais,” and it takes me a while to realize she is asking for money. Soon there are three or four children, grubby, barefoot, eating cocoa powder straight, selling bottles of water, playing in our midst trying to get our attention.

Khadijah gives up on her reais, runs to her house and comes back with pad of paper and a little box holding treasured crayons, mismatched, broken. She sits next to me and asks for a picture. Big brown eyes look at me, take my hand and urge me to draw; first a dog, then a motorcycle, finally the Teleferico that rises up above her house: a shiny symbol, of what exactly? Misplaced priorities? A hint at a different future? So I draw the gondola, the Kibon logo winking in the distance. She smiles and asks for Snow White. But our group is moving on, and I wonder if this little girl will get a chance at the golden ticket.

It’s our last night in Rio and we’re headed out to Lapa, Santa Teresa’s poor cousin at the bottom of the hill. Chapulin is guiding us, and we round the windy streets of this once wealthy neighborhood, now a Bohemian outpost, a bit frayed around the edges. He speaks softy, rhythmically, and I try hard to follow his Portuguese, wondering if this young slam poet has indeed moved from speech to poetry. He tells me about the graffiti adorning the walls. It is a conversation, he says, between the disenfranchised and those who hold the power: the police, the landowners, the politicians who trade their idealism for a piece of the pie.

Dialogue is at the base of change and these symbols become representative of a growing unrest, a measure of discontent amongst those on the fringe. We reach the bottom of the hill, and we head to a traditional Samba club. The music is sensual, the dancers move rhythmically, young, old, swarthy. And the drums beat, and the conversation continues, and I pray someone is listening. Among the sounds of the children who dream of becoming famous sits a little girl using art as language. Among the sounds of the street, young poets denounce the violence, the repression of dissent; performers protest, old hippies run NGOs and Sunday school teachers start book clubs and travel across this contradictory and breathtaking land so their charges can hear famous authors and aspire to something more than the favela.

As we leave Rio we drive down the hill. To the right, another favela is encircled by tall modern buildings, a visual reminder of a country that is changing, evolving, transforming. And I urge the conversation to continue, be it though a pad and crayons or symbols on a wall or the beat of the African drum. I listen for Brazil’s voice, willing it to be heard above the din of the FIFA fans, of Olympic committees and the promises of politicians. Above all this, I know the sound is sweet.