Over the past month, I’ve begun to perfect my elevator pitch when it comes to explaining where I’m from. “I’m from NJ, but we just moved here after spending a few years in Brazil with my partner, who’s from there.” The inevitable response is something along the lines of, “Ooooh, Brazil. Wow. Why would you come back here?!”
To be fair, it’s a decision we made. It wasn’t necessarily an obvious choice where we had to come back to the United States. Not to mention that we’re also in the unique position of being able to add a third option, too: Europe.
Gustavo and I discussed all of these. He’s always wanted to live in North America and, for me, after a few years of trying to live elsewhere, I realized just how important it was to me to be in my home culture. So we moved here.
That dreaded question
Most of the time, when someone asks why we moved back, it’s asked from a place of sheer curiosity. Sometimes – and more often than I would expect – it’s asked from a place of well-intentioned self-righteousness.
America suffers from a self-deprecation problem. No, we are certainly not our best selves at this moment. Yes, the room is kind-of on fire and most of us are saying, “This is fine.” It’s not fine. Not in the least bit.
Here’s what bothers me about the self-righteous version of this question: it reeks of first-world blinders. Brazil, despite being an advanced developing country, is still a developing country. Basic things that we take for granted in the United States are simply not available in Brazil.
Beyond that, it shows me an ignorance toward world politics – particularly an ignorance around politics in South America. Perhaps because most of the people who raise this question to me are white liberals, it irks me more. Knowing about Brexit, the American election system, and what’s going on in Venezuela doesn’t make you educated. It just means you watch the nightly news.
What about Brazil?
Here’s what people don’t know: the Brazilian government is also on fire. Like a 10-alarm blaze. Maybe people have heard of Bolsonaro, heard that Brazil is moving in a more conservative direction, but that’s it.
Within our lifetimes, Brazil lived under a military dictatorship. It wasn’t overturned until the ’70s, not much before I was born. Brazil’s relationship with a democracy-based system is very, very new. It also took a tremendous blow when conservative, corrupt politicians accused the current party and sitting president of corruption that was never corroborated. (If you haven’t already, stop reading right now and go watch The Edge of Democracy.)
The current president of Brazil was elected on a campaign promising something capital-D Different. (Does that sound familiar, America?) They borrowed heavily from our tactics of “fake news,” breaking down the establishment, and restoring Brazil to something greater. Bolsonaro is like Donald Trump on steroids, except in a country that was already struggling.
Outside of politics, which, of course, trickle down into daily life, I generally found my life in Brazil to be exhausting on a deeper level. Every night, we could hear traçantes from traffickers in favelas. Going outside involved preparation – do you know where you’re going? Can you keep your phone in your pocketbook the whole time? Are you walking anywhere with no one around? Even with all the precautions, there was always a sense of anything could happen at any time, anywhere.
Depending on the volume of Whatsapp groups I was in and how bad the month was, I’d get updates from friends about shootings, muggings, and murders in our neighborhood. There’s even a specific word for murder after a robbery – latrocínio. America has a gun problem, but Brazil has a violence problem. It permeates all of culture.
And it’s exhausting.
Frankly, it’s exhausting to be an American right now, too. In a different way. It feels different for me largely in part because of my privileges as a middle class white American woman. That cannot be separated from my experience in my home country. When I think of the things America has, but Brazil doesn’t, I think of all the exceptions too – and who is most affected by those exceptions.
Accessible drinking water? We have it. Unless you’re talking about Flint or Newark. Safety and security? We have it. Unless we’re talking about mass shootings, inner-city violence, and police brutality. Opportunity? We definitely have it, unless you’re too poor or too brown or too foreign.
So how do I justify the difference in my mind? I don’t know. I spend a lot of time thinking about this because it’s a complex issue because all issues around intersectionality are complex, layered, and need to be handled with sensitivity. We cannot know our blind spots until we see them. Yet.
So what’s the difference?
The biggest difference I see is hope. Empathy. Caring.
Brazilians are more than aware of the flaws of their country. Brazilians are aware of the safety issues and the pervasive violence. They’re aware of how their government is so corrupt that they make even basic luxuries impossible by imposing taxes that directly line their pockets.
The US has a long, long narrative of protest and fighting for what’s right. We may not always do what’s right, but the words “for the people, by the people” always ring in our minds. We might be tired, but we have hope. We’ve seen how people can make a difference and, even when a lot of people don’t directly participate, we have a culture of taking action.
The narrative doesn’t exist in Brazil. While there is a history of protest and direct action – as exists in nearly all countries – it’s not part of cultural mythology. While some people may be driven to action, many people feel it’s pointless and that’s the general sensation. The Brazilian government has beaten its people down far too much and it shows.
In Brazil, for me and maybe for others, the feeling is that things will never change. There’s too much to witness and process so it almost becomes a necessity to numb yourself to certain problems. The problems are far too vast and far too complex to feel anything useful from dwelling on it too much.
What does it all mean?
Well, aside from either needing a therapist or a Dash button for journal replacements to talk through all of my thoughts on my experience in Brazil, where you’re from and where you live are complex decisions – whether that’s within your home country or outside of it. No country or government is perfect, but when an American asks me why I would leave Brazil as if the US were the worst possible option for a place to live, I hear them unintentionally denying all of the privileges they currently live with. Living in a first world country is a privilege, even if you have varying levels of privilege within that country.
Maybe my frustration is more about America than Brazil. I worry about America. But I also see people fighting to progress and make things better. It’s the fight that gives me hope. Living without hope is something far too sad and, perhaps, is one of our greatest first-world privileges.