That night, she gave me a bigger hug than I had anticipated.
I knew Brazilians were exceedingly loving and warm people, but her hug meant something else. She soon paused, looked at me and said,
“You should go to Salvador. That’s where our people are.”
I knew then, that my short time in Brazil would transcend colourful festivities and take a tour into its inner most complex layered identities.
Staying in Florianópolis, a highly urbanized corner of Brazil’s vast populace, there was very little room for me to observe the daily dynamics of race. But there were three distinctive moments in which my view was challenged by the harsh realities of those around me, through a journey of semantics and ambivalent meanings, I came face to face with three words that describe the predicament of being Brazilian, but also black.
1. Negro, Public Bus Money Collector
One of those extremely hot days, when the sun insisted on melting itself over my shoulders, and the mere thought of water was almost too far to fathom, I got lost.
I was in the wrong bus, for every passenger had faded, and only I remained, buried in the back of my self-inflicted shame.
“Não desce, moça?”
“You’re not getting off?
His voice came from far, for I had to stand and walk towards him in order to see him.
I explained my situation, he laughed a tired laugh and told me to sit, as he negotiated my destiny with the driver.
Along the road and with the sea in sight, he began to perform the monologue of his life, occasionally including me with remarks such as “where are you from” and “are you really from Africa, the motherland?”
There was always this strange response that Brazilians gave me, whenever I broke their hearts in telling that no, I am not Portuguese, despite the intonation of my accent, and that I am, indeed, Mozambican. They simply could not believe that I came from Africa, the real Africa where most of Brazil’s ancestry is derived from, and still manifests in strong cultural dominance.
The man, upon second thought, and to meticulously startle me, asked me how many black people I had seen on the streets.
I was caught off-guard; I hadn’t really stopped to take note of how people around me looked.
“Aqui não tem negro, moça”
“There are no black people here.”
The sadness in his words came like the after-taste of an apple, something you can’t help but swallow.
2. Morena, A Black Wife’s Tale
“Nossa, tu nem imagina o quão bom é te ter aqui!”
“My goodness, you can’t imagine how good it is to have you here!”
She exclaimed with an outdated sense of relief. It had to come from her, that she couldn’t stand being the only Black person wherever she went, and that my presence brought with it a sense of collective strength to get her through the days.
I told her she was beautiful, because her hair was really long, but she interrupted me and told me it was fake, since her natural hair, despite its gravitational resistance, could not resist the pressures of her society.
“Todo mundo gosta de morena, todo mundo quer morena”
“Everyone likes black people, everybody wants black people.”
Ironically, she spiraled into a soliloquy of a distinct distaste for the hypocrisy in her statement. She absolutely hated the fact that her racial identity had been reduced to a commodified version of beauty.
To be Moreno in Brazil is to be sexy, wanted, lusted over and desired.
These are the prostitutes you will see in Brazilian movies, or the thieves who get 5 minutes of love-making in the entire script, just to give people hope.
Advertised as “queens of Samba” and damn straight goddesses of everything transcendental, so long as they are tall, lean, and Beyoncé-type bootylicious.
She was tired and beat down by the fact that her only value in a family was to give birth to some mixed-race children, just for the record.
The hyper-sexualization of black people in Brazil is an industry, she concluded with resentment.
3. Preta, The Lady Who Hugged Me
She was from Salvador, and very much in tune with her “blackness”, which, she believed, caused a disturbance and a half to Brazil’s conservatives.
Not everyone will stand up and call themselves “preto”, or “preta”, because not only is that the direct translation of “Black”, but it is also a reflection of the social condition and psyche of Brazil’s demographic majority.
On one hand, you cannot escape being preto. You can even aspire to be light-skinned, and racially ambiguously enough to pass as “tanned”, but the poverty that doesn’t show in your appearance will show in the ignorance of others, because in their eyes, there is no light to those who are Black.
On the other, you can play down your blackness by playing up on the social scale of relevance.
Taís Araújo is a well-known Black Brazilian actress, who played the iconic character named Preta, a genuine girl who fell pregnant after a romantic night, and who grew into a fierce and protective mother with strong moral foundations.
This depiction of blackness may have kick-started a movement to challenge the semantics that govern racial dynamics in the country. In this way, being preto, or preta, is almost independent from the social condition in which it has historically been associated with. Being preta, today, is the chant of activism, the message of awareness, and an eloquent weapon against oppression.
Even then, what did the lady mean by “our people”, for though the pigmentation of my skin is clear, penetrating semantics is confusing. Am I negra, preta or morena in Brazil?
Am I the one who decides, or does the way people perceive each other influence ascription of blackness, and all its apparent layered complexities?
One thing is clear, there is a dangerous ambiguity to the politics of race in Brazil. Brazilians are not completely sure of who they are supposed to be, nor which criteria should inform their judgement. Self-proclaimed white Brazilians will find themselves disappointed by the fact that they might not be considered white in Europe, and Black Brazilians are quickly intimidated by the presence of someone who comes from “real Africa”, exposing potential insecurities about their origins.
The myth of racial harmony is quickly falling through the cracks left open by outrageous oppression that has continuously been toned down for the outside world to see.
But not for long, as Salvador itself cannot contain all of Brazil’s people, and, sooner or later, every Brazilian will want to claim its slice in the “our people” pie.
What remains is to find out who owns it.
- Being “moreno”, being “negro”: memories of racialization experiences in the north coast of Rio Grande do Sul in the XXth century, Comprehensive article on the history of semantics of blackness, in Portuguese.
- Almost white, almost black: How race relations in Brazil make racial identity a complex process, In English
- Racial classification and terminology in Brazil, In English
- World Cup 2014: Racism in Soccer in the Spotlight, When Neymar said he wasn’t Black, in English
- Globeleza’ Insists On Representing Black Women As Mere Sex Objects, On the controversy around replacing the former “Globeleza” for being too dark, for a light-skinned, sexier woman
Featured image : Rodrigo Vieira