‘CariocAmerican’ by DIANNA BAUTISTA For Bello Mag July 2014 issue
I have traveled abroad many times and I thought I had Brazil all figured out before I even got there. Boy was I wrong!! I thought I’d walk in to the Rio De Janeiro International Airport would look like a tropical paradise and the customs agents would all look like supermodel Gisele and the cab drivers would all look like Rodrigo Santoro. But… no. It looked a lot like Newark International Airport in New Jersey, my customs agent was 70 and bald, and my cab driver Roberto looked like Danny DeVito, only darker. I thought Ipanema beach would be a non-stop party full of Sports Illustrated bodies. But, no. Ipanema was calm and serene, full of families who were just enjoying the Brazilian sun and ocean air. Also, I looked like a nun in my American two-piece next to all those string bikinis! Thin and full-figured women alike are as proud of their bodies as the most confident of super models. So many things were different than I had thought they would be.
During my 2 months in Rio I stayed in the favelas, which are slums on the outskirts of the tourist beaches of Copacabana, Ipanema, and the posh downtown area. The favela is alive with music, color, and food. Every home and business is painted different color and there is a restaurant on every corner. There are more places to get food in the favela than there are Starbucks in New York City! The personality and charm in each front door and ally way was so intriguing and has a story worth telling. Food is such a huge part of Latin culture. Where there is food, there is music. On every light post there is a loudspeaker blaring music for all the streets to hear. All types of music from hip hop to church music to funky to oldies. There is never a time where it is quiet. Kids were playing futbol barefoot in the streets until the wee hours of the morning, men and women sitting out on their front porches watching the kid’s play, cars and motorcycles zooming by, and açai being eaten by everyone.
The favelas I saw were much different than I’ve seen in movies. Sure, the simple homes are all painted all kinds of bright colors and walking in on a drug deal on the street is bound to happen. But what stood out to me most about the favela, and all of Rio actually, was the hospitality of the people. I was clearly an outsider and everyone knew it. Yet, I became so familiar with the locals walking down the same cobblestone streets on a daily basis that even with a language barrier they all greeted me every morning and afternoon as I passed by. Immediately, I felt at so comfortable and at home even though I was more than 7,000 miles away from my family and friends.
My purpose in going to Brazil was to educate women living in the favelas how to do hair and makeup through a non- profit organization called THE TRADE (supportthetrade.org). Like most developing nations, women are not always afforded the same opportunities as men which can lead to negative social norms, such as low self-esteem and prostitution. Some of the women I had the privilege of teaching are survivors of domestic violence, abuse, drug trafficking, and extreme poverty. They each have intense testimonies of love, loss, and survival. Their stories touched me in ways I never could have imagined. We went to provide women with a dignified career and a way to better provide for their families. In our time there, we realized our purpose there was far greater than just than to “teach a man to fish.” We were there to give these ladies a confidence they never seen before in themselves. Sure, they all were confident with their voluptuous curves and Shakira curly hair, but they were lacking the self-worth that comes from feeling valued and loved by those closest to them.
After class, our students would often invite us to dinner in their homes. We would go and meet their families and we would feast on Brazilian food like there was no tomorrow! Fresh mango juice, beans and rice with chicken, and the best of all was hot, right out of the oven brigadeiro! There was never a minute were we in someone’s home and we didn’t have a plate of food in front of us. It was like My Big Fat Greek Wedding when the mom says, “You hungry?” and the son-in-law says, “No I already ate,” then the mother responds with, “Ok, I cook for you!” In their homes we were treated like family and it was so welcoming.
Living in the favelas, these ladies had so little yet they gave so much. They were so generous and loving to us as their friends. But more importantly they gave to their families. The ladies we taught there had a deep desire to provide the best life they could for their children. We sat with each of them and asked want they wanted out of this training and what they want for their lives. None of them wanted a lot of money, or big house, or a fancy car, or even to have a better education. They all said they want their children to be safe and to grow up to be good people. They didn’t want anything for themselves. Their biggest hope is for their children to live in a safe place and with good values.
One woman in our manicuring class came with her nails painted and her hair done every day. She was very shy, but eager to learn. She has 4 children and has lived in the favela her whole life. Although she is illiterate and has no desire to learn to read or write. She only wants to show the example of a good work ethic to her kids. It was so eye opening to us. A mother who was never given the chance at an education is now doing all she can to learn a trade only to give it all to her children. Seeing what it truly means to be selfless is so beautiful.
Throughout our time in Rio de Janeiro we learned how to do the samba and what real açai tastes like. We learned that capoeira is not just martial arts, but the dance of war. We learned that all hamburgers are supposed to have eggs on them. We learned how to make tapioca, both sweet and savory. We learned that Guarana is a staple at every meal. We learned that graffiti is legal as long as it’s done with the intent to produce art. We learned that the humidity makes flat irons completely useless. We learned meaning of “Brazilian time” and quickly after, we learned the true meaning of patience. We learned how to find joy in all circumstances. We learned that whether you are visiting the impoverished favelas or suburban Petrópolis, you will be greeted with a big Brazilian hug and a Carioca kiss. And most importantly we learned the true meaning of Brazilian hospitality.
As went embarked on this journey, our purpose was to help women less fortunate than we are and we hoped to change their lives. But now looking back, they changed ours.
For more information about THE TRADE, please visit supportthetrade.org.