Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Speaking Portuspanglishese and Paying Homage

As far as language is concerned, the past couple of days have been quite interesting. First, I realize, that if I ever went to a Spanish speaking country, I would be able to communicate just fine... dare I say fluently? I've always worried about that and shied away from using my Spanish when possible in the US (i.e. the Dominican hair shop I frequent in NY).

But Portuguese, O Portugu├ęs! It is essentially Spanish with odd spellings and confusing pronunciations. The sounds don't match the letter combinations! And I learn visually, meaning that when I read a sign on the street I might be able to guess what it means based on Spanish, but if someone says the same thing to me I can't connect the two of them because the sounds don't match up with the letters I saw.

Nevertheless, through what I am now calling Portuspanglishese, I talk with Armando's mother and fiance, the vendors on the street, our van driver etc. It's a struggle, but eventually, we are all on the same page.


Our first activity yesterday was to take our first class in ballroom samba dance at the Casa de Danca of Carlinhos de Jesus. According to Armando, Carlinhos is like the Fred Astaire of Samba in Rio de Janeiro. While he did not personally give us the class he did stop in to give us a little history and show off a little bit. :-)
I'm not sure if it was Carlinhos, or our actual teacher, Eduardo aka "Bigode" (meaning mustache) who is distinguished himself; but one of them told Armando that I had a lot of jeito (jay too), which he explained as "the manner" or "attitude" necessary to samba. That thing that can't be taught... how nice to know that I have it! In the dance school I thought of my Grammy, who loves the latin ballroom dances and adores the movie Dance With Me. The studios were beautiful and we were certainly privileged to dance there.


After lunch we took off across town to Mangueira. Mangueira is the name of a community in Rio de Janeiro and also the name of its School of Samba.

A brief aside to explain Schools of Samba in more detail as I will talk about them often: In the Carnaval parades with the floats and glitter and glam that we have probably all heard of or seen clips of on tv, the individual groups who are a part of the parade are called Schools of Samba. Each School represents a community as they originated as neighborhood associations, and compete against one another each year during carnival to be the most original, creative and spectacular sambistas, artistic designers, and storytellers. Today there are 72 Schools in Rio de Janeiro alone, only 14 of which are in the first tier of competition and get to compete on the Avenue of the Sambadrome.

We visited all of Mangueira's facilities including a museum and cultural center, documenting samba the School's most famous founder, Cartola; a community center; the court where the school rehearses and other spaces within the building. After listening to our guide, and meeting and talking with people: amazing, awesome, wonderful, blessed were the words that came to mind.

There was something about homage that oozed out of every pore of that place and it made me so happy to experience that, if only for a few hours. Mangueira, as an example of a School of Samba, truly functions as the heart and soul of poor community. It is a non-profit organization that puts any of its proceeds from Carnaval right back into Carnaval and into the community. It provides recreational programs for all ages including sports, dance, music and art; events and entertainment, jobs, the museum etc etc. There is a rich connection to their African past which is manifested through their continued practice of Samba in Carnaval i.e. forming their bateria (drumming section) around the beat of the talking drum; a practice of the Candomble religion which meshes the Yoruba orishas with some catholic traditions; and keeping with other aspects such as the griot, specifically to pass on the art of storytelling and family history to children. How awesome is that?! Especially for the children. It is a part of the community's culture to KNOW who and whose you are!

I just can't help but think how blessed I was as a child to go to an elementary school that really instilled in me a sense of pride as an African-American and even more how blessed I was that my grandparents took me to those MMBW family reunions to make sure I knew where I came from. But I also recognize that my experience is just that of 1 little black girl out of who-knows-how-many who NEVER got that.

Even if this is the only community in Brazil doing something like this, especially to this degree (and I don't think it is), think of how many little black children will grow up cherishing their heritage and knowing who to thank as they move on in life.
The top line loosely translated:
The future or present do not exist if we do not respect our past.

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