Hello all, bom dia (or boa noite for any night owls that may be reading this). My name is Alyssa Gonzales and I am currently writing this blog post in a tropical hostel only minutes away from the Ipanema beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. If I walk five minutes, I can watch waves returning from distant lands crash against the shore as the sun rises above the horizon. A short bus ride, and I am able to stand on top of the Pão de Açucar mountain and see the sprawling city beneath the clouds. The idea that I am in a land more than 6,000 miles from my home is almost too hard to comprehend. It is humbling to know that I am simply a small piece of a greater puzzle that is the human race. Or rather, a cog in a grand, powerful machine. I am an almost insignificant part, but I help to keep the engine pumping in even the smallest of ways.
I am incredibly grateful to PCAP, UDESC, and UniRio for allowing me to inhabit this country for a few weeks as a part of the Brazil Exchange. Since September of 2015, I have been a devoted member of PCAP, first as an undergraduate research assistant, then as a student of Dr. Ashley Lucas’s Theatre and Incarceration class. Through this class, I facilitated a theatre workshop for reentrants with two of my peers. Through this, I gained a better grasp on the power the creative arts has on an individual and a community. It also taught me the importance of respecting the cultures and experiences of others. All these things together have allowed me to engage in dynamic interactions which have made my time in Rio unforgettable.
As a member of an organization which promotes equality and social justice, it is important for all of us participants to remember our privilege, which we carry in many different ways. We attend one of the most respected academic institutions in the world, which allows us to channel our learnings to the scholarly community. We hold passports and identification cards that can safely allow us to explore the Earth freely and in good health. When we exit the spaces and communities of others who do not possess the same privileges as us, we could choose to leave never return.
On our first Saturday in Rio, PCAP’s students joined UniRio’s Teatro em Comunidade facilitators for theatre workshops in different areas of the Maré favela. Unless a person is from Brazil, s/he may not fully grasp the concept of what a favela is. The closest translation of this concept would be a slum, but that does not fully cover the situation of its inhabitants. Before embarking upon my journey to Brazil, I read up on Rio in popular travel guides and the first few responses to a Google search. When I arrived, I expected to see primitive infrastructure, a lack of an economy, hopelessness. Instead I found a lively produce market set up along a main road, a beautiful and refreshing man made beach, and the faces of people trying desperately to live a fulfilling life in an extremely adverse situation. As we drove the narrow streets into the Ramos neighborhood of Maré, we encountered a couple of police units. They casually carried loaded machine guns with them as residents walked past. To an outsider such as myself, it seemed more as if they were there to attack rather than protect. I could not understand why the Brazilian government would deny them of the basic rights they hold as citizens of Rio de Janeiro.
Our workshop for teens was held in the local health clinic. We began with a name game which involved tossing around an inflated ball while saying each other’s names. Everyone was a bit awkward at first, being in a space with new people and speaking names with sounds not native to their own language, but after a few rounds of theater games, we all warmed up to each other. We transitioned to writing exercise the facilitators of this workshop use to find topics or ideas they want to explore for their final performance. The prompt for this particular session was the best day of your life. Though we did not share them aloud, we did speak amongst ourselves about our choices. There were discussions of travel and birthdays, but I chose the simplicity of laughter; an ordinary day in which negativity did not peek its head. I hope that the teens we worked with can relate to that. Following this, we were led to a man made beach in which residents swim on warm days. The water was cool. We exchanged laughs and took pictures under the sun before heading back.
We returned to our room in the clinic after that. Instead of returning to theatre games, we sat in a circle for a small discussion. In the beginning, we asked lighter questions such as: “What are your ages?” and “What have been your favorite things about Rio?” After the small talk, we moved into heavier topics. Our group, with translation help from our program assistant, shared opinions and differences on topics such as racism, feminism, and the role of the police. We compared development of social movements in the US with those in Brazil. We even got into a lengthy discussion about social perceptions of the music artist Beyoncé and her most recent album, Lemonade. As we geared up to leave, the participants asked if and when we would be coming back.
As I sat beside everyone, Brazilians and Americans alike, I realized there more similarities than differences between us all. We were all hard working, passionate people. We could think critically and trade opinions on hard topics respectfully. We could have fun and laugh over a simple game of woosh. The people who live in the favelas of Brazil are just as deserving of a fruitful life as a wealthy carioca (the term for a person from Rio) living by Copacabana beach. Through my few short weeks in Brazil, I’ve learned much about the country I’m staying in and myself. In a city of more than six million, I am a nameless face on the sidewalk, a grain of sand sitting on a shore. I’ve lived out of a duffel bag and a backpack, making it by on my weekly allowance of reais and two tiny feet. Even with early mornings and minimal internet access, I’ve never felt more content. But, through the talks of activism and social justice I’ve been audience to throughout the week, I realize that I can make a difference, even if it is simply gushing over One Direction with a local teenager. It’s a balance. One must throw themselves out there and experience it to fully understand it. We must stand beside the Cristo Redentor and feel small. We must stare at another’s smile and feel bigger.