Our first week in Rio, including a visit to a men’s prison: A post by Katelyn Torres

12 Jun

My name is Katelyn Torres. I graduated from the University of Michigan in May, and it is safe to say that the Prison Creative Arts Project courses were some of the best courses I’ve taken throughout my college career. Art has always been a significant part of my life, and whether it was dancing, making music, or painting with acrylics, it has always been my greatest passion. The courses I took at the university also resulted in the cultivation of a new passion; social justice. When I discovered PCAP classes, I realized that they were a mixture of the two, which could not have been more perfect for me. In the course this year, I had the privilege of facilitating a theatre workshop at Cotton Correctional Facility in Jackson, Michigan, with my classmates, Justine, Kevin and Erich. We had a large group of talented, incredibly creative men with whom we truly fell in love. While I was initially nervous to walk into a men’s prison, the room in which we held our workshop each week came to feel like one of the safest spaces in my life. We had so much fun, and the men were so appreciative of the work that we all do through PCAP. I love this work so much. And it just so happens that visiting Rio de Janeiro has always been at the top of my bucket list. I am so grateful for the opportunity to do work that I love in a place to which I’ve always wanted to travel. And what an incredible experience it has been so far.

ocean view

The people that we have interacted with thus far have been so beautiful in so many ways. I’ve noticed that in Brazil, people just seem to care less about how other people choose to dress, act and live their lives. Perhaps it’s different in other parts of the country, or even within other populations in Rio, but in the areas we’ve been exploring this seems to be the consensus. The women are natural. The sun and humidity serve as the makeup that illuminates their faces. Some shave, some don’t. Some wear bras, some don’t. Anything goes when it comes to clothing. And everyone is accepted and loved. I’m finding myself feeling so much better and more comfortable in my own skin- wearing less to no makeup, leaving my hair in its natural state and wearing whatever clothing I feel like wearing.
I’ve never been hugged and kissed more within a two week time span than I have since my arrival in Brazil. I love this aspect of Brazilian culture. It so starkly contrasts the somewhat distant, “Hi, nice to meet you,” (followed my a firm handshake) greeting one would receive in the U.S. Neither is wrong, but the Brazilians’ lack of value placement on personal space makes me feel much more loved and welcome in new spaces.
Brazilians also seem to have a different concept of time and timeliness. If something starts at 8 am, perhaps it will really start at 8:17, or later. They are not incredibly uptight about being on time (to the minute) like we are in the United States. It’s not a rat race. I feel my anxiety levels depleting in this country. It’s a very liberating and stress free atmosphere.
Our first week in Rio was a crazy one, saturated with different classes and workshops and events. We went into Brazilian prisons for the first time, which was an experience that I will not soon forget. My group (4 people) was assigned to the men’s prison, Evaristo de Moraes. This facility used to be a bus terminal but was transformed into a prison. We took the bus to UniRio, met two of the student facilitators and from there, took another bus to the facility. Upon pulling up to the area, the differences between this prison and the one in which I held my workshop in Jackson, Michigan, were immediately apparent. A group of about 40 individuals sat outside beneath a roof waiting either for visits or to drop off items for their loved ones inside. Of the 40 people, all but three were women.
As is anticipated when attempting to enter any prison, we ran into some difficulties getting in. The guard working at our entrance insisted that he did not have the proper authorization and documentation to let the Americans in, even though this had been organized well in advance. So, we returned to our small bus in the dirt parking lot and sat in the back waiting for things to be sorted out. It was about 90 degrees Fahrenheit, and we were in our “prison attire” which always consisted of conservative clothing (often long sleeves and long pants) and closed toe shoes. Leaning my head against the window, I kept the van door open in hopes of ventilating the space with some sort of breeze. This breeze never came. But something else did begin to circulate in the van. I started to hear the soft hum of feminine voices flowing together and looked over to see the group of waiting women forming a circle, holding hands. One woman was speaking to the others. She told them about how necessary it was to pray for their loved ones that were inside of the prison- how much they need their prayer and how much they need God right now. All of the women began to sing a song. I’m not sure what song it was, and I couldn’t understand much of it. But they sang it so beautifully and so passionately that it gave me chills. I could feel the pain and suffering that they’ve endured as a result of their loved one’s predicament; a pain and suffering that is not always acknowledged the way it should be.
The inside of the prison shocked me a bit. It was very dirty. The floors were made of dirt. The walls and the cell bars were riddled with stains and rust. Guards walked around fully padded and armed with intimidating firearms. The men were not in uniforms like those that I was used to seeing in the Jackson prison. They wore flip flops and shorts and t shirts and, to me, sometimes were not distinguishable from those inside who were not incarcerated. The prison was not surrounded by barbed wire, and my group and I spoke about how it looked like it would be much easier to escape from this prison than from those we’d seen in Michigan. We soon came to the realization that while it may seem this way, that is not the case. We learned that guards in Rio prisons use their guns very liberally and will shoot on the spot without much forethought. Or afterthought.
The things we’ve done this week have been diverse, yet they all relate to one another. For example, another of this week’s most prominent experiences occurred on Friday. While half of the group went to see Ashley perform her play in a women’s prison, the other half of us went to take a tour of downtown Rio de Janeiro. It was a bright, sunny day, and we walked around the city looking at old buildings and landmarks. The tour concluded with a visit to a small museum filled with ancient African artifacts. We were taken into a room which looked like it was some sort of construction, and we were led into a connecting room in which a documentary was shown to us. This documentary reflected on slavery in Brazil. The video was difficult to watch, yet incredibly important. I was shocked to discover that slavery was not abolished in Brazil for 30 years after it was in the United States. African American and Afro-Brazilian history have a great deal to do with the way our prisons systems are today, so this was supplementary to our prison work in Brazil. As the documentary continued, it began to discuss slave cemeteries and how the bodies of slaves were handled. It was then that I realized we were sitting on a Brazilian slave cemetery. Exiting the documentary room, still in a daze from the film, we entered the room that appeared to be under construction. It wasn’t. Peering over the edge of a large hole in the ground, I saw an archaeologist with a small brush in one hand and a petite sand shovel in the other. She was kneeling on the dirt, gently brushing an object that I couldn’t quite make out at first. Suddenly , I realized what it was, and this realization hit me hard.
art of woman's face
The archaeologist was brushing away dirt from the skeleton of a woman, a former slave, who had been buried there. The skeleton was still somewhat submerged in the dirt, but the entire body was clearly there and intact. As she gently grazed the woman’s teeth with her brush, a wave of emotion jolted through my body. I’ve watched videos and read books that told me about the horrors of slavery and about the inhumane ways slaves were treated even after death, but it had never felt as real as it did that day.
So far, our trip to Brazil has been filled to the brim with exciting new experiences, many of them life-changing. We’ve met new and incredible people who’ve taught us so much about their culture. We’ve gone on new adventures and tried new foods. And we’ve created bonds and memories that will last a lifetime. I’m so excited to see what the next week holds.
Katelyn on beach
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