Bonding with people in Brazil: A post by Nia Willis

13 Jun
My name is Nia Willis, I’m a junior at the University of Michigan. I became involved with the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) this past semester because several of my friends had volunteered and attended the Brazil exchange program. They told me about how it was a life changing and eye opening experience, and highly encouraged me to become involved. In this past semester I took Ashley Lucas’ class on Theater and Incarceration, and volunteered at a men’s correctional facility in Michigan.
Nia & the Big JC
When coming to Brazil, I planned on doing theater activities with those in prisons and favelas. I never expected to make such a strong connection with some of the locals. During our time at Universidade do Estado de Santa Catarina (UDESC) in Florianópolis (Floripa), there was this amazing student named Ale who showed us the city and made sure we had a good time, along with other students who always greeted us with huge smiles, hugs and kisses. After long days of conferences and workshops, it was refreshing to be around their positive energy and grow closer to them. In one week I made friends with people that I know I will stay connected with for years. I feel that when I return to Brazil one day, I have a place to stay and people I would be eager to visit.
In talking to people from both Floripa and Rio, I find it amazing how similar some of our experiences have been. During lunch one day at UDESC a student was talking about how difficult it is to be a member of the LGBTQ+ community: people using microagressions and families not being accepting of their gay or bisexual members. One of the gay bars in Floripa was threatened, which scared many frequent visitors from going back to the bar. This reminded me of the attack on the gay bar in Florida in 2016, and many of my friends’ experiences with not being accepted for their sexuality.
Favelas are parts of Rio that are not recognized by the city which means garbage trucks don’t come to pick up trash. There are no addresses or street names, and all electricity and running water is pirated from the city, rather than being offered by the city as a public servce. When we visited the favelas, I was working with a group ranging from 12 to 15 years old. Towards the end of the workshop we did an exercise where we split into five groups, and each group had to make a skit about discrimination. In the skit we all had to act and move like dolls. One skit showed how when selecting a doll many children desire the white Barbie that is skinny with long, blonde hair. I was so intrigued because I didn’t know longing for the blonde Barbie was an occurrence internationally. As a Black female I can relate to having a lack of representation of dolls and having a difficult time finding a doll that looks like me. I was saddened that young girls have to face race issues worldwide but was happy that kids in this workshop have a space to dialogue and learn how to navigate these issues.
Throughout this program, I have been amazed with the high level of interaction and deep connections I have made with students and workshop participants in both Floripa and Rio. I thought with a language barrier and difference of culture I would only be able to interact through theater games while here for a short time, but my bonds have been much more meaningful than I expected. Even with thousands of miles in between us, varying languages, and dissimilar cultures, it’s astounding to me the ability we have to form close relationships and how alike people are worldwide.

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