The Excluded People: A post by Asma Ali

14 Jun

Growing up  in the common American discourse of prison walls, my understanding and notion of prisoners is often the common negative stereotype of the hyper-masculine aggressive male. This stereotype allowed me to exclude them from society, and to rationalize their oppression. It was not until my senior year at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor that I first entered the prison walls. I mainly did this through an organization called PCAP- Prison Creative Arts Project. PCAP seeks to bring a diverse group of students, from different courses of study, inside prison walls to do theater workshops/games with the men, women and children locked inside the walls. It was through my work with PCAP at Cooper Street Correctional Facility in Jackson, Michigan, that I learned that the men incarcerated were not this imaginary villain I had in my mind and that they do in fact share common notions of love, respect, and family, that the general population holds dear. I also was stunned at how receptive the men were to theater games. They themselves said that theater games allow them to express themselves in a way that they would be unable to outside the prison walls. Theater games also allow them to put their guard down and provides an avenue for emotional relief. This is particularly why I was interested in going to Brazil. I wanted to see how those oppressed and prison walls are in a different country and if theater is an effective tool in a different land.


Asma in the Tijuca Rainforest

Perhaps the most eye opening moment in my trip to Brazil thus far has been going to the Favelas. A favela is similar to the American notion of “ghetto” but more extremely cut off from the rest of the city. The streets have no addresses, the homes have no numbers, there is no public sanitation system, amongst a wide array of other problems. The favelas are walled off from from the rest of the city, with no city bus or taxi entering it. Those who live in the favela are not counted in the Brazilian census, it is as if they do not exist. They were also the site of Michael Jackson’s “They Don’t Really Care About Us.” Everything I’ve heard, from the news to the guy sitting next to me on the airplane to Brazil, have told me about the dangers of favelas and that to go in there is basically me “asking for trouble or to get hurt.” I recall thinking on the bus ride that if I get hurt I’m blaming Ashley on my death bed.

Katelyn at waterfall

Katelyn Torres at a waterfall.

When we entered, I was utterly shocked at how well favelados (people who live in favelas) built a community without any governmental help. They had their own shops, their own radio show, they managed to provide themselves with their own clean water supply, the children are taught more than one language at school, amongst a large array of qualities. This is by no means to say that they are happy and thriving, but rather from my observation- they managed to do the most with what little they have. Rather than feel scared, I felt a sense of community. Even when I went to the fruit market, the men would offer me free fruit and refused to take my money.


Our group eating traditional Brazilian churrasco.

The group of adults I worked with in the favelas were the most adorable group I encountered in the longest time. They each gave the tightest and longest hugs and would proceed to compliment me and Erich ( the other facilitator from UMICH). I was shocked to see how shy many of the participants were (which is very different than other Brazilians I have met). I was not sure if it was our presence and the notion of wealthy Americans – poor favelados, that made them shy or if it was another factor. Interestingly, by the end of it they were all dancing and singing.


Desserts at the churrasco restaurant.

What I assumed was going to be a less-than favorable day turned out to be my favorite day of the trip. I caught myself realizing that the same stereotypes I had of the incarcerated men, I placed on favelados. Essentially what PCAP and this Brazilian trip taught me was that we are all connected in our desire for humanity and compassion, and that is regardless of our situation or location.


This cat lives at the Mango Tree Hostel where we are staying. His name is Branco, which means White in Portuguese, and Asma has fallen in love with him. She feeds him all day long.



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