Down in Black Bahia: Revisiting My First Trip To Salvador, Bahia
Note from BW of Brazil: Sometimes it’s really an adventure to re-visit, re-read or remember places, things, books, music that are a reflection of where you were at some point in your life. I’ve been wanting to re-post this piece for some time. It’s the first piece I wrote about my first trip to Brazil back in September of 2000. After doing about nine months’ worth of research and getting my traveling documents in order, my first trip to Salvador, Bahia, began with a bus ride that took me from Detroit to New York, where I boarded a flight at JFK Airport. From JFK, I took a 13-hour flight from New York to Aeroporto Internacional de São Paulo-Guarulhos, in Guarulhos, São Paulo.
Down in Black Bahia: Revisiting My First Trip To Salvador, Bahia. It was the first of an annual trip I would take every year for another 12 years.
This piece was originally posted on another well-known website, where it remained for several years. When I searched for it over six months ago, I found that it had been taken down from the site and placed in its archive collection. So, after re-reading it for the first time in several years, I decided it would be great to post here, given how much I’ve written my opinions on the topic of race in Brazil since about 2008, and since 2011 on this blog. I’m so glad I documented this first journey and somewhere in my archives, there are videos from an old 8mm video camcorder that I took of that first trip and several others since then. I re-publish that article from June of 2001, unedited and completely as it appeared 18 years ago. Hope you dig it. I did.
Down in Black Bahia: Revisiting My First Trip To Salvador, Bahia
Meeting Danielle’s friend Marli turned out to be
a preview to an interesting and at times disturbing view
of race in Brazil. Many of the people that Danielle labeled
as being white in Salvador would not be
considered white in the US.
Originally published in June of 2001
My mental journey into Brazil began on Christmas Eve 1999 when I bought a 2,000 page book called Africana: the Encyclopedia of the African and African-American Experience. I had been into studies of the African Diaspora for some time but I never knew anything about Brazil except for soccer, Pelé, the movie Blame It on Rio and bossa nova. As I flipped through the pages of this incredible book, I became totally amazed at how many articles there were about Brazil and the contributions of Afro-Brazilians to Brazilian society.
When I discovered that there were anywhere from 70 to 105 million black people in Brazil, my obsession was official. A country with 2-3 times more black people than America and I never knew anything about it. From that point, I began an endless search for information about “my people” in this, the largest country in South America. I found two books by legendary Afro-Brazilian activist Abdias do Nascimento, read probably more than 1,000 pages of internet articles (thank you, Brazzil) from hundreds of sources and began to invest in Brazilian LPs and CDs.
The history of Afro-Brazilians sounded all too familiar. Africans captured, enslaved and brought to the New World and forced to build a country while being excluded from full status of citizenship. The similarities between Afro-Brazilians and African-Americans were amazing. Too many to name here, but do the research.
I had read many articles about Brazil written by people who had been there but very few by people of African descent like myself. I live in Detroit, Michigan, a city that has a deep history of racial animosity between blacks and whites. Detroit is one of America’s “Chocolate” cities, having a population that is 80-90 percent black. My interactions with whites in Detroit’s surrounding suburbs give me enough reason to believe that at times, interpretations of society can be very different when comparing black and white perspectives. For instance, compare how differently blacks and whites viewed the OJ Simpson fiasco. (Down in Black Bahia: Revisiting My First Trip To Salvador, Bahia)
When speaking of Brazil, many people speak of beaches, beautiful women and Carnaval. But my research also informed me about crime, poverty and racial discrimination. I decided to first visit Salvador, Bahia, another city with a 80 percent black population and also the center of Afro-Brazilian culture. Through determination and luck, I made a few contacts on the Internet with two people who I will forever consider to be my brother and sister in Brazil.
Without Danielle and Marcus and Brazzil magazine’s own Kirsten (thank you so much!), my voyage to Brazil would not have been possible. In the beginning, there were as many as five other people who wanted to make the journey below the equator with me. But as September (the month I was leaving) approached, I became the “last man standing”. I must admit, the idea of 15 hours on an airplane solo was a little scary, but my people in Salvador reassured that they would be there for me every step of the way.
My flight took me from Detroit to New York to São Paulo and finally to Salvador. On the plane from New York to São Paulo, I noticed that I was one of only three black people on the airplane, but soon the people on the plane made me feel very comfortable. Many were Brazilians returning home. The guy sitting in front of me, who I will call Sergio, eased my spirits by telling me stories about his adventures in Massachusetts. He engaged me in a conversation about racial politics in Brazil. I had read about terms such as moreno and mulatto and the myth of a “racial democracy” and here was Sergio assuring me that having dark skin in Brazil would not be a problem for me. I thought to myself, “another victim of the myth.”
My arrival in São Paulo was another shock to my system. I had just left New York and was now in Brazil’s equal to the Big Apple. At JFK airport, I noticed blacks, whites, Asians and Latinos everywhere. The airport in São Paulo was a stark contrast because of its lack of blacks. A city of 16 million people, a third of which are black, and I saw only two other black people in the entire airport and they WORKED there. This must have been one of the loneliest feelings of my entire life.
I remember when the guy at the baggage check-in asked me if I was going to Salvador. When I asked him how he knew, he politely answered that he could tell by “how I was dressed”. O.K. When I finally arrived in Salvador, I was greeted by my new Internet “sister” Danielle and her friend Marli. Being American, I had to adjust to the traditional Brazilian greeting of the kiss on each cheek. Danielle was a pretty, dark-skinned “sista”, but I couldn’t quite figure out what Marli was. She lacked the pinkish skin tone that categorized most white people by American standards, but she wasn’t quite black either. It turned out that her grandfather was black. Brazil… the land of miscegenation.
We loaded my bags into Marli’s tiny blue car and started the drive into the city. My Portuguese was nowhere near perfect, but they were quite impressed with my usage of the language. During my three week stay, I felt a little shy about using my elementary Portuguese, but after the first week, Danielle began demanding that I stop using her as a translator because “você fala Português”. After all, we were communicating just fine and when we weren’t, we both carried dictionaries.
Salvador reminded me of photos I had seen of Jamaica, Cuba and Florida as well as my birth state of Georgia. Plenty of palm trees, red dirt and hot weather. It is no secret that there are some beautiful African-American women at home, but here were their beautiful “sisters”. Before I arrived in Salvador, I had seen many of my beautiful “sistas” in the pages of Raça Brasil magazine, and here they were; walking home with bags of groceries, standing at bus-stops and chasing soccer balls. Like in America, the skin tones varied from the highest-yellow to the darkest blue-black. But I must say, I have never seen so many dark-skinned black women with straight or curly hair in my life.
It’s a shame, but many black women would kill to have this “good” hair. Indoctrination at its finest. The women that don’t have straight or curly hair wear… you would never believe what is a very popular hairstyle in Brazil right now for Afro-Brazilian women. The hairstyle is called an “Afro Permanente” but 20 years ago in America, we called it a “Jheri Curl”. Wow, this hairstyle has been hot with women for a few years here and every now and then you see a “brotha” with a fresh, wet, straight out of a 1979 Michael Jackson photo album “Jheri”…I mean “Afro Permanente“.
The three of us were trying to decide upon a decent hotel and after visiting a few, I decided on a little hotel on a street called Rua Sete de Setembro. The street was named after the Brazilian day of independence in 1822. I won’t mention the name of the hotel, but my new friends kept asking why I was staying there. I wanted a hotel where I could be in the middle of the action and blend in with the common folk. This place provided me with the perfect view of the street and was only a 20-minute walk away from the historic Pelourinho District that I had read so much about.
Every morning I witnessed hundreds of Baianos walking to their destinations. People drive in Salvador, but I think that probably 75 percent of the city catches the ônibus. On an average day, these bus stops are packed with up to 50 people waiting for the bus that will take them to where they are going. I rode the bus more times in my three-week stay than I have since I was about 15 years old. But I loved it. These buses have cashiers who will make change for you if you don’t have exact change. Interesting concept.
The most popular car in this city was the 1975 Volkswagen Bug. I couldn’t figure out why this car and its minivan model were so popular and how so many of them were in mint condition. Then I learned that Brazil still manufactures this car. The majority of the people who live in Salvador can only dream of buying a car some day. Danielle has a college degree but only earns $300 per month. As a matter of fact, 2 of her 3 sisters and her brother all have college degrees (a rarity for blacks in Brazil) but all earn between $300-350 per month. Her oldest sister is an English teacher with a Master’s Degree and earns around $18,000 per year. She is working on earning a Ph.D.
Industrialization in Brazil happened geographically opposite than it happened in America. Economically, the Brazilian North is equivalent to the American South. In America, during the past 50 years, people and families migrated north to cities like Detroit, Chicago, New York and also west to places like Los Angeles. In Brazil, people migrated south to cities like Rio, São Paulo, Porte Alegre and Belo Horizonte.
I had brought two dress suits and shoes with me for my extended stay in Salvador. I don’t dress very extravagantly by American standards, but this was a whole other game. When Danielle saw my clothing, she asked why I dressed so chic. She told me that people would immediately know I was American because of my FILA shoes and jogging suit, articles I had been wearing for four years.
Walking the streets, I realized what she meant. The everyday apparel of people in Salvador reminded of America in the 1970s. But once again, I loved it. I was ecstatic to get away from “Big Wille”, “appearance of money syndrome” that plagued my community in Detroit. In Detroit, people might live paycheck to paycheck, but you would never know it. SUV trucks and fashion names like Coogi, Tommy Hilfiger, Roc-a-Wear and Air Jordans are everywhere in Detroit. In Salvador, you don’t see much name-brand material.
Many of these people live on $150 per month or less, thus clothing is the furthest thing from their minds. Danielle was anxious to take me to her church. It rained in Salvador nearly every day I was there, even if only for 10 minutes in a day, the rain always made an appearance (I understand that September is the rain season). The rain was too strong to brave the elements the first week I was there, but we made it in my second week.
Once again, I was pleasantly surprised. At this Catholic church ceremony, people were dressed in jeans, slacks and plain shirts, a far cry from the $1,000 suits that seemed to be part of an unofficial dress code in many churches I had attended back home. These people take the words of GOD to heart because they come to church as they are.
Meeting Danielle’s friend Marli turned out to be a preview to an interesting and at times disturbing view of race in Brazil. Many of the people that Danielle labeled as being white in Salvador would not have been white by American standards. There were of course many people of obvious African descent and I saw very few white people in Salvador, excluding the many tourists from America and Europe. I had read that the black population in Brazil was approximately half of the total Brazilian population. The skin complexion of many of the people that Danielle considered to be white had the complexions of what Americans would consider being Hispanic.
They were not white because they possessed a light brown skin tone and usually had either straight or curly hair. But in Salvador, as Danielle explained, they were considered white. After nearly two weeks in Salvador, I finally met my friend Marcus, a short guy with light skin and dreadlocks, who was very talented. This guy is a Capoeira master and a musician and seemed to know everybody. Originally from Rio, Marcus had moved to Salvador a few years ago. We had conversed through e-mail for about six months before I arrived and we discovered that we were both fascinated with the history of Africa and the African Diaspora. (Down in Black Bahia: Revisiting My First Trip To Salvador, Bahia)
He wanted me to meet the neighborhood kids that he worked with on Saturdays teaching African history. So we met in the Praça Onze, a little park that was about a 10-minute walk from my hotel and had a little lunch at a restaurant. As we looked at all of the people walking by, Marcus explained to me that these same people that Danielle called white and I referred to as Hispanic/Latino, were actually black also. In the same way that Mexicans are considered to be descendants of Native Americans, these people were descendants of Africans, thus, black also.
He reminded me that not all of these people will tell you that they are black and went on to prove his point. When he asked the fair-skinned cashier taking our order what race she considered herself, she became offended as she explained that she never categorized herself by race. America has been notorious for its racial problems, but the negative image of blackness in Brazil has been so influential upon the people that many don’t accept the fact that they are of African descent. This is one of the main reasons why Brazil has lacked any kind of strong, mass black movement for equal rights in the same way as the Civil Rights Movement in America and the wars of independence in many African countries of the 1960s. (Down in Black Bahia: Revisiting My First Trip To Salvador, Bahia)
Blacks Despite All
The idea of “enbranquecimento” (whitening) and “racial democracy” has stripped the Brazilian population of color of any kind of unity to protest against the invisible force of racial discrimination that is so obvious in this country. When many of these Brazilians of color visit America, they experience culture shock when they discover that in America, they are not considered white. It is a shame when people are in denial of self.
Marcus and I caught two buses across town during the next hour and I saw parts of the city that I would not have seen any other way. One thing I noticed about people in Salvador is that most of them are poor, but also very happy. Entering one of the many favelas (shantytowns) in the city, I asked Marcus if he thought it was dangerous for me to be there. He told me that as long as I didn’t speak, my skin categorized me as a local, thus I wouldn’t have any problems. (Down in Black Bahia: Revisiting My First Trip To Salvador, Bahia)
People of European descent were more at risk because they are obvious outsiders and associated with wealth. We finally arrived and entered into a house whose backyard featured a beautiful view of a lake surrounded by palm trees and tropical scenery. It is amazing how Salvador has so much natural God-made beauty surrounding so much man-made poverty. In this house, I met senior citizens that reminded me of my relatives in Georgia.
They spoke Portuguese, but I felt an instant bond of family. The house was very old but possessed a warmth that made me feel right at home. After introducing me to several people, Marcus led me into the backyard where the rambunctious sounds of several drums being pounded were also deafening. There were about 20 neighborhood kids organized in an Ilê Aiyê-styled percussion ensemble. When I say “kids” I mean young adults aged 16-23. The guy leading this ensemble looked exactly like NBA star Penny Hardaway, but with dreadlocks. They all greeted Marcus and took notice of the tall stranger that followed his every move.
Needless to say, my video camera was working overtime that day. After a few greetings, they became aware that I was an American. After a 10-minute lunch break, Marcus organized the people for a short prayer session. I was filming everything but two of the girls insisted that I join hands in the group. It felt good to be accepted so quickly. After the short prayer, the group all sat on the floor in a circle and Marcus began to talk to the group. My Portuguese was not good enough to understand what he was saying, but I managed to hear “Americano” and notice all of the eyes turn in my direction. (Down in Black Bahia: Revisiting My First Trip To Salvador, Bahia)
Many of the young people were asking Marcus questions when he turned to me and said, “Marques, will you do me a favor?” He explained that usually, he teaches African history during this session, but their questions about their African-American “brother” were so numerous that he wanted to know if I would participate in a short interview session. I was obliged to accept. I gave my video camera to one of the girls who filmed the entire session for me.
As I sat in the middle of the circle, the people began asking all sorts of questions. They asked Marcus the questions in Portuguese, Marcus interpreted in English for me, I answered in English, he translated back into Portuguese. They asked questions about the difference between racism in America and Brazil, what I thought about American Rap artists, American views of inter-racial marriages…
Later on that night I met Marcus’s girlfriend and also met Kirsten and her husband for the second time. You all may know Kirsten as a frequent contributing writer for this magazine. Kirsten is a wonderful person who is also fluent in Portuguese. We all met at their friend Dani’s apartment. We listened to some great Brazilian music and ate a pizza made with cream cheese and scrambled eggs. Sounds strange, but it tasted great. I forgot to mention that after two weeks I was totally hooked on Baiano food. I was eating acarajé with vatapá and feijão every day. If restaurants are closed you can always get delicious Baiano delicacies just walking the streets.
A few hours later, Marcus, his girlfriend, another friend, and I all went to the Ilê Aiyê concert. The scene at this show was similar to what I had seen in “the ‘hood” in many black communities in America. Hundreds of young folks having a good time, dancing, eating, and drinking. During my vacation and especially at this show, I saw a “copy” of nearly every black girl I had ever dated in America. I saw “copies” of myself and all of my friends back home. It seemed as if Salvador was saying to me “welcome home, Marques”.
I wanted to film this event but wasn’t sure how a musical group with CDs on the market would react to me filming their concert. The guy who led the drumming ensemble earlier that day was a member of the Ilê Aiyê. He talked to his musical director who told him it was OK. Soon, “Penny” was leading me through the crowd offering great video footage of the crowd and the singer on stage.
I couldn’t believe it, at one point I was on stage with the singer. I met the founder of the group and most of the members in a backstage area. At the gate, people were also passing out flyers endorsing candidates in the upcoming city elections. I had seen photos of city council nominee Olivia Santana all over town and here she was in the flesh. This was a day I will never forget. (Down in Black Bahia: Revisiting My First Trip To Salvador, Bahia)
I made several new friends while I was in Salvador, including Paulo and Adilson (why does everyone in Salvador seem to have the name da Silva, Santos or Rodrigues?). I actually saw Adilson on my first day in Salvador. He worked at the tourist agency where I exchanged my American dollar for the Brazilian real. At this time in September, my dollar was worth 1.94 real.
Adilson knew I was American because, as he said, my clothes had hip-hop written all over them, and he loved hip-hop. He especially liked slain American rapper Tupac, or “Tupacy” as he called him. Adilson was 25 and Paulo was 31. Adilson was also an important part of my trip because he represented the aspirations, confusion, hope and despair of the Afro-Brazilian male. He worshipped America and dreamed of coming to America some day and enjoying life in ways he didn’t think were possible in Brazil. When he thought of America, he thought of mansions, big cars, luxurious clothes, and beautiful women. American culture dominated Brazil and it made me sick. But through television and movies, that is all he knew about America.
I would explain to Adilson every day that life in America is nowhere as simple as the media would have him believe. Yes, there are many successful Americans, but there is also tremendous poverty in America, even though some levels of poverty in America would be considered decent by Brazilian standards. No matter how much I tried to explain, he couldn’t seem to grasp the idea of poor people in America. All he wanted to do came to America with me. Then I explained to him the reality of trying to come to America.
Adilson did not graduate 2nd Grau (High School) and earned two minimum salaries per month at his job ($150). It would be near impossible at this point for him to come to America. An airplane ticket alone would cost about $1,000, he would still need to get a passport, visa, have double the spending money (to equal American dollar rates) and that still doesn’t include lodging for a week or two. The job market in America is highly competitive for those with a college degree. Imagine someone trying to survive in America from another country when they don’t speak English and have little education. (Down in Black Bahia: Revisiting My First Trip To Salvador, Bahia)
Many people wish to just come to America and work for a few months at a place like McDonald’s (which is very popular in Brazil), earn a couple of thousand dollars, and come back home. The government of Brazil refuses to do anything about the desperation and poverty that is a daily part of life for many Brazilians. Adilson is the product of this society. It is difficult to try to coerce someone into finishing school when there are people with college degrees that earn only 4 minimum wages per month. Every day I saw middle school aged kids walking around in the Pelourinho either begging for money or trying to sell something for money. Word on the street is that many of these kids use the money they get to buy crack. (Down in Black Bahia: Revisiting My First Trip To Salvador, Bahia)
I remember many of the deep conversations Danielle and I had about the differences between our people. She asked me if people would look down on her if she came to America wearing the plainclothes she wore that were considered normal in Salvador. I hated to admit it, but many people in America are very materialistic and this could cause damage to the psyche of someone who was not accustomed to this mentality. There were times when we went places and did things that Danielle felt the need to explain to me that she was poor. In the best Portuguese I could muster, I sincerely explained to her that the experience she was giving me was worth more than any material possession. We are all just people trying to survive in a world full of inequality that we have no control over. The value of her heart and soul were priceless and money had no place in our relationship. (Down in Black Bahia: Revisiting My First Trip To Salvador, Bahia)
Danielle had taken me almost everywhere. Beaches (lookout “sistas” in America, you have competition), shopping malls, restaurants, etc. It seems that everywhere I went, people wanted to discuss the issue of race. When I visited Danielle’s apartment, it was a full house. Not only were her two sisters, brother and mother who she shared the apartment with there, but also three friends. I met her friend who I will call Alexis. Alexis was tall, pretty, had a light skin complexion and thick, straight, black hair. (Down in Black Bahia: Revisiting My First Trip To Salvador, Bahia)
When I asked Alexis why she didn’t consider herself black, she said it was because she didn’t have the large derriere that was associated with most black women. Danielle’s brother had a fixation with white and light-skinned black women. Why? Dark-skinned women reminded him too much of his sisters. One of Danielle’s sisters, Fátima had company, a German man twice her age who was staying with the family while he was in Brazil. I have no problem with people of different races who genuinely fall in love, but at times there are other reasons why people date outside of their race. Fátima, also a very pretty, chocolate-colored girl, wore a long curly weave because “black guys in Salvador only like women with hair like that”. (Down in Black Bahia: Revisiting My First Trip To Salvador, Bahia)
Another of Danielle’s sisters, Maria, commented that if they had “good hair” like mine, they wouldn’t wear perms or weaves. Five hundred years of oppression and black people are still saying “bad hair” and “good hair”. Where is Malcolm X when you need him? Again, this whole scene seems very familiar. Fátima said she was dating her current beau because black guys in Salvador don’t seem to notice her. In the black community at home, many black women continue to point to average black men as well as celebrities and athletes like Tiger Wood, Quincy Jones, Ving Rhames, Kobe Bryant and Cuba Gooding, Jr as “sell-out” brothers who would do anything to get a white woman. With the indoctrination process going strong in Brazil, “sistas” in America can’t complain.
I experienced a little bit of everything in my first journey to Brazil. I saw many Capoeira demonstrations, visited the famous slave dungeon beneath the Mercado shopping market, and even saw a Candomblé ritual. The strangest thing I remember was being in the street one night on my way back to the hotel from the Pelourinho and being propositioned by one of several prostitutes walking the streets. Well, maybe it wasn’t so strange. Like I said, this seems all too familiar. (Down in Black Bahia: Revisiting My First Trip To Salvador, Bahia)
This was a short journal of my first of what will surely be many more visits to Brazil. Many people have a misconception about Brazil because of a lack of knowledge. If more people took the time to research these things, they would realize that the people of the African Diaspora are the same everywhere. Whether in Jamaica, Cuba, Brazil, America, Martinique, Haiti, Puerto Rico, or the Dominican Republic, we are them and they are us.