Note from BBT: I always like to learn about the experiences of other black Americans or other non-Brazilian blacks from other countries in Brazil. Often times, I can go back in my own memory vault and remember something similar that has happened to me over my years both visiting and living in Brazil. Today’s piece is a good example of this.
The author of the brief story below is an African-American female university professor. I had to laugh as I read through it as I would imagine many African-Americans living in or visiting Brazil have gone through something like this. In reality, these stories are really about stereotypes, imagery and nationality. And nowadays, with an increased number of black people from other countries coming to Brazil either to study, construct a new life, open a business or just visit, it must get pretty confusing or frustrating for people who have views of certain groups of people based strictly on stereotypes.
The first Brazilian family I ever met was on my first trip to Salvador, Bahia, back September of 2000. I’ll never forget that first experience. The young lady who was showing me around the city, whom I shall call “Daniela”, lived in an apartment in a neighborhood called Brotas. She had two or three sisters and a brother, all of whom lived with their parents in a small apartment.
When Daniela introduced me to her parents, she explained that I was an ‘americano’. We had exchanged various emails before I arrived in the city on August 31, 2000, so her parents knew she had a foreign correspondence. Her sister was dating a German man who frequently visited Brazil. Daniela and her entire family were dark-skinned black people and considering the fact that her sister was dating a very white German man, maybe they expected that’s what I would look like. Maybe even hoped for considering this question of palmitagem in Brazil’s black community.
Anyway, after she introduced me to her folks, it seems that they didn’t understand that I was American as they kept repeating “africano?”. I remember having repeated 3 or 4 times, “Não. Sou americano”. It was strange to me that her parents couldn’t understand the fact that I was American. ‘Was this because of the media?’, I later thought. It’s a known fact that although Brazil has its own mainstream media and powerful television networks, American productions are very popular in Brazil. And American productions in film and television are dominated by white faces, as is the political and economic structure.
But even with that being the case, didn’t her parents really not know that there were black people in the United States? I mean, had they never heard of or seen Muhammad Ali, Louis Armstrong, Martin Luther King, Jr. or any of the other hundreds of black Americans who had gained fame around the world? Music made by African-Americans had had a huge influence on Brazil’s black population over the previous decades, but I guess this familiarity really depends on the generations exposed to such things as well as the predominant phenotype presented of a certain nationality.
The generational explanation would definitely apply to other baianos (Bahians) I would meet on that first trip. The next day when I made my way to the famed Pelourinho district to exchange my Americans dollars for Brazilian reais, I became acquainted with a young black man in his mid-20s. As he passed out flyers in the area and saw me pass by, he immediately started screaming out “Hippy Hop, americano! Hippy Hop, americano!”.
At that moment, I learned that Brazilians pronounced hip hop as “hippy hop”. As I was dressed in a Fila jogging suit and gym shoes and a FUBU do-rag, I guess that was enough to signal to him that I was American. Similar to my experience in another Bahian city, Ilhéus, my new friend, Adilson, seemed to be excited to have met an American. As we hung out several times for the next few weeks, he always seemed to make a point of people knowing that I was American.
African-Americans in Brazil is by no means a rare thing anymore as it seems that many of us became intrigued with Brazil around the same time, some time in the first decade of the 21st century. Today, I know African-Americans, as well as Jamaicans, Haitians, Angolans and other blacks from the diaspora that have made Brazil their home, at least temporarily. And our interactions with Brazilians is a story in itself.
It sometimes seems that some Brazilians are a little confused by African-Americans and that we, like them, come in a number of skin tones and hair textures. It really depends on the person and their exposure to the African experience in the Americas. Over the years, I’ve met black Brazilians who, upon first encounter, think I’m Angolan, while others will look me up and down and say, “I can tell you’re not African because of your hair/clothes/accent/walk” or whatever the case may be.
Some time in the early 2000s, on a trip to my native state of Georgia, a friend of mine and I went to hear a lecture by Afro-Brazilian activist Diva Moreira at Emory University. After her lecture, during a chat between the three of us, Moreira looked at my friend, who I shall call “Jenine”, and asked her, “So, who is the white person in your family?”. Jenine, having very fair skin and green eyes, replied that she didn’t really know.
Afro-Brazilians sometimes report experiencing the phenotype-nationality stereotype in their own country as well. Well-known Afro-Brazilian lawyer Hédio Silva once mentioned how airline stewardesses usually speak to him in English aboard flights because they assume that a black man on a plane couldn’t possibly be Brazilian. This treatment often plays out in Brazil when black people are approached by police because it is assumed that they cannot to have nice cars, and if they do, they must be musicians or futebol players.
The fact is, when we meet our brothers, sisters and cousins, be they from the African continent, the Americas, Europe or Asia, we know each other when see each other and we shouldn’t be surprised when we meet. Black folks range the gamut in phenotypes, live in various neighborhoods and belong to different economic classes. We’re everywhere. It’s just another part of the black experience.
But I guess sometimes people have to be reminded of that…
“No, I’m not an Angolan.”
By Tanya Saunders
Today at the post office, where I went to request a CPF (see note one), I asked if I was in the right place to register.
“Are you Angolan?!”, I was asked by the postal worker – who would be classified as black in the US, but not in Brazil.
I then replied, “No, I’m not an Angolan.”
I handed him a printed copy of my online application that contained all of my information. Address in Brazil, citizenship etc.
Post Office Attendant: “Ok. Well, you need an official passport [repeated several times], you have to get a letter from the Federal Police (immigration), a letter from someone who will inform of your stay here and a telephone or electricity bill.”
Me: “First of all, I can’t get an electricity bill without a CPF, and no, I don’t need all this information. I just need a passport. Also, why do you keep saying that I need an original passport? I need to have an original passport to enter the country when I am from the US, if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have boarded.”
Post Office Attendant: “Well, get an account of the person with whom you are staying. Do you have an original passport?’
Me: “Oh, you’re right. I left my original passport in the United States. I just have my fake passport with me.”
Post Office Attendant: “Well, you will have to go to the Embassy of Angola and ask for the original passport.”
Me: “Are you serious?”
Post Office Attendant: “Yes.”
Me: “I was being sarcastic. What you’re saying is wrong and I don’t need any of those documents. Any foreigner can apply for a CPF with a passport. That is the basic knowledge. Anyone who has to stay here for a few weeks can find out that this is what you need to get one, it’s on every website.”
Post Office Attendant: “Well, that’s what you need.”
Me: “Well, I don’t have an address here. I live in a hotel.” [remember that I gave him an official copy of a printed form that he has in hand, which is a certification from my private address – which is not actually a hotel].
Post Office Attendant: “Ah. Hmm. Good, come with me.”
So, I go to the back of the Post Office branch and he introduces me to the head of the unit, who is a black woman. I hand her the papers and my passport. She looks at them and says, “Ok, why are you here?”
Me: “I don’t know. The guy says that I have to get an immigration letter, an invitation letter from someone who lives in Brazil, and I have to bring a phone bill – which I don’t have because I need a CPF to get a phone bill bla bla bla.”
Annoyed, she gets up and walks out.
Manager: “Who is helping you?”
Post Office Attendants: “We are not helping you. The other attendant was helping her. He left for a second. But she doesn’t have a valid Angolan passport, so we were unable to help her.”
Meanwhile, the attendant returns and tries to defend his cause.
Manager: “Geez! What do you mean when you say that she doesn’t have a valid Angolan passport? She is an American! Can’t you hear her accent?”
Post office attendant: “But she has to bring proof of address.”
Manager: “What are you talking about? She just needs to write an address so that the government can send her CPF documents, and she has an address here on her form, which you gave me. Did you even look at it? And you at least looked at the passport, it’s an original passport! You should have just asked for her passport. If you had asked for her passport, which is all that is needed, you would have seen it.”
She pointed to my passport, flipped through it showing the countless visas from several different countries and pages full of entry and exit stamps… which irritated her the most because she highlighted the obvious validity of the passport and the stupidity of the situation.
Manager: “All of you, listen to me. Any foreigner who comes here just needs a passport. That’s it.”
Manager (towards the employee who started my service): “You, fill out her form”.
Manager (towards me): “I’m sorry about that, dear.”
So, I continued with my day and went to the beach. And yes, this story gets even better, lol. I sit at a kiosk for a Coke. The guy behind the counter (again he would be classified as white in Brazil and as a person of color in the United States) – says: – “So! You’re from Angola, aren’t you ?! ”
Me: “No, I’m not from Angola. Why do you think I am Angolan? I barely speak Portuguese.”
There were other times when this happened and I asked people, why Angolan, and they often said: it’s because you speak Portuguese “wrong…”
Kiosk guy: “Where are you from?”
True to form, he guesses every country on the African continent or Latin America.
Usual disbelief, followed by visible mental processing, and then by a strange smile as he tries to imagine me as a person from the US.
Me: “So, why does everyone think I’m Angolan? Do Angolan women always come here with dreadlocks?”
Kiosk guy: “No, I never met any with dreadlocks”.
Remember that dreadlocks on a black woman are a serious rarity in Brazil. I saw only four black women (including me) with dreadlocks.
Me: Well, if dreadlocks are not typical of Angolan women, then why do people assume that I am Angolan?
Kiosk guy: Oh, it’s because you’re black.
I think this comment finally solves the “mystery”. At that moment, I realized that what is most interesting in Brazil is that the people who think I am Angolan, African or Latina – even when I speak to them in English, have been people who are neither black nor white – and struggle to try to process the fact that I am from the United States. But I haven’t had that experience with blacks yet. Upon leaving the kiosk, I realized that I needed to go back to my field notes, just to compare other experiences I wrote about. I wondered if that was really a pattern. And if so, what in the world did that mean?
So, I went to my last stop before going home: getting a cart to shop with. I found one and walked over to the cash register. The cashier was a black woman in her 20s. I didn’t say anything. I handed her two BRL 50.00 bills to pay for the cart. She held up one of the BRL 50 bills and asked in English, “Do you have anything smaller?”
I smiled and said no. So, I asked her, “How do you know I’m an American?” She replied, “Well, you are dressed like one. It’s kind of obvious.”
The campaign “May 13: Celebrate what?” is a collaboration initiative between US Network for Democracy in Brazil, Geledés Instituto da Mulher Negra and Afro-Brazilian Alliance (ABA) and aims to reaffirm the date of the abolition of slavery in Brazil as the National Day for the Fight against Racism, as outlined by the black movement, since the Golden Law didn’t guarantee full access to rights and equality for the black population – which has been facing profound inequalities since then.
Tanya Saunders holds a PhD in Sociology from the University of Michigan and is Professor of Latin American Studies at the University of Florida. Her research seeks to discuss the ways in which the African diaspora in the Americas uses the arts as a tool for social change. Her themes of interest are race, gender, sexuality and social movements that are articulated through the arts.
- The CPF, meaning Cadastro de Pessoas Físicas or Brazilian individual taxpayer registry identification, is a number issued by the Brazilian Federal Revenue service to Brazilians or foreigners living in Brazil who pay some sort of tax in Brazil.