Thursday, September 30, 2010

oh, what a shame

I am what you would call a "proud Brazilian". But not today. Not that this particularly Thursday had anything special to it. But I recently signed up for the daily edition of "O Globo", the leading Brazilian newspaper, on my new Kindle - absolutely great purchase by the way!

So as I take the Uptown 2 train to SIPA, I come across a never-ending stream of abhorrent headlines. Then I remember the approaching presidential elections scheduled for this coming Sunday, October 3rd.

May I add here that I will be unable to vote because – totally logical reason – the deadline to register to vote outside of Brazil was in MAY! Who cares that I got to NYC one month ago. “You can register as soon as the polls close on Sunday,” the Consulate phone operator told me.

So we are back on the redline. The articles read like a “who’s who” of political scum – or twisted comedy. Let’s start with Cid Gomes, Ceará’s current governor.

Apparently his name came up during a public debate between contestants for the state’s leading office (even though any conversation involving adjectives like “thief” and “son a b****” can hardly be described as a debate…).

To nobody’s surprise, one of the debaters was Mr. Gomes brother himself, Ciro Gomes, who, in turn, was attacked based on his brother’s misuse of government funds for private trips to NYC and Europe. Obviously the accusations were vehemently denied, with replies like “seu mentiroso vagabundo”, “ladrão safado” and the like (sorry, no translation here).

Little side note, “an insider” posted videos of Mr. Gomes and his family and friends vacationing in private jets and limo rides in NYC.

Brazilian TV Globo also has footage on Mr. Gomes luxurious stays during a mini-European, “officially business”, trip, in the company of his wife, mother-in-law, and two Secretaries and their wives. Amongst the troupe’s hotels feature Edinburg’s Rocco Forte Balmoral – a historical building neighboring one of the British Royal family’s castles – and Hyatt Park’s London Hilton.

Don’t forget, in both trips, the governor flew WITH FAMILY AND FRIENDS on a private jet – ALL PAID WITH PUBLIC MONEY. The costs for the accommodations and “plain tickets” to Europe cost Ceará an estimated U$250,000.

If you anyone is interested in Mr. Gomes’ sorry attempt at justifying:

I sincerely hope some 192 million+ compatriots share my indignation.

ps: there was so much to say on Mr. Gomes today, that I find it better to leave this post as it is...No need to add, for example, that Mr. President Luíz Inácio "Lula" da Silva himself was flagged for publicly insulting a presidential candidate, Mr. José Serra, by calling him “um cara de pau” – surprise, surprise, Mr. Serra is Dilma Rousseff (Lula’s favorite) main contender.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

not natural born killers

“There must be something wrong with our society,” affirms Luís Roberto Pires Ferreira, or Beto, as the CEO of AfroReggae is more popularly known. “Rio de Janeiro’s children aren’t born natural killers, but somehow they end up dealing drugs and committing murders.”

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s Cidade Maravilhosa (Wonderful City), is home to more than 600 favelas, or slums, with a combined population estimated anywhere between 3 to 6 million people.

Favelas are also home to Rio’s heavily armed drug gangs – among them the notorious Comando Vermelho“City of God”. portrayed in Fernando Meirelles

For the most part, the government is an unseen presence. As many communities lack schools, parks, pools, community centers, sanitation, hospitals, clinics, banks, post-offices…and the list could go on.

Residents are held hostage between the incompetent – and often oppressive – police, the neglectful authorities and the vicious drug barons.

On September 21, Beto came to SIPA to present the work done by the Grupo Cultural AfroReggae (AfroReggae Cultural Group), a non-governmental organization based in Rio de Janeiro.

AfroReggae was born in Vigário Geral, in January 1993, out of the desire to counteract the violent drug industry and the police oppression pervasive in the city.

The goal was to reduce the distance separating Rio’s whites and blacks, rich and poor, favelas and asphalt, so as to connect the different sectors of society.

AR would soon become a means through which favela residents of Vigário Geral, Parada de Lucas, Complexo do Alemão, Cantagalo and Nova Era – some of Rio’s most violent slums – would use their culture as a forum for expression.

The group may be more popularly known for its world-famous band, AfroReggae, which has opened concerts for celebrities like the Rolling Stones, Madonna and Beyoncé. But its work is much bigger than that.

For seventeen years, AfroReggae has been working in what Beto describes as “complex environments” – as complex as life in Rio de Janeiro can be – to bring an alternative to communities affected by poverty and violence.

The idea is to attract people to the culture of culture instead of the culture of drugs and violence.

AR started by seeking to attract favelas’ youth, offering educational workshops in the popular musical genres – soul, reggae, rap, hip-hop, funk and samba – and programs focused on dance, acting, graffiti, recycling, capoeira, soccer, percussion and more.

AfroReggae tries to “sell the reality of a long life”, showing children and adolescents they can live past their 17th birthday – an age where many have died or lost friends to drug related violence – and working to (re)build their self-esteem.

Beto tells us about one 11-year-old child, member of a drug gang, who when asked whether he was afraid to die simply responded, “No, it’s okay, they [gang leaders] will find someone to replace me really soon.”

When asked again about whether he feared being killed, the young boy replied, “If I am dead, I am dead. It cannot be worse than being here.”

from favela to the world

Amongst its many accomplishments, AR has developed projects and partnerships in all corners of the world – Colombia, UK, Germany, Portugal, India, South Africa, China, United States and Canada – always seeking to promote art as a means towards social justice, and promoting socio-cultural exchanges.

As a carioca – a native of Rio de Janeiro – it was inspiring to see how many SIPA students engaged in the discussion and later approached Beto to request his contact information. At least four said they were “very interested in getting involved with AfroReggae’s work.”

“We want to tell these people’s stories,” said Beto. “But another story, not that which is commonly portrayed by the media, as the story of criminals. We want to show that more than 99% of those who live in the favelas are citizens like you and me. And we want to show how some of the most important parts of Brazilian culture – such as soccer, samba, hip-hop and funk – were born in or out of the favelas.”

I invite you all to visit the organization’s website.

Must watch: “Favela Rising”

A version of this article was written for and published by Columbia University's Communique, on October 14th, 2010.

(in)visible stamping

How often have Brazilians heard that they are all lazy, Carnaval-dancing, soccer-playing, Havaianas-wearing beach bums? How many times have French been blamed for Parisians’ arrogance, rudeness and smelliness? How frequently have Americans been accused of being ignorant wannabe world dominators?

Before leaving Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, I had never been asked (directly) about my race, my religious affiliation, my political views, my ethnicity or my sexual identity. Am I a liberal or a conservative? Am I interested in men, women or both? Am I black, brown, white, red, yellow or “other”? Am I Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, atheist or “other”? Am I an evolutionist or a creationist? Maybe I am a check mark in a box?

I am a Caucasian, twenty-five years old, baptized, half-Belgian, half-Brazilian female. But I see these details as irrelevant to you, my reader. And I hope that what you will retain from this article goes beyond the fact that I am a young, white, Euro-Latin American woman.

Trying to fit my physical characteristics, ideas, beliefs and values into categories from a drop-down list doesn’t make much sense to me. It might be that where I am from classes are so rigidly established and obvious – you are either a minority, quite rich and white, or a majority, mostly poor and dark skinned – that nobody goes through the trouble of worry about official categories.

By contrast, America’s fluid, heterogeneous, “we can all attain the American dream” society might need more formal, stratified organizing principles. It might also be that Americans are so adamant about their acceptance of diversity, that by “demonstrating it too much” has reinforced the need for categorizations.

And maybe there is nothing wrong with that. After all, aren’t we asked to label ourselves when applying to SIPA?

Labels aren’t inherently bad. They may be a source of comfort and belonging. The words “I am Brazilian” always come to me with a sense of pride.

Labels also help us organize society and simplify overcomplicated aspects of daily life. Our profession is a label. So is our gender, our education level and the hand in which we wear our wedding band.

The problem emerges when labels are used not as adjectives but as the only definition of who we are – even though most of the time we have no choice as to which label is being applied to us!

Combined with a lack of information, labels may lead to unhelpful and misguided stereotypes – inaccurate, simplistic or exaggerated generalizations about a group or individual. They may isolate, creating barriers between people who are otherwise very similar.

Such constructions may come to – consciously or not – influence thoughts and behaviors. And suddenly, without much careful consideration, we feel we know exactly who people are, we can explain their conduct or predict their future actions. We may even come to harbor hostile thoughts towards them!

By labeling groups or individuals we risk closing our minds, fitting people into categories and keeping them there. We may feel comfortable in our ideological cocoons, grabbing onto evidence that supports our view and simply ignoring that which contradicts it.

I have been deemed arrogant for saying I hold political and religious views independent of particular affiliations. As an immigrant, I have been the target of, but not felt personally harmed by labels.

But I know many people who have, and I am positive you do too.

One of our fellow students, Lenny Pridatko, remembers an “overall unpleasant feeling” when he first emigrated from the former Soviet Union, in 1991. “Go back where you came from” is a phrase he heard repeatedly throughout his first few years in the U.S.

Lenny did not “return to where he came from”. Instead, he remained in Brooklyn and worked quickly to lose his once strong Russian accent.

I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t admit that I have been guilty of labeling and stereotyping myself – even if reluctantly or unconsciously. How about you?

It’s easy to forget that before gender, color, religion, background or preferences we are all individual human beings. Or that maybe, beyond these secondary details, we just want to find common ground and live in a world free of bias.

In the meantime, why don’t we look at the person next to us, and make as much effort as possible to get to know them for who they truly are, instead of seeing them for what they appear to be?

I like to think that at SIPA – a mini international hub – most of us will not allow generalizations to replace thought and experience. We will prevent ourselves from only hanging out with those who share our label(s) and avoiding those who don’t.

We will take advantage of this once in a lifetime opportunity, and instead of hiding in our comfort zones, we will seek to learn from people of all colors, backgrounds, preferences, dress codes, races and religions. I am sure we will surprise ourselves. Is everybody with me?

This article was written for and published by Communique, on October 12th, 2010.

labeling mania

Amongst the numerous consequences of the 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States, is the labeling of Islam as a religion pro-violence and terrorism. Many Americans turned against Muslims – of which seven million are Americans – blaming them for the deaths on September 11th and for many of the country’s subsequent woes.

Some U.S. conservatives, as they like to be called, such as Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich, have gone even farther by equating Muslims – nearly one-fifth of the world’s population – to Al-Qaeda, the Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan.

This weekend, the tragedy of 9/11 was remembered amid demonstrations of misunderstanding. Even though the day was only about respect, loss and mourning, many tried to politicize the celebration. At the core was the debate over plans to build a Muslim community center near ground zero. The still inexistent site is popularly referred to as the “Ground Zero Mosque”. But note, we are not talking about constructing only mosque nor are we planning to build it at ground zero.

Nonetheless, the media labeling strategy has been successful, for now we automatically associate the horrors of September 2001 with the construction of a Muslim – or why not say Al-Qaeda – worshiping site on the 9/11 burial ground. And we cannot see much beyond that. We ignore that the community center is supposed to be a place of teaching and tolerance, and we forget that many of the victims and survivors of 9/11 were and are Muslim American heroes.

Even though this past Saturday was calmer than many had predicted, the national and international repercussions caused by pastor Terry Jones’ plans to burn two-hundred copies of the Koran, forced President Obama to declare, one more time: “As Americans we are not – and never will be – at war with Islam,” but with a terrorist organization which diverted its teachings.

Some Americans still chose to take a more defiant stance. Near ground zero, a New Yorker burned pages from the Koran, while standing in front of a sign: “Real Americans don’t burn Korans”. Pages from the text were tore in front of the White House. Although such scattered incidents attracted little attention they represent the ignorance which fuels intolerance.

No one is saying protesters against the Park51 Islamic center are tomorrow’s terrorists, but should ignorance justify their vile actions? Such extreme stances strengthen radicals around the globe and promote violence.

Newsweek quoted Mr. Zabihullah, a Taliban operative, on the debate over the mosque near ground zero: “By preventing this mosque from being built, America is doing us a big favor. It’s providing us with more recruits, donations and popular support. […] The more mosques you stop, the more jihadis we will get.”

Have we not learned enough lessons from history on the dangers of bigotry? Should we not own up to the privilege of living in a country where diversity, acceptance and freedom are supposed to rule? Maybe we ought to see our neighbors as who they truly are and not as what we believe them to be. Maybe we should start respecting others, regardless of color, background, sexual orientation or sacred belief. Maybe, above all else, most of us wish to live in a world of tolerance and peace. Have we thought about that?

where government lacks

Kite-surfers, body boarders, volleyball and soccer players color the coastline of Barra da Tijuca, Rio de Janeiro’s booming Miami-like neighborhood. Heavy investments are turning Barra, as the area is more popularly known, into one of the Wonderful City’s main gastronomical and entertainment centers. It is no wonder the region has one of Brazil’s highest Human Development Indexes (above 0.9) and will soon be home to the 2016 Olympic Village.

However, drive for one hour west of the nouveau riche neighborhood and – if you survive the roads populated by Rio’s notorious illegal van and bus drivers – you find yourself in rather unfamiliar territory. Luxurious condominiums and vibrant gardens suddenly give way to unpaved roads and wooden shacks. The paradisiacal 18 kilometers beach, Praia da Barra, turns into litter-filled rivers and exposed sewages.

Welcome to Retiro, Ilha de Guaratiba! A mere forty-five minutes away from Barra Shopping, the country’s second largest commercial center, you encounter a region where entertainment is limited to kite running on dirt roads. At Retiro, the government is not a reliable friend, for among the many things missing are asphalt, sanitation, policing, parks, schools, buses, hospitals, community centers…

But here is also where you find Movimento Fé e Amor or Faith and Love Movement. Founded by Jesuits in 1986, this not-for-profit works with the local community to promote education as the primary step towards social inclusion and income generation.

Within this framework, Movimento created Project Entreartes, developing educational programs for children and families in a situation of poverty and social risk. The organization has over one hundred children, aged from 6 to 16, enrolled in daily before and after-school activities including reading and writing tutorials, poetry contests, recycling ateliers, sewing, acting and capoeira classes and movie-screenings.

And this is where I spent my month of August. I worked with Movimento’s educators to teach children about the United Nations and its Millennium Development Goals. The coordinators were so excited to have me on board that they entrusted me with creating a curriculum for two full weeks. “You will have one hundred children under your responsibility,” they said, “They are going to love you!”

So we talked about the emergence of the UN and member countries’ commitment to a world of peace, the MDGs and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. We created games on the importance of a healthy alimentation, recycling and respecting others. We went on ecological trash-picking walks and planted vegetable and fruit gardens.

My second day at Movimento, seven years old Maria de Fátima came to me with sparkling eyes. “Yesterday I told my dad everything about the United Nations and how people want peace in the world,” she said. Maria then told me her father, an illiterate construction worker, is learning to read and write with her and is extremely interested in hearing about all she learns in school.

For two weeks, I taught and learned from incredibly smart and courageous children. Children who were so hungry for learning that every time I had to leave would make me promise to come back tomorrow (or take them with me).

Movimento has become critical to a community deprived of entertainment and far removed from the one and only form of public transportation. It is a place where parents can trust their children to be cared for when leaving to work long hours in downtown Rio. But more than that, it tries to fill the gaps where the national and local governments are lacking.

“These families live in conditions of extreme poverty. Some didn’t even have a fridge at home before we came,” said Michelle, the group psychologist. “If we do not help them, who will” she asked me.

Besides providing monthly stipends and food staples, Movimento brings in professionals from all sectors to speak to the enrolled families on issues ranging from sexual education and dental hygiene to legal rights. I was honored to be chosen as the speaker for August to talk about gender equality and the empowerment of women.

Just as the previous weeks had been, this day was both moving and humbling. Women aged from 16 to 60, listened attentively while a young stranger spoke about domestic violence and their rights. They then opened up to me, sharing personal stories of physical and psychological abuse, voicing their disillusionment with authorities and asking for advice.

Throughout these short weeks, I worked with professionals who chose to dedicate their time to helping Retiro’s children pave the way to a more prosperous and promising future. I met brave children, adolescents and adults who smile through a daily struggle against violence and adversity.

Indeed, Brazil has significant problems, especially the educational gap and entrenched government corruption. But I have seen that it also populated with hopeful and generous individuals, who are inspiring our future generation by taking the social transformation process into their own hands.

A version of this article was written for and published by Communique on September 30th, 2010.