Every time I go to Brazil, but particularly now that I live here, I regularly get referred to as a gringa (foreigner, often in specific reference to people from Anglo-Saxon countries) or a americana (the American).
Here is how a typical conversation goes:
Coworker: “You’re not from here are you?”
Me: “Um, it’s more complicated than that.”
Coworker: “Oh really? Because you totally don’t look Brazilian!”
Me: fake smile
When I meet people for the first time, often they will make some comment about my accent, as if it’s the strangest thing they’ve ever heard: “Hey, you sound kind of funny. Where are you from?”
Let me say this once and for all: stop trying to box me in to your simplistic view of the world.
Sometimes it comes across as just ignorant; other times it’s really hurtful, because it makes me feel like there is a boundary between them and me that I will never be allowed to cross, because there is too much of a fixation on what is different rather than what is the same.
I guess it takes people too much brainpower to either a) not care about those differences and thus not harp on them or b) actually ask what I’m about and be receptive to it.
Here is my explanation of my backstory (briefly):
I’m a dual US and Brazilian citizen. My dad is from the Midwest, my mom is from Northeastern Brazil. I was born in New Mexico, and I have lived most of my life in California. Both of my parents are US citizens and live in California, but all of my mother’s side of the family lives in Brazil, primarily in Fortaleza.
Unfortunately, that seems a little too complicated for a lot of people and they would rather not digest the idea that you could be – gasp – two things at once!
Sometimes, when I explain my backstory, I’m almost made to feel guilty, as if my (not really) complicated story is interfering with the listener’s understanding of how things work. People often don’t get why I would come to live in Brazil. I just seem rather odd to them, like a new animal in the zoo that they’ve never heard of before.
Sometimes I wonder if the emphasis on the differences is some appeal to the exotic. My grandmother, for example, will always introduce me as her American granddaughter. This drives me nuts because:
- It’s not the whole story./li>
- I don’t like being singled out because then the person always looks at me funny and it’s like I can almost see them making calculations in their brain based on whatever preconceived notion they have of what “American” means. I just want to be another grandchild – just like all of my other cousins. But perhaps to her, it is a status symbol to have a family member born and raised in the US.
These types of interactions are one of the reasons I enjoy capoeira so much – particularly in the US. I have found that practicing capoeira in the US is one of the few spaces where I feel at peace with my dual identity. In this space, because all of the songs and moves are in Portuguese, I can contribute my Portuguese skills to being a leader within the group. But because everyone speaks English and we are, after all, in the US, the issue of being American never comes up; it’s just a given. I’ve also found that my capoeira groups in the US have been the most diverse, and therefore what unites people is their common passion for capoeira. That’s what we’re here to do, so your ethnic, racial, gender, age, whatever background becomes secondary to what kind of positive energy you can bring to the roda.
I guess it’s how I feel about my closest group of friends, too. Many of them are just like me: mixed. They identify strongly as Americans because they were born and raised in the US, but they also identify strongly with their other half, whether it be Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Tongan, Brazilian, Italian, Mexican, Korean, Vietnamese, Dominican, French, etc. We understand each other because we know that people are complex – and that complexity is beautiful.
So when you call me a gringa, you’re implying that Brazil will never be my home. You’re implying that it’s impossible to have two – or more – homes. That it’s impossible to identify with certain aspects of one culture, and certain aspects of others. I know that in my heart of hearts, in terms of lifestyle, culture, and values, I identify stronger with the US. But if you think that Brazil does not play a fundamental role in my identity, then you don’t know me at all.