Brasília Bound

I adore Latin America.

It is home to approximately 150 million people of African descent whose ancestors arrived on slave ships just like those that brought my ancestors to the United States. I'm not in love with Latin America's all-inclusive resorts or five-star restaurants. Rather, I'm enthralled by the resilience, brilliance and cultural genius of the people.

I spent the first half of this year in Brazil, deepening my love.

Several U.S. friends have been surprised, even disappointed, that I didn't reside in Salvador or Rio de Janeiro. They are exciting, beautiful cities where Black culture thrives. But Brazil is a big country-the world's fifth largest in population-and I wanted to get to know more of it.

My husband, Ollie Johnson, is a Wayne State University professor who researches Afro-Brazilian politics. He chose to spend his semester-long sabbatical in Brazil's capital, Brasília. We did our best to integrate ourselves into the rhythms of the federal district far from the coast. Beaches and rainforests are great, but experiencing a Brazilian reality most foreign tourists don't see was the adventure I craved.


Ironically, we started our exploration of Brazil's fourth largest city like typical tourists. We took a bus tour along the Esplanada dos Ministerios (Esplanade of Ministries), where the most important government buildings and monuments are located. The first stop was the Catedral Metropolitana Nossa Senhora Aparecida, the national cathedral named in honor of the country's patron saint. With striking white spikes reminiscent of the shape of a Native American teepee, it's not at all what I expected a church to look like.

We rode through the Praça dos Três Poderes (Three Powers Plaza), where the president's office, congress and Supreme Court are grouped close together. So many of these buildings are striking shapes like domes and a set of twin towers.

Brasília is unique for many reasons, its youth among them. In 1956, President Juscelino Kubitschek decided to move the capital from Rio to an uninhabited location in the interior. Renowned architect Oscar Niemeyer and urban planner Lúcio Costa led a massive effort to construct a city of modernist structures. In 1960, Kubitschek inaugurated Brasília.

The central part of the city, the Plano Piloto (Pilot Plan), is shaped like an airplane. At the front of the plane is the Praça dos Três Poderes. Two main residential areas are in the shape of wings. Our apartment in the south wing was located near one of the city's most popular eateries. We became regulars at Libanus, which serves Middle Eastern cuisine and inexpensive pizza.

Ollie and I enjoyed frequent long walks in the Parque da Cidade, City Park. We took the pristine subway to ParkShopping, a mall where I had the opportunity to see a performance by one of my favorite Brazilian singers, Paula Lima. I caught public buses to the University of Brasília where I audited a Portuguese class.

The more we got around, the more I delighted in observing nuances in Brazilian daily life. For instance, cars are very small, no matter the brand. Men sometimes jog in Speedo-like bathing suits and women might run in bikini tops. No beach is necessary to see skin revealed. Outdoor dining is so common, some restaurants have no indoor seating.

What I relished most were Black and women-focused cultural and political events. We attended at a huge book fair at which Nigerian Nobel Prize-winner Wole Soyinka was honored. At Palácio do Buriti, Brasília's city hall, we heard government ministers speak about racial equality and witnessed dynamic capoeira, a Brazilian martial art, on Racial Equality Day. An organization that empowers Black women hosted a capoeira event in the city's biggest bus station to catch the attention of people who might not otherwise know about their work.

On the same day that women held SlutWalk protests against sexual assault around the world, I attended one in Brasília and saw many Black faces in the crowd. I spoke to and learned from groups of Black college students at two universities.

Brasília isn't a city that people in the U.S. think of if they want to encounter Afro-Brazilians. But with a population of about 2.5 million, more than half of federal district residents are of African descent, according to a city government official. We saw stores that sold products for Candomblé, one of Brazil's African-derived religions, and Black hair salons.

While there is poverty and racial inequality, it's overwhelmingly clear that Black cultural and intellectual contributions are tightly weaved into the nation's identity.

I already felt at home when people regularly stopped me to ask for directions. I felt at home discussing with friends the common challenges African descendants face in Brazil and the U.S. Then my connection got even deeper.

I learned that my birthday, Oct. 12, is the Brazilian holiday in celebration of their patron saint. She is a Black image of the Virgin Mary. Another confirmation that the African presence in Brazil is everywhere, and that Afro-Brazilians are a South American reflection of me.


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