The PT and the Politics of Poverty: A Case Study in Rio de Janeiro

Experiencing the World Fellowships

Project: Brazil

Adviser: Scott Mainwaring

Final Report:

When I arrived in Brazil, I had two goals: to learn enough Portuguese to hold a basic conversation and to better understand the relationship between Brazil’s social mosaic and its political system. I also wanted to understand the personal implications of anti-poverty programs like Bolsa Familia. It had been a long time since I had been on my own abroad, and I was very scared of being lost in a foreign country. I had just completed a three-week study abroad course based in São Paulo that looked at Brazil’s diverse social categories, which provided me with greater comfort with the culture and a baseline understanding of the status quo. Nonetheless, my job during my six independent weeks in Rio de Janeiro was to immerse myself in Brazilian culture, absorbing as much as I could and walk away with a sense of direction for my senior thesis. I am grateful to the Center for the Study of Languages and Cultures, the Kellogg Institute, Dr. Mainwaring, Dr. Kowalski, and everyone else who helped me along the way.

One of the greatest challenges I had at the beginning was learning Portuguese. I think that I overestimated how much Spanish could help me get around but also underestimated how much I was capable of learning in one semester. I learned very quickly that speaking Spanish can actually be an obstacle to speaking Portuguese well because of the different phonemes. The first four days before class began, I barely spoke any Portuguese. While most Brazilians I interacted with could tell I was a Spanish speaker, it was more frustrating to be unable to communicate. At times, I felt dumb because I knew I was capable of expressing complex thoughts in my own language but could barely formulate a well-conjugated sentence in theirs. When I began my group classes with Rio&Learn, which were every weekday plus afternoon and weekend activities, I was a bit overwhelmed with the no-English policy. I could only express myself in Portuguese, which I did not speak. But the school's methodology was very successful, because every day I learned three to four lessons in class and then went out to practice my Portuguese in real life. Later in this report, I detail the process of language learning that helped me to learn the most.

Another challenge was the anxiety surrounding safety. Never in my time in Rio did I feel more unsafe than I would in any other major city; I took many precautions and stayed in a good area. However, I found that the city’s unfortunate reputation as unsafe did not help. One of the first movies I was shown to understand the “reality” in Rio was City of God, which depicted drug-related violence in favelas (urban poor neighborhoods without state presence). While the intent of this movie is to highlight the real violence that can occur in some favelas, consuming such media did subconsciously affect my fears in a new environment. Furthermore, many people in São Paulo told me stories about muggings or violence in Rio. As someone who is from a country where cartel violence is more random and unpredictable, this was somewhat triggering for my anxiety. I am not sharing these beliefs to proliferate them but rather to demonstrate the common perceptions tied to Rio that unfortunately are also attached to much of Latin America. At first, I struggled with the uncertainty, the lack of knowledge of if a certain street was “bad,” or if violence was confined in one area. Thus, I was slow to go out by myself.

Because of Rio&Learn’s excellent teachers and methodology, I quickly learned to order food, to use the metro on my own, to speak with taxi drivers, to use mail services, to go to the grocery store and search for things, to ask for specific medicines in the pharmacy, to bargain at the marketplaces, and much more. Furthermore, by developing relationships with people at the school, having a “home base,” and expanding my vocabulary, I more confidently navigated my agency and decision-making when it came to safety and travel. I visited the most beautiful places in Rio, like Pão de Açúcar and Cristo Redentor, as well as Parque Lage, Palacio de Catete, the historical downtown, and Rio's Zona Sul neighborhoods, interacting with cariocas (people from Rio de Janeiro) as frequently as possible. I listened to Brazilian music to get more used to hearing Portuguese every day. After two weeks, I was placed into advanced Portuguese lessons, which had more intensive instruction and focused on perfecting certain aspects of Portuguese grammar. I also worked hard to eliminate my temptation to speak Spanish. When I would start conversations with curious cariocas, I was able to hold a good conversation and compare the US and Brazil. I developed friendships with cariocas who spoke English occasionally, and sometimes I spoke with their family members in Portuguese. This opened a kind of door to me; it let me understand more youth slang and join in on jokes and commentary because there was less of a language barrier. I felt like I belonged a little more (though that could be in part because Brazilians are very welcoming!)

I grew in my independence and confidence. I found that the best way to figure out if some place was safe or not was to just ask someone. Cariocas are extremely friendly and willing to help out gringos like me, and they seemed to have a shared desire for me to enjoy my time in their country. With teachers, friends, and strangers helping me out, I could relax knowing that it was safe to take a certain mode of transportation, or that I could go to an event but should have my phone secured. If navigated safely and with common sense, as with most other metropolitan areas, it is very safe.

At the same time, I learned an extraordinary amount about Brazil's social issues, especially those related to race, class, and religion. In the final weeks of my time in Brazil, I spoke with many Brazilians about how these issues impacted their lives. I found that many people were comfortable speaking about money and religion, which are two topics that can sometimes be taboo in the United States. People shared how they viewed their social status and recounted their feelings regarding government programs like Bolsa Familia, political scandals like lava jato, and the upcoming presidential elections. I tried my best to understand how the people I spoke with saw their own identities influence their political views and their perceptions of other groups. My impression from simple conversations was that the influence of class can be a greater determinant of political beliefs than in American politics. Through conversations, I gained an understanding of what is at stake for some people during the current presidential elections. I had the honor of interviewing a local candidate, who represented a majority Black and impoverished district, entirely in Portuguese. I spoke with several members of the Green Party to understand their concerns with the impacts of climate change on Brazil. In a safe location and from afar, I observed a current left-wing presidential candidate speak at a rally. Many of the people I interacted with throughout my time in Rio were supportive of this candidate and his policies, which are known for their social welfare spending. Nonetheless, I did meet several people who were heavily critical of the scandals previous left-wing governments oversaw, and some people identified themselves to me as centrists who saw no difference between candidates. Regrettably, I did not meet anyone who openly identified themselves as a conservative or as a supporter of the right-wing candidate. In addition, I paid close attention to the social commentary present in street art and also carefully tracked political discourse throughout the campaign on social media and in public propaganda. I also compiled a list of literature that I read for a few hours per day and purchased books in Portuguese that helped explore my interests. One cherished memory is when I went to São Paulo for a weekend on my own to participate in the largest Pride Parade in the world. I was even on one of the floats in front of five million people. I spoke with the organizers of the Pride Parade about its relationship with elections and human rights departments in the government and appreciated the diversity of Brazil's LGBTQ community and its ongoing struggles.

After doing a placement exam for the Portuguese department, I will now take “Brazil Music, Culture, and Society” as my Portuguese lesson. I miss Brazil and its people dearly, but I look forward to returning during the spring semester to study abroad. I am walking away from this experience with a greater sense of direction for my senior thesis research and with a greater interest in anti-poverty and anti-hunger policies. Of course, I could not complete my report without mentioning that I developed lifelong friendships with several Brazilians whom I already miss very dearly. They made my trip a huge part of what it was, and I hope to see them soon. I am so grateful for the grace, hospitality, and joy they brought into my life.