Thursday, July 12, 2007

What the Rhizome Calls Home - Part I (Rubens Maia illustration)

When strangers ask me where I’m from, I tend to cringe. In that split-second, my tongue turns into a spring mattress in bad need of oiling, creaking out with the strain of a lie in the ready for the answer. In revolt, even my voice cracks along at the summons. It reverberates like a lie through my senses even though I’m not, in what constitutes a genuine lie, lying at all. Still, despite of my intent, a single place answer is bound to come out as a stumpy truth. Insofar as the question is, “Where were you born?” which hardly anyone ever poses, though it is perfectly direct, the answer flows easily: Brazil - the land of copper earth and majestic ant hills extraordinaire. I spent my childhood there. When asked “Where did you grow up?” I say the United States - as much as Georgia, Utah, and California can be viewed as a place. Whether it is an omission not to mention the extended summers in Brazil during that time, and towards the end of my adolescence, in Southern Europe as well, I do not know. Now, if the question is, as it so often is, “Where are your ancestors from?” then I’m almost totally at a loss since at least a half dozen places would invoke their place in the sun. If I could list them all. Like most Brazilians, I’m not quite sure who frolicked with whom under the gauzy sway of the tropics. Asking would somehow seem like either prying, as if investigating your grandparents’ rate of intercourse, or otherwise be sure to arouse suspicions as to my motives.

There’s a saying in Portuguese, put in song by Chico Buarque, an enjoyed singer and author, that goes “Sin does not exist under the equator.” This pretty much sums it up for me. In a country where multiculturalism has long been a palpable reality and not just fodder for politicians, though it is that at times too, the subject of origins seems almost quaint - the stuff of tea parties in 19th-century drawing rooms.

That is, were it not for its grimmer effects, its continuance as a source of endless agonies in the world today. There is, however, a verifiable Portuguese branch and with it my Iberian looks to “prove” it. So, to simplify matters, should I say that I’m Portuguese? That I come from Portugal? Can I wear the ‘Made in Portugal’ label, confident that I’m not misrepresenting myself? Mmm…I don’t know, I’d hate to overlook the offshoots – incognito sprouts though they may be.

I’ve been to Portugal, and though I saw myself in many of the faces there, I felt more at home in Greece, where some inhabitants were also anxious to claim me as their own. Did an oracle inform the old woman who remained unconvinced I didn’t speak Greek all the while of my stay, that I was a spurned daughter of Tyche, the goddess of Luck and Fate? That would explain a lot. Namely, my inexplicable drawing towards the hopelessly hapless - though this tendency may change somewhat as I keep paddling along, owing more to Effort than Luck.

Ah…so much to do about, er, not nothing, but certainly not much more than that. At this point you might be wondering why I’m not perfectly content with saying I’m Brazilian – a good, logical conclusion since a) I was born there and, b) the country’s very fluidity of origins seems to resolve the issue. And I do, I say I’m Brazilian, which most of the time caps it, save for the pesky skeptics who remark that my English is “so good,” and then proceed in trying to engage me in trivia about football, bossa nova and samba, Rio de Janeiro, caipirinhas, and lately, supermodels, only to be disappointed by my responses.

Except for the musical element and the caipirinhas, my knowledge of any of the above-mentioned topics is minimum at most. I have never had any interest in sports. Every time I’ve sat down to watch a match, I lost track of the goings-on of the ball after the first five minutes or so – and that’s when I’m concentrating. If I do end up watching it, that is if I’m among the watchers, it’s because of all the euphoric hoopla over it, which I hope will be contagious enough to get through my usual malaise.

But don’t ask me where Pele grew up, I know nothing about it. As for Rio, I do like it, but my favorite neighborhood is tucked in the mountains amongst ateliers and lots of foliage. Where a cable car runs through it. I paraded down the Sambodrome once, the Carnaval 'runway,' as part of a theater group’s school in a ballooning costume with a humongous, itchy papier-marche fish in my head, where I tripped, slipped, and fell in my half mile attempt at doing something really Brazilian – probably a whim of Tyche, that sadistic sphinx. This in not to say that I disavow myself from Brazil – and Brazilian-ness, whatever that would entail; quite the contrary.

When others, especially Brazilians, accuse me of trampling over its culture in favor of “foreign influences,” I laugh, rolling on the floor at the irony. The stereotypical icons of the culture don’t have much sway over me, it’s true, but that’s because the place has so much aside to offer. When I dip the Madeleine in conjuring it, I think of jazz dance lessons in urban, ecologically-minded Curitiba, where I lived for some time as a child; the ocean going to greet what we called the coca-cola lagoon once a day in a remote fishing village; bucolic misty farms with their undulating mountain horizons; children of the sixties passionately discussing Marxism over a grilled-cheese sandwich and a cafezinho; having interminably stimulating conversations about it all and everything in between with countless nameless philosophers as the sun rises and sets to the tune of bossa nova or electro-bossa-pop.

As for the latter choice, purists can gripe all they want. In a hybrid culture – oh, let’s face it, world – appropriation is inevitable; liking or not permutations of a ‘distinctly national landmark’ a matter of taste, not of judgement. I say this as so often I’ve heard disdain for those dabbling into electronica, hip-hop, or even Baroque music. The irony lies, of course, that in trying to dictate what constitutes a national identity, it erodes the very thing in which it prides itself for: a seamless flow of cultures and forms. ...But I'll leave that for the next post.


Anonymous said...


sandra said...

The landscape of childhood places seeps into my writing --- the color and smells, music, the political rhetoric. Indelible, although a dichotomy. I like it when people hone in, want more than the general answer, parse the mix.