This weekend I participated in two of the most stereotypically Brazilian activities: spending a day on the beach and watching a professional soccer game.
The weekend felt like a microcosm of the Brazil that Americans know well and, in some cases, the Brazil Americans are still beginning to learn. My two-hour trek to the beach took me through the most important financial district in Latin America, a ring of favelas five-miles deep surrounding São Paulo, a mostly-pristine rainforest in mountains 3000-feet-high, the busiest port in Latin America and the industrial zone surrounding it, another ring of favelas and, finally, one of Brazil’s most acclaimed beaches.
Brazil’s beach-going ritual, at least for middle and upper-class Paulistas, felt eerily similar to my regular two-hour trips from the Philadelphia area to Maryland’s beaches every summer. There are specific beach highways and anyone lucky enough to have the money has a beach house.
But the similarities end there. As soon as we parked in a municipal lot, a fast-talking man came up and asked everyone getting out of the bus what soccer team they support. A professor later explained to me that even though we parked in a public lot, some folks try to swindle 10 reais out of drivers since they point to open spots.
Since it’s currently winter here, the beach was mostly deserted despite a high of 75F. I decided to make the afternoon even more Brazilian, so I went to the nearest sports store and bought a soccer ball. My friends from the program and I played for about 30 minutes, making it obvious to all Brazilians, even a local cop, that we were not Brazilians.
A close friend in Madison of mine warned me that the beach was the most likely location for me to get robbed, mostly because of the kids who ride their bikes or play soccer in the sand. But I had nothing but a positive experience—it was the first time I felt like I was fitting in with the Brazilian joie de vivre that is so well-known throughout the world.
The same went for my trip to a soccer game between Palmeiras, one of the most popular teams in São Paulo, and a team from Florianópolis. Since everyone was saving up for a ticket to the much more important Copa do Brasil match that’s this week, the stadium barely had 2,000 spectators. But wow, did they make noise. Brazilian soccer is a completely different experience than any other American sporting event. Except for the upcoming World Cup, the sale of beer is prohibited in Brazilian football stadiums. Instead of tailgating, fanatic supporters set of fireworks to prepare for games.
Those firecrackers are the reason I’m awake right now, at almost 4 a.m. Since Corinthians (aka “The People’s Team) just won their first Copa Libertadores in the 100-year history of the team, the entire city is jammed full of people setting off firecrackers and honking their horns four hours after the game has ended.
Spending Independence Day away from the United States has inevitably made me rethink my concept of patriotism. The Palmeiras game was my first time singing a national anthem that wasn’t my own in a public setting.
My host’s father, a conservative man who harbors some nostalgia for the days when Brazil’s streets were safer during a darker military regime, once told me he loved American football and movies about the military because of how they exhibit American patriotism.
“Brazil doesn’t have that anymore,” he shouted at me as we passed by an apartment building hanging a Corinthians flag. “See that flag? That’s all people care about here. The only time Brazilians band together is during the World Cup, and aside from that we just break down into our own football teams. Every elected official in the US understands that their opposition is a patriot. They’re not patriots here.”
Of course, that description of the United States is inaccurate—possibly because he’s never visited my country. Liberals and conservatives fight over patriotism on a daily basis. Liberals are branded as anti-Americans, conservatives called the same for not supporting or opposing the political flavor of the day.
But after digesting that comment for a few weeks as I’ve also digested the good and bad of Brazilian society, I realized that before coming here, my concept of Brazil wasn’t too different from his idea of the United States.
My recent disappointment with my own country, compounded by the social and political breakdown I witnessed in Wisconsin over a period of more than one year, made me think that Brazil was outperforming us. After all, their most recent ex-president left office with an approval rating above 70 percent and their economy was the only one in the West not suffering from the financial crisis. And I have always wanted Americans to get as excited and patriotic during international soccer matches as the rest of the world does. It’s good for the soul.
Coming here has confirmed so much of what I expected to love after I began learning about Brazil—the people, the enthusiasm for life, the soccer, the music, the obsession with telenovelas, the fascinating history and politics. That said, I’ve also realized that my place in the world as an American is something to strongly embrace. When taxi drivers try to guess my nationality and assume I’m European (one even thought I was Portuguese!), I pat myself on the back. But that’s all a linguistic game. Being an American who’s willing to meet and understand other cultures is a badge of honor.
So on this 4th of July, I’ve learned that patriotism and national pride aren’t concrete, tangible phenomena. National symbols like tacky Stars & Stripes polos are trivial compared to a personal recognition that regardless of the ugly history or current state of your country, a love for the place you call home is comforting and necessary to live in a changing world. And in my case, I’m lucky to receive compliments for living in a country that is, according to Brazilians, more organized than their own. That may be true, but they’re catching up to us.
Some folks go abroad and return to the United States with an intense guilt for being American. Some come back thanking God they weren’t born in another country. I’ll return with a deep, intense love for Brazil and desire to return, but with the obvious recognition that I will always hold onto my American identity.