Meu Lepo Lepo: Reflections of a White Capoeirista Returning from Latin America

By Marian Dalke

It is a freezing cold night in Brooklyn. Disoriented after a 12-hour flight from Salvador, Brazil I seek refuge in a warm bowl of soup at a smoothie bar on 5th Ave. My lentils pale in comparison to the exotic foods advertised on the menu. Açai: superfood Brazilian berry and Pitaya: the newest anti-oxidant cure-all. I smile to myself. For the past four months I’ve been eating açai, pitaya, cupuaçu, abiu, jambu and other “exotic” fruits grown by my friends. Now all I want are some good old lentils.

I am reading a book in Portuguese, the men at the table next to me are speaking Spanish, and talking to me in English.

What world am I in?

What world have I been in?

Traveling through Mexico, Central America and Brazil for the past four months has kept my mind spinning in a mix of languages, foods, cultures and questions– about globalization, appropriation, race and humanity: who we are, what we are made of, and how we try to be different. I’d like to use this article as a space to explore some of the experiences and questions that came up for me, about how to preserve – and yet ethically exchange — traditional cultures in a globalized & commodified world.

I had been dreaming of this trip for 7 years. When I was eighteen, working and traveling in Central America for seven months, I had promised to return, to re-visit the people and places I had come to know. I told myself I wasn’t going to be another “irresponsible” tourist, showing up in someone else’s country, in someone else’s life, having an “experience” and then peacing out. As I fleshed out my plans, the trip adopted other purposes. Studying tropical plants and food traditions, improving my Spanish and Portuguese, and training Capoeira Angola (an Afro-Brazilian martial art) would all strengthen my work as a food justice organizer and ally in Philadelphia’s Latino communities.

While traveling, I inevitably crossed paths with many others like myself: people from the global north wintering or living in Latin America, claiming temporary residence there. I asked them, as I kept asking myself, “Why did you come to Guatemala? What are you looking for in Nicaragua?” “Why are you in Brazil?”

The sense I got from the answers to my questions was that we had come to the global south in search of a culture and life style we found lacking in our home countries. We had left corporate, isolated, stressful lives to learn and live a whole variety of alternative practices: permaculture, yoga, capoeira, tai chi. Some of us came for spiritual clarity by finding our Mayan astrological signs, or having our cards read by a bruja in Nicaraguan town of Diribá, or to speaking to the Pai Santo to grant us our Orixá. Some of us were looking to buy land, to start intentional communities, development projects or cooperatives – because land is too expensive in the US. I felt most challenged by foreigners who had bought land abroad. Do new ageists make up the next wave of manifest destiny, I wondered, with Latin America as ‘virgin’ territory? I mentioned this to a friend of mine back the states. “Why didn’t you stay there,” he joked, “Weren’t in the colonial mindset?”

There is also deep irony here. While people from the global north are flocking south to “find themselves,” many people living in these host countries continue to strive for the dominant u.s. culture that is constantly imported into their communities. I met many Latin Americans eager to practice their English, proud of buying their own cars, flat-screen TVs and Xboxs. I can’t tell you how many people were excited to bake pizza with me. Many prefer shopping at the supermarkets and shopping malls than the outdoor markets that I was eager to get lost in. Many were looking to leave behind the same cultural practices that folks from the u.s. were so desperate to adopt.

And of course there are those who are familiar with both sides of the border and both kinds of life. Enrique is a friend of mine from a tiny town outside Veracruz, Mexico who lived and worked in Northeastern Ohio for several years. I asked him how he thought the quality of life compared in the united states and Mexico. Enrique replied that it’s different. In the u.s. it’s better in regards to money and material wealth, while in Mexico health, lifestyle, and family unity lead to a better kind of quality of life. So again, those of us in the global north fed up with consumerism and unhealthy lifestyles flee south in search of a ‘better’ life while those in the global south, many with real material needs, continue to push north in search of material wealth to support their families and create a ‘better’ life.

It’s hard for me to wrap my head around. Where do we draw the line between useful, mutual exchange between cultures and appropriation or exploitation? I’m not convinced that mutual exchange is even possible given the power inequities among countries, the histories of colonization, imperialism and resource extraction.

As someone who’s always been eager to learn about and engage with cultures different than my own, I believe that we need to shift from european dominance, to stop holding up european ideals as the measure of success. I believe it is important to understand and view our lives through other cultures and cosmologies. Even so, I’m continually challenged about how to do this ethically, without reinforcing imposition and oppression.

These questions are particularly acute for me as a white woman practicing Capoeira Angola. As part of my trip, I spent three weeks training in Bahia, the birthplace of this Afro-Brazilian martial art, dance, conversation, and resistance practice. Brazil is home the largest population of African-descendents outside of Africa, due to the slave trade that brought from anywhere from 4 to 10 million enslaved Africans to work in sugar plantations. Capoeira evolved from coming of age rituals practiced by peoples in Angola and other areas of Southwestern Africa and served as a means to disguise their training from the plantation owners and overseers.

Today, capoeira is a major export of Bahia. Tourists head home with tiny berimbau necklaces around their necks, pictures of themselves posing with capoeiristas doing backflips beside them, and caxixis made exclusively for the World Cup. The Mercado Modelo in Salvador, the site where enslaved people were detained before being sold, is now a tourist trap, with capoeira demonstrations out back and thousands of knick knacks to waste your money on. In an extremely blatant example of black face, you can stand in the Praça da Sé behind a mannequin of a Baiana, with all the ingredients for acarajé spread before you – another great photo-op for facebook.

In these ways, I saw capoeira being used in Bahia as a commodity. What does that mean for a cultural practice created by enslaved people to resist colonization and oppression? Once African enslaved people were treated as a commodity, and now their practice of cultural resistance has become one as well.

At the same time, this prevalence of capoeira can be seen as a celebration and embracing of Bahia’s African heritage. And the capoeiristas playing in the Terreiro de Jesus are entrepreneurs clever enough to capitalize on tourists’ curiosity to make a living by playing capoeira. There’s always a both/and way to view things.

There are those committed to preserving Capoeira in its original form and purpose. In an attempt to grant capoeira legitimacy, the late Mestre Pastinha is responsible for moving Capoeira Angola from the streets into the academy. In many ways in the US, this shift has taken capoeira from its base as a people’s art and made it elite, available only for those able to afford to attend classes (often in liberal arts colleges, which is how I began practicing it). Although establishing a place in the academy may help preserve Capoeira Angola, it has also confined it. Mestre Cobra Mansa of FICA spoke of how capoeira is losing its originality, with everyone training and learning the same form, the same movements. The creativity and spunk that came from the street is getting lost.

Another Mestre I met in Bahia dedicated to both preserving and propagating Capoeira Angola is Mestre Boca do Rio. I attended the “Voltas que o mundo da” event held to celebrate his return to Brazil after living in Spain for many years. Mestre Boca do Rio framed the conference around the theme of the globalization of capoeira. During a panel discussion, he expressed his concern with the quality of capoeira that is being exported and taught. Mestre complained of Brazilians traveling to other countries and falsely claiming to be experts in capoeira. With its global popularity, many imposters arise to fill the increased demand for teachers.

My critique of capoeira’s globalization centers more on all the white people practicing capoeira (myself included). I would like to participate in more discussion of this among our groups. What does it mean to be a European-descended person practicing an art form developed by enslaved people to resist white supremacy? Given the parallels between the u.s. and Brazil in their experience of slavery and racism, I find that it makes sense to me to practice Capoeira Angola here. In the united states, I find Capoeira Angola as site for anti-oppression work. Within my group, we form deep friendships of mutual aid and support through training together in this African-descended practice. In a recent interview, my teacher Contra Mestre Kamau shared his own thoughts on this:

Clearly, I’m an African and this is an African Brazilian martial art and it’s only right that you have people who share that lineage, culture and connection and spiritual energy in your circle.  I’ve always wanted that and I still want that but that’s not the only component to creating a positive and workable energy and it took me a lot of time and thought to gain the maturity to recognize and understand that.  That was a big thing for me.

What then, of capoeira in Europe, where groups are primarily white, and don’t share “that lineage, culture…and spiritual energy?” When I asked this of a French woman training in Bahia, she replied, “We all are enslaved to something,” she told me, “We all have things to be liberated from.” I believe this: we all have obstacles, challenges, and forces that hold us back. Capoeira can help gives us tools to confront such barriers. Yet the fields on which we play are not equal, in large part because of the awful, crushing violence and abuse of slavery and the resulting legacy of racism.

I witnessed lots of alternative lifestyles and resistance practices throughout my travels Latin America. Despite hip hop being a major capitalist industry, it is alive across the world as a form of resistance and justice. I witnessed a dope hip hop battle in Puebla, Mexico among three youth spitting about respect (though homophobia still was rampant in their lyrics). I was also excited to see another alternative culture taking root in Mexico, as I watched a troupe of roller girls out recruiting new members and lots of goth kids hanging out in the zócalo. One bizarre cross-cultural moment for me was practicing tai chi aerobics and eating vegetarian food with Salvadorean Taoists in San Salvador.

Aside from those adapting and embracing cultures from abroad, many of the friends I visited while traveling are actively preserving their own cultures. Werner teachs Nahuat, an indigenous language almost extinct in El Salvador. Roxana, who is proud to be a professional and a campesina in Nicaragua, prefers to cook with firewood and wash clothes by hand. Jerry buys stones mined ethically around Nicaragua and incorporates them into his jewelry. Paulinho is busy working to build a cultural center in his hometown in Northern Brazil as a venue for regional music and a platform to engage folks in community organizing.

I believe it’s important for us to know our own cultures and be grounded in them as we encounter and exchange with cultures different than ours. To have roots to return to. I must know my own history, and understand the reasons why I am interested in learning other cultures’ histories and practices.

This isn’t the kind of thing that will have a conclusion. It’s about conversations and wrestling with unjust power dynamics – on international and interpersonal levels – towards genuine mutual exchange and growth. It’s about sitting at the table with people who are like you and people who are different, be it in front of a bowl of açai or lentil soup, and working together to figure out who we are, and who we want to be, as individuals and as a world. I pray only–as people continue to travel, to search, to exchange and fuse cultural practices–that the source of revolution and resistance stays present and alive in the cultures we share.

OUTTAKES:

Exoticism. Early colonizers, anthropologists, studying the “Other” living with people different than them.

How is capoeira’s exportation different than that of yoga?

Yet sometimes being in another culture reinforces who you are. You aren’t cognizant of being US when you live in the US. Need to be an other to realize who you are.

————————–

Even so, this search for ‘modernization’ can be deceiving. Take El Salvador for example. Long an unofficial colony of the States, El Salvador has used U.S. currency since 2001. People often attribute their economic decline to the americanization of the currency.  When I asked two friends what they were proud of their country, “nothing,” they both replied. They felt it had sold out, and had no more culture to respect. The presence of gang violence is so thick that people live in fear of picking up the phone, of going out. I heard countless stories of threats made on the phone, hold-ups on buses, shootings in internet cafes, kidnappings. And it’s known that this gang violence yet another U.S. export, as a result of racism experienced by Salvadorean immigrants in California in the 1980s (source from Karen?). “I like Nicaragua,” my friends told me, “it’s safer there. You can trust people.”

Nicaragua, in contrast to El Salvador, has a long history of resistance to U.S. imperialism, with resistance William Walker’s imposed government in the 1850s, to Sandino’s presence in the 1920s, to the contra wars in defense of the Sandista revolution. When I asked two friends from Nicaragua about their pride for their country, they stated they were proud of “our indigenous history” and “that we are free.” (Even so, Nicaragua is fast modernizing. Deal with china to build canal through lakes the open it to free market and more abuse- opinion that canal will just benefit china and not nicaragua)

What are we looking for? How can we possibly find ourselves in cultures different than our own?

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3 responses to “Meu Lepo Lepo: Reflections of a White Capoeirista Returning from Latin America

  1. Thank you for this. I am a white mother of mixed african-american children and we have all begun learning capoeira this year. Some of the questions you posed have been bubbling up in my mind, unsure how to take form. I appreciate the questions you’ve raised. -Dayna from Seattle

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