Living the Impossible

by Elizabeth Spenst 

“Now since it is 6:10 in Brazil, most of my childhood friends would be here,” Daniel Lucas Alves da Silva tells me as we stare at a wall facing a street lined with trees on Google Maps Street View. People are getting off work and grabbing a coke to drink at the corner with the friends they have known all their lives.

“My friends might be here too, sitting exactly here,” Daniel said. He has clicked a few blocks away, and is now zooming in on a yellow lawn chair on a street corner. These friends are not with him thousands of miles away at gay bars in New Haven or at marches for Black lives. Instead these lifelong friends are sitting under a warm Brazilian sun and chatting about life, soccer, and women. Daniel clicks the mouse, and the screen zooms out.

Daniel is a 28-year-old from San Jose do Rio Preto. He is teaching Brazilian Portuguese at Yale for a year as a Fulbright Language Teaching Assistant. Our tour of Rio Preto on Google Maps brought up images of flowers that bloom in Brazil’s winter. Daniel looked ruefully out the window towards the icy New Haven streets below and winds that prompted him to dryly ask me if it was a hurricane.

If Daniel were passing you on a crowded street, you would probably notice. His deliberate, graceful stride makes his head tilt slightly from side to side like a model on a runway. His tightly coiled hair twists in little natural plaits down to the tops of his shoulders, and the sides of his head are shaved with his mane of hair flopping to one side. Every outfit is well coordinated and accentuated by layers or a statement accessory.

Daniel tells me that he couldn’t wear layers in Brazil because it would be too hot. What he does in the US is impossible for him to do at home, and what he has accomplished at home is also considered an impossibility.

“Black Brazilian people don’t travel, let alone travel to the United States, let alone travel to study, let alone are here at a university like this, let alone teaching,” he says with a laugh that exposes his wide teeth.

Daniel is in a place of limbo where education has moved him to the middle class. The more he moves up, the more he must reconcile his Blackness, which he loves, with a home country that does not love it.

The Portuguese Department at Yale is small, yet he is the only Black person in the department. Daniel tells me that when he meets other Brazilian people in the United States, they tend to do a double take and ask him if he’s Brazilian. They are all white, of course. He says that a lot of white Brazilian men are surprised when they encounter discrimination for the first time in the United States because of their position as “foreigner.” As a Black Brazilian, Daniel is not as surprised.

“Welcome to my world. Welcome to America again, by the way,” Daniel laughs.

As opposed to America’s “one drop” rule, Brazil operates as a pigmentocracy where hierarchy is determined by skin tone. “White people” include people from Asia and the Middle East. The point is to be anything but Black, so people can classify themselves in shades of brown instead of claiming “Black.”

Daniel grew out his long, natural hair as a statement about his Blackness. He started the process when he was studying abroad at college in Spain. There he was out of sight of the country that would tell him that it was “cabelo ruim,” or bad hair.

Daniel credits his mother, Rute, for instilling a sense of pride in being Black from a young age. Daniel always smiles when he talks about his mother, and he describes her as outspoken and assertive. She has worked as a maid all of her life, and Daniel remembers that she always moved on from an employer if she sensed mistreatment. Rute had Daniel 15 years after she had Renato, his 41-year-old brother who functions as an uncle in his life. Renato is a musician who plays samba and also works as a truck driver. Daniel, Rute, and Renato live together in a house in Rio Preto with a mango tree and a papaya tree in the front yard.

Daniel’s father, Osvaldo, lives about 20 minutes away in Rio Preto. Daniel has never been to his house. Osvaldo works as an independent welder, and he has always been distant from his son.

“I don’t think you can miss something you never had in the first place,” Daniel says. He counts his mother as such an active and powerful presence in his life that he never really mourned the absence of his father.

Daniel tells me that his mother is very, very smart. She won the award for being the best student in her whole elementary school, and the prize was a radio. Daniel describes getting a radio in the 60’s in Brazil as equivalent to getting a Macbook now. Rute stopped going to school the year that the military dictatorship took over Brazil – 1964. She was in 4th grade.

Even though his mother lived through the regime, Daniel says that he is more knowledgeable about the time period. Daniel describes this as a “lack of information caused by a lack of education.” Rute and Daniel grew up in very different Brazils, but Daniel’s experience is still very far from the norm.

“I think that the most salient factor that comes into play in my saying that I am middle class now is education. And that is precisely what sets me apart from most of my fellow Black countrymen in Brazil,” Daniel tells me.

Daniel is an anomaly, or maybe he is on the front end of a new wave of Black Brazilians having to become the representation that they do not see.

“Brazil is changing a lot, Daniel said. “Twenty years ago nobody would say it was possible for me to be here as I am now. People would not even dream of it. No. That was a long shot, if it was a shot. Now it’s feasible. I’m not a hologram. I’m here and happy.”