A year ago, a group of stu dents of Brazilian ethnicity decided that they wanted to educate the school about Brazilian culture. Through hard work, charm and community support they created the first-ever Brazilian awareness day at the regional high school. Local businesses supported them through donations, and every day for several weeks phone calls were made to JuJitsu practitioners, Capoeira ensembles and musicians — and all this hard work culminated in a day of exciting activity where all of the students had a chance to participate in JuJitsu and where, for the first time, Brazilian American students danced with their American counterparts and where a traditional Irish dance was merged with a Brazilian piece.
The day ended with a typical Brazilian meal cooked by the students and members of their families and the culinary arts department. Everything went well and the interaction between these two student bodies was greater than it had ever been as prejudices and shyness were put aside by students enjoying an interesting day together. For the students who had worked hard to put this day together, the success they enjoyed was affirming and exciting and looked like the beginning of creating an inclusive tradition of cultural sharing. For students who have grown up in the U.S., but whose parents have traveled with them from Brazil, there is sometimes a struggle to unite those two worlds and establish a sense of identity. “It’s like leading a double life,” one student observed, “we are American in Brazil and Brazilian in America.”
Sadly, almost immediately after the success of Brazilian awareness day, an outpouring of vitriolic comments followed on an Island newspaper blog. The students were identified as the outsiders and took the brunt of anger about immigration and concerns about lack of economic opportunity. For many of the young people concerned who had struggled with a sense of outsider status, this was frightening and perceived as a message that any expression of their culture was unwelcome. It was a sad chapter in a story of cultural awakening, an American story of joining this multicultural society and adding to its texture while absorbing its values. In the words of Ana Nascimento, a student at the regional high school: “We were seen as the weird kids who came from a country without even speaking the language so the parent could ‘steal’ jobs and make money.” It’s hard for any young person to read hateful comments and not feel totally intimidated and a little heartbroken. For some students these events heightened their sense of Brazilian American identity and for some, they caused fear, and a desire to become invisible.
From these events grew a conviction that we needed to create a class where Brazilian history and culture could become part of the program of studies. Our first vision was one of an integrated class where students of all ethnic backgrounds learned about the history of Brazil together and would be able to observe the strong similarities between Brazilian and U.S. history. That vision did not materialize and the class was a large group composed of almost all Brazilian Americans, most of whom had never studied the history of Brazil but were very familiar with its culture. This configuration meant that our mission now became different. The class resolved that their goal would be to create a Brazilian American presence in the school and change the commonly held perceptions of their culture. To that end, some of the students worked extremely hard to cook traditional Brazilian food for a Brazilian American friendship lunch, made an amazing Web site that is accessible through the school Web site, painted a beautiful mural in the school library, created a Brazilian garden, attended a seminar at Harvard and hosted a visit from the Brazilian Consul General, Minister Igreja, to their class.
Augusto Nunes, a member of the class, notes that “image is a hard thing to change. Once the people picture something in their heads they won’t accept that they are wrong. I think that we definitely changed something. We got our space at the library. The painting reminds everyone that gets out of the library that there are Brazilians in this school and that those Brazilians are committed to this community. This class showed people that a group of Brazilians can do a lot more than just make noise.”
This question of “noise” is an interesting one from my perspective. I see that students are exuberant in their interactions with each other and express a love of life that is heartwarming, and definitely different. All of the Brazilian American students identified being “noisy” as the stereotypical view held of Brazilian Americans, but it is my observation that this class has a collaborative way of working that involves every student in the room. I have never seen students so community oriented. When working on projects such as the beautiful mural, consensus must be reached and that takes time — and is inevitably noisier. The concept of individual achievement regardless of others does not seem to exist for these students, and that strength of community and shared work ethic has shown us all some amazing work.
It is in this class that I heard students tell me that they want someone to work with them or they will be lonely. And I now realize that it is this area of intercultural understanding where our community has been poorly served. If America is a huge salad bowl of enterprising, hard-working people from all over the world, then its dynamic energy was not achieved by homogenizing the mix but by relishing its idiosyncratic and diverse nature. Maria De Oliveira, a member of this unique class, notes that “inequality is one of the problems Brazilians face each and every day. People’s minds are set that if you come from a different background and you’re in their country you don’t deserve to be treated equally, but they are highly wrong. We are also a big help to our school and our community.”
This class was the first-ever Brazilian American history and culture class at the high school and the first in a public school in the state. And the first is always very special. For some of the members of the class the mission was not obvious, but for many others their sense of identity and personal worth was greatly reinforced by their participation. Some students see the Web site made by some of their peers as their most important contribution to the school while others recall the visit of Minister Igreja as a great honor for their community. And nearly everyone is proud of the mural that they see as a very permanent statement about their membership in this school community.
For some students, the way forward toward acceptance and membership in the school community is to keep their family background entirely separate from their school identity. Dnonathan Lemos observes that “as long as there are Brazilian students in the class, Americans will not take it. I would never go into a room where all the students speak another language.”
Many students feel they need to make more outreach to the school community. Rafael Maciel expresses a widely-held view when he said, “The American school sees us as lazy students who don’t become part of the community. The only way we can change that is by trying to join with the American students. We need to stop separating ourselves. The Brazilian students in this school need to realize that the reason American students and teachers have such a bad view of us is because we don’t bother to join with them. We need to understand that we are in America and in order to live in a place we must join with the native people or else we will seem like invaders.”
Future classes will be more traditional and more integrated, but the learning that has happened in this class is unique and memorable not only for the students but for me, their teacher. This has been a class of the heart where connections have been made that will never be broken.
Elaine Cawley Weintraub is chairman of the history department at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School.