Roots of Brazil are trying to take hold in the American Midwest,
but will Brazilian expatriates nurture those roots?
In Indiana, a new influx of Brazilians could permanently alter
stereotypes of Brazil and Brazilians that
are founded in ignorance and misinformation.
By Phillip Wagner
On an unusually warm Saturday evening this past October, Brazilian festivities
commenced in the Indianapolis, Indiana Westin Hotel Grand Ballroom. The event took place
within walking distance of where, some two decades earlier, Latin Americans of all stripes
and persuasions were honored in perpetuity along with their North American counterparts.
Indianapolis, at that time, had dedicated the Pan Am Plaza to memorialize its hosting of
the tenth Pan American games which, by all accounts, were a great success. Those games, in
retrospect, seem to have been something of an omen. For the Latin American population of
Indianapolis has literally exploded in the years following. Few people living in central
Indiana at that time would have forecast the need for printing Bureau of Motor Vehicles
instructions for license plate renewal in both Spanish and English. Fewer still might have
been able to guess that local fire and police departments, as well as hospitals, would
seek out bilingual candidates and volunteers to satisfy a growing need to respond to
emergencies where and/or when, English might not be spoken.
Indianapolis, after all, isn’t Santa Fe, New Mexico, San Diego, California, Miami,
Florida or Brownsville, Texas. Indianapolis then was about as black and white as the
checkered flags used to acknowledge completion of 200 laps at the world famous
Indianapolis Motor Speedway. And when it became obvious that central Indiana was
beginning to reflect a more Latin American influence, residents and local television
newscasts continued to focus on the annual influx of seasonal Mexican migrant workers,
although that was really nothing new. When "Grand Bazaar Brazil" was decided on
as the theme for a HealthNet Foundation annual fundraiser supporting area HealthNet
Community Health Centers no one anticipated so enthusiastic a response. And, especially,
no one expected to see so large a number of locally residing Brazilians in attendance. Who
are these people, and where have they come from? First things first.
HealthNet Foundation, is presided over by Executive Director Hikmet Kutlu, an immigrant
from Turkey. Hikmet initiated and oversees the annual "Grand Bazaar" fundraiser,
which each year takes on the flavor of another country. Eli Lilly & Company, Clarion
Health and Bank One were gold sponsors for the event this year. The President and CEO of
Eli Lilly, a company that has proven itself to be a good community partner throughout its
global domain, is Sydney Taurel. As it happens, Sydney’s wife, Kathy, is from Rio. Sydney
and Kathy served as Honorary Chair for the event, along with the Brazilian Ambassador,
Senator and Mrs. Richard Lugar, Governor and Mrs. Frank O’Bannon, Mayor and Mrs. Bart
Peterson and two other couples.
But more significantly, Kathy Taurel was the Event Co-Chair, along with Alpha
Blackburn. Other Brazilians, like Adriana de Aguiar, served as Goodwill Ambassadors of
Brazil. Few stones were left unturned to ensure the success of this event for what most
everyone expected to be a pretty much non-Brazilian audience receiving their first real
exposure to Brazilian food and culture. The number of seats and tables far exceeded any
previous Grand Bazaar and an aura of Brazil in Indiana permeated the premises. Ironically,
Brazil, Indiana, is only about an hour west of Indianapolis!
On entering the Westin attendees were directed upstairs where the pre-event mixer was
conducted in open spaces displaying fine works of art depicting Brazilian culture, matted
photographs of African Brazilian Bahia, Brazilian flags, a display of Brazilian gemstones
and two tables dedicated to Partners of the Americas. An authentic, and appropriately
attired, gaúcho greeted all arrivals. Indiana, after all, is a Partner State to
Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil.
Thanks primarily to the hard work of Adriana de Aguiar, a number of Brasileiras
dressed in regional Brazilian traditional and Carnaval costumes circulated among the
delighted crowd whose expressions revealed a sense of unexpected discovery. At least one
of Adriana’s troupe was, naturally, emulating Carmen Miranda. Curiosities were piqued.
Lampião was also there, handing out Senhor do Bonfim fitas of various colors while
at the same time explaining the tradition and instructing fascinated patrons as to how the
"wish bracelets" should be knotted.
Only later would the feast of Brazil be revealed in all its glory. Croquete de
carne, bolinho de bacalhau, coxinha de galinha, caipirinha, moqueca de frutos do mar,
salada de palmito, pão de queijo, arroz à brasileira, tutu à mineira, churrasco de
filé, couve à mineira, farofa, molho vinagrete and suco de maracujá opened
many eyes, triggered many smiles and sated many hungers. And yes, the moqueca was
complete with oil of dendê! But the highlight of the evening for me, and I must
believe for many if not most of those in attendance, was the performance of Roots of
Brazil, directed by Lygya Barreto.
Roots of Brazil, Inc. or Roots was founded in 1984 as a New York City not-for-profit
performing arts organization to provide North Americans with an opportunity to discover
something more of Brazil’s unique cultural heritage. The rich tapestry of 500 years of
indigenous, Portuguese, African, European and Asian influences form the basis of its
authentic dance, music and theater performances, lectures, demonstrations and outreach
programs. The high caliber of Roots performances is reflected by the fact that Lincoln
Center, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Carnegie Hall, the Annenberg Center, Radio City
Music Hall and the United Nations have all hosted its performances, and to rave reviews.
Artistic Director Lygya was once dance instructor for the previously mentioned Adriana
de Aguiar, who happened to run into her here in the U.S. Lygya, who is from Rio, was
discovered by performing artist Alvin Ailey on his first company tour of Brazil in 1987.
She began her dance career in Bahia studying Afro-Brazilian Dance under the tutelage of
the highly respected Master King. In 1974 she joined the University Dance Company of
Bahia, and later served as featured soloist for performing arts companies in Salvador,
São Paulo, Rio and London before moving to New York.
For Grand Bazaar Brazil, Roots featured portions of its Afro Brazil Production, which
introduces various aspects of African cultural influences. Lygya and Roots introduced
historical foundations of those influences including capoeira, traditional samba, maculelê
(African stick dance), the afoxé musical style and influences of candomblé
religious ceremonies. Traditional instruments were explained and everyone in the hall was
encouraged to participate by providing accompanying chorus and rhythmic clapping.
Enthusiasm rippled through the hall like a tsunami. The athleticism and flawless execution
of Roots performers was enough to impress even the most knowledgeable and indoctrinated
fan of Brazilian performing arts.
Roots of Brazil was the perfect "main attraction" for Grand Bazaar Brazil. I
conclude this not only because of their incredible talent and impressive delivery, but
also because a legitimately significant Brazilian community has lain down Brazilian roots
here. I’d long been aware of the surprisingly large Brazilian student population at
Indiana University, a school that is a perennial contender for the NCAA national soccer
championship, and its very well organized Brazilian Student Union, BAIU. BAIU hosts well
attended annual churrascos and other events and maintains an impressive mailing
list under the Braznet national internet umbrella. And the annual autumn Lotus Festival at
Indiana University always seems to include a Brazilian presence.
Several years ago that was Olodum, the Bahian drum corps that backed up Paul Simon on Rhythm
of the Saints. But I now realized that Indianapolis itself was home to far more
Brazilians than anyone seemed to have realized. This community could permanently alter
stereotypes of Brazil and Brazilians that are founded in ignorance and misinformation; and
many of the Brazilians in attendance seemed to share this thought. That, in itself, was
not surprising, but the number of Brazilians in that community was.
To my own amazement, and that of the general Consul of the Brazilian Consulate in
Chicago who was in attendance, there were indeed many Brazilians at the Bazaar. A large
number of Brazilians in Indianapolis are employed by Eli Lilly & Company, and
virtually all of them are from São Paulo. But there was a large contingent whose origins,
spouses and/or family are connected to Bahia. And yet more came from Rio de Janeiro, Minas
Gerais, Rio Grande do Sul and states in the North and Northeast. How had it happened that
so many Brazilians had relocated here so undetected?
The primary "problem", if I may refer to it as such, seems to be that this
(Brazilian) community has no annual signature event to pull it together and generate an
awareness of its presence in the larger community. Adriana and others have made attempts
to establish a Brazilian Cultural Association, BrazIndy, which might serve as a common
focal point. But, to date, the selfless willingness to allow the group to chart its own
course has been lacking. The "collective will" must be allowed its own direction
in order to establish itself with a sense of permanence. But at times there seems to be an
excess of over-investment in personal priorities regarding what the character of such an
organization should be.
I’ve heard complaints that "Brazilians are simply not used to volunteering",
which I think is a fair and objective observation. I’ve also noted that many local
Brazilians, at this point, are really only looking for some way to connect with other
Brazilians. Perhaps first establishing a "sense of common identity" might serve
to create a critical mass of "Brazilian-ness" more predisposed to later respond
more favorably to ambitious and demanding opportunities. And I’m aware that, in some
cases, offers from non-Brazilians to help organize Brazilian activities are not always
welcomed, even in instances where the non-Brazilian is engaged to marry a Brasileira.
I can’t help but wonder whether this pattern is being repeated in other cities of
similar size where the Brazilian population is larger than had been realized, but not so
noticeably significant as say in Miami, Washington D.C., Boston or Los Angeles. I can’t
help but wonder how it is being dealt with in other places. More importantly though, I
wonder whether local Brazilians will find a way to nurture the "roots of Brazil"
that have been established here (and/or there), such as they are.
Footnote: If you wish to learn more about Roots you should take time to visit their
Website at http://rootsofbrazil.com/ . To
contact Roots or make a tax-deductible contribution to their educational program, or
performances, you may contact them by postal mail or e-mail at: Roots of Brazil, 575
Warren Street #3L Brooklyn, NY 11217, Tel: 718/622-1561, Fax: 718/222-4524, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
The author is a freelance photojournalist and regular contributor to Brazzil.
Phillip has an extensive Brazil Website at http://www.iei.net/~pwagner/brazilhome.htm
that includes photographs, recipes, information on the unique Afro-Bloco movement in
Salvador, Bahia and more. He can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com