It’s been exactly a month since I’ve been back in New York, and I recognize that I put this aside for a bit, but that is not to say that I in any way forgot about it. In this one month, I’ve gone from one extreme to the other. From an “if we can’t do it today, we’ll do it tomorrow”, mentality, to a “get it done for yesterday” approach to any task; from fresh coconut water costing 2 reais, to now costing 6 dollars. From kisses to handshakes, and there suddenly not being enough hours in the day to do all that you’re supposed to, and much less time to spare with which to do what you want. I’m definitely back to city life, and I’m trying hard to remember how to move about in this space… but I’m sure with time I’ll settle in. For now, I’ll use this as a place to process all of those things that I brought back with me, and haven’t gotten an opportunity to share. So, let’s go back to August 3rd at the Acervo da Laje, sitting with Dinho in the late afternoon, discussing all of those things we tend to question often, and rarely come around to answer.
I sit with Dinho in the Acervo. Me on a couch, dressed with a mustard-colored-sheet, and him on the plastic rocking chair, the seat now a gaping hole from overuse. We begin to discuss what holds Brazil together. What maintains the spirit and the belief, the charisma and the resilience of its people.
O Brasil Profundo.
When you leave the urban centers of Brazil and drive toward the interior, the setting changes dramatically. Suddenly you realize the immensity of this place. You become aware of space, of past and the present, of the simplicity and humility, of a Brazil that some call “Brasil Profundo” (profound Brazil). Old ladies with missing teeth sit, looking out the windows of their brightly-painted concrete homes, watching the neighbors pass by. It smells of black-beans and fried beef at 11 in the morning, and after lunch, silence swoops in as the town takes an hour or two to rest and digest the day’s work. The walls are covered in portraits, often photographed and later painted over, to give a nostalgic feel, and small statues of saints and candles decorate homes’ personalized altars. Things are simple and sweet, while still over-worked and well broken in.
Dinho told me of his trip to Bom Jesus da Lapa, one of the most spiritualized sites in Brazil, visited by pious tourists from all over the world. The site consists of cave structures that have been turned into now churches and sanctuaries. It is a Christian site, and there are representations of saints throughout the entirety of the space. Hundreds of people come through to light candles, say their prayers, ask for peace, love, health. It is a place of worship and of faith; a place where people reap what they sow, and everything depends on how much you believe in what you ask for. It embraces multiple faiths, as Brazilian syncretism enables practitioners of a variety of religious and spiritual beliefs to inhabit the same space and give it a different interpretation and meaning.
Dinho spent a few days in Bom Jesus da Lapa, and said it was one of the more moving experiences he’s ever had; the caves engaged all the senses and even a bit more. After his experience, he made clear to me the importance of faith in Brazil. With all of the difficulties that the great majority of these humble individuals experience, they all managed to make their way to this site. It is a pilgrimage, lived and understood with great respect and dedication. To leave behind all of the work and the stress of their days to spend some time with their faith is a challenge in so many ways… but it is done with great respect and celebration.
After hours of discussion, we came to the agreement that what holds together this concept of “Brasil Profundo”, is exactly this faith that drives people to travel hours and hours to spend some time with these caves, these idols and icons, this energy. This faith, reminds people that truly, we have control over only a certain portion of what happens. Sometimes we have to trust that it is not always in our hands—and many times, we have to ask for help, in order to receive what we need. This is something that I experienced often throughout the months I spent in Salvador. “Se Deus quiser”, (if God so pleases), is said in countless situations. But it is often times coupled with, “Com fé a gente consegue”, (waith faith, we can). It takes very little to encounter this faith, this mysticism and spirituality in Bahia; it is expressed openly and is understood, as not only acceptable, but as necessary. Yes, perhaps we cannot control what happens, but in some way or another we are responsible for engaging with it in order to seek the best results possible.
This relentless belief in something greater seems to result in genuine humility and acceptance. This is one of the more beautiful qualities that you walk right into at a place like Bom Jesus da Lapa. It becomes clear that this faith serves as a way for people to process and work through the challenges we face daily. But in some respects, this acceptance can serve as a hindrance. It is also this full faith in an external locus of control that can bring about what Nelson Rodrigues called, “complexo de vira-latas”, referring to a self-proclaimed inferiority complex that he believes characterizes Brazilians (specifically he referred to the soccer players in the 50s). What he means is an acceptance of being “inferior” economically—a certain pride in having less and living more. It is what gives the noble vagabond in Brazil his essence, what enables movements like Bossa Nova that are grounded in simplicity and living being experienced juxtaposed to frugality and extremes; deep relationships, poetic music unafraid to embrace both dissonance and passion, a beautiful beach, a roda de samba (samba circle) pounding out the heartbeat that preserves hundreds of years of history, or a good game of soccer. These are the things that the difficulties have forced the “vira-latas”, directly translated to “stray-dogs”, that Rodrigues compares the Brazilian public to, to create. These are the moments where faith works in a grounding way—where faith works from the root and seeks out new beginnings.
But what Nelson Rodrigues also refers to, is the cycle that this inferiority can propagate. When there seems to be no way out, when samba and soccer become tinged with the mark of hunger or vendetta. When there isn’t enough food to put on the table because a mother has been left alone and doesn’t have the education to seek a better profession. Or when the neighborhood flares up in violence and residents are forced into their homes, afraid of the wars fought outside over drugs, over past dues and debts. In these moments, it takes a remarkable amount of strength to rise above it, to believe that the faith you have isn’t limited to the divine force that has put you in the situation you’re in—that this faith has the capacity to extend itself reflexively inwards, and empower you enough to seek out those things that the “vira-latas” have taken pride in. Those things that unite people of different classes and enable you to be, without being judged.
So on one side of the scale, we find the weight and importance of faith and on the other acceptance; the divine and the way we choose to live the opportunity that we’ve been given to life. This spirituality is what enables hundreds to go to Bom Jesus da Lapa and pray with every ounce of themselves to a representation of Saint Lazarus while whispering the name Omolu, and then go to the bar and order a beer with friends to relish in the levity rather than the weight.