Written by Sinclair Blue,Georgetown University) Student Correspondent CET Brazil, Fall 2018
The first recorded colonizers arrived in Brazil in 1500 under the leadership of Pedro Alvares Cabral. What ensued after his arrival was a complex and violent tale of genocide, forced conversion to Christianity, and enslavement. Although official colonization has ended, the effects still linger. The Center (or the so-called West) still relies upon the periphery (former colonies) for resource extraction, cheap labor, land for multinational companies, and even “debt” repayment. The U.S. in particular has a long history of “interventions” in Latin America (thinly veiled coups). Given the naturalization of Eurocentric values, norms, and social categories alongside the cultural imperialism of the United States, where does study abroad fit into the explore/colonize/dominate dynamic?
Studying abroad is an inherently dislocating experience whose nuances are often disguised by phrases like “formative experience” without engaging the reality of it. It is a power dynamic in which exchange students have flexibility, access, and resources that people in the host country could only dream of.
Why am I able to come to Brazil and experience it in a way that many Brazilians will never be able to? And what do I do with that privilege? Furthermore, many study abroad programs commercialize local cultures, including but not limited to language, religious customs, and holy sites. We pay obscene amounts of money for our specially crafted experience (CET Brazil costs $18,000 or 67,500 reais), but how much of that money sustainably benefits the local economy? This is not a rhetorical question. I often worry that the benefits of an exchange program are one-way. But is the answer not to study abroad? To cancel exchange programs? Of course not. Though we are all tangled in a web of colonization, hegemony, and hierarchy, choosing not to engage with these complexities would leave us all worse off.
CET Brazil is unique because instead of running from the various discomforts of studying abroad, it leans into them. And we have all felt the effects of this. Our Poverty and Inequality in 21st Century Brazil class has designed a series of field experiences, in which we attempt to leave the realm of academia and see how Brazilians are confronting and resisting poverty in their daily lives. We visited Casa do Zezinho, an NGO that aims “to create conditions through education, art and culture, so that children and young people in situations of high social vulnerability and low income overcome their limitations.” The reaction to our visit was mixed. While grateful for the opportunity, many of us felt out of place and borderline voyeuristic. As Sulia, our Resident Director, remarked “does it make sense to visit Casa do Zezinho? For now it does. But maybe one day it won’t.” We agreed unanimously that not visiting Casa do Zezinho wasn’t the answer, but something did need to change. Our professors and academic directors listened attentively to our concerns, and are committed to honoring them.
Of course, the decisions we have been forced to make as exchange students are small ones. Every day, poverty forces people to make decisions that strip them of their humanity. As of 2017, more than fifty million Brazilians live on 5 dollars or less a day. But there must be a way forward. The reason that all of us keep making difficult decisions, despite the seeming impossibility of it all, is because we are committed to justice and know that there is a way forward. Or if not forward, at least there is a way to somewhere different. Perhaps the way has not yet been determined, but I believe in our collective power to arrive at that point.
After our visits to Casa do Zezinho and the Vila Nova Palestina MTST Occupation, one thing has stuck with me: the importance of joy. Yes, we can intellectualize and debate and resist together, but we must also rejoice with one another. CET Brazil has provided us with several opportunities to be in community; we have gone to the Sao Paulo Biennial, Embu das Artes, the Afro-Brazilian History Museum and much more. I am grateful to the program for giving us space to resist, reflect and rejoice.