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Seeing Brazil through a family’s eyes


A young American married couple, Angel Mortel and Chad Ribordy, arrived in Brazil earlier this year as Maryknoll lay missioners. Their occasional column for NCR recounts their experiences as they settle in. In this second column, they have just completed language school in Brasilia, Brazil.

Pulling out of the language school parking lot, waving goodbye to my wife, Angel, from the van, I must admit that I felt a little bit like a 10-year-old boy on his first trip to summer camp, not quite wanting to go, nervous about whether he will make new friends, unsure about what lies ahead.

I probably would have cried if my macho instincts hadn’t gotten in the way. It would be the first time that Angel and I were to be separated in this foreign country.

As part of its curriculum, the language school arranges for each student to spend a week with a Brazilian family. As it happened, this week fell during an important meeting of the Maryknoll Mission Association of the Faithful for the Latin American region.

We decided that one of us needed to go to that meeting and miss the home-stay. Since my Portuguese was considerably more, well, let’s say “creative,” we decided that I should not miss the home-stay.

I was nervous also because it would be the first time I would be completely without the aid of a translator. What if I got extremely ill, and instead of saying, “Get me a doctor,” I said, “Feed me more of that tainted chicken.” Or more realistically, what if I just didn’t understand anything they said. That could make for a very long week.

My fears were somewhat assuaged when my family greeted me at the local parish and I found that they could understand me, and I could get a basic sense of what they were saying. They were a middle-class family. The husband and wife, Carmo and Vanildes, own and run a small drugstore. Their two teenage children, Vinicius and Loyanne, attend a private Catholic school run by the Marists.

Carmo works from 7 a.m. until 9 p.m. every day, so I didn’t get to know him very well. I spent most of my time with Vanildes and the kids.

Vanildes is from the poor Northeast. Her family did not have much but believed firmly in education. They scraped up enough money to send her through secondary school. Because of her grades, she was able to continue her education at the local university where she studied geography, philosophy and theology.

She was a student during the height of the military dictatorship and was imprisoned once for protesting against the government. She and her extended family are very politically conscious, which they claim is a rarity in Brazilian society.

Most of her side of the family are teachers. Vanildes herself was a teacher for 20 years before she retired because of health concerns. So, I learned a great deal about the Brazilian school system that week. I even observed classes at the local high school.

It was not the chaos I expected. For the most part, the students were calm and attentive, the teachers well-organized, classes started on time and the sessions were engaging. All this in a school where the average class size is about 45, and where the teachers work from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. with classes on the hour and no free time for class preparation.

Some even teach at night to augment their salary, which is about $9,000 annually -- and Brasilia is as expensive as any city in the United States.

The objective of Brazilian secondary schools is to prepare the students for the “vestibular,” which is roughly the equivalent of our SAT or ACT. The difference is that if the kids don’t get one of the top scores, they are not admitted to the public universities.

The nice thing is that public universities are tuition-free. The irony is that usually the rich go to the best schools. The very ones who can afford tuition are the ones who get into the tuition-free universities. This is yet another classic case of the cards stacked against the poor and favoring the wealthy.

I very much enjoyed getting to know Vinicius, Loyanne and their friends. I had an interesting discussion with them one evening about United States-Brazil relations.

They seemed to have a love-hate feeling for the United States. Some of them said that they resent the U.S. culture’s invading Brazil via radio, TV and films. One said, “Brazil has its own culture. It needs to stop looking outside for its own development.” Yet, the kids were very interested in what life is really like in the States.

They asked me many questions about U.S. bands, some I’d never even heard of. They loved to ask me about President Bill Clinton and what I thought of his alleged sexual exploits. They also wanted to know what Americans thought of Brazilians. I was a bit embarrassed to admit to them that probably most of the U.S. public does not even know where Brazil is. Maybe some might know who Pele is, but only a handful could name the current president of Brazil, Fernando Henrique Cardoso.

They were shocked.

The religious life of the family was somewhat mystifying to me. Somehow I expected a family that was so critical of the government and so justice-oriented to be equally so with the church.

Not so. The more controversial issues of the church, such as women’s ordination or a married clergy, were never topics of discussion. Yet, they were not “strict” Catholics either. Vanildes and her daughter went to Sunday Mass if they could, but it didn’t seem to be a priority to them. Nor did it seem to bother Vanildes that her husband and son do not go to Mass at all. She took me to churches to visit.

The family does have a strong prayer life. The first thing we did when I arrived was to hold hands and invoke the Holy Spirit to come down and bless our week together. Vanildes left the daily Mass readings for me to translate every morning. There were pictures of Mary all around the house, a crucifix in every room.

It seemed that the most important thing to the family is that they believe in God, Jesus and the saints, and that they pray at home.

The week ended. Again, like the kid at summer camp, I was sad to say goodbye to all of my newly made friends, but anxious to come home to recount my experiences back at the language school.

Not only was the week a great introduction to the culture of Brazilian family life, it did, in fact, help my Portuguese. And the best part was, I did not have to say even once, “Get me a doctor!”

National Catholic Reporter, November 20, 1998