In the shadow of the Redeemer


(For the next two weeks, I’ll be doing a series on Rio, the Olympics and my encounters with Brazilian culture. This is the first in that series.)

Tonight, all eyes are on Rio as its rocky Olympic journey enters a new phase: the kickoff of the actual Olympics. If you’re out of Brazil, it probably feels like the Olympics have snuck up on you (as they do every time they come around). If you’re in Brazil, though, the spectre of the Olympics has hung over for months — even if the festive flags, the Rio 2016 signage, and the “Visit Rio” guides have only popped up in the last week.

I’ve been in Rio for the past 47 days. It’s exotic in all the typical ways: the guava and mangoes are cheap and plentiful. Sidewalks become corner markets with swiftness: here you don’t have to walk into a single store to get a newspaper, backpack, or fresh beets. On Tuesdays, plazas become wet markets. On the weekends, they become book fairs and art galleries, shops where you can find the sort of necklaces, bracelets, and earrings that your girl friends will fawn over when you get home.

But there is something terribly familiar about Rio de Janeiro.

Rio is a city with a European shell, a Latin pulse, and African roots. Its exoskeleton evokes France, Portugal and Italy. The colorful row houses with ornate trimmings, the marble fountains and statues within spitting distance of palm trees — famous men on horses and unnamed women, frozen forever in various states of undress. Its streets are Latin: the smell of carne and bread and melted cheese mingling together; the bustle and clatter of long, heavy lunches; and the rhythmic, sing-song lilt of Carioca Portuguese fill the days.

And at the roots, mixed in with its indigenous culture is an undeniably African lineage. It’s both the backbone of samba and its juice, the percussion that drives Brazil’s signature dance forward and forward until the senses (and the feet) are exhausted. It’s in candomble and capoeira. It’s in the kink in Neymar’s hair, before he bleached and straightened it in a style that evokes Cristiano Ronaldo, and erased the gangly 12-year-old black boy he once was.

In Rio, all these stories come together. It is a city that evokes the best and worst of Brazil. A city where favelas are depicted in paintings and t-shirts, making them as much a hallmark of the city as the outstretched arms of Christ. It is a city of light and shadow, stark contrasts layered on top of each other, defining each other.

I imagine they’ll try to depict some version of that narrative in the Opening Ceremony tonight. A version that tells the complicated story of this country, wrapped in a smile and set to music, because that’s what the world wants to see, and Rio is so good at delivering just what you want.

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Brazil is a country where racism is illegal — at least, in word. The Porto Marvahila (roughly translated to the Wonderful Port) was the largest slave port in the Western Hemisphere, with an estimated half-million enslaved Africans landing on its docks in the early 1800s. This is the last republic to ban human bondage, and yet, fairly early in its history as a sovereign state, Brazil identified racial-mixing as a national value. Brazilians not only coined the term “racial democracy,” but seemingly bought into the idea wholesale.

Walk the streets of Rio and you’ll see that complex lineage, the brown arms dusted with blonde hair, the relaxed kink to the hair, green eyes peeking out of bronze faces. In no place is this more apparent than its famous beaches: a sun-drenched bastion of racial democracy, where the rich and the poor and everyone in between worship the sun and surf side by side, and no one can much tell who is who.

If this is all you saw of Rio, you’d be tempted to declare Brazil’s grand experiment a success.

Beaches like Ipanema and Copacabana are readily accessible to the richest and poorest Cariocas.

I spoke to a Getty photographer, Mario Tama, about his time in Brazil. He arrived in 2013 from New York City and has spent the past few years documenting Brazilian culture and Brazilian people, from the Mare favela to the fireworks at Copacabana beach, from candomble ceremonies and Miss Black Rio beauty pageants to a community of Confederate sympathizers.

“Rio is often portrayed in the media, and Brazilians in the media, as like, they’re just strolling through the streets in their bikinis all day long and dancing all day long everywhere,” said Tama. “It’s far more family oriented I think than it’s portrayed in the media. And I think Brazil is far more complex than that, you know.”

During the Olympics, Tama will try to capture the relationship between average Brazilians and the massive, global sports spectacle that has landed at their feet. He’s seen the struggle and spectacle that so defines Rio, but as with so many of us who visit, the complications of Rio’s history and its culture end up falling behind the generosity and warmth of its residents, the Cariocas.

“As a photographer, the amount of Cariocas who’ve invited me into their homes, into their personal lives, into those personal spaces and allowed me to photograph them without even knowing me at all, this is what to me is the most incredible thing about my experience here. And what I love so much about Cariocas, specifically.”

This is certainly what walking the streets of Rio Sul for 47 days is like. It’s bearing witness, repeatedly, to the warmth and generosity of Brazilians. But spend a few days away from the beaches — where the very rich and the very poor gather together like so much sand — and you’ll quickly find the racial fault lines of the city. The black people perched on the hills of the city, in favelas and comunidades. The brancos on their balconies, overlooking the postcard shores of Ipanema or Leme. A city where so many have indigenous blood (or at the very least, claim it), and yet the concerns of indigenous people — their land rights, the violence they suffer at the hands of the state — are without audience.

These are American fault-lines. An American mythology, and, as you order your fresh fruit juice and trace the path that brought you to this place, and this moment, you realize some of what felt so familiar, so painful about Rio. This is an American country. A country that can so proudly call itself a melting pot, that has such a rich history of blending cultures or of welcoming many cultures, but still imposes from within a hierarchy of citizenship. That still tries to straighten out its roots.

After all, how many black people are in your office, furrowing their brows at a computer screen? How many are pushing brooms or standing in security uniforms, smiling that broad Carioca smile at you?

As you grab a styrofoam bowl of acaraje at a street fair, your spoon gathering stewed okra and bright, glistening pieces of shrimp, you notice.

You notice the paintings of favelas. Oil painted depictions of poverty that will sell to tourists for $500 a pop. You think of how, for each successive generation, the family living in a favela will build a new level to the house. You think of how high those houses are, of the twisted ways that generational poverty blooms. You think of dark Afro-Brazilians who hold babies the color of cafe com leite and cluck approvingly of “improving the race.” You think of how easily indigenous people and voices are erased, while their culture is so readily referenced. You think of how, in the U.S., everyone identifies themselves as middle class (many mistakenly). And you think of how, in Brazil, many identify themselves as pardo, or mixed (and geneticists have found, this is also mistaken).

The white Brazilians you talk to are quick to point out that apartheid never existed here. But after 47 days, you realize that a country in which people were enslaved never needed to enforce segregation to reap the same effects. The legacy of slavery on a country is too great a weight to bear, too deep a sin to cleanse.

You look up at the skyline one more time, a skyline that you’ve come to love. That in beautiful and terrible ways, feels like home. You catch, again, that white figure in the distance who is all things: comforting yet imposing, welcoming yet ominous. And you wonder, again, about redemption.