The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

An American writer in Brazil is transformed from “exbrat” to politically awakened expat

Sao Paulo June Protests CollageWell, the best-laid plans of mice and menand international creatives—often go astray. Today, instead of Andy Martin interviewing Megan Farrell about her excellent book, American Exbrat in São Paulo: Advice, Stories, Tips and Tricks for Surviving South America’s Largest City, Megan herself will post about the transformational effect that the protests in her adopted country are having on her world outlook. (Not to worry, barring further major events, Andy’s interview with Megan should appear next month.)

—ML Awanohara

For nearly a week solid, I was locked to social media sites, doling out information about the protests in Brazil, via blogs, Facebook and Twitter. Along with other expat friends here in Brazil, I was been trying to make up for the fact that global news outlets were doing little to spread the word about the public demonstrations going on in São Paulo and other large cities.

Like a large percentage of my foreign friends, I have a closer connection to the country than your average expat. I have a Brazilian husband, and though she was born in New York City, a daughter who is a Brazilian national.

Ignorance was bliss

I’ll admit, before June 13, the night when police “lost control,” using rubber bullets against protesters and even journalists covering the events, I had little real knowledge about the injustices occurring in my new home country. I chose not to let such things enter my world.

Being displaced often makes it easy to be removed from your own surroundings.

Being displaced also makes it easy to be in a bit of denial.

But that Thursday night in mid-June, as my husband and I sat in a bar near our apartment and watched as the streets filled with protesters, my perspective on my adopted country changed.

The bar’s manager wasn’t allowing patrons to leave out of fear we would be exposed to the enthusiastic, but angry, crowd—some of whom were attempting to start fires to distract the police from blocking their access to Avenida Paulista, the central thoroughfare of São Paulo.

The protest eventually moved on, and we were able to leave, but my interest in what had initiated this movement lingered.

Not just about 20 centavos

By now, many of you hopefully understand that millions hit the streets of Brazil over more than a bus fare increase. Yes, that act was the catalyst. A 20 centavos increase meant an additional monthly expense of eight reais (R$8 is about US $4). It may not sound like a lot to you and I, but as minimum monthly wage in Brazil is R$675 per month (about US $300), every centavo is accounted for in the household of the working poor (i.e. the emerging middle class).

But the fare increase also speaks to deeper issues concerning the government’s priorities. Many Brazilians are finding it hard to stand by and watch as the government attempts to squeeze them for more, all the while spending millions of dollars on preparing stadiums for the 2014 World Cup—millions more than other countries who have hosted the event. Meanwhile, public services within Brazil remain abominable.

A few examples:

  • Across the country, emergency rooms of public hospitals are filled to the brim with patients hoping to get care, yet doctors have no means to help the majority.
  • Public school teachers often don’t show up to conduct class.
  • Police are untrained and uneducated, often looking to supplement their meager incomes with bribes.
  • Public transportation is decrepit in many cities.

“Its hour come round at last…” W.B. Yeats

As I wrote in my recent book, American Exbrat in São Paulo, one of the more frustrating aspects of living in Brazil can be the Brazilians’ passive attitude on the inefficiencies and transgressions that occurred in their country. Be it that the post office ran out of stamps (again) or the police never showed up when called, a local’s response to this would be some version of, “That’s Brazil.”

So when hundreds of thousands took to the street in protest, with a list of complaints in hand, no one was more surprised than the Brazilians.

The media took it lightly at first, burying the story about a bus far increase in the back of the papers. Then, the focus was on the violence of the demonstrations. But the reality is that when you gather such a large group (everyone was invited by social media), there are bound to be a few who are there to express extreme anger or simply to commit acts of violence.

But as one who sits within the scene, I’ve found the protests mostly peaceful and the intentions positive. The people of Brazil want change and want the world to understand that their country isn’t satisfied with the samba and beach party persona. There are real issues within the nation’s borders that need addressing.

Whither the rest of the world?

As mentioned at the outset of this post, sharing information about the realities of Brazil’s protest movement has become an important objective for me. Friends, both foreign and Brazilian, and I have been passing along videos, news articles and photos that depict the main events as well as the sentiments of the people.

Many of us who have blogs about being in Brazilmine is Born Again Brazilianhave written posts on these topics. For instance, I have just posted on Dilma Vana Rousseff, president of Brazil, who has stood in support of the Brazilian protesters.

Yet many friends and family members in the U.S. were still sharing updates on Facebook about their morning meals, their cats, sports teams, and other notices. These felt like irrelevant nonsense. How could this be? How could they just not care?

But then I recalled that I have friends in Turkey, who are going through the current protests. I have friends with family members who are in Greece and must have lived through the two years of protest in that country. I know little about what is happening in Ethiopia, where the first large-scale protest since 2005 has just broken out. And before June 13th, I was blissfully sharing little more than food photos and trip pics.

It is easy to be self-absorbed, content to contemplate the details of one’s own little world. It is even easier as an expat, when so much of your surroundings are of an unfamiliar nature. You take comfort in that which is close to home.

But now I have a different attitude and think about my power to disseminate information. It’s satisfying to share the details of what goes on in the politics of this country and have people you know respond positively.

But it is as important, especially for those of us who have an audience through blogs and other outlets, to keep tabs on what is happening elsewhere in the world and use our skills to move toward justice and peace.

This episode in Brazilian history has changed me forever.

Or so I hope…

* * *

Readers, any questions or comments for Megan about what she is experiencing? Have you had any similar moments of political (re)awakening—or do you not “do” politics as an expat?

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, a new episode in our Capital Ideas series, by Anthony Windram.

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images: Surrounding Megan Farrell (aka Maggie Foxhole) and her book cover photo are several photos taken by TDN writer Andy Martin. Go to his photo blog to see more.

10 responses to “An American writer in Brazil is transformed from “exbrat” to politically awakened expat

  1. bornagainbrazilian June 26, 2013 at 6:22 am

    Reblogged this on born again brazilian and commented:
    Hi all! Check out my guest post on The Displaced Nation – my favorite site for all of us wandering foreigners out there who like to write.

  2. Kristin June 26, 2013 at 7:50 am

    Good stuff. Always enjoy your perspective, Megan!!

  3. Apple Gidley June 26, 2013 at 11:29 am

    Having lived in many countries some of which went through a period of civil strife whilst I was there, I think one of the most important things as expatriates is to become engaged in our host country. Only that way can we truly learn about it, the good and the bad. And only that way can we perhaps help affect change, whether by disseminating news as you are Megan, or by actual actions without of course putting our own cultural imprint on someone else’s country and perspective. This makes me sound very pompous but it is something I truly believe.

    • bornagainbrazilian June 26, 2013 at 3:49 pm

      I agree. The only power I have right now is sharing the information that has been presented to me as accurate and relative. That’s what expats in similar situations can do. And I will continue to do it until this particular government establishes a plan for change. The other thing expats can do is support each other in our various “displaced” causes.

  4. ML Awanohara June 26, 2013 at 4:57 pm

    Megan, Thanks again for doing this post. One of my formative experiences while living in the UK, forged in the “locals” (pubs near my home), was an abiding interest in politics and foreign affairs. I’m sure others will disagree, but I don’t see how anyone can be a responsible citizen, of a nation, of the world, without paying attention to what’s going on.

    The Brazilian protests captured my attention early on, especially as my paper of choice, the New York Times, has been giving the story major coverage. It has an op-ed today in fact called “Let Them Eat Soccer,” by Elio Gaspari.

    Speaking of “eating soccer,” I will admit to being among those who were surprised by the outcry against the Brazilian government. I had always assumed that Brazilians loved soccer more than life itself, but the current protests suggest that their love for The Beautiful Game has limits.

    And now I have a question that relates back to your book (which I’ve read and loved!): are you planning to add a chapter about expats and politics?

    • bornagainbrazilian June 27, 2013 at 6:52 pm

      I took this movement seriously for the very reason you mentioned – futebol. It’s almost impossible to find a Brazilian that doesn’t passionately support a team. So when the people of Brazil began to go against the World Cup, I knew things were far worse than I could have imagined.
      So glad you liked the book! Yes, I will be doing some update in some format – it is a great question – and I’ll definitely let you know! Thanks for the opportunity to write this post!

  5. Kelly June 27, 2013 at 7:50 pm

    As a backpacker here in Brazil as events are unfolding, it is interesting to hear the voices of local people finally being heard. We have been told that the current living wage is NOT a living wage, people are living without being able to get by with day to day necessities, let alone even contemplate the idea of having a disposable income. To a traveller who has spent a year saving for her trip, yes scrimping and saving and sometimes going without fun, but nevertheless, able to save whilst occasionally allowing oneself a luxury, I cannot comprehend this kind of living that Brazillians (as well as others from all around the world) face, A living wage should allow a person to LIVE not just survive. With the rise of bus prices, we have found the spark to get the people to rise and burn a fire that glows bright enough for the rest of the world to see.

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