I grew up in a small suburb in southern California with my parents and three siblings. Although the city we lived in was a middle class city, we were definitely on the lower end and were very frugal with our money. I learned early on how to stretch a dollar and how to differentiate between luxuries and necessities. My lifestyle in the U.S., especially as a first generation college student, was not glamorous by any means.
And then I moved to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
I was placed in a homestay in Leblon, one of the chiquest neighborhoods in Rio. It’s where people go to shop at Dolce & Gabbana or to go sightseeing for celebrities. I’ve basically moved to a Brazilian Beverly Hills.
And it’s been such a culture shock.
I don’t feel like I belong in this neighborhood, not because I’m a gringa (Brazilian slang for foreigner) but because of my life experiences.
When I walk around my neighborhood, there is a diverse mix of people I see. But there is a very clear distinction between who lives here and who works I here. It’s easy to tell because of the activities their performing and their skin color.
Brazil is a country with severe social and economic inequality, with roots dating back to colonialism. Slavery was only abolished here in 1888. The racial economic inequality in Brazil is so ingrained that it’s estimated over 70% of Afro-Brazilians are living in poverty.
From my observations, an overwhelming majority of the Leblon residents are light skinned while the majority of dark skinned people line up at the bus stop at the end of the day to return home after a long day of work.
Living here, I can’t help but compare it to my experience in the US. My parents are from Mexico, and back in the US, it’s my family, my people, that I see performing hard labor, such as cleaning the homes and taking care of the kids of lighter skinned, economically privileged people.
And what makes me so uncomfortable is that now I’m the one that is being serviced. And it does not feel right, because I know the struggle that my family and friends in the service sector go through.
I know that I am not seeing or living in the real Rio. In part that has to do with the Olympics and the increased police surveillance on the street, the other part has to do with the strength of the American dollar that allows me to afford to live in Leblon. There is a different side to Rio that I have yet to experience, and I know that that the more time I spend in Brazil, the more Brazilians I meet, the more my perspective will expand, change and be challenged. And that’s what I’m most looking forward to.