An article written by a very good friend of mine, Leighna Harrison, who I was fortunate enough to get to know as a neighbor and close friend experiencing life living, studying and traveling together in Salvador da Bahia, Brasil. Thanks Leighna for your insight and dedication to a cause in need of a voice and descriptions of a place that has changed our lives! I have and will continue to dedicate my life to digest the meaning of all that we as students, anthropologists, friends and outsiders experienced...
February through June, 2005, Brazil
By Leighna Harrison
It was March of 1998, the month I turned 14. My sister and I got a postcard in the mail from Brazil. It was from our cousin, telling us that she was at Carnaval, that everyone was singing and dancing in the streets, and that we just had to come someday.
Not only her words enchanted me, but the black-and-white postcard image made me want to be there: a beautiful girl, dressed all in white, mouth slightly open, eyes lighting up in anticipation at something outside the frame of the photograph. I wondered what she was about to say. I imagined what her smile would look like.
I looked at that picture often over the years. When I finally left to study abroad in Brazil, despite my parents’ hesitation after having just seen the movie City of God, I wanted to find her, find out what she saw, what could make her expression so enticing.
While looking for that girl in the photograph, I found a different girl. I didn’t wonder about what could make her smile; I wondered how she could smile at all.
In February of 2005, a girl who looked to be about my age greeted me at the entrance to the building that would be my home for the next 5 months. She carried my rather large suitcase into the elevator for me. Her name was Rosie. Not quite sure who she was, I followed her, and when my host mother invited me to sit down for lunch, I realized as she served me that she was the home’s domestic worker.
I encountered a home unlike anything I had ever imagined. Everything remained under lock and key: telephone, food, toilet paper. Apparently, after working for the family for 11 years, Rosie was still not to be trusted. The harsh tone my host mother directed at her was a familiar sound.
After a while, I asked Rosie if I could document her story. I wanted to share it with others to give voice to a young woman who said that I was the only one who had ever really listened to her. I borrowed a video camera from a fellow student in the study abroad program, and we conducted the interview over the course of two days: the first on a Sunday, also one of her two free days a month, and the second at the end of a regular workday.
We waited until my host mom was away and filmed in the kitchen. Rosie’s friend, Cristina, a domestic worker for a neighboring apartment, stood watch at the front window. If anyone were to come home, Cristina would notify us and then quickly run out the backdoor and up the stairs, as Rosie was not allowed to have guests in the house.
Rosie’s story was one of poverty, ignorance, and a country still holding on to the remnants of its colonial past. As we began filming, I asked at what age she began living with and working for the family. Fourteen. At the same age that I began to exoticize Brazil, Rosie began to be commodified by its flaws.
During my time in Brazil, Rosie talked to me. She took an interest in what I was doing when my host family did not. She helped me with my Portuguese, always so patient. She never laughed at me and never gave me that awful blank stare I got from my host mom when she didn’t understand what I was trying to say.
We talked about our families, our boyfriends, about everything that was wrong in that household, and about other Brazilian women in similar situations. She taught me how to make Bahian dishes like moqueca and feijoada, and sweets like Romeu e Julietas. She taught me how to fry bananas and made them for me on my birthday.
We discussed the possibility of her leaving her job. We lamented the fact that it was nearly impossible for her to go to the domestic worker’s union to plead her case about past wages due. They were closed on Sunday – her only day off.
On the rare occasions she finished work early, we went on evening walks to escape the heat of the house. Down Avenida Centenario to Oceanica, glancing behind us to the ministatue of Christ on the hill, with the ocean to our left, we continued on until we got to the famous lighthouse of Barra. We sat on the grass surrounded by capoeiristas, the homeless, and vendors selling their souvenirs. There we were, an American and a Brasileira – two morenas, two brown-skinned girls.
She could have been me. I could have been her. Luck and misfortune: one person born into privilege, the other into poverty.
I left Rosie with a promise to return someday and a secret copy of the phone key. I call her occasionally, now that I am home. Once, when she answered, she was there at the lighthouse with Cristina. Two Brasileiras escaping the heat of the house.
In the words of my good friend and kindred spirit, “Deveria ser diferente.” It should be different.
In her lifetime, Leighna plans to travel, to teach, to study law, to listen, to help, and to love. She still talks to Rosie on the phone and occasionally dreams of Brazil.