Halting Portuguese: On Identity and Insecurity

Where do I belong?
Where do I belong?

The ‘D’ subway car is packed today, which requires me to lean ever so slightly to make space for the two women who slide into the seats next to me. My eyes are focused on the book I’m reading, but my ears perk when I hear one speaking Portuguese to the other. I quickly glance down to check if I’m wearing my Brazilian soccer jacket. Nope. Relief. I can stay hidden away in my book and pretend that I don’t understand their conversation.

The irony of this moment is that I’m headed to the Brazilian parish in New York I’ve been attending since 2015. I am about to speak a lot of halting Portuguese, but the parishioners are used to my accent and the grammatical errors I know I make. Not so with these strangers.

Save it for Marisa, I think. She’s my dear friend who has been in New York for decades and loves to spoil me with food and affection. In the familiar environment of her home, my heart patters much more controllably than it does when I’m caught off-guard by unfamiliar compatriots of my first nationality.

***

My family’s move to Iowa from Brazil when I was 9 years old naturally brought on all kinds of uncertainties. My worries were less substantial than those of my older, teenage sisters – being a middle or high school transfer student from thousands of miles away can be brutal. My worries were easily pacified, too.

My neighbors also like to ride bikes?! The library has Roald Dahl books?!

Then there was the benefit of being an anomaly in a small-town classroom.

“He’s from Brazil?! Cool! I bet he can teach us cuss words in Spanish…or Portuguese or whatever!”

And so a new identity formed: the Brazilian soccer star. As those first years progressed, I stabilized myself in that identity while the physical and emotional chaos of my family’s big move slowly settled down.

Imagine my confusion, seven years later, upon my first visit back to São Paulo. My older sister’s friends had to look to her for a translation of the Portuguese I was speaking. Then there was the shock of being just an ordinary player of the game that had fueled so many of my vocational dreams! The caliber of competition in my brother in-law’s recreational soccer league was better than I had faced in years. “Someday you’ll have to choose whether you’re going to represent Brazil or the US in the World Cup, my dad had playfully remarked on a couple occasions. The playfulness of that remark was sinking in.

Feeling destabilized in my identity, I retreated from superfluous interaction and plowed through the first three Harry Potter novels – in English – until I boarded my return flight. Iowa was home. Iowa was where I could be the stud Brazilian soccer player. Iowa was where I could debate with myself about which jersey I should be wearing when I notched the winning goal of a future World Cup final.

***

Busy in her kitchen, Marisa humors my desire to pitch in by letting me chop vegetables as we catch up. Normally, it’s just the two of us, but today she sets the table for four. My heart clenches reflexively as I realize I’ll have to converse with unfamiliar people in Portuguese.

Chill out, man, I think to myself. Nobody is going to question your “Brazilian-ness.”

And I’m right. Sort of. The evening unfolds. Conversation is engaging, company is lovely. I ask one of the guests – who has raised children here – how well her daughters speak Portuguese. I don’t remember her answer because the conversation quickly turns to my Portuguese. Damn. I asked for that.

“I don’t think he has an accent,” Marisa states. “He just doesn’t necessarily speak correctly.”

One guest responds, “Hmmmm, the accent is there. Unique, but it’s there.”

I smirk at the unfolding conversation because, surprisingly, I don’t feel insecure. The reason behind my desire to speak flawless Portuguese is to seem more Brazilian than I actually am. I want to fit a category I’ve created in my mind about what it means to be Brazilian. That confusing experience from my first return trip to Brazil as a teenager left its mark.

Around this table I sense a fragmentary freedom from the echoes of early destabilization. Who I am is what brought me to this table, not a particular nationality. Kinship with Marisa is what brought me to this table, not how correctly I can use the subjunctive tense. Deaf to that insecure voice, I palpably experience gratitude. As we break bread together, strangers become friends. Around this table I feel known, even to these two women I just met. Around this table I am not hidden away in a book but am embraced and celebrated for all that I am.

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