My six fellow Bridge Year Brazil participants and I have spent the past seven months living with homestay families in a community in Salvador called Candeal. Through the music we have played, meals we have shared, and the relationships we have formed, it has grown to become an incredibly special place.
In the late 19th century, my homestay mom Tita’s grandmother came to Brazil from West Africa. And while about 90 percent of Soteropolitanos are of African descent, there is one detail that makes Tita’s story unique. Her grandmother came not as a slave, but as a free woman, allured by stories of diamonds and other precious gems that could be found among South America’s abundant natural resources.
Although she did find a very valuable rock near Salvador that to this day is kept in a nearby church, the real gem she found was Candeal. Her family built a little purple house on a sliver of Atlantic rainforest located just outside central Salvador. The abundance of mango trees and pineapple plants were, however, gradually replaced by more and more small homes as Brazilians flocked from the interior of the country towards the coastal cities. And difficult as it may be to watch a green jungle turn into a concrete one, Candeal was not constructed in vain.
Candeal is by definition a favela: it emerged as a squatter community and some of the land is to this day unlawfully occupied. But Candeal is not defined by the sort of violence and drug trafficking that is unfortunately (and a lot of times inaccurately) associated with these neighborhoods. Through the support of various community leaders (Tita included) and Carlinhos Brown (a very famous Brazilian musician who grew up here), Candeal has instead grown to become a strong and unified community of creative, inspired and determined individuals who have redefined the spectrum of “slums.”
But what has made my experience in Candeal especially rewarding is the little purple house where our story began. Having spent the past six months living in this home with Tita and her sister Roxa, I have discovered that it does justice to its historic structure by serving as a centralizing point within the community that brings together family, neighbors, and friends.
Neto and Vito, two eight year-old boys who live just down the street, spend afternoons jumping rope on our front porch or helping Roxa and me bake Brazilian desserts. Laura, their seven year-old grand-niece, often times comes over after school and roller-blades about the house, simultaneously showing me what she’s learned at ballet class that week. And Luna, another eight year-old who has been taken under Roxa and Tita’s wing because her mother is at the moment not in a position to properly feed or take care of her, stops by a couple times a week for a huge meal and a game of cards.
All of the older cousins, nieces and nephews have also spent many a Sunday afternoon on our front porch, digging in to a delicious plate of Tita’s comida Baiana and chatting animatedly. That is, before everyone gets out of his or her seat and begins dancing (very well) to Brazilian music blasting from a car speaker. And when a Carlinhos Brown song comes on, I cant help but remember what Roxa once said, that she liked him better when he too would come over for coffee ;).
So when I pack up my bags and leave Candeal next Monday, I will not only be saying goodbye to my homestay mother and aunt, but also an entire community of extended family and friends. There will be a lot of farewells to bid and hugs to give, and I anticipate a difficult departure. But at least I, like Tita’s grandmother, will be able to tell my children about the time I found treasure in Brazil.