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NABJ

Cultural Exchanges in Brazil

By NATALIE P. McNEAL

When I found out that I nabbed a fellowship to attend the United Nations Latin America and Caribbean Youth Leadership Summit in Brazil, I was elated at the chance to learn about different cultures.

As a reporter, it was an opportunity to write with an international perspective. As a people person, I would have a smorgasbord of folks from 28 countries to politic with. As an African American, I would get to see the country that has the highest number of blacks outside Africa.

The youth summit, organized to discuss issues facing the region such as poverty, AIDS, and the lack of a middle class, was held in Belo Horizonte, the third-largest city in Brazil. At the summit, delegates spoke Spanish, Portuguese, French and/or English.

Translators helped us to communicate. I routinely grabbed up bilingual friends to help as needed.

When Brazilians didn't speak English, we compromised by bluffing with my Spanish II Español.

With so many people at the conference, everyone had a label. We identified participants by their countries: There goes Ms. Guyana. Did you see how cute Mr. Suriname and Mr. Honduras are? My labels were journalist or black journalist.

While I attended long, academic sessions about poverty, health care and gender issues, much of what I really learned at the conference was not scheduled on the nine-page agenda.

For instance, when I sat in a session that discussed Caribbean issues, I immediately noticed the Cuban delegate.

As she spoke with conviction about the concerns of her island, I realized it was my first time meeting a Cuban who actually lived in Cuba.

Living in multi-cultural South Florida, I have many friends who are Cuban-American, but most have never been to the island.

During that session, I behaved as a journalist, taking notes, soaking up the information. I secretly wondered what I would have said about issues facing the United States. For me, things here seem so fragmented. As an American, I guess I would say the war in Iraq. As a person barely in the middle class, I would say rising housing costs. As a journalist, I would say shrinking news hole. As a 29-year-old single woman, certainly it would be the dearth of men who answer their cell phone.

I had another "Aha'' moment on a bus ride. Bored with the tired renditions of La Bamba, my friend Gustavo announced (loudly) ''Let's sing American songs!''

Gustavo started singing the hook to 50 Cent's Candy Shop. I just laughed, a little embarrassed. That U.S. music sure can get raunchy. But, Gustavo had me pegged. I really do know all the words to that not-so-innocent song. What kind of ambassador am I? I should have brought some gospel CDs to hand out.

After "working'' during the day, we had entertainment every night.

My favorite night was a dinner where a drumming corps with a female singer performed. As soon as the drumming started, everyone hit the dance floor.

The distinguished Ph.D.s who had presented research on the AIDS epidemic in Latin America and community leaders who had discussed child mortality rates in developing nations shook to the beat.

My work-related banquets never get that loose!

During a day trip, we went to a favela, which is the Brazilian hood.

Between the homes with tin roofs, kids roaming the streets, and incessant stream of dirty water on the streets, I was enraged.

“Don't feel sorry for people in the favelas," said a Brazilian friend. "There is a lot of culture and opportunity there."

True, I agreed. Just like in the United States, ghettos have the most untapped superstars. But still. Substandard is still substandard. I scheduled other trips on my own to do reporting from the favela.

Another session I enjoyed dealt with sports for development and peace.

There's a push in developing nations to use sports to lift people out of poverty and stop youth violence. The hope is if kids are busy kicking, passing or dunking a ball, they would be too busy to engage in crime. The session was a BIG deal. The attendees discussed it like it was a new concept.

For some African Americans, sports have been seen as a ticket out of disadvantaged situations. My own father used football to get a college scholarship.

But judging from the discussion in the room, clearly, I took the many sports leagues that we have in the U.S. for granted.

My friend at the conference urged me to give my "American input." I wanted to be a journalist in that room, too, but I decided to give a black American history chat.

"People really want to hear about black Americans, they are really interested," said my friend, who is of Algerian descent.

I told the crowd about how in the U.S., sports and culture go hand in hand. I brought up how proud blacks were when Jackie Robinson integrated major league baseball. I mentioned how two black Olympians during the 1968 games brought international attention to "the struggle'' when they put up the black power fist while accepting their medals. I even tossed in a Venus and Serena reference.

By the time I finished the room was quiet. Everyone nodded. It was well received. I was happy. I went to the summit to learn about everyone else's culture, but was pleased that they cared about mine.

 

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