Tuesday, January 13, 2009

This Is The Grassroots Work I'm Gonna Do With You

Today we flip from from winter to summer. While we in the Northern Hemisphere shiver haplessly in the dark, the days are long and hot in São Paulo, Brazil where this just came in from Frederico, our latest member of the 31 Dreamers' dream team:
I'm in a southeastern Brazilian country house in the rainforest. Maybe I’m a teenager on vacation from school. With me are three other teens. Our routine is to wait for the bus from the city, which stops on the dirt road uphill, and take it back and forth from our country house to the city. In the house is a priest—a left wing priest from the days when Liberation Theology used to be more common in South America. It's always nighttime. I'm thirsty.

It's our last day at the house and we walk to the dirt road to take the bus back home. We wait for hours and I'm still thirsty. The bus is late. The priest reminds us that we should bring our bags to the bus stop. I know that the bus is nearby, I see it coming down the road, but the road is so curvy that its headlights fall outside the curves instead of lighting the road ahead. I'm relaxed though, because I know I'm one step ahead of my friends—my stuff is already packed.

I go to my room to get my backpack and my camcorder case (I’ve never owned a camcorder in real life). I go to the kitchen to drink a cup of water from the terra-cotta container and I see a lot of posters hanging on the green wall. All of them have anti-racist messages. There’s one with an Afro-Brazilian woman wearing a dress and a hat, and another paired with it depicting a female chimp with the same hair and dress. These images were extracted from government propaganda, and they were put side by side on the posters to denounce the racism of the military dictatorship. Then I notice I'm in the 1970s and that the house is a clandestine school where the priests teach the local population. I realize that both the priest and I are Afro-Brazilians.

The priest is also in the kitchen, hanging some posters, when a third Afro-Brazilian guy steps in the room looking for the priest. He's has an afro and a beige 70s-style suit. He tells the priest that he’s doing very well with his grassroots work there and wants to invite him to do the same thing on the coast. The guy invites the priest to the living room to meet some friends: a guy of Japanese ancestry with long hair, a mustache and grey 70s-style suit, and a fat white guy wearing Ray Ban glasses, his hairy chest poking out of his half-open shirt. It's clearly a set up—these guys are cops and they’ve come to arrest the priest. Suddenly the priest draws his gun and shoots the Japanese-Brazilian in the heart. The fat guy shoots the priest in the leg and the priest shoots back, killing the fat guy. All this happens as if in a kung fu movie, with those zoom-ins and close-takes in slow motion. Finally, the priest grabs the afro guy before he can get to his gun. The priest chokes the afro guy and points his gun at the other guy's head, and says: "This is the grassroots work I'm gonna do with you."

I wake up sweating because it was a really hot night. I go to the kitchen and finally drink my glass of water.

Frederico, you've been watching a lot of movies, haven't you? 

Your dream is also rife with a few subtle and noteworthy cultural items that I'd like to draw attention to:

1. São Paulo (a.k.a. Sampa) is the largest city in South America, third-largest in the world, surrounded by Brazil's biggest industrial park, beyond which is a vast expanse of fertile farmland.
2. Japanese Brazilians are a huge ethnic group, constituting the largest sector of the Japanese Diaspora. There are more people of Japanese descent living in São Paulo than in any other city outside of Japan.
3. Afro-Brazilians account for more than half of all people of African descent living outside of Africa and make up over half of Brazil's population.
4. Brazil's Military Dictatorship was supported by the U.S. to oust a democratically elected leftist president. The junta ruled the nation from 1964 to 1985.
5. Liberation Theology is an activist movement created by Brazilian Catholic Marxists in the 1950s and 60s who officially recognized capitalism as a sin.

Now that we've cleared up these fun facts for our non-Brazilian dreamers, we can move on.

Frederico, I'm guessing that you lead a compartmentalized life. Your dream has you commuting between the tranquil country and your home in the bustling city, making this trip every day (or night actually—it's always night in your dream) without ever really seeing the path in between. This can reflect the dichotomy between any number of situations: home, work, school, friends, family, loved ones, hobbies, responsibilities—pick any two. You are comfortable in both places and, unlike your peers, you're prepared to transition from one to the other. But they remain separate parts of your life. Are you worried about that? Not really. You just grab your bag and go. However you are thirsty—there is something that you want that you're not getting, and you go looking for it before you leave this place (or situation) for the last time, possibly to never return.

When trying to find this desired thing and you are faced with a "corrected" version of the past. In the dream it's a commentary on racist aspects of your country's junta, outside the dream it is likely that it's you, noticing something about yourself, some way that you used to be that has fallen out of favor. You face this thing, simultaneously wanting to highlight it and to wipe it out—so much so that you assert an identity (Afro-Brazilian, in the dream) that erases any possibility of complicity with flawed past notions (represented by racism in the dream). You are beside yourself—the lefty priest is there and he is you as a liberator, a corrector of flawed ideas and corrupt actions. And the show is about to begin.

In they come: the cops in your head—rivaling the fuzzy racial rainbow coalition from Barney Miller—each a different aspect of your personality that your internal warrior-priest must defeat. The first one seems cool—he looks like you and your priest and seems to share your ideas, your values. But really he is all talk. The next cop could be alright with his long hair, but that third one—no way! He oozes sketchiness like the chest hair oozing out between the buttons of his polyester shirt. Your priest calls the shots and you just watch. This isn't quite the cold glass of water that you'd hoped for. Then that soliloquy (pictured at the top of this post) . . . is the kind of action you really wanted to take?

Frederico, there might me millions of approaches to tackling whatever "the grassroots work" is that you're dealing with here. I'll put two in the crosshairs of your metaphorical viewfinder:

The first is the Super Fly Approach, as epitomized by the 1972 film of the same name (left). The protagonist in this film (whose name, coincidentally, was "Priest"), eschewed the grassroot SNCC/Black Panther types for the simpler politics of the gun. The problem with this tactic when dealing with "cops in your head" is that they aren't like your average city cops, they're more like ghosts. Bullets—even metaphorical ones—go right through them and they will always come back to haunt you.

The second approach is one actually called "Cop In The Head," as described in the book Rainbow of Desire by Brazilian theater artist/ex-politician (and survivor of torture at the hands of the military dictatorship) Augusto Boal (yeah, I tend to plug Boal a lot). The Cop In The Head technique, put simply, invites you to take these cops out of your head and put them on stage in front of you. Recognize them, name them, and deal with them. 

Frederico, whether you read this aforementioned book or not, you can meditate on its idea. In the meantime, I advise you to invest in a camcorder—you obviously have a cinematographic mind. And always have a glass of water ready at your bedside. It may come in handy.


Morgan FitzPatrick Andrews said...

Another Brazilian sent me the following blog link after reading this:


Unknown said...

Quem leu? O Ian e a Andreza? Eu vi eles hoje a noite.

Morgan FitzPatrick Andrews said...

Não, esse cara Prema que mora em Londres estes dias.