“Você já imaginou todas as coisas bizarras que faria do meu lado?”
“Did you ever imagine all of the bizarre things you would do by my side?” Renato asked me with that sly, yet timid grin pasted on his face. We sat stuffed together in the backseat of a weathered, 2001 Fiat. The subwoofers of the car’s soundsystem occupied most of the backseat. A chalky, toothless man gripping a steel triangle hunched over to my left. With no traffic lights or street signs in sight, we went flying down the dusty path, the speakers blasting a forró song typical of the region (and the season), the tang-a-lang of the triangle solo skipping with every rocky bump–my stomach and heart doing the same.
And then HALT. “Peguei errado,” (“wrong turn”), Alexandre, Renato’s cousin, admitted. The car stalled. Woops. Without hesitation, (was it instinct?), we–Renato, Alexandre’s friend Saminho, our toothless, triangle playing friend and I–jumped out of the car and as Alexandre put the vehicle in reverse, we began to push. I am loving this: the dirt is flying out from under the tires forming a cloud of dust around the car, our grunting cannot be heard over the forró oozing out of the speakers, we each take three long lunges and then the car is on the right track. Phew, I pant noticing that the white shirt I had put on for the party is now marked with dusty red fingerprints. Renato took a second to slap the dirt stains off my belly, “agora cê ta feia,” (“now you’re ugly”), he joked, and we all stuffed ourselves back into the car.
We continued along the main road and after only a few yards, Alexandre took the right turn onto a small path illuminated by three bonfires in the distance. We parked the car in a dark field and walked towards the flames crackling in front of an old, adobe house with a thatched roof. The inside of the house was lit and through the windows the senhoras, the matriarchs of the small community, could be seen arranging trays of fried, salty snacks, cutting pieces of cake, filling flimsy plastic cups full of soda and ensuring that everyone was satisfied. Young morena girls dressed in colorful, patterned, polyester dresses eyed us with both suspicion and enticement. Teenage boys with the apprehensiveness of fathers and the ardor of young men noticed the girls’ stares. “As garotas da roça!” (“the farm girls!”), Renato declared, making sure to give a nod of respect towards the flock of teenage boys–brothers, boyfriends and admirers–as we walked towards the adobe shack to fetch a few beers.
Alexandre, who had vowed not to drink beer for over a year as a vow to São João (Saint John), ordered an unsettling amount of catuaba, an alcoholic drink made from the bark of the catuaba tree. It tastes like a sweet, spicy red wine and is responsible for countless unplanned pregnancies. São João babies, as they’re called. We positioned ourselves near a bonfire and Renato and Alexandre began sifting through their favorite memories of the São João festivals, while passing the bottle of catuaba back and forth.
The São João parties, or Festas Juninas (June Festivals), take place for two weeks in June and originate from pagan celebrations of the summer solstice in the northern hemisphere. I remember when I lived in Minas Gerais, a state in the Southeast of the country known for its cuisine and regarded as an example of quintessential Brazilian culture, Festa Junina was more reminiscent of an American Halloween mixed with some sort of contrived, folky harvest festival. People dressed in costumes imitating peasants, straw hats, missing teeth and all; foods emblematic of the season–roasted corn, sweet hominy stews and steamed corn cakes wrapped in banana leaves–adorned tables in abundance for novelty’s sake, as such delicacies were as common as a Thanksgiving turkey or a Christmas ham, rather than staples of the season. In Seabra, where Renato lives, a dusty little town in the Northeast of Brazil, São João is just as much of a production as the famous Brazilian Carnaval. Women arrive in heels, properly groomed and scented, wearing only the season’s (fall) most chic and coveted looks. Nobody is dressed as a peasant, and the foods, while also in abundance, are not consumed with the same urgency as I saw in Minas.
“Amo essa época do ano,” (“I love this time of year”), Renato sighed, I could see his eyes veer toward the group of teenage girls with the same apprehension and fervor as the young men standing near them.
Rather than a weekend long event, São João in the Northeast occupied the month of June. Throughout the month neighbors held bonfires in front of their homes at night. In stores and restaurants, homes, and along the streets, streams of colorful, onionskin, paper flags wrapped around poles and countertops. Decorations lined walls, and ceilings and doors, and Seabra looked more like a large circus tent. The senhoras made pots and pots of canjica, a sweet hominy stew made with coconut milk, sweetened with condensed milk, spiked with whole clove buds, sharing jars with their neighbors and loved ones like Christmas cookies. In Seabra, June was a month that prompted the festiveness of Halloween, the camaraderie of Thanksgiving, the merriment of Christmas and the nostalgia of Fall yet with the handcrafted animation and zest of the filipino fiestas my mother used to take me to as a kid. The boys told me stories of long nights of square dancing (quadrilha), and consuming countless bottles of catuaba. They told me stories of cold nights sitting around a bonfire eating roasted corn and peanuts, and of dancing cheek-to cheek all night long with a beautiful girl.
As the outdoor space began to fill up, a young man opened up the back of his car, exposing yet another trunk full of loudspeakers. But instead of the expected forró ballad, the subwoofers moaned a sleazy-sounding arrocha, a music style typical to the interior of Bahia, commonly referred to as brega, or tacky. Immediately, the teenagers began gyrating their hips to the music. A few young girls crowded around in a circle and rotated slowly to the right, followed one quick circle to finish, then two slow rotations to the left and another quick circle to finish. Sometimes one of the girls would add a few steps to her turns, managing to rotate her hips in full circles and traveling without missing a beat, a feat similar to rubbing one’s stomach while patting one’s head all while walking. As I counted the girls’ steps “one step, two step, three push-to-the-left, one step, two step, three push-to-the-right,” I felt the natural urge my hips have to swing whenever I hear a song, that instinctual, almost primal tendency that the body has to adapt its movements to any rhythm it feels.
However, I didn’t know the steps. The urge to move was frustrated by my unfamiliarity with the way to move. That night was different than my experiences of high school dances or apartment parties with friends in New York where I was always the one shamelessly shaking my butt and stepping to the rhythm, trying to encourage my girlfriends to dance with me. I remember on one such night in Boston, I grabbed my friend Cait, perhaps the most stereotypically white, middle-class, suburban friend I had, and stuck her on the dance floor with me. She raised her glass, tried nodding her head to the beat and yelled “I can’t dance!” I, in between steps yelled back, “if I can, you can,” to which she responded, “yeah but you’re different, you’re like, Filipino.” It was at that moment that I realized that when I refer to “dancing” I am typically referring to sensual hip action and sexy flair. The type of dancing that does not allow for inhibition. I had presumed that my affinity for dancing and my inclination to swing my hips to the beat of a song could be largely attributed to my cultural identity as a Filipino-American. For Cait, the dinner parties of her childhood involved delicately plated finger foods and women dangling long-stemmed wine glasses in their smooth, unworked hands. Whereas the parties my mother took me to as a child–in basements full of brown-skinned, button-nosed people munching on soy-sauce glazed chicken wings–were not really parties if people weren’t dancing.
I watched the girls rebolando (rolling their hips), the dangling pleats of their short skirts trailing around their thick thighs, each of them aware of the boys’ and men’s stares and even more aware of the power of their dance. My body still desired to move, my hips still desired to roll and even as I counted the girls steps (one step, two step, three push-to-the-left, one step, two step, three push-to-the-right) mastering the motion in my mind, I didn’t feel right putting myself out there. Like Cait, I felt inhibited, as if my role as an American or a foreigner prohibited me from moving to the music in a way that was so intrinsic to these Baianas. In my head I imagined how the longing looks on the young men’s faces and on Renato’s face might turn into subdued laughter and wincing embarrassment as I danced. Gringa they would call me–that word, while unintended to be offensive, stings as strongly as if they were to call me a freak.
“Oxe moça, tu tá pensativa demais!” (“Ugh girl, you are thinking too much!”), Renato commented, waking me up from my self-deprecating train of thought. As the weezing sound of the accordion started to play, I could see our toothless friend jangling his triangle. Renato threw the bottle of catuaba at Alexandre, grabbed me by my belt loop and swung me into place. As our knees locked together and we began a jerky two step, the momentum of our thighs batting against each other threw my hips in the correct back and forth motion. Alexandre cheered us on, “A Americana tem a ginga, heim!” (“the American girl has got the ginga”). Ginga is the name of the basic movement of the Brazilian martial art, Capoeira, but in reality, it is the natural ability to balance and rock one’s body in a way that is efficient, alluring and unpredictable. “É porque essa menina é brasileira!” (“it’s because this girl is Brazilian!), Renato rebutted. I imagined what our kids would be like: would our daughters be as alluring and confident as their Bahian counterparts, knowing exactly how to roll their hips to a whining arrocha? Would they feel inhibited like Cait, or feel that same sense of displacement as their mother? Will our sons wear the same sly look of apprehension and ardor as the young men at the party, and will they have the same brute elegance as their father, a cowboy from the sertão? These are the questions I sometimes ask myself when, regardless of where I am from and regardless of the millions of paces I took to get where I am, I feel exactly where I need to be.
* * * * *
I woke up today in an empty house and ran downstairs to make a cup of coffee before the cold started to bother me. September is always full of nostalgia for me–the kids go back to school, neighbors come home from their summer homes, the sand bars of the beaches empty. I sit here on the first autumn-like morning of September, and each frosty morning breath reminds me of earlier days at boarding school, sneaking out of my dormitory to smoke a cigarette before class. I remember switching my wardrobe from shorts and sandals to flannel shirts and boots, and I think of apple cider and pumpkin pies. On mornings like this I look forward to the foliage and to all of the clichés that make autumn in Northeastern United States unique and nostalgic and a part of myself. Now, however, I also remember Renato’s reluctance to get out of bed on a brisk June morning, like today. The way he counted down the days until we would spend São João near his family and relive all of the nostalgia that associated with the season, “agora você é Nordestina” (“now you’re a Northeasterner’’) — Now? I thought to myself, I always was.