Diego in Brazil: PUC and Rio’s social movements

December 12, 2013

For the past couple of months I’ve been writing this blog to share some of my thoughts and feelings about studying abroad in Rio de Janeiro. When I chose to study at PUC-Rio, Brazil was witnessing some of the largest protests the country has experienced since the early 1990s. The country’s middle-class went out to the streets to demand cheaper public transportation, better public services, less corruption, and an end to excessive spending on international mega-projects.

As soon as I came to Rio de Janeiro people back home and in Richmond began asking me about the protests – especially whether I was attending some of them. My major, focusing on social justice and political movements in Latin America, strongly influenced my decision to move to Rio de Janeiro during such an important period in the country’s recent history. I suppose friends and family expected me to attend these protests, but as a matter of safety and based on some personal ideas on social movements I decided not to attend.

I still wanted to find a space to interact with some of the political actors in these protests. I’ve been studying Brazilian politics and I could not ignore the largest socio-political movement that has impacted the country since the severe political crises of the 1990s. My host mother was not particularly interested in anything related to politics, so I turned to my host University.

Early in the semester I met some people studying Political Science, Philosophy, and Social Work. I joined them several times for lunch and asked countless questions about the protests, political movements at PUC-Rio, and suggestions to learn more about the current political situation. They were all really interested in the movements and most of them had already participated in at least one protest.

I was really surprised that all of them were frustrated at how little political activity and organizing goes on at PUC-Rio. According to them, most student-led political movements originate and develop at public universities. They told me that students’ apathy is a combination of the university’s attitude towards political protests and the socio-economic level of most students at PUC-Rio.

I must admit I was disappointed with how things developed in the beginning. I attended some meetings of different student groups on campus but I didn’t come across much information about the protests. Luckily, this all began to change when PUC-Rio held elections for several student governments (each major sector of the university has its own student government.)

I approached some people campaigning inside and outside the university and found several students who were active members of different social movements in the city. From members of the communist party to members of the Catholic Church, the people I met quickly showed me how diverse and little coherent the protests in Rio de Janeiro were. I was truly happy that I had finally found a way to learn about the protests without putting aside my decision of not joining them.

I obviously can’t claim that I know much about these social movements. It’s been only some weeks since I began meeting students who participate in these protests. One of the most positive aspects of all of this has been the number of invitations I’ve received to attend several events related to the protests and other political movements.

The picture I’m attaching to this entry is from a student-led debate on police brutality. For privacy reasons I’m not describing each participant in the panel but I wanted to show you how PUC-Rio can be a useful space to learn about Rio’s politics. I’m not entirely sure what the future of today’s social movements in Rio de Janeiro will be. For now, I’m incredibly glad I met several students who were willing to teach me about the recent protests and to share with me some of their hopes for the near future.

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An incredibly interesting debate at PUC-Rio on social protests.

Diego in Brazil: My host family

December 10, 2013

As the time to leave Brazil approaches I have been thinking about writing about my host family. To give you some background information, PUC-Rio offers its exchange students the option of living with a host family during their time in Rio de Janeiro. You apply to the program and about 10 days before your arrival to Brazil the University sends you an email with information on where and with whom you will be living. To be fully honest, it made me somewhat nervous not knowing where I was going to be living during my study abroad time. PUC-Rio does not guarantee that everyone who applies to the program will be placed in a host family.

In my case, luckily PUC-Rio did place me in a host family. There are many stories I could write today, but I think there is only one way to truly transmit what my experience living with a host family has been.

Throughout this semester I’ve sometimes written about my “host family” in this blog. But the reality is that I live in the apartment of a single woman (I’m not mentioning anyone’s name in this post) who now rents two rooms to students. When I first moved into her apartment two other exchange students at PUC-Rio (one from Germany and one from Morocco) also moved in with us. After about a month they both decided to move to a new apartment so it was now only my host mother and me. We had an empty room in the apartment for about two weeks until a new Brazilian student doing a Master’s degree at PUC-Rio came to live with us. Since then it’s been the three of us.

Up until a month ago when friends or family back home asked me about my host family I used to say that I didn’t really live with one. I had some great conversations with my host mother but that was about it. I rarely saw the other Brazilian student. This has been the third time in the past five years that I have had the opportunity to be hosted by a family in a foreign country, so probably my expectations were too rigid already.

But this all began to change a month ago. My schedule at the university changed and I now had more time to be home. The Brazilian student finished the first half of his thesis and he decided to take a two-week break from work. My host mother quickly realized that we were both going to be spending much more time at the apartment, so she proposed to have dinner together at least some days during the week.

By the second dinner we were all sharing incredibly personal stories. Put two young students who live far away from home and a friendly older woman who loves to talk together and you just created a great conversation. We talked about everything from food and the World Cup to work and love. But there was one particular topic that always seemed to dominate the most intimate moments of our conversations: family.

Maybe my “host family” experience in Brazil was not what I expected. Personal situations in each of our lives deeply impacted the atmosphere in our apartment. Sometimes we became three strangers living in the same apartment, and sometimes we became a small family: three people from incredibly different paths of life who gradually moved closer to each other. And even if I were to leave Brazil and never talk to them again, our conversations about family were a true gift.

For one reason or another, we all found ourselves far away from our families. Our dinners became a space to share memories, frustrations, dreams, and hopes about those who were either waiting for us back home or had left home already. The other student and I projected our current family situation to the future and imagined perfect scenarios. We also laughed at how my host mother’s ideas of family had changed throughout her life.

I’m still not sure what to answer when someone asks about my host family. But for many reasons, my time in Rio de Janeiro ended up being strictly connected to the idea of a family. And that, I would like to believe, is what I will take with me once I return to Richmond and Guatemala.

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I took this picture about a week ago when we received a guest (my host mom’s sister) for one of our dinners. Main topic of the night? Family, of course.

Diego in Brazil: Final exams at PUC-Rio

December 3, 2013

Yesterday I had my first final exam at my host university. I would not say that my time in Rio de Janeiro simply flew by, but I certainly feel that the second half of the semester was somehow much shorter. It seems as if just two weeks ago I was writing my mid-term exams. Yet here I am, about two weeks away from closing this experience abroad. As with my post about mid-term exams, I am posting pictures of PUC-Rio’s campus. This time I took two pictures right outside the main campus entrance.

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The main entrance to PUC’s central campus. Several public buses either go through or end their routes right in front of these doors, making the campus quite accessible.

This week I wrote my Portuguese final exam. It was incredibly short and I suppose PUC simply wants to test how much its foreign exchange students are learning. Rather than bombarding us with fifteen or twenty exercises on the same topic, my professor asked us to complete about twelve sentences in total that tested whether we can use different tenses and conjugate verbs. She also gave us a short reading and asked us to answer two short questions. Tomorrow we will have the oral section of my exam in which we will discuss racism in Brazil.

All of my other classes (Geography of the Contemporary World, Political Economy of Latin America, Brazilian Foreign Policy, and Poverty and Social Inequality) are mainly based on academic readings. Final grades in each class heavily depend on how students do in final exams, so I suppose my professors will be asking for two or three long, essay-type answers for each exam.

Interestingly enough, my four classes (or maybe my four professors) have different approaches to tests. Today my Poverty and Social Inequality professor distributed six essay questions for us to prepare at home, each relating to a particular text we read during our course. For our exam she will choose three of the six questions and ask us to develop a relatively long response for each. While this may seem rather simple, she expects us to incorporate our in-class debates into our responses, turning our exam into quite an interesting exercise.

My Brazilian Foreign Policy class will also have a “traditional” exam. We will be given three essay prompts that ask us to compare different authors, theories, and historical periods. This will certainly be my heaviest exam in terms of the amount of content I will need to prepare and study. Luckily, this has been my favorite course at PUC-Rio and it will be quite interesting to look back and realize how much I have learnt about Brazil and Latin America through this class.

The exciting moments of my next two weeks will most likely come during my Geography and Political Economy exams. These two professors have a very interesting approach to final exams. They both believe that having students simply reproduce what they have already read in academic texts does not show how much they have learnt. Instead, we will be given a newspaper article (or an image in the case of Geography) to analyze using the theories and arguments we have studied so far. My professors’ objective is to determine whether students have developed the skills to put new knowledge in practice.

This was probably not the most entertaining post of my semester, but I wanted to give you an idea of how different academic systems may be abroad. About 60% of my final grade for each class will be based on these exams. My experiences at the University of Richmond and at PUC-Rio have been different in this aspect, yet I am confident both systems have allowed me to learn immensely.

I will definitely let you know how my exams go!

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Step outside PUC’s campus and you will find several options for a quick lunch or even some Acaí (a highly popular “drink” made from the fruit of a particular palm tree.)

Diego in Brazil: It began as a class presentation…

November 13, 2013

Some minutes ago I finished my first in-class presentation on Brazilian Foreign Policy. I could feel all of my Portuguese vocabulary just flying away from my mind minutes before my presentation. I’m the only exchange student in my class and even my group seemed a little nervous not knowing how I was going to do. “What’s the summary of what you’ll present?” asked one of them. I suspect she was somehow testing my Portuguese…

But enough of that. The presentation went incredibly well and I’m happy to feel capable of improvising and analyzing Brazil’s involvement in Latin America during the Cold War in front of a large group. How did it happen? I’m still not entirely sure, but the topic is so interesting that I decided to share with you some history that has traditionally been ignored.

Read any history book on the political landscape of Latin America during the late 60s and early 70s and you will most likely be led to believe that Brazil played an almost-insignificant role in other countries’ politics. Historians and political scientists have typically pointed at the US for its involvement in the region as a hegemonic power interested in sabotaging any left-wing political victory in Latin America. A different language, culture, and history of colonization are all factors that have led us to conclude that Brazil hasn’t really focused its Foreign Policy on Latin America.

While most of the above may be true, it turns out most books won’t be precisely teaching you what really happened between 1965 and 1975. Brazil’s former president Médici – military dictator between 1969 and 1974 – believed that the ideological war in Latin America at the time was an internal conflict, consequence of the poverty and inequality that have historically characterized the continent. Médici concluded early in his time in power that any solution to the region’s ideological war would also have to be internal. During his administration Brazil participated in the overthrow of a democratically-elected leftist president in Bolivia, the weakening of Uruguay’s most important leftist coalition, and the training of military forces that would eventually overthrow Salvador Allende in Chile.


Attack on the Palacio de la Moneda in Santiago de Chile on September 11th, 1973. Source: http://filosofiacr.wordpress.com/2011/09/12/salvador-allende-vida-y-muerte-la-cia-y-el-golpe-de-estado-del-11973-video/)

In 1971 Médici visited former president Nixon to motivate him to get even more involved in Latin America. Records of the meeting show that Médici left Washington quite unhappy about Nixon’s decision to not drastically increase the economic and military aid given to Bolivia’s and Uruguay’s right-wing regimes. It turns out that between 1970 and 1974 Brazil took the lead in the “fight against communism” in Latin America and constantly tried to get the US to pay more attention to the region. In September 11th of 1973, Salvador Allende suffered a coup d’état in Chile and this meant that, according to the Brazilian Foreign Minister at the time, the Southern Cone’s revolutionary “snowball had been reversed.”


Médici, Nixon, and Kissinger meet in Washington in 1971. Source: http://impressao.wordpress.com/tag/nixon/)

A number of internal and external factors led Brazil to shift its attention away from the region after 1974. Pinochet in Chile and Geisel in Brazil would lead, respectively, the two countries on different paths towards a harsher military rule and more relaxed policies. It wasn’t until the 1990s that Brazil would regain such strong interest in Latin American politics.

Next semester I will start writing my thesis back in Richmond. I have decided to give a more historical touch to my examination of the Brazilian-Peruvian international border in the Amazon region. As it turns out, Brazil’s involvement in Latin America has been much more important than what I once thought. Among all of the academic lessons I have gained while studying abroad in Brazil, this may be the one that will have the greatest impact in years to come.

If you are interested in reading more about Brazil’s involvement in Latin America between 1970 and 1975, you can follow this link (http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14682745.2011.641953) to the article by Tanya Harmer (2012) that was the basis of my presentation and this blog entry.

Diego in Brazil: A day in Ipanema

November 8, 2013

It’s been exactly three months since I first came to Rio de Janeiro. Before starting my study abroad program I had spent the last half of July working in Lima and the Peruvian Amazon. On August 5th I finally took a bus to Lima’s airport and flew during the night to the Galeão International Airport in Rio. Just yesterday I was having dinner with my host family and we talked about that first day when I moved into their apartment.

Three months and today is the first day I post an entry about a trip in Rio! As I have written several times before, one of my main goals for my program was to avoid becoming yet another tourist in this city. I understand why many friends tend to disagree with my goal, but having this objective in mind was a mix of previous experiences in other regions of Brazil, some geography and sociology classes, and the desire to have a different approach towards one of the world’s most dynamic metropolis.

After countless conversations with my host family, classmates, professors, and many people I have met so far, I finally felt ready to visit and write about some of Rio’s neighborhoods. So here it goes.

Last weekend I packed a backpack and left my apartment early in the morning. I took a bike (every month I pay about $4.00 to have access to one of Rio’s biking programs) and began my trip to a neighborhood in Rio’s southern area: Ipanema. I had planned to visit a number of places that my host family had suggested, but I mainly wanted to spend a day walking around Ipanema’s streets without a set destination.


A small market with great fruit in Ipanema.

You may recognize the name Ipanema. The song “Garota de Ipanema” (“The Girl from Ipanema”), written and composed by João Gilberto and Stan Getz in 1962, made the name of this neighborhood widely known (here’s a version of the song for you to enjoy:

I biked for about 25 minutes before reaching Ipanema and left my bike to start walking. My host family truly wanted me to visit the Praça Nossa Senhora da Paz and the Igreja Nossa Senhora da Paz, so that is where I went first. Thinking about this entry I stopped to look for “good” pictures but in the end decided to submit the ones with cars, buses, and people walking through the church and park. In my experience, contrasting images of nature, people, and culture is one of Rio’s main characteristics.


Not a great picture of the Nossa Senhora da Paz church, but the contrast is certainly common in Rio’s streets.

I bought two oranges from a street market and sat in the park to read “Perto do Coração Selvagem” (Near to the Wild Heart) by Clarice Lispector – a fantastic writer. Unfortunately it was a rainy day so reading outside was not a great plan. I entered a small shop to buy water and asked if they had any suggestions for my trip. The guy in the shop sent me to visit the theater Rubens Correa and the cultural center Laura Alvim, and of course I followed his instructions. As I visited these and other places I kept asking people if they had any suggestions for my day in Ipanema. I ended up having lunch in a sandwich-shop with incredible natural juices and a nice couch to read.

I finished Lispector’s book in the afternoon and kept walking. The weather had not improved much but several people were now in the beach (my guess is that the temperature never dropped below 70 degrees.) I knew friends and family would appreciate a picture or two from Ipanema’s beach so I walked by the beach for about forty minutes. When I finally reached the end of Ipanema (where Copacabana starts) I took another bike and began my trip back to my apartment.

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And of course, Ipanema’s beach on a cloudy day.

As I walked through this neighborhood I kept thinking about my “don’t be a tourist” goal. Was it worth it? Did it make any sense to wait some time before going on these trips? Would reading Lispector’s book in a sandwich-shop have been any different two months ago? Well, I suppose any “evaluation” of my goal will have to come from my overall experience in Rio de Janeiro. Two months ago I wouldn’t have known that, following a common cultural dynamic in the country, Lispector’s modern language had been widely criticized throughout Brazil as an attempt to move away from other more traditional styles. It may seem as small detail, but understanding why different literary circles in Brazil reacted differently to “Perto do Coração Selvagem” is the result of countless conversations during these three months.

Diego in Brazil: Getting to know Rio’s Zona Sul

October 29, 2013

If you have been following my blog or have read one or two posts, then hopefully you have noticed that I have been trying really hard to avoid becoming yet another tourist in this dynamic city. Typical questions from friends and family back home can be anything from “Do you go every day to the beach?” and “Have you visited many favelas?” to “Is every Brazilian really sexy?” or “Is it true that no one really works and people just relax all day?” What I experience every day at PUC-Rio (take a look at some of the pictures in this entry) is drastically different from these questions.


PUC-Rio constantly has new cultural activities on campus. This picture shows two students and many design and architecture books.

I must admit that if I had come to Brazil a year and a half ago I would most likely fallen into the trap of experiencing Rio de Janeiro from this perspective. And that is of course no surprise. The touristic and exotic discourse surrounding Rio de Janeiro has been shaped for decades. The mix of beaches, forests, mountains, and industrial areas make of this city a mystical experiment in the eyes of many.

Now that I look back, I can more easily understand why as a Guatemalan I grew up constantly having these images in mind. To some extent I think Rio the Janeiro becomes the object that could fulfill, in an ideological and exotic way, what many people think we lack back in Guatemala. I do not support this idea, but I write it here for you to have an idea why I have been so focused on not buying into it. Keeping this in mind, I have continued to wonder how to then avoid becoming yet another tourist.

Well, if you have read some of my posts you know I have tried to understand what each part of the city means for those who live here. Luckily studying abroad in Rio de Janeiro has given me the time to understand how different socio-economic and cultural groups experience this city differently. My host family certainly has a particular perspective on favelas, the government, Rio’s public services, the city’s wealthiest areas, and so on. Such perspective does contrast with the way many of those who I have met in my host university think. In the beginning I assumed that studying in a private university would restrict me to meet only a certain wealthy sector of Rio’s student population. As you may have guessed already, I was completely wrong.

I wrote this short entry because in the next two or three posts I will share with you some of my trips to Rio’s southern zone. My host family lives in one of these neighborhoods and after gathering different perspectives, stories, complaints, and expectations from many people in the past two months I feel somehow ready to let myself explore much more. Reaching a point in which I can fully appreciate how Rio is experienced differently by the countless groups and identities living here is of course impossible. Yet I have tried my best to build an understanding of the city that will allow me to leave my study abroad program knowing that I truly challenged and changed my past ideas of Rio de Janeiro.

We all have different goals for our study abroad programs. I will feel incredibly satisfied if I can get close to achieving one of mine. Come back for the next posts to get to know some of Rio’s neighborhoods!


A very interesting debate on the democratization of culture. I thought I would stop by to take the picture and eventually stayed until the debate finished.

Diego in Brazil: Exams at PUC-Rio

October 18, 2013

[Taking pictures of my classes during exams was not a real option for this post, so I am sharing with you some pictures of PUC’s campus during a beautiful rainy day in October.]

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This is where you can find the International Cooperation Office – a fantastic and very helpful team!

Five classes and five mid-term exams. One of my major concerns about studying abroad at PUC-Rio without having taken some Portuguese classes was writing exams. Your time is limited, looking up words in a dictionary may make you lose some valuable minutes, and what you write simply may not make much sense.

Apart from my Portuguese language class, four of the courses I am taking at PUC strongly rely on reading, writing, and analyzing texts. I knew in every class I was going to be asked to write an essay as a response to a question. I was nervous, definitely. But how did it go in the end? Well, I am not sure yet. But let me tell you what my experience was with these exams.

I hope you read one of my previous posts in which I wrote about PUC’s grading system. To summarize that post I can say that PUC grades students mostly based on two exams per semester, allowing those who study here to have some space to work and have internships outside their time at the university. This made me think during the first two months of my semester that my exams would be very heavy in terms of content and would require me to carefully do the assigned readings for each of my classes.

And yes, I was right. Two of my professors told me that what we had done in class was not extremely important for the exam. “Everything will be based on the readings,” my professors told me. I spoke to my four professors before the exams to get an idea on how I should go about studying, and every single one of them told me to simply do the readings and not worry about their in-class lectures.

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One of my favorite places to read on campus

Coming from UR, this was quite a new approach for me. I could not understand how my professors’ great in-class lectures were not important for my exams. I have four classes on Brazilian Foreign Policy, Latin American Politics, Contemporary Geography, and Social Inequality. If you are into social sciences, imagine how fantastic it has been to see professors teach how these topics relate to Brazil (of course, being in Rio de Janeiro and doing all of this in Portuguese makes it ten times better.) But hey, “that does not really matter as long as you do the readings” seemed to be the general rule.

My experience at UR has been quite different. Of course, you always need to do the readings and get through those assigned books. Yet you can expect your exams to also include some questions about discussions, projects, papers, assignments, and many other aspects of your courses. Both at PUC and UR I was asked to analyze a particular subject based on what we had done in my course. The difference is, and this is just my impression based on my first round of tests, that at PUC you can do well in those exams by attending classes, preparing each reading, and learning the dry, classing theory for each course.

Now, before I close the post, let me be really clear that I am not suggesting you should not go to classes when you are abroad. I can guarantee you that your exams will not go well if you pretend you can read 15 papers before your test and sit there analyzing a new question in two hours. Understanding how my professors tackle each question in class using our readings was essential to write my exams. How did my tests go? Well, I still have not got results back, but let’s all hope everything worked out.

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PUC’s main road on campus. It was a beautiful rainy day in October

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