Migrations Finding Home in Ten Days in Goiânia, Brazil
At home, in Goiânia, I didn’t have to be Brazilian; I could just be me.
Being in Brazil after nineteen years of absence, I wanted to pull in and imprint each moment in my mind. These are the kind of trees they have here. This is how the water tastes, how the street smells. This is what home is—if there is a home for me, it’s this, it’s here.
But I only had ten days.
As much as I wanted to take it all in, I wanted my family to know me. The last time most of them had seen me, I was seven years old and crying at the airport. So I wore the Winnie-the-Pooh shorteralls I’d found in a thrift store in Portland and we walked through the grimy, hot streets of downtown Goiânia. On our way to a restaurant or outdoor market, I made everyone stop at each statue we passed so I could take a picture. Whenever a joke came to mind, I told it; if I had an opinion, I voiced it. When the conversation turned to Black Lives Matter, or Trump’s campaign, and my family members called them uniquely American issues, I piped right up.
“Aline,” my cousin said at one point. “Menos.” She meant what she said— less —which I took to mean I was annoying her, which is what I think a cousin should do to another cousin. I welcomed it. But I did not become less.
Because of the executive order signed in 2012 by President Obama, my sister and I qualified for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), an initiative (not a law) that, after rigorous vetting, allows immigrants who were brought to the US as children to apply for a work permit. A part of that program is called advance parole , which authorizes DACA recipients to visit their country of origin for specific reasons, including “humanitarian purposes,” meaning an ailing family member or a funeral. After lots of money and paperwork, the US government determined my Tio Célio was sick enough for us to qualify. United States Citizenship and Immigration Services gave us a window in 2015, and we took it.
So there we were, without Wi-Fi or cell service, staying at an uncle’s house with no air conditioning in the middle of a Goiânia spring, which felt like a Florida summer.
In the presence of her siblings, Mamãe became someone I hadn’t yet met. Her sisters-in-law asked for her opinion about everything. Is this enough rice? Does this dress make sense for our walk to the ice cream shop? I saw how much they regarded her as a stand-in for their mother-in-law—my grandmother—who’d died when my mom was eleven, now making her the family’s matriarch.
Mamãe’s husband, my stepfather Mark, came along with us. This sent my aunts into a tizzy. Is Mark eating enough? Does he need to take a nap? Someone go translate for Mark because he’s looking confused. Mark was amused by the extra attention and took full advantage of the nap breaks. Mamãe and Mark’s bedroom had air conditioning.
My uncles, though, picked on Mamãe like little brothers do. The more Tio Osmar drank, the more he called her the old names he had concocted when he was a child. Tio Zé laughed but chose to not join in any play-fight, true to his reputation as the sweet one. Mamãe laughed, remembered stories, and called Tio Osmar branquelo , feijão branco , whatever else she could think of to shame him for his pale skin.
But the truth is, the trip wasn’t all I’d dreamed it’d be. People didn’t take off work to come see us every day. We spent much of our time sweating in Tio Osmar’s house with his parakeet named Reizinho, his “little king.” And he acted like it. Several times, the bird climbed up my arm (with no invitation) and sat on my shoulder. When my uncle whistled, Reizinho would sing with him a melody they shared.
The closest I got to feeling like I clicked into place—into Brazil—was at a mall. Tio Edimar thought it was too fancy— If you need to buy something, just go to the shop down the street! Why does everything have to be so shiny? —but decided to take us there anyway. I bought a sweet perfume that I still wear now, years later, whenever I want to remember my family, the heat, the dreaminess. At one point, outside the mall’s restrooms, I stood in the busy walkway and looked around. Almost everyone looked like me: brown eyes, dark hair, tan skin.
This , I thought, must be what it feels like to be white. Here, I was a citizen. The moment didn’t make me feel good—or even like I belonged. I was aware that if I were caught up in conversation with any of these strangers, my Portuguese might come out too slowly, or my slang might be outdated. But they didn’t know that. And that moment gave me something new.
The ten days I spent in my birthplace have been stored in the place where I keep my dreams. The trip doesn’t feel real, and I might have imagined much of it. It’s not something I can repeat since DACA and advance parole have been contested so often in the US courts in the last several years; it doesn’t feel safe to risk going again. I am thankful I did it while I could. I have these memories to return to as evidence of a deeper connection to my family and identity I am not always aware of. There, in Brazil, I felt the ease one feels of not having to say where they’re from, what language they speak. While in the US, I am used to explaining my origins at every turn. In Goiânia, I didn’t have to be Brazilian ; I could just be me.
Tia Lurdes and Tia Cida look like my mom; they even have the same posture, the same mannerisms as her. Mamãe, the shortest in her family, says their mother, Vó Margarida, was also short. So, because I never got to hold Vó Margarida’s hand, or hear her voice, I put it all together like an investigator: my mother’s height, my aunts’ straight hair. By combining the memories, I can recreate my grandmother. I imagine it’s the same work my aunts have done, since they were babies when Vó Margarida died. Her death meant the separation of her kids, since my grandfather couldn’t afford to keep all of them, and the youngest ones were the first ones to be claimed by family friends.
In Goiânia, I didn’t have to be Brazilian; I could just be me.
On our last night together, we packed my Tia Nice’s open-air restaurant. (Tia Nice is my Tia Cida’s adopted sister, and her whole family became ours as soon as they took my aunt in.) She lined a wall with tables and filled them with dishes I’d only seen on her restaurant’s Instagram page: The salads ranged from egg salad with olives, cooked carrots, peas, green beans, and mayonnaise topped with potato sticks to crunchy cabbage drenched in lime, salt, and olive oil. There were thick, soupy black beans sitting beside feijão tropeiro, a staple in Goiânia, where the pinto beans are cooked dry with thick bacon, farinha de mandioca, and finely chopped collard greens. Giant meatballs nestled in thick pasta with a garlicky but thin tomato sauce were displayed beside linguiça and picanha steak and my favorite, molho de frango: a saucy chicken heavy with turmeric served over white rice.
My grandfather’s sister, the only elder I have left, seeing my glass of icy water, said in Portuguese, “You know that drinking cold water in hot weather can permanently disfigure your face?”
I laughed. She held my gaze, deadly serious.
“What, like, it could just freeze in a weird way or something?” I said, sobering up.
“Exactly,” she said.
And I nodded, deciding to take the risk but to not argue with the last person I can call avó. The truth is, I don’t know if I’ll ever see her again.
My Tio Célio, who was the reason we were able to go to Brazil in the first place, died a few years after our visit. My relationships with several of my family members have diminished; nowadays, we get into petty disagreements on social media because many of them support President Bolsonaro, a Trump copycat. They are unable to see how their support of Bolsonaro translates to a support of Trump—someone who has been an active force against undocumented immigrants.
Very few of them understand what an undocumented immigrant is, and those who do, when pushed, still choose Bolsonaro, repeating Trumpist talking points in Portuguese. When we first moved to the US in 1997, we wrote letters and sent pictures in envelopes to each other, and now, with several easy ways to communicate, we are stuck fighting over extremist nationalist leaders. Of course, at the end of every disagreement, they can say, “You left. You don’t know what it’s like.” There’s not much else I can say in response.
But that night in Goiânia, I snuck pictures of everything—the galinha caipira and pudim, the clusters of uncles and cousins standing around talking and laughing. I joked with my cousin Marília that maybe we were switched at birth: Though we each look like our moms, and the two sisters look like each other, I look more like Tia Cida and she looks more like Mamãe. Someone brought a guitar. The day’s heat eased up, making room for the coming night. And as the sun set, the old music that reminded me of my grandfather took in more and more people, until all of us sat around singing.