An American By Any Other Name

Note: some of the names in this story have been changed, not to protect the innocent, but because my memory has failed me.


At the festa, I studied my neighbors swaying to the rhythm of the Brazilian beat. I heard the music, but I didn’t internalize the samba the way the Brazilians did as they moved fervently around the dance floor.

I had been in Brazil only a few weeks. My Portuguese was still flawed and I could comprehend only those who slowed their speech to half-speed. I already understood that while Brazilians led unhurried lives, they were also an impulsive and passionate people. From stoic German and Swedish stock, I hadn’t yet learned how to let loose in a culture famous for Carnaval, its annual national pressure valve.

On the other hand, the other Volunteer assigned to my town, Brunie, with her Hispanic background, dark hair and eyes, nearly perfect Portuguese, outgoing personality, and more than a year as a Peace Corps Volunteer, fit in perfectly. So that I could be successful in my assigned Peace Corps work, Brunie had been tutoring me in how to survive the harsh conditions of Brazil’s northeast.

The town of Glória had no running water, no phone service, and not one television. Electricity was generated four hours each night. Glória compensated for its inconveniences with the warmth of her citizens and the unpredictable experiences each new day delivered, be they exotic, tragic or humorous.

That weekend, Brunie and I were visited by Linda. Although stationed in another interior town, she and Brunie had been in the same Peace Corps training group. Linda was a short, attractive woman, with reddish-brown hair and freckles.

On Saturday evening, clad in our best dresses, we set out to partake of Glória’s night life. The town sported two social clubs run by local political parties. While Brazilians from one political group would not attend a festa sponsored by another, to avoid any semblance of favoritism, we needed to attend events at both clubs.

Festas were held in long, narrow pastel buildings with small tables set up in front of a dance floor. Soft drinks, alcohol, boiled peanuts, and hard-cooked eggs were served.       

Combos dominated by guitars and accordions played numbers lasting until the musicians tired of the musical selection. Thus, if a woman accepted an invitation to dance, she could be stuck with a partner for as long as half an hour.

Male partygoers swaggered in baggy pants and loose, straight-bottomed shirts. The men shook hands hardily, ogled the women, smoked, drank beer and cachaça, a strong rum made from sugar cane.

Single girls in semiformal dresses, glamorous make-up, and immaculate hairdos, exchanged hugs and cheek-to-cheek kisses. They whispered about single men behind blood-red fingernails. The few married women in attendance wore less flashy attire. Brunie, Linda and I were over twenty-one and unmarried. In Glória, that made us spinsters.

I had already met many of the citizens I most needed to know in Glória: vendors, bankers, town officials, postal workers, priests, teachers and students. At the festa, everyone I met for the first time said, "Much pleasure in knowing you," followed by a lengthy, mumbled name such as José Carlos Fernando Oliveira da Silva Vilas Boas. I forgot each name almost as soon as it was uttered, for it seemed that everyone in town wanted to meet the new americana. That both thrilled and embarrassed me.

Brunie and Linda danced while I excused myself from a married man who had been clutching me to his chest. I retreated to our table where three teenagers, soon to be my English students, asked the usual questions. Was I liking it here? Was Linda my sister? Why did I leave home? How much money did my father earn? I pretended I didn’t understand questions I didn’t want to answer.      

A handsome young man invited me to dance. A shy dark man in his mid-twenties, he politely kept his distance as he expertly maneuvered me around the floor. He explained that he had enrolled in the high school as soon as it had been established three years earlier. He was proud to be a member of the first class which would graduate the following year. He supported himself and his mother through his work as a tailor.

Later, I joined my neighbor and her family, crowded around a small table. Seu Francisco worked a farm while Dona Maria minded their grocery store. Six of their nine children had survived infancy.

When the younger children fussed, the family went home, leaving their handsome, fourteen-year-old nephew at the table. Eduardo was visiting from a small town close to the state capital, 126 kilometers from Glória. Unlike most Brazilian men, he was tall and fair.

 “Are you liking it here?”

In my fractured Portuguese, I answered, “Yes, Eduardo. I like very much.”

"Are you Brunie’s sister?"

"Não. She a friend. We work together. We are voluntários da paz."

"Then she is your colega."

"Sim. She is colleague."

"Who is the woman dancing with Gilberto? Aunt Maria says she is an americana too? Is she your sister?"

"Não. I meet her here.”

"Do you think she would dance with me?"

I shrugged. "You must ask her.”

Eduardo moseyed onto the dance floor. When a new tune began, the boy clutched Linda close to him, timing his steps to the bossa nova.

More high school students visited my table to practice their English. They informed me many men didn’t ask me to dance because they thought I was in mourning. My black dress, so elegant at home, sent the Brazilian message that a family member had recently died. When Linda and Eduardo joined me, the students ran off to flirt and dance.

Eduardo asked a lot of questions about the United States. Suddenly, he leaned across the table, seizing Linda’s hand. He asked, "Will you be my namorada?"

Only the boy’s solemn expression kept me from laughing.      

Linda winced. "Oh, uh, but... I can’t be your girlfriend. I am much too old for you. Besides, you don't even know me."

"But I love all Americans.” Gesturing toward the dance floor, he said, “I like very much Dona Brunie." Nodding toward me, he continued, "And now that I have met her, I like Dona Carolina.”

He grabbed Linda’s other hand and looked into her startled blue eyes, adding, “And, oh, I like you so very much, Dona.... uh, Dona.... What's your name?"

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“Sunset at the Railroad” by PCV Nicholas Baylor Hall. Namibia, 2011.