Joshua Reason - Brazil

January 15, 2013

People call me by many different names here. I originally introduced myself as “Joshua” to everyone I met, but I soon learned that the “ua” part was difficult to pronounce for some locals. Eventually I started telling people to call me “Josh”, but ending on the “sh” sound was hard for a lot of people as well. So I’ve ended up just letting people call me whatever they want. Most of my names are sort of variations of “Josh”, the most popular being “Jorge” and “Josha”. But there are two names people call me that I have only recently come to understand.

Some people address me as “negão” or “preto”, which when used in relation to people literally translate to “nigga”. Granted my translation of the words come from a combination of Google Translate and looking back at the situations in which the words have been used, but the fact remains that these terms are colloquialisms in reference to black people. I started noticing this during jiu jitsu classes as many of the people I train with started addressing me as “negão“. But because my name had always been difficult to pronounce and they were using “negão” in such a positive and friendly way, I thought nothing of this new nickname. It wasn’t until around Christmas that I tried to seriously think about and understand what people were calling me.

I took a van to a nearby town to buy some Christmas presents for my host family. As I entered and sat in the van, this older lady started talking to me as if she were annoyed. She said that I was sitting next to the bag that she put down to save seats for her and the people she was traveling with. To me, it didn’t seem like a huge deal, so I said “okay”, got up, and moved. But after I relocated myself, she proceeded to say something angrily to me that included the word “preto”. All I could think about that car ride was what exactly “preto” and “negão” meant.

As I’ve said, these two words literally translate to “nigga”. In English, “nigga” is also a very complicated word, but it’s complicated in different ways than “negão” and “preto”. One of the biggest differences can be seen through who can and cannot use these words. In the U.S., there are a lot of different factors that go into determining who can and cannot use “nigga”. The most obvious is probably race, but socio-economic status and where you’re from also play unique roles in determining who can and can’t use “nigga”. But Brazil, at least to my knowledge, doesn’t have this sort of complexity; so far as I can tell, anyone can use “negão” or “preto” without fear of being judged or told otherwise.

Another huge difference in the usage of these words is how inflection plays a role. In the U.S., the tone only really reflects the mood of the person using “nigga” while retaining the colloquial meaning of the word. But in Brazil, the tone a person uses when saying “negão” or “preto” can have a much greater affect on the meaning of these words; the difference between saying them in a positive or negative way is most closely related to the difference between saying “nigga” or “nigger” in the U.S. context.

I bring this up because I think it’s both interesting and important to look at where the American and Brazilian black cultures converge and diverge. Though the usage of “negão” and “preto” are still a little confusing to me, there are times where I have found comfort in the black culture here. For example, I grew up listening to a lot of black music artists: Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, and many other old school artists were a prominent part of my childhood. Just recently, I was sitting at my apprenticeship while music by many of these artists was blasting outside of the building.  Moments like these make me realize that being black in Brazil isn’t as hard as I thought it would be; Brazil is racially complex in ways I wouldn’t have expected coming from the U.S., but at the same time, there are times where it makes me feel right at home.

Joshua Reason