Strangers used to point and call me “Alemão” as I passed by their gates in Massaranduba. I was unknown, and so I was “The German”. But not just me—it had nothing to do with skin color. Because, blame it on poverty or fear or failure of public transportation, there are large areas of Massaranduba that are cut off from the rest of Salvador. And so any neighborhood newcomer, Brazilian or American, black or white, is a “German”—synonymous with an unwelcome intruder, used around here in sentences such as “O Alemão não pode andar nesta rua” (The German can’t walk on this street). But I didn’t sign up for GCY to remain a tourist passing by on the streets reserved for my kind, I came to stay for a while.
I thought my struggle with Portuguese had ended a month into my time in Brazil when my first host mother patted me on the back, told me I was fluent in Portuguese, and wished me well in my next homestay. And so I arrived in Massaranduba with my chest puffed out ready to show off my shiny new language skills and ran headfirst into a wall of Manguerissa, the result of this neighborhood separation. It’s the local language, so named because it is spoken in the shade of the mango trees here, according to my father, created by his grandfather’s generation as they were living on stilts over the garbage here, and needed to hide their communications from residents of other neighborhoods. In Senegal the GCY fellows have Wolof, in Ecuador there’s Qichwa, and in Brazil it’s simply street slang. And it flies at you as a pile of words formed by toothless gums coming way too fast to translate, much less decipher. And to stay, to leave behind my invented and unwanted German roots, I’ve got to catch on. I’d like to string together some neighborhood slang used on the subject of learning a language, mostly because it’s fun.
• To start off, I can’t be “respirando marisia” (breathing ocean air), as in be lazy about learning.
• At the same time, I must “lembrar com o andor que o santo é de barro” (remember with the supports that the saint is made of mud), as in take it one step at a time.
• I can’t go about “pensando que o beso de jegue é arroz dolce” (thinking a donkey’s chin is sweet rice), as in thinking it will be easy when it obviously is not.
• This is because “laranja madura na bera da estrada pode estar podre rottin o bixada” (a ripe orange on the sidewalk can either be rotten or full of bugs), as in one cannot trust things that come too easily.
• Right now, it can seem like a “balai de gato e nil de rato” (a basket of cats and a nest of rats), as in a real mess.
• But progress is being made, and the “macaco que pula de galeo em galeo ta querendo receber chumbo” (monkey that jumps from branch to branch is asking to get shot), as in once I start something I must see it through.
• Because if I quit now “o gato scaldado sempre tem medo do agua” (the scalded cat always fears the water), as in our actions form habits and i don’t want to become a quitter.
• But if I stick to it, soon enough I will be “macaco velho que não coloca mão na cabaça” (an old monkey that doesn’t put his hand in the gourd), as in a learned man.
• And if I really stick to it, one day I will be a “cão chupando manga” (a demon sucking a mango), as in a true master of Massaranduba’s Manguerissa slang.
If the translations seem comical, they are nothing compared to the slang my host father uses when he is worked up and trying to communicate with outsiders. He was talking on the phone recently, getting angry with the representative responsible for sending the water our house had not received for a week. He told the man to “baixa a bola” (lower the ball), as in get off of his high horse. The man asked him why he was talking about soccer, which didn’t improve my father’s mood. Sometimes language has to do with more than communication. Here, it is a stamp of ancestry and neighborhood loyalty that locals wear proudly, and that I will soon share. Because in Massaranduba I’m no longer the German—not that my new nicknames make more sense, as I share them with all the other residents here. A month into my new homestay they call me “Big Black”, they call me “Broder” and they call me “Favela” just like everyone else who walks by.