As I begin to write this I imagine what this post would have looked like if the murder had not happened. I would have probably focused on writing about the silly activities underclassmen are subjected to during the first weeks of college–like using buckets as backpacks. I might have written about the oddities of young Brazilians’ vernacular, where every sentence includes either the word cara (face) or tipo (like). I would have probably detailed the homecoming festivities in the villas, that not even a tropical rainstorm could dampen. But what happened a month ago permanently altered Brazil, and made these beginning of the semester novelties seem utterly insignificant.
My geography teacher started class unusually sternly, “We have to talk about it, there’s no other way”. It was only the second week of class, so I was still scoping out the classroom dynamics. At this point, I was still confused why everyone, including the teacher, shows up 15-20 minutes late to class. He said she was once his student. I wasn’t sure who she was, but everyone seemed to know her. With a glimmer in his eyes, he then started to share his fears for the rise of another military dictatorship—he shared childhood memories of growing up during that dark period of Brazilian history. I had no idea what was going on, or why the room felt so heavy. We eventually started to discuss the readings, but conversations kept returning to questions of justice, of activism, of the future. At the end of class a student announced that the homecoming festivities scheduled for that night were to be cancelled “for obvious reasons”.
I whipped my phone out as soon as I walked out of that class. Marielle Franco, a councilwoman from the Socialism and Liberty Party was murdered in Lapa the night before, along with her driver Anderson Pedro Gomez. You could consider her a champion of representative democracy in Brazil: She was a favelada—a person who comes from Rio’s urban slums. She was black. She was gay. She was a single mom. She was a feminist. She bravely denounced the police violence in her community that had increased since the federal police entered the city in mid-February: this is the main reason people think she was killed.
The rest of my classes followed a similar rhythm that week, with every single one of my professors addressing the threat of another military dictatorship in Brazil. My Portuguese language professor, a jubilant woman, quietly reminisced about her childhood days when she was not allowed to sing songs in school because of military rules. My sociology professor, collected and serious, spent time contemplating how this would change Brazilian society’s perception of democratic institutions. My ecology professor, sensitive and quiet, reminded our class that the environment and politics can never be separated. There is something so deeply intimidating in witnessing fear in the older generation’s eyes as they share their piece of wisdom with you—a warning, a plea, to do better than they did.
There is no section for “navigating an incident of national mourning that reverberates around the world” in study abroad handbooks. I used my own judgment that day when I decided to get on the metro headed downtown with the intent of merely observing. I had no idea what to expect, but was genuinely surprised with how familiar it all felt when I got off at Carioca station. It was almost indistinguishable from a Black Lives Matter protest, or any other mass, loosely organized, impromptu protest the United States has seen post-inauguration. It was unique in the amount of clapping and red flags. There were also no police in sight, which made sense given that their presence there would have probably been received like a murderer attending the victim’s funeral. Perhaps strangely, I felt safe in the center of Rio unlike any other time before. Standing in that sea of strangers as the sun set on the square felt like a deeply intimate moment—Brazil’s grief and hope was all there.
Life following Marielle’s murder went on, but some changes are unmistakable. I bought a cheap bike to ride to school, which has allowed me to slow down and pay more attention to changes happening on the street. The uptick in graffiti and police is obvious. It seems like there is not a single street in Rio anymore where Marielle’s name is not spray painted. She truly has been made present in this city. Unfortunately, the police presence has also notably increased. The ride to school used to feel like a coast in paradise—beach on my left, perfect weather, bike trail the whole way. Now I see around five to eight military jeeps filled with army soldiers pointing their guns every day, which is certainly nothing compared to the escalation of military police in the favelas. There’s a phrase in Portuguese for the discomfort I stomach on my daily commute—engolir sapos. The expression literally means swallowing frogs, and figuratively means to tolerate an unpleasant situation.
With the military on my right and the Atlantic on my left, my bike rides to school always leave me questioning what I should focus on. I could focus on the bucket backpacks, and Arpoador sunsets, or I can spend my time thinking about the military helicopters patrolling the city, and the latest news concerning Marielle’s still unresolved murder. Knowing I have a limited time frame on this continent is a constant reminder that I have to choose wisely about how I would like to engage with this place. I’m not sure if I’ll ever stop swallowing frogs while here, but I just hope that I won’t let it get in the way of enjoying the views. Thankfully, I have a bike that allows me to ride between these two extremes.