We moved to Brazil in the months leading up to an incredibly divisive, contentious general election that in many ways has felt all too familiar to me. As I write this, Brazil is in limbo between ballots. On October 7th, the country voted for many new leaders, most notably for a new president. Rarely does a president get elected in the first round of voting here because Brazil has 36 political parties, and candidates need 50% of the vote to win outright. Jair Bolsonaro, who has said that he is Brazil’s answer to the current U.S. president, took 46% of the vote. Fernando Haddad, former mayor of São Paolo, took second place with 29%. They will face each other in a run-off vote on October 28th. (There is important background about why Haddad is on the ballot rather than the candidate who had been polling the highest out of them all, but I’m not going to get into that at the moment. You can read it about here, though.)
I’d read quite a bit about Bolsonaro even before moving here, and his declaration that he is Brazil’s analog to the U.S.’s current president is pretty accurate. It’s maybe the only thing he and I would agree on, if we met in person. When I read about his policy ideas on gun control, education, and the environment, I shudder. When I read what he has said about indigenous peoples, women, and the LGBTQIA community, I want to scream. He is an incredibly polarizing figure. There are think-pieces on the internet in Portuguese about how to maintain relationships with your family members through this election. Sound familiar?
For me, politically, it’s been a rough two years. I was six weeks pregnant when our current president got elected, and I was pretty shattered. Physically, I was exhausted from parenting a toddler, growing a baby, working full-time, and puking a lot. Emotionally, I was scared by the open hatred and xenophobia that had suddenly become normalized. Overnight, Muslim students were coming to the office of our school reporting that they’d been chased outside of the library, at the bus stop, to the doors of our school by people telling them to leave, that America had no place for them. My friend and colleague’s wife and son were harassed at the door of a grocery store by a man who told them that he deserved to enter first because he was a real American. I became paranoid, suspicious of everyone I encountered. Did you vote for him? I would wonder. And if you did, then who are you, really? I am naturally an optimist, but since that day in November of 2016, I’ve had to fight hard against becoming a misanthrope. Like many, that election forced me to really look at my country, whose failings and brokenness I had the privilege to ignore for so long. It’s been a difficult internal journey of examining my own complicity in systemic racism and floundering to turn epiphanies into meaningful action.
When I’ve been able to chat with Brazilians about their election (and it comes up a lot), almost everyone has expressed exhaustion/skepticism/disgust/fury concerning corruption in government. Where people might differ in political priorities, they align in decades-long fatigue. They’ve been let down over and over again by politicians who end up with criminal histories from their time in office. I will never excuse a vote for hatred, but I am trying to check my own judgment because I’m not Brazilian, and I don’t know what it’s like to live for so long without real trust in my leaders, without belief in real change. And that’s what Jair Bolsonaro is promising. Some of the Brazilians I’ve talked to have said something like, “He’s crazy. He’s horrible. But Brazil is at its lowest point in a very long time, and we don’t have a choice. We either vote for the status quo, which is bad, or we vote for radical change. We know some people will get hurt if he gets elected. But the whole country will get worse if we choose otherwise.”
It is not the logic of this that is inarguable- it’s the weary emotion in their voices. The current president, Michael Temer, has somewhere around a five percent approval rating. I don’t pretend to know what the answer is for Brazil. I know that Bolsonaro will almost certainly be elected at the end of this month, and then…?
Before we left the U.S., a lot of people said to me, “Lucky you! You get to escape our president and this political circus for a while!” I always pushed back against that because one of the hard truths I learned from the 2016 election is that being an informed and active citizen who participates in democracy is a right, a privilege, and a responsibility that all Americans share. Right now, the U.S. is preparing for midterm elections with the potential to set voter turnout records. Our senators just confirmed a new justice to our highest court who displayed partisanship so bald it threatens to undermine the very authority of that court, among other significant problems associated with his candidacy. My home state, Minnesota, will choose a new governor, two senators, eight representatives, an attorney general, many judges, and other leaders of local government.
Now is not the time to duck out of American politics just because I’m living abroad. I am still an American, and I still have a duty to my country. I am also so grateful to have real political heroes and trust in many of my leaders. I believe that when I vote or make a phone call to my elected officials, it matters. I have seen the real-life impact of state legislation to make things better for my neighbors. I will not take those truths, even when they are incremental, for granted.
I mentioned that I’ve been seeking ways to engage in meaningful action, and I see this through two lenses right now. First, what am I doing to fight for democracy back home? Second, how am I representing the U.S. abroad? (<– This I am especially mindful of, because we live in a city with so few foreigners that we are the only Americans some folks have met.) Below is a list of my current efforts to answer both of those questions.
- I voted absentee in the midterms this year, and you should vote, too! (YES. EVEN YOU. ESPECIALLY YOU. ALL OF YOU!)
- I am making daily phone calls to voters in Minnesota to help them find their polling places while the kids are napping. If the caller allows, I am also learning about issues important to them and helping them find DFL (Democrat) candidates who align with their values. (For Brazilian friends: voting is not obligatory in the U.S., and many volunteers are needed each election cycle to register and persuade people to vote.)
- I am staying open to learning from my Brazilians friends and neighbors as they go through their difficult election cycle together.
- I am working hard to be a respectful member of the community here by being friendly to everybody, learning the language, practicing English with those who want to, and immersing our family into the daily life of Dourados.
- I answer questions about the U.S. with as much nuance as my Portuguese will allow, trying to give voice to perspectives other than mine while being transparent about where I stand.
My Portuguese tutor taught me a famous saying: “Eu sou Brasileira/o. Eu desisto nunca!”, which means: “I’m Brazilian. I never give up!” I have seen firsthand the roots of that sentiment. People care deeply about this country, their home. People want Brazil to be its best and they believe it can be, even when they disagree on how to get there.
In that spirit, I move forward towards the midterms, shaking off the spectres of 2016. I care deeply about the United States, and I’m fighting for us to be our best. E você?