6:30 am and the city buzzes with energy. Kids hustle off to school, workers run to catch the bus. Mothers walk, balancing babies on their hips, dragging another along by hand. Tiny feet bounce along the concrete. A bus turns down a small sun kissed street. A man pushes a cart past a plant shop. Another walks his daughter to school. A third buys coffee off the side of the road. A siren goes off--a cop car appears from behind and clears through the traffic. It’s the first time I’ve been in Salvador with my Dad since I was 13, and 5 1/2 years since my last visit.
I ask Dad if the memories flood him when he visits. He says they do. Yesterday we ran around town gathering things to prepare an offering for Xango, starting first at a small alley-like street filled with fruit and vegetable vendors is lined with shops selling Candomblé goods. My cousin Matteus* received the family trait de poder receber Santo. His mom, my Tia Nila*, receives the spirit of an ancestor, M*. I’m not exactly sure who M* is, though I’ve talked to her many times.
Dad says that everyone here is in survival mode. He has a lot of memories associated with this place. A distant home. Working at the feria Sao Joaquim selling fruits at 13. The pink house where Mestre Valdemar lived. The yellow tiled spot on the corner where he first saw capoeira. Dad tells me of his dreams of creating a community center in Liberdade, in the small house that held four generations, now five, of our family.
My great grandfather Ciriaco was Portuguese. According to my Tia Nila*, he abandoned my great grandmother Maria Isidoria after having 6 children with her. He was white, she was black, and his family didn’t approve. He left us the land though. Tia Nila* says to ask my Vovo the whole story, she’s the family historian, she’ll know everything that happened. Nila* is the daughter of my grandmother’s sister who passed last year. My vovo is the last one of her siblings still alive, and she carries all of the stories with her.
Memories emerge of M*, lighting a cigar by stove top, sipping her cerveja from a glass, hand on her hip. “Voce gostou de mim?” She asks matter of fact, after she told me much of my family history and advised me about personal life matters. I was 19 at the time, and unsure of everything, wary of the magic and depth in my family lineage, but just as much intrigued. Older now, I feel myself gaining a better understanding of it all. Somehow only now do I understand the energy that exists in this particular plot of land. And I wonder, if it is because Tia Nila* lives on our ancestral land that she was gifted this connection to M*. Must be. Must be why my primo Matteus* receives Xango and another ancestor.
I ask Dad if M* is an ancestor and he says yes, and I wonder from when. He tells me that our lineage is strong. This time around I can feel what that means, and I’m no longer afraid of it.
In the car on the way to Guarajuba today words were floating in the air and I tried to grasp them with my weak, jet-lagged hands. The TV turns off and I feel the grip around my brain loosen. I can hear the waves again. My family shows love through physical affection. Rubbing my back, taking the time to fix up all the ends of my braids. Preparing food. Affectionately holding a wrist. Non-verbal communication goes far. Perhaps they see my tenderness, though in this half sleep state I am often unwilling to talk. I want(ed) to speak with all of the Egun today. All of those ancestors that I have perhaps forgotten by mistake. I want the names I never knew to arrive on my tongue as if I had always known them. I want to hear all of their secret messages. Vovo knows all the stories but sometimes I grow tired just trying to absorb it all. It’s going to take time for me to really understand the purpose of this trip. I’m not sure what home is. But I know this land is loaded with history. The chaos of so many people and all of their ancestors. This land seems to carry energy with a force.
Today is rainy. I felt hesitant to do yoga on the balcony, because I didn’t want the men outside to look at me, but I realized pretty quickly, everyone is just living their own lives. The man who cuts hair is across the street in that same spot he has always been. I remember when he was a teenager. I was a baby. Now he’s in his 40’s a pot belly hanging over his shorts. In that exact place. The water rushes towards the shore pressured by the pounding rain. I look out at the docks and see a few figures standing. Everything here moves in a circle. Little girls learn the vocabulary to become women. They become teenagers walking with pride, and a calm security. They learn early on how to ignore the persistent ‘sssssss’ of older men. Soon a baby will be balanced on that hip or she’ll hustle off in a uniform to work a blue collar or corporate job. At home the novelas await. The sisters wait. The food waits. The husband, boyfriend, daddy may or may not be there.
Little boys run around with their sisters until they are old enough to pick up soccer balls, or old enough to gather and tell jokes huddled around the bench. I don’t know when exactly the boys and the girls start falling in love. All I know is I left and my younger cousin was 7, drawing in her little notebook, now she’s 13 and knows just how to ignore the men who look at her as she walks the streets with her friends. All I know is I left and my younger cousin was 10, and now he’s 16, been in love once, has an ex-girlfriend who likes to talk my ear off about winning him back. Now he listens to music on his headphones and complains when his mom asks him to do something. The other night, walking with my cousin Lady just to get some air, we pass a familiar face. A young teenager whistles at me. I know that face, his mother maybe 8 years older than me knew me when I was young. I can see her face imprinted on his. I remember when she was pregnant. I remember approaching her house asking if she knew a place to get chocolate. I remember her asking my cousin se eu estava gravida. I remember saying yes, not knowing at the time that gravida meant pregnant. My cousin laughing at my error. All I know is her baby boy is old enough to know these social codes,how men are meant to look at women.
I don’t know when exactly the boys and girls start falling in love, I only see when the babies come. Some of them will hustle with gangs. I do not fully know that world. Only a boy who tried to kiss me once, who showed me a bandage and said he got stabbed in a fight. Only an older cousin who was shot in his sleep when I was too young to understand what death meant. Only an ex-lover who puffed out his chest and created a forcefield around me on a late Saturday night in Liberdade when two men began to argue. The rest I’ve only heard in stories. Other men and women too, will begin pushing carts, gathering car parts, selling coffee and cerveja, bringing fish to grandmothers. They come home to food and dominoes. They come home to beer and brothers. At a certain age they will all retire perhaps. When their kids are old enough. They will just play domino. Or they will just watch tv. They will just yell orders or jokes at grandkids. As the next generation rises watching, learning, repeating.
But what of the renegades? What of the queers and the sex workers and the rebels? What of the political activists and the nerds and the failures? Where in the cycle are they? Do they survive underground? Do they survive? Are they pushed out of the circle to exist in loose orbit? Not entirely out of the flow, but most certainly not within it. Where are they hiding and what did their families think when they left? Who would I be if I had been born here? How would I have conformed or disrupted? How would I have pleased or disappointed? How would I have chosen to survive?
I come in and my auntie tells me I shouldn’t tie up my hair with a black elastic. I also shouldn’t use my own hair to make a ponytail. There are so many superstitions, I wonder where they originate from.
The family is preparing a barbecue today. Dad and I slipped away in the early morning to speak with my ancestor M*. She had a lot to say about my romantic life and my willingness (or lack thereof) to fight for what / whom I really want. She spent a lot of time trying to explain to me that it’s important for me to know how to prepare limpezas for myself. I need to know how to protect myself, she says. I can’t come home and just sit in the negativity from the world. I can’t wait around for others to help me, I should really listen and learn how to do it on my own. I feel like this is the piece I was missing last time. The piece to all of the magic. The ability to protect yourself from the negativity that inevitably exists in the world. The ability to heal yourself and clear your own path. There’s something of resilience here that whispers to me of ancestral survival. This is how my people were able to live through the years of slavery on this land. It is magic that we have survived. I am honored to inherit this tradition which has enabled my existence.
This may be the last time I ever visit my family in this way. Not to be malicious. Just an observation. The queer in me is just begging to burst out. There’s not much space for any of that here. I wonder which spirits are listening to me when I speak in silence.
Dad’s outside with my vovo and the capoeiristas. I think she’s sad that he’s leaving because she wants everyone to always be together. There is a different kind of responsibility and obligation that comes when I return to this house. It’s the family structure, everyone rolls together, everyone stays here, returns here. I know I needed to come here for ancestral reasons. I’m not at all doubting that. Just feeling like a bit of an outsider, but trying to lean into it.
Growing up my older cousin was always trying to convince me to get with some boy. I always trusted her judgment, and now I look back at all the people, and know that perhaps I shouldn’t have. So me now, older, wiser, what of her now? My beloved cousin. What of all the thoughts and feelings undigested that lived in the pit of my stomach, or the roots of my hair. This hair has not yet breathed the air of this country. Almost all of my cells have regenerated in the time span that I have been gone. But there are just enough left to remember.
It’s hot, sticky, itchy. I am uncomfortable, but growing. Uncomfortable, but good. Sinking deeper always. Vision growing clearer always. Heart becoming purer always. And even if my skin grows rashes and my hair falls out there will always be fresh skin waiting to break through the surface and breathe new air.
I told my cousin I was queer yesterday, dropped a ex-partner casually in conversation. Today she reads a book with the subtitle, “how to save someone you love.” I just laughed. She keeps asking me if I’m okay, but I can tell she’s the one who is uncomfortable. I wish she’d just ask me the questions she has.
It's basically a family reunion here today. Aunties, uncles, cousins, new babies all pouring out the walls at this point. Social anxiety on ten today. I only know how to stand behind the camera and take photos. To be in the picture is a different thing.
My family is professional at surface conversations. How’s your Mom? How’s your Brother? Have you eaten? Everyone likes to gossip about what other people are doing. Yesterday my Tia Jaci was talking about some neighbor friend and how she got cheated on by her boyfriend with her friend. My cousin was scandalized. My auntie was explaining that she had screenshots of the conversations and offered to show them to my cousin. I’m honestly just bored by it. It’s frustrating. I have absolutely no interest in hearing the judgmental drama of other folks. And yet here I am judging them for doing it.
Not even a full week has passed. I am here at the airport dropping off dad. Today more of the family poured in to visit. To say bye to Dad, to eat a meal for dia dos Pais. I feel a comfortable outsider. I’ve enjoyed having my dad close. He understands me. He can see when I’m feeling sensitive and he lets me be, makes sure that I’m okay. He speaks to me in English, it becomes our secret language among the family if we need to talk about orixas or Candomble or things that make my Tia Jaci uncomfortable.
We went to visit my tio Geo at the hospital before leaving. I didn’t know that his full name was Genilson, but I saw it posted there beside his bed. I didn’t expect him to look so sick, so old. In a full room with four other sickly men, half asleep, emaciated and ill. At the hospital for alcoolismo e acolhimento. I felt overcome with the desire to cry but knew that I had to keep a happy face for him and the others. My Tia Jaci and Jeane were in full nurse mode. Checking his body, looking for swelling, Jaci asked him if he knew who she was if he knew who my dad was, my auntie and then me.
What do you think I’m crazy? He said to her and we all laughed.
Aisha he said. Recognizing me by my middle name.
I’m not sure what really is wrong with him. The health system here is so bad he spent years on a walker and now he’s been in the hospital for months, it’s hard to see how he can get better. He looks older than my Vovo. She’s 84, I think he’s only 60. But my auntie insists that he’s getting better, which may be true. We have to keep faith she says. You’ll see, next time you visit he’ll be back home.
There is an evangelical program on the small tv by the door way. A girl weeps and a host reminds her to have faith in god.
The skinniest man in the room, is curled up his eyes bulging—he looks at me and lifts his hand slowly. He’s saying hello, I smile. I can feel him staring at me as I try to focus on my uncle. Shifting my eye contact as my uncle downloads the information. How old is she now? He asks. 25 I say. He seems shocked. Confused maybe. I can’t tell if he’s unsure about time, but it’s clear that I am a woman now. Maybe he’s remembering me as a baby. Little Reva Aisha running around in polka dot onesies refusing to let my mom fix my hair.
It’s time for us to leave now, I can tell that dad is overwhelmed, perhaps slightly anxious to leave. I take my uncle’s hand, bença meu tio I say. He is too absent to give me his blessing. My dad rubs tios head and assures him that next time we see each other it will be at home. For Christmas. Que vamos passar o natal todo mundo juntos em casa. My dad kisses my tio’s head multiple times. I can tell he’s sad to leave. I can tell that despite what he says, he’s unsure if he’ll ever see his brother again. You can never be sure. You can never be sure. Eu te amo he says. And my uncle, lips quivering mutters back eu te amo. I can tell he means it. I can see they both mean it. The love is profound, and the miles and oceans between us are deep. The love is profound and the differences between us are deep.
This is what diaspora does. It liberates and it uproots all at the same time. We are connected only through love. Through these tiny moments, memories that we hold onto of times where we were all together. Hope for the future of moments when once again we will share the same air and come together to eat food, to laugh, to smile, to be family.
As soon as we leave tio’s room I begin to weep, I thought I could hold it all in, I always do. My Tia Jaci is across the hall and she sees me. I approach her as I try to hold in my tears. She drapes her arm around me as we walk out of the hospital. It’s difficult, I know, she says, but we have to have faith. He’s getting better. You should have seen him before. She keeps saying affirmations and I’m crying anyways. Overwhelmed and humbled by the tenderness between my dad and his brother, by the care with which my aunties adjusted his bed, made sure he was warm, smiled big and asked questions.
In the car dad asks me if I’m okay and I begin to cry again. I can’t even respond with words. Too overwhelmed to explain what it is that I’m feeling. My auntie reassures me. Rubbing my knee with her hands. I let the tears fall and feel humbled.
It’s not that I’m sad that my uncle might be dying. I’m sad that my uncle is in pain. That my uncle can’t remember. That my dad has to leave to the airport. That I don’t even know my uncle very well. That we all have to live so far apart. That everything is different. That my family will never understand me. I’m sad that so many people in this country feel so hopeless that they fall victim to an institution that takes advantage of them. I’m sad that my people are dying for lack of health care. I’m sad that my other people are dying for lack of understanding.
I am humbled because even with all of the miles and all of the differences we are here loving each other. My evangelical auntie, and my candomble father. My queer radical self and my conservative cousin. My judgmental, caring, rambunctious grandmother and my thoughtful, sarcastic, disabled auntie. All of us. We are all wearing the faces of our ancestors. We are walking the paths that feel most authentic to each of us. We are all navigating fear and confronting it as best as we can. Even as we continue misunderstanding one another and judging one another. Somehow still we are able to love. That to me is beyond words. And for that, I wept.
A pregnant teenager walks by in a miniskirt. My dad comments that every young girl here is pregnant and everyone in the car agrees. I’m 25 now and it’s true. A lot of the girls I knew have disappeared, become moms, grown bellies. They stay in the house now. Mothers younger than me. My Tia Jaci comments on the way they dress, as if they were asking to be fucked and impregnated. It’s not their fault, I think to myself. It’s this whole world. Wearing a longer skirt has nothing to do with it. It has to do with shitty education, boredom, and culture teaching girls that the only thing that matters is their appearance and attention from men. It’s not their fault, I think. But I stay quiet.
The duality of this place is this.
Today I finally make it to FUNCEB to take an Afro-Contemporary dance class and see a friend from college who lives here now. She tells me that she was feeling called to uncover her roots, to learn more about the Candomble and the Lucumí in her heritage. To dance, learn music, connect.
The energy in class is high. Somehow in the 5 1/2 years since I’ve been here, I’ve forgotten that the connection is profound. This is the reason I’m here. For these moments where the drums beat so close to my heart I can close my eyes and trust them to carry me. Sweat pours onto the ground as we dance for the orixas. I can feel ancestors filling the space around me. This is a safe haven perhaps, for all those unsettled spirits who never elevated, who stay lurking around the historic colonial district of Pelourinho. Here, we dance, we honor, we remember.
After class I am ten tons lighter. My spirit is high. My friend and I grab a beer and spend a couple of hours talking about the experiences we’ve had, the high ancestral energy here, how important it feels to be back, even as we navigate the privilege of US citizenship, the privilege of the strength of our USD versus brazilian Reais. Even as we navigate the feelings of isolation that come with it.
I got home and wrote this down:
“I will use my body to connect my spirit
to the sky.
I will use my body I will use my body
I will become a portal for light
I will be strong, despite inevitable shadow
I am unafraid.
The drums beat and I feel the feet
of my ancestors pounding this Earth
We are together
have always been, even if I forget
from time to time
We are united by breath and blood
and unseen energy
connected by sound and breath and movement
we are together always.
I broke through, I continue breaking
my body still carries dead weight
but it burns away slowly, surely
Truth guides my heart and my tongue
patience at the back of my throat
and I know that there are really beautiful
moments coming my way
I feel it in my bones
mixed in among the sadness
(when it comes)
the sweet nostalgia
of past love
I am in love I am in love
I am always in love
with life, with this land
with the way the wind moves
with the way the water and the sky meet
I’m sitting here and I do not know what to tell you. I do not know what to tell you. I do not know how to speak of this place, of the experiences. Of the division in my body from base to skull. Of the split full, left from right. I am divided. I am trying to find comfort and truth, but today I am just tired. I’ll leave my house to get the candles, to buy snacks, to sit by the ocean, to hear the music.
The words will come again.