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Through a window, two young girls inside a home, looking at potted plants in the windowsill.

A candid peek at my sister and me while visiting family in Brazil.

Photo courtesy of Michelle Mehrtens

  • Deserving Identity: A Reclamation of My Brazilian Heritage

    North American summers are breezy winters in Brazil. As a child, armed with a fresh array of sweaters, I traveled every July with my family from Florida to São Paulo.

    My grandparents lived in Santana, a residential district in the Zona Norte. By age ten, I had established an open-ended routine at their house, one that consisted of spur-of-the-moment snacks and long conversations. It was here that I stuttered and tripped over my Portuguese, trying to hold onto the words and make them real, prove that I belonged.

    In the mornings, I would traipse sleepily to the kitchen to find a pan of fried bread with butter on the stove. Like many children in Brazil, a country where coffee has no age requirement, I would pour myself a cup of Pilão brew, stirring in heavy spoonfuls of sugar and evaporated milk from my grandfather’s tin of Molico. From where I sat in the kitchen, chomping on torrada, I could peer into his office, where he sat at his wooden desk, reading Veja or a battered Brazilian copy of Harry Potter, while Dorival Caymmi crooned from a small radio. “O samba da minha terra deixa a gente mole…

    Exactly thirty minutes before noon, my grandmother would enter the kitchen to prepare lunch. She banged her black pots in a chaotic symphony, stacking them noisily on stovetops to boil water and steam vegetables, fry onions and garlic. We periodically offered assistance, but Vovó always shooed us away, telling us not to hover. She had her routine too. “Sai daqui!”—get out!

    At every meal, I would listen carefully to my grandparents speak, soak up their inflections, the rise and fall of their vowels, absorbing my family history through osmosis, because even as a child, I knew: as soon as I walked through the airport gates, the magic would end and I would be an American again. My memories, my context belonged to São Paulo. This meant loudly singing the lyrics to “Carinhoso” while my mother played the piano and riding the metro to Paulista Avenue. This meant countless visits to the São Paulo Museum of Art, discovering the colorful paintings of Tarsila do Amaral and Anita Malfatti.

    At night, my grandfather cycled through the Harry Potter movies. He was always disappointed that in America, my sister and I did not wear robes or call our teachers “professor.” “Porque não?” We laughed at Ron’s dubbed voice, which was pitched much higher than his British counterpart’s. Portuguese copies of the books reached Brazil a year later than the United States, and I would struggle to not reveal key plot points to my grandfather. We argued, once, in the mall because he kept insisting Snape was an irredeemable villain. If only he knew, I thought.

    In an airport, two grandparents push luggage carts, with two toddlers sitting where the luggage would go. Photo is dated 8 21 '98.
    My twin sister (left) and I (right) visiting our grandparents in São Paulo. They picked us up from Guarulhos Airport.
    Photo courtesy of Michelle Mehrtens

    The day before leaving, I steeled myself for goodbyes. I stuffed my backpack with bags of Piraquê’s ham crackers. At Guarulhos Airport, I joyfully, yet mournfully, consumed my last coxinha at Viena Café. My grandfather patted me on the shoulder, awkwardly, before pulling me into a hug and telling me to take care of my mother. My grandmother squeezed me tight, and I inhaled her Giovanna Baby perfume, her golden bracelets catching on my hair as we separated. She always laughed, wiping her dark purple lipstick off my cheek with her thumb.

    In quiet moments, these memories build on each other like colored tiles, a mosaic imprinted on my skin. But I have wavered between pride and uncertainty, when I remember all the times I’ve been told that I do not “look” Brazilian. I am most comfortable speaking Portuguese with my mother. When someone else initiates a conversation in Portuguese, I seize up. The language of my family shrivels on my tongue. My identity feels like performance.

    My mother was born and raised in São Paulo. Whenever I ask her about her lineage, she waves her hand. “We’ve been in Brazil for a long, long time.” If it is early morning, she might yell from the kitchen, “Four hundred years!” Then, she will ask if I want toast and proceed to cut four slices of bread to butter. At three in the afternoon she makes coffee, whether any of us want coffee or not, because her mother and grandmother “always did this.”

    My father was also born and raised in São Paulo. However, his parents were from the United States. After acquiring a lucrative engineering job in Brazil, his father moved their family to South America. While the rest of the family spoke Portuguese, my paternal grandmother conversed in an English-Portuguese hybrid, pointing at various objects and saying, “Move the coisa. Yes, please pass the coisa. That coisa over there.” Any type of food, any piece of furniture, any article of clothing could be a coisa, or “thing.”

    I was not born or raised in Brazil, but, for the first ten years of my life, I was surrounded by a vibrant Latinx community. I grew up enveloped in the colors and sounds of southern Miami: the late-afternoon rains, the neon reds of taillights in traffic, the thump-thump-thump of trucks and sh-sh-sh of night winds, warbling seagulls, Elis Regina and Tom Jobim singing “Aguás de Março” on the radio.

    At birthdays and graduations, I ate chocolate brigadeiro that melted on my fingers and buttery empadas with hearts of palm and bowls of sizzling feijoada with toasted cassava. From the gates of my elementary school, I would hear classmates laugh and yell in Spanish. On the weekends, my family attended barbecues and picnics and took boat rides with other Brazilian families. I was knobby kneed, pale—even then, my “American-ness” stuck out. A hand on my shoulder. “She never tans!” An incredulous look shared between my mother’s colleagues. “Jura! Ela é brasileira?” 

    Mother and two young daughters wade in shallow water of the ocean, palm trees behind them.
    A day at the beach with our mom in Miami, Florida.
    Photo courtesy of Michelle Mehrtens

    Right before middle school, my family moved to a small, homogenous Massachusetts town whose residents claimed ancestry on the Mayflower. Here, my mother’s accent was the outlier. Sometimes, at the post office or the supermarket, an employee would struggle to understand her. Impatience and frustration would line both their foreheads, and their eyes would land on me, searching for a “translator.”

    “You don’t know how much it hurts,” my mother would say, “when they talk to you and not me. I’m the adult. They should be talking to me.”

    I hated how they talked down to my mother. They widened their eyes, cocked their heads, spoke slowly, as if setting out alphabet blocks. It ignited an angry fire in my stomach. I wanted to unravel their colonialist fairy tales.

    A world history professor, my mother had lectured about architecture and anthropology and geography for years. I wanted to tell them to ask her about the flooded yellows of Tarsila’s abaporu. Ask her about the bright-skinned homes of the “Morro da Favela.” Ask her about Oswald de Andrade’s “Manifesto Antropófago.”

    My mother could appraise Oscar Niemeyer, the jutting limbs of his dove-white esplanades that soar in the blue skies of Brasília. Go on, I would think. Ask her about the ribs of the Palácio de Planalto. Ask her about the wide-ceilinged rooms of Casa do Baile. She could speak your language and your history, clash the cymbals of the Civil War and the Louisiana Purchase and the pockmarked pages of the Constitution.

    She could teach your words, and she could do it better.

    Of course, my mother had nothing to prove.

    A woman kneels down, eyes closed and smiling, with two toddler girls on either side of her holding paper plates of cake.
    Photo courtesy of Michelle Merhtens

    The problem has never been the Latinx community. In Toni Bell’s powerful “I’m Not Your Token: Refusing to Internalize Other People’s Bigotry,” she describes the obligation to explicitly call out racism, misogyny, homophobia for what it is and not to hide behind language that stigmatizes the group facing oppression. Bell states:

    “I’ve learned to resist being ‘othered’ through the use of language.  So, when someone says, ‘Oh, they did that to you because you’re black,’ I quickly correct them with, ‘No, they did that because they are bigots.’ This often shocks people. I can see the panic in their eyes…I name the problem. Trayvon and Michael’s blackness wasn’t the problem…Matthew Shepard wasn’t murdered because he was gay…[they] were murdered by people who made a choice to exercise their bigotry within a culture that deemed…[them]...‘others.’”

    My mother’s encounters with discrimination, social ostracism, and racism did not—and do not—occur because she is Brazilian. These moments do not occur because of who she is. They are the problem. She is not.

    With my white skin, I was not a target of this racism. It was important to me, even from a young age, not to lose myself in self-pity. I wanted to stand with her, not pull back. I was the one with the distinct privilege, and I wanted to use it. 

    Olf black-and-white family portrait with parents and six children.
    My maternal great-grandparents. My grandmother (sitting, wearing glasses) was the second youngest of six children. She hated her glasses and eventually stopped wearing them, even though she really needed them.
    Photo courtesy of Michelle Mehrtens

    I chose to learn more about my heritage. In college, I majored in history with a focus on Latin America. I delved into Brazil’s rich, contradictory past and attended intensive language and literature courses. Soon, an opportunity presented itself: Opening the Archives at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

    A joint effort by Brown University and the Universidade Estadual de Maringá, the project partnered with Brazil’s National Truth Commission, an organization devoted to investigating human rights violations perpetrated during the country’s previous military dictatorship. As a researcher, my job involved meticulously digitizing and indexing newly declassified U.S. State Department documents. The primary goal was to make this information accessible to the public through an online repository.

    This project deepened my understanding of a Brazilian history that I had mainly studied in textbooks, introducing crucial figures in a way that provided a more detailed framework for who they were in relation to others and to their country. I sifted through documents that held not just words but the memories and actions of an increasingly disillusioned people, of leaders who often paid lip service to the importance of economic equality but ultimately focused on policies that ensured the comforts of the elite.

    These moments emphasized that history should not be relegated to bookshelves and dusty corners—it was life, bristling with energy and momentum, that served as the primary foundation for the events pressed between the pages of heavy books. I learned about Brazil’s past and the painful realities of a world that stripped away the voices of so many. It showed me the devastating costs of silence.

    In 1964, members of the Brazilian Armed Forces, backed by the U.S. government, enacted a coup d’état. They overthrew President João Goulart of the Brazilian Labor Party. Military rule lasted twenty-one years, during which thousands of Brazilian protesters, reformists, and civilians were “disappeared” and tortured. Throughout this period, the United States circumvented criticism and calls for accountability, trumpeting its political mission as the prevention of “communism” abroad for the sake of democracy.

    Young women students in uniform sit side by side, with men in suits standing behind them. Black-and-white photo.
    My mother and her classmates. She is on the far right and she is thinking hard about something.
    Photo courtesy of Michelle Merhtens

    Every morning at school, my mother and her classmates had to stand in the patio, hands on their hearts, and sing a hymn to a portrait of the dictator. While shopping with her mother as a young girl, my mother witnessed military police on horses looking for people. Her mother would hold her siblings close, trying to shield them. She also frequently saw wanted posters of activists. “And those were the young people, you know, acting against the dictatorship,” my mother said. “People from colleges, artists, people like that.”

    At the National Archives, hundreds of boxes sat on metal carts, awaiting discovery. Some days were slow. I spent a week indexing packets that described the inner workings of shrimp boats. Other days were memorable, yet maddening: a federal document, titled “Suggested Presidential Message on New Year’s 1968,” instructed the Department of State to send this message from President Lyndon B. Johnson to Artur da Costa e Silva, the “president” of Brazil:

    Dear Mr. President:

    As 1967 draws to a close I want to send my warmest wishes to you and all the people of Brazil for the New Year. It is my earnest hope that 1968 will bring you further success in your efforts to lead your country toward the achievement of its aspirations.

    The words of the American president, purposefully amiable and congratulatory, hid a much darker type of apathy. These “warmest wishes” acted as a form of theater, pulling the curtains over human rights violations perpetrated by both Brazil and the United States. These were words of complacency, words that led to a broader allowance of social ills, including torture, censorship, and political suppression. Costa e Silva, a dictator, did indeed “lead” his country toward “the achievement” of his own “aspirations.” But they were not aspirations for the people. They were against the people.

    In 1968, Costa e Silva responded to countrywide protests against student torture with Institutional Act No. 5. This piece of legislation further authorized far-ranging acts of repression, including the closure of Congress, the suspension of habeas corpus, and an expansion of censorship. Many intellectuals, professors, students, and artists were forced into exile. The United States not only abetted the oppressive military regime in Brazil but helped facilitate the erasure of the painful experiences of struggling Brazilians. The broader politics of the Cold War, including mounting fears of a communist “spread” in Latin America, contributed to a relationship between Brazil and the United States predicated on willful political subterfuge and suppression of the common people.

    A poster in Portuguese on a column, beside an architectural model on a table. Black-and-white photo.
    The School of Architecture and Urbanism at the University of São Paulo when my mother was a student in 1978. “Abaixo a ditadura” translates to “Down with the dictatorship.”
    Photo courtesy of Michelle Merhtens

    Violent censorship was a matter-of-fact reality during the dictatorship. My mother told me that, while watching the news on television, it was common to see a reporter or interviewee suddenly pulled off camera—and the program would immediately cut to a commercial. Local and national newspapers were stripped of any content deemed “subversive,” which often meant any authentic reports of government proceedings. 

    “You buy the newspaper, and the front page is an advertisement of chicken soup. Imagine the front page of The New York Times showing a recipe for chicken soup,” my mother said. “People in power with tantrums. That’s what dictatorships are.”

    In this way, Opening the Archives helped validate, after years of uncertainty and governmental artifice, the experiences of Brazilian activists, writers, and students who sought fruitlessly to dismantle an authoritarian political regime. After decades of censorship, the project served as a manifestation of voices that needed to be heard.

    Now, with the human rights violations perpetrated by leaders such as President Jair Bolsonaro, a man who has openly praised the 1964 military dictatorship, these voices are more important than ever. We cannot remain complacent because of our status as American citizens, pretending to be far removed from violence abroad and the duplicity of our own imperialism.

    A friend pointed out to me, “You never say that you’re Brazilian. You always say that your mom is Brazilian.” Her observation hit me in the chest. It was true. Although I had grown up tethered to my Latinx heritage, I never took ownership of it. It felt like I did not deserve it.

    Even now, part of me wants someone to give me a “You Are Brazilian” sticker, something that proves I belong to this community. But it is not about external validation or pity. I no longer think that it is about “deserving” my identity. Instead, I find it a privilege. I think about those early, instructive mornings with my family in São Paulo and remember that silence was never part of our story.

    In midafternoon we walked Avenida Braz Leme, a dusty road trapped in heat and divided in half by a lane of green trees. If we wanted dessert, we stopped at Copenhägen for strong cups of espresso and butter cookies. My grandmother would link her arm with mine, humming Elis Regina, and dance a little every time we passed a store playing music. She’d wave her hands, drawing my own wrist up in the air, and we moved to the rhythm of the street, laughing.

    On these days, it felt like the best thing to do was to take up space, filling the air with our words, stories, and our favorite songs.

    São as águas de março fechando o verão.
    É a promessa de vida no teu coração.

    Two young girls and their grandmother sit at a table, with the grandfather standing beside them. A birthday cake with lit candles is on the table.
    Celebrating my grandmother’s birthday in Santana.
    Photo courtesy of Michelle Merhtens

    Michelle Mehrtens is a freelance writer and founder of Meesh Says Things, a pop culture website dedicated to film and television. She is a former media intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a graduate of Stanford University’s MFA program in documentary film.

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