By Katya Welowski (Camarão)

Manda salta ai, capoeirista!

Obligingly, Tourinho launched his short, muscular body forward on the steep, cobblestoned slope of Pedro América.  A round-off cartwheel into a back handspring, flip-flops somehow staying on his feet.  My heart skipped a beat as I worried that this time his arms would fail and land him on his head.  The men seated on plastic stools outside the botequim cheered and raised their beer glasses.  Tourinho grinned at me, demanding praise.  At the bottom of Pedro América we cut through the alleyway that connects to Tavares Bastos and there, parted ways: Tourinho turning left for a short downhill walk home, and I turning right for a longer walk home uphill.

From 2001 to 2004, while conducting ethnographic research on capoeira in Rio de Janeiro for my Ph.D. in anthropology, I lived at the top of Rua Tavares Bastos in Catete.  I had chosen this neighborhood for its historic buildings, mixed demographics and geographic location: I could easily reach Humaitá where I trained with Mestre Camisa three nights a week, and could also catch a bus or metro out to the Zona Norte where I maintained connections with various capoeira groups.  Before graduate school and becoming an anthropologist, I had begun travelling to Rio de Janeiro as a capoeirista with my first teacher, Mestre Beiçola, who had introduced me to his extensive capoeira network in the Zona Norte.  By the time I came to live in Rio for three years to conduct fieldwork, I had transitioned to ABADÁ-CAPOEIRA, training first with Mestra Edna in New York City, and then with Mestre Camisa in the CIEP do Humaitá.

I discovered many stylistic, pedagogical and social differences between Zona Sul and Zona Norte capoeira.  However, consistent across my research was the role capoeira played in the lives of underprivileged youth from diverse areas of the city.  My experience with these youth, and in particular Tourinho whose story I tell here, taught me about the transformative power of capoeira.  As mestres and instructors often told me, it was not in the private nursery and elementary schools or health gyms where many of them taught capoeira, but in poor communities that “capoeiristas are made.”  Tourinho’s birth as a capoeirista is marked in my field notes by the transition of my use of his real name, Matheus, to his apelido:  Tourinho captured his “little bull” strength and stubbornness and symbolized his new identity and inclusion in the capoeira world.

I met Matheus on Rua Tavares Bastos, a cobblestone street that snakes a mile up a hill that marks the back boundary of Catete.  Like the rest of Catete, Tavares Bastos was constructed in the 18th and 19th century when growing commerce pushed Rio out from the ports and inner bay towards the sea.  Tavares Bastos and adjacent Pedro América were carved out from the hills that were once quarries supplying stones for the Igreja da Glória and other Rio churches.  In the 19th century the quarry owners and members of the merchant class built large sobrados decorated with blue and white Portuguese tijolas and bungalow row-houses along Tavares Bastos where they lived side-by-side with their workers.  At the top of the hill the land owners maintained a chácara for cultivating food and escaping the heat and chaos of the streets below.  After World War II, as Rio’s population swelled, the hilltop area developed into a small favela.

Tavares Bastos’ architectural mix, now also punctuated with 20th century high rise apartment buildings, reflects a persistent socio-economically mixed demographic.  Today, in a microcosm of the larger city, middle class and poor families, artists, tourists and expat foreigners live side-by-side up and down Tavares Bastos.  I lived at the top of the hill, just below the entrance to the favela in a subdivided 19th century sobrado.  At the bottom, at the last curve before the cobblestones of Tavares Bastos meet the asphalt of Rua Bento Lisboa, is one of Rio’s last standing 19th century cortiços (beehive) boarding houses.  The narrow façade of the two-storey house, squeezed between another more modern and well-maintained house and a rock wall, is deceptive.  Pass through the dilapidated doors on the right and you will discover a third, subterranean level and a long walkway flanked by one-room apartments leading to an outdoor courtyard and communal toilet.  In this dim, decaying interior lived several dozen families, among them Matheus and his constant companions, his best friend Erick and Eric’s cousin Debora.

Six when I met him, Matheus was physically small yet mature for his age:  the lingering baby fat of his cheeks and belly contrasted sharply with his muscular strength and brash independence.  Erick was Matheus’ opposite in every respect.  A year older, he was tall and lean, his skin tanned and hair bleached from hours spent with Debora and Matheus at the nearby Praia do Flamengo.  While Matheus was a bundle of energy, unruly and disdainful of adult authority or affection, Erick was quiet and contemplative, ready to tuck his hand into mine as we walked down the street.  Debora was seventeen years old and despite a somewhat sour expression and badly cared-for teeth, possessed a lanky beauty.  She had dropped out of high school and, unemployed, spent her days looking after her younger siblings as well as Erick, whose mother was sick, and Matheus, whose single mother was burdened with nine young children.

On Tuesday and Thursday evenings, Matheus, Debora, Erick and I would cut over to Pedro América and walk up to the casarão, at the entrance to Santo Amaro, a slightly larger favela that sits at the top of a street with the same name and just below Santa Teresa.  Naldo, a graduado in ABADÁ at the time, had recently begun teaching classes for kids and teens from the community.  That Naldo had grown up and continued to live with his wife, young daughter, mother and grandmother in the community won the trust of local parents.  The growing popularity of his classes was measured by the expanding pile of multi-sized flip-flops abandoned in the doorway of the small community center during training.  There were as many if not more girls, anomalous for the early 2000s, but indicative of the growing acceptance of females in capoeira (and of Naldo’s good looks and charm which also kept the young mothers hanging around to watch class).

Matheus was Naldo’s most talented student.  His stocky strength and fearlessness – which quickly earned him his nickname – gave Tourinho a remarkably facility for mastering even the most difficult floreios.  Naldo could demonstrate an acrobatic move once and after a few attempts, pink tongue poking through his lips in concentration, Tourinho got it – shouting out “Look, I’m Naldo!”   It was not just Naldo’s capoeira game that Tourinho imitated, but also the posture and attitude of an older capoeirista.  He would swagger to class, shirt tucked into the top of his abadá, proudly displaying on his bare chest the beaded necklace I had given him from my trip to Angola, telling anyone who asked that it was from the “ancestral home” of capoeira.   He boasted of his rowdy, boyish exploits in the street, and (with Debora’s encouragement) of his many little girlfriends.

Naldo started taking Tourinho to Mestre Camisa’s monthly aulão which brings together all of Rio’s ABADÁ instructors and students to train together.  Everyone enjoyed watching and playing with Tourinho, and soon he was accepting invitations to batizados and performances around town; a pint-sized capoeirista with such skill in the roda was always a crowd-pleaser.  Tourinho would proudly show off the t-shirts he was given at these events, provide blow-by-blow accounts of the games and, like a baseball card collector reciting the stats of famous players, teach the other kids at the casarão the names and characteristics of his favorite capoeiristas.

For months before their first batizado – that important ceremony that would mark their formal induction into ABADÁ and the larger capoeira world – Naldo’s students speculated with great excitement as to which instructors would “baptize” them.   On the morning of the batizado, Erick and Tourinho waited impatiently for me outside their house, freshly bathed, abadá rolled and tightly bound with their corda crua, soon to be replaced with new student cords dyed yellow at the tips.  They ran ahead to the CIEP in Glória, where dozens of ABADÁ instructors and students (capoeiristas easily outnumbering audience members) were gathering.  The ceremony lasted several hours and included the presentation of cords and maculelê, puxa de rede and samba de roda performances which Naldo’s students had been practicing for weeks in advance.  For Tourinho, Erick and many of the young capoeiristas present, the batizado was the most important event of their short lives thus far.

Not all of Naldo’s students were as physically talented as Tourinho.  Erick, not as daring, struggled with the acrobatic movements.  I worried about him, always in Tourinho’s shadow and never achieving that air-borne sensation of the body in flight that so many young capoeiristas crave and delight in.  As one student told me, “capoeira is flying to the moon.”   But getting to the moon on capoeira can take many forms.  One day coming down Tavares Bastos I heard the melodic strains of a high-pitched berimbau.  Rounding the last curve, I saw Erick standing in front of his house, face raised to the sun, playing his heart out on a small berimbau.  Dente, a skilled capoeirista and instrument maker, had seen that Erick was drawn to the music – often hanging around after class to learn rhythms on the drum or awkwardly handle Naldo’s berimbau.  So, Dente had made Erick a child-size instrument.  Every day Erick practiced his berimbau, becoming more skilled and finding his own place in capoeira.

Debora also quietly developed as a capoeirista alongside her two male charges.  She was reluctant at first to train as she was much older and taller than the other students at the casarão.  But I eventually convinced her to try and she doggedly stuck with it, improving over time and shifting from her caretaker role to a capoeirista in her own right.  Debora’s mother had worried at first: “My daughter is already a brigona!” she told me.  It was true that Debora often displayed bruises and scratches, the telltale signs of fights with her brothers and other kids on the street.  But capoeira in the casarão did not incite aggression.   Rather, it provided the youth an alternative way to express with their bodies.  Often, I was impressed that rasteiras or martelos that met their mark  – something that in the street would have sparked a fight – were amicably accepted in the kids’ rodas.

Tourinho’s “I am Naldo!” verbalized a poignant desire I witnessed in many of the young capoeiristas I meet in favelas: the desire to become someone with skill and recognition.  As an older capoeirista who grew up on Rua Santo Amaro told me in an interview:

I practically lived in the streets. I was never home. One day I saw a street roda in the market in Glória and what made the biggest impression on me was seeing all these boys my size playing.  And I thought, I’ve got to do this.  Because someone arrives and you don’t know who he is, he’s nobody.  And then he jumps in the roda and starts to play and you see him in a totally different light – you know then that he is respected.  And I wanted that as well – respect where I lived.  My neighborhood has a lot of poverty and crime.  And a lot of adolescents chose a path of crime.  Capoeira gave me a different direction.

Naldo was very aware not only of Tourinho’s potential, but of his own responsibility towards the young capoeirista:  “He wants to be just like me so I have to be careful about how I behave.  Sometimes he tells people I’m his dad and I go along with it because I want to be involved in his life, not just in capoeira.”  When Naldo discovered Tourinho was acting out in school, he showed up in his classroom one day, much to Tourinho’s astonishment, to talk to his teacher; later Naldo rewarded his protégé for improved behavior with new school supplies.

But Naldo also noted, not without some pride, that Tourinho had something within him that made him a capoeirista no matter what: “Tourinho is the essence of capoeira.  Capoeira is in his blood.  Even if he stops training tomorrow, he will always be a capoeirista.”   While seeming to naturalize Tourinho’s knack for capoeira, Naldo also astutely recognized that it is the environment that children like Tourinho grow up in that make them into capoeiristas: “kids in the community have no limits.  They are always having to overcome barriers and adapt to new circumstances.  So, if you give them a little reassurance, they learn quickly.”  Ironically, having “no limits” comes from growing up in an environment with limited resources.  When the only playgrounds are the streets where soccer is played barefoot and kites flown from rooftops, kids develop daring and physical dexterity.  When resources are scarce – sometimes no more than a kite or a sense of self-worth – kids develop daring and creativity (and at times malandragem and aggression) to hold on to what is theirs.  These activities foster resourcefulness and self-reliance, necessary survival skills in precarious life conditions.  Capoeira also cultivates these attributes, but with a sense of grace, beauty, freedom and camaraderie.

In the end, perhaps capoeira came too easily for Tourinho.  He may have identified with it, but he never developed compromisso, that important next step in a capoeirista’s journey.  In 2015 I sadly learned via Facebook that Tourinho had died.  Apparently, capoeira had not been a strong enough force in his young life.  As a teenager, he felt the pull of drug trafficking.  Naldo, still teaching and respected in Santo Amaro, approached the traffickers in the community and asked them to prohibit Tourinho from getting involved.  He had potential as a capoeirista.  They obliged.  But when Tourinho moved with his family to another community, where perhaps once again he felt like a “nobody,” there was no one stopping him.  Eventually he was arrested and sent to prison where, under uncertain circumstance, he died.

What was it about Tourinho that prevented him from committing to capoeira?  Why didn’t he pursue his childhood dream, as he often told me, of one day becoming an instructor “just like Naldo”?  Was Tourinho too much “the essence of capoeira”?  Too rebellious?  Or did capoeira fail to challenge him enough to keep reaching for the next goal.  Perhaps he learned too young to fly too high, and like Icarus who flew too close to the sun with his waxed wings, fell too soon.

Matheus Bernardo (07/13/1995 – 05/04/2015) Rest in Peace.

Author’s Bio: Katya Wesolowski (Camarão) is a lecturing fellow in Cultural Anthropology and Dance at Duke University in the United States.  She is currently working on an ethnographic memoir of more than twenty years playing, researching and now teaching capoeira.  Her previous publications include “Professionalizing Capoeira: The Politics of Play in Twenty-first-Century Brazil.” (Latin American Perspectives. Volume 39, Issue 2, 2012); “From ‘Moral Disease’ to ‘National Sport’: Race, Nation and Capoeira in Brazil.” (In Sports Culture in Latin American History, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015).  And forthcoming, “Imagining Brazil in Africa: capoeira’s transatlantic roots and routes” (In Capoeira and Globalization: Interdisciplinary Studies of an Afro-Brazilian Cultural Form. Cambridge University Press) and “Baile Funk and Kuduro: (dis)articulations of national belonging in Brazil and Angola” (In Dancing the African Diaspora: Theories of Black Performance in Motion. Duke University Press).  This piece draws from her dissertation, “Hard Play: capoeira and the politics of inequality in Rio de Janeiro” (Columbia University, 2007), research for which was supported by the Wenner-Gren Foundation.