The only thing more painful than growing up as an undocumented immigrant, was finding myself — my true self — as a mixed girl with nurturing of only one of those elements. It’s not lost on me that as a child, being in public places with a white woman by my side allowed me to feel safer and treated much more respectfully than if I’d been with a black woman. Both in Brazil and in America, lighter shades are considered more attractive and less threatening, and are even fetishized. I also know that many of the opportunities that I was afforded, even as an undocumented immigrant, was because of my mom’s whiteness. Privileges like renting a house in the neighborhood of a suburban, pre-dominantly white high school. The only time that I experienced any discrimination was when my mom was not present, and it was not known that my mom was white. When that happened, I did not have an understanding shoulder to cry on — only gaslighting.
Discrimination was a completely new concept to me when I started my life in America. Race did not mean anything to me before I immigrated, and racism was completely unknown. When I started school in America, was when I learned about the civil rights movement, and was introduced to the concept of race as a human condition effecting quality of life. I wrote in my diary: “Eu acho que não deveria ter este negocio de cor. Eu falo assim porque sou a metade. Alguns falam que eu sou negra, mas minha mãe fala que eu sou branca. As pessoas daqui são coloristas. // I think that there shouldn’t be this color thing. I say this because I am half. Some people say that I am black, but my mom says I am white. The people here are colorists.” Literally, I felt with a degree of certainty that perceptions of race are subjective, unknowingly regurgitating the beliefs held about race, as explained in my piece about race relations in Brazil. It was so subjective, that I thought it was a waste and wrong to talk about race. That changed over time as I experienced overt acts of racism for the first time, in America.
Post-immigration, nine year old me, wanted badly to self-identify with both races. But that little girl in Rio De Janeiro, listening to Daniela Mercury knew nothing of race identity and yet felt such a strong connection with the album Sol Da Liberdade and in particular the song, Ile Pérola Negra (literally: Black Pearl Island, figuratively: the Black chant), one of the most played songs on Brazilian radio. A song praising Afro-Brazilian culture, specifically the culture of Bahia. As the sounds of tribal drums and Daniela Mercury’s powerful voice sang, she could feel that enigmatic thing they call black girl magic coursing through her veins. As that little girl heard, “tu é o mais belos dos belos, traspàs riqueza. Tem um brilho tam forte, por isso te chamo de perola negra” // your beauty is the most beautiful, it surpasses riches. Your luster shines bright, that’s why I call you black pearl”), somehow she imagined something similar to the actual imagery in the song’s music video. Imagery of warrior black men dancing Capoeira, a form of practicing martial art that slaves created to defend themselves, and black women in beautiful white dresses and head-wraps using interpretive dance to call on Lemanja, the Goddess of the sea to bless them all. In the song, Crença e Fé (Belief and Faith) she sings, “o negro não desiste, ele só persiste em sobreviver // the black person doesn’t give up, they persist in surviving” capturing the essence of living as a person of color.
Her albums are a celebration of Afro-Brazilian identity, with an empowering message of pride and not of oppression. The culture she sings about, Candomblé, is arguably the only aspect of Brazil that hasn’t been commercialized internationally. I’d heard references to Bahia and Bahianas when I was younger, but I knew nothing of their legacy’s ties to slavery. All I saw was an artist shining a light on the most authentic and organic Brazilian culture phenomenon.
That made my admiration for Daniela Mercury unreal. From everything that I have seen in her social media presence, I think she is a beautiful human being. Though I now have mixed feelings about her artistry. I thought she must have been a mixed-race woman, to have such a strong command of Afro-Brazilian culture. Looking at her, I thought, she must be on the lighter side of the mixed spectrum, much like Mariah Carey. Born to a Portuguese father and an Italian mother, somehow she was able to become Brazil’s biggest star in the last 30 years by appropriating black culture for her brand — which just goes to show how seamlessly appropriation can occur in Brazil. On the other hand, it could be said that she uses her white privilege to at least portray Candomblé, a culture she grew up with as a native of Salvador de Bahia, in a positive light. As a practicer of Candomblé and UNICEF ambassador, she has done a lot of good. However, only years of therapy would show the effects on my soul of so much admiration for a white woman. It would be amplified by everything I was exposed to and experienced in America.
The message that I received in America was that my one blessing in life was being half white, and I spent my youth trying to act and look as white as possible, but never feeling like I met that mark of whiteness. While feeling like I was failing, I have always felt like the black sheep of my family. Even when I tried to identify with black women to fit in with other brown and black girls, I felt like I was falling short from not having that upbringing. My hair has been a reflection of internalized racism and disconnect with my most authentic self. It turned into body dysmorphia and a diagnosis of OCD. It started with chemically straightening the roots, and using heat tools to flatten it weekly, so that something on my body would resemble whiteness. Later, I used hair extensions to layer someone else’s real straight hair on top of my seemingly straight hair, to make it look more real. At some point, I was losing so much hair from the damage, so I decided a wig was the solution. The problem then was that months of daily use stopped me from caring for my real hair. I actually forgot that it was there. One day, as I could no longer run my hands through it, I spent an hour detangling it in the shower. Looking down, I realized the tub was covered with it. The fantasy was shattered, and all sorts of emotions hit me at once. How did this happen? What did I do? Why did I do this? What do I do now? What does this mean for the fantasy that I live in? Am I going to be bald? Would it be easier to chop it all off? Confusion. Embarrassment. Shame. Fear. No one to help me through it.
Since then, real happiness has only come from learning to live with my natural hair. It has been a frustrating on and off, love/hate relationship, because I did not have someone in my family to teach me. When I failed to maintain my curls, I felt ugly and it was tempting to revert to the easier method of upkeep— the one that I had to set aside hours each week for, the one that made me afraid of getting wet to maintain, the one which looked dull and forced comparisons to whiteness in my mind, and that at the end of the day only served to make white people more comfortable with my presence as a person of color. I had to understand that it would take time to reverse the decades of damage done to it. When I finally learned to activate and then to preserve my curls, I realized I loved them, and it increased how much I loved myself. When you learn to love your qualities, it makes caring for yourself that much easier. It unlocks a fighting spirit and confidence that makes you unstoppable. It took finally going back to Brazil for me to appreciate my curly hair. I took notice of all of the mixed and black girls beautifully wearing their hair curly. In a practical sense, it doesn’t make much sense to get a blowout when going to the beach or the pool is part of your daily lifestyle. I’ve noticed that learning to manage my curls has made my life easier. I’m no longer afraid of the rain. I no longer plan my life around the wash days. Like the curls I saw in Brazil, my curls now look shiny and strong, healthy. This mindset shift has made me feel connected to the part of my culture that the music video portrays, the celebration of African roots. Now, my curls are a part of my identity. When you think about it, that’s exactly what the oppressors have never wanted for us. Feeling the oppression and fighting through it, having pride in that resistance, that is black girl magic. Now, it runs through my veins constantly.