Friday, September 11, 2015

On September 7: An Independence Day Parade and Scouting in Brazil

On September 7, my son Jack and I marched with the Scouts during the Independence Day here in Juiz de Fora. It might not seem like much, but both of us were excited. It was Jack’s first time marching in a parade of any kind and my first in well over 40 years. So why on earth would this event turn into a blog post? Well, there are a lot of reasons, all of them very personal, very much mine. It was special to me because I am not yet a Brazilian. Almost, but not yet. I’ve applied for citizenship and, hopefully, it will be granted in about a year.

 This was a civic celebration, a patriotic one by definition. As someone who has been heavily innoculated by the excesses of mindless, knee-jerk attitudes that are passed off as patriotism in the US, to discover that patriotism can be a force of good is a pleasant surprise. Brazilians, like Americans, love their country. Unlike Americans, however, they feel free to recognize its failings. Back home, to criticize our country for any reason, no matter how legitimate, is often taken as an attack on the country itself.

So, what is the difference between American patriotism and Brazilian patriotism? A lot, from where I see it. And, as an almost Brazilian, I have thought about this frequently. In fact, I thought about it while marching down Juiz de Fora’s principal avenue. I was very aware that I might well have been the only non-Brazilian in the parade. I’m the only foreigner in my Scout group and I know of no others in our city. When I took my Scouting promise, mine was different than the one Brazilians take. They promise to do their duty “to God and my country.” As a non-citizen becoming a Brazilian Scout Leader, that promise was “to God, to my country, and to Brazil”. Brazilians are non-exclusive. You don’t have to turn your back on who you are to become a Brazilian. You can be both. No one expects me to quit being an American just because I immigrated to Brazil. And when I become a citizen? It won’t make any difference. For Brazilians, I will be Brazilian. Period. That I also have another identity is not important. It is recognized as being part of who I am.

Anyone who seriously looks at how immigrants are received and viewed in the United States knows that this is not the case there. My oldest daughter Georgia, born in Brazil, is also a natural born citizen because of me. When she was a teenager, upon crossing the US border after a few day trips into Mexico with my wife Rosangela, she was repeatedly questioned about how she acquired US citizenship. She was interrogated far more than my wife, her stepmother, who was a legal resident of the US, not a citizen. Even when immigrants naturalize in the US, they are still all too frequently viewed as foreigners.  In Brazil, we’re just Brazilians. In fact, I have been called a Brazilian and have been cited as a citizen simply because of my attitudes, for doing what is right, for doing what should be my civic duty. Brazilians notice – and are pleased – when they realize that I say “we” when speaking of this country. I’ve seen and heard too many examples of Americans questioning immigrants, even after being naturalized, for using that inclusive word “we”.

We need look no further than Donald Trump’s strident rhetoric to further illustrate this. If that isn’t enough, there is always history. We can start with the mass detention and internment of Japanese and Japanese-Americans during World War II in the name of “national security”. (Sound familiar?) Don’t forget that the latter, including George Takei and the late US Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, were all US citizens.  Need more: how about the euphemistically called “Mexican Repatriation” recently featured in a story on NPR (“Mass Deportation May Sound Unlikely, But It's Happened Before”, September 8, 2015). Up to two million “Mexicans” were deported, the vast majority without the benefit of due process. It is estimated that 60 percent of them were actually US citizens. Do you want more up-to-date examples: how about all of the rhetoric surrounding those Central American refugees, many of whom are unaccompanied minors, crossing our southern border? Or our stinginess regarding today’s refugees from the horrors now engulfing Syria and Iraq? Lest we forget, our nation is largely responsible for the ongoing chaos in both of those regions. I could go on. Our reception of different waves of refugees and immigrants has always been hostile. What about the 1939 “Voyage of the Damned”, when over 900 Jewish refugees from Germany on board the MS St. Louis were denied entry into the US, after being turned away from Cuba? Forced to return to Europe, as many as a quarter of them would perish in the Holocaust. Irish and Italians immigrants were seen as threats to“American values” for the longest of times. And then there is our historical penchant for renaming things when other nations displease us. Do you want some “Freedom fries” with that? Or a big bowl of “I Hate the French” vanilla ice cream? Does “Liberty cabbage” ring a bell?

To counter this, to show you what Brazil is, does and thinks, let me offer this. The following link is to a musical video in which 50 refugees from 12 different countries collaborated. They are singing their thanks to this country for opening its arms and welcoming them. It expresses my feelings about my adopted country in a way that is far more beautiful and far more moving than anything I am capable of. This immigrant agrees wholeheartedly with those refugees:

(This is a short, minute-and-a-half cut. The video caption contains a link to the full video and an accompanying story in Portuguese. It is well worth watching, even without understanding the language. Just make sure you have a handkerchief or Kleenex handy.)

And so how does Scouting figure into all of this? Like anything else, Scouting reflects the society  into which it has been inserted. The Boy Scouts of America is a reflection of American society. It historically has been xenophobic and homophobic. This is one of the main reasons I was reticent when my son, Jack, initially became interested in becoming a Cub Scout. That reticence reflected my own exposure to Scouting in the US, not in Brazil. Since his Cub Scout pack required an adult to be present during his first four meetings, I began attending. They tell you that they want you there in case your child has trouble adjusting to the program. I suspect, though, that they have ulterior motives. They want you involved, too. I began to see and experience what I cannot call anything other than Brazilian inclusiveness in the Scouts. That was not really what I was expecting. When I followed my son in and became a Scout Leader, this foreign Muslim was openly welcomed by our group, Scouting Group 72, Liz do Amanhã. It was founded by a Catholic priest 25 years ago and features a chalice and communion wafer on the group neckerchief. You can’t get more Catholic than that. Nevertheless, at the first encampment we attended, I was asked to give a Muslim prayer. And, as for homophobia, there is none. Period. Our training literature does not encourage us to foster the acceptance of Scouts’ sexual preference in all of its diversity, it commands us to do so. I have witnessed adult Scout Leaders here campaigning against changing the definition of family in the Brazilian family code to include homophobic, non-inclusive language. And when the US Supreme Court recently made its historic ruling in favor of marriage equality, some of the most vocal celebrants I saw in Brazil were Scouts and Scout Leaders. Contrast that with the BSA, which is being dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st Century only under the threat of being forced to do so by US Federal Courts as they correctly interpret the Constitution and supporting federal laws.

I have interacted with Scouts of all ages and Scout leaders of all kinds. The rainbow quality of our group, like all of Brazil, is not for show. All races and many diverse religions are present – and no one seems to notice. That’s just how Brazilians are. And religion? I answered that above. It’s the same.

So next year, Jack and I will once again march in the Independence Parade as Scouts. Maybe, by then, I will even be a citizen.