Colorful festival highlights Brazilian culture

By Julian Wise - April 6, 2006

Preparing for next weeks Brazil Fest at the Oak Bluffs School are (from left) Kenia Rodrigues, Rebecca Barbosa, Paola Maiesky, Layane Santos, Spanish teacher Rebecca Geary, Fernanda Silva, and Gleyzielle Rodrigues.

For two days in April the Oak Bluffs School will be transported to Brazil as students and staff members host Brazil Fest, a series of activities and learning experiences designed to introduce North American students to Brazilian life. From food and sports to music and fashion, numerous facets of the South American culture will be brought to life. The desired end result is a greater understanding in the educational community of the richness and beauty of the Island's primary minority culture.

The list of in-school activities for students on April 13 and 14 is dazzling. Students will make masks, witness computer presentations about the Amazon, create rain forest murals, play soccer, enjoy puppet shows, learn Brazilian percussion with musician Rick Bausman, perform traditional folk tales with theater teacher Phyllis Vecchia, learn to dance samba and capoeira, sing traditional Brazilian songs, witness a fashion show, enjoy Brazilian food, and take language lessons.

The activities will extend beyond the school to the Oak Bluffs community at large, as Seasons offers Brazilian specials on April 13 and Offshore Ale does the same on April 14. The teen center of Pequot Avenue will host a DJ Dance Party with Brazilian music Friday evening. The Oak Bluffs and Tisbury libraries will highlight Brazilian stories and informational books.

Oak Bluffs School Spanish teacher Rebecca Geary, one of the principal planners behind the event, says the inspiration for the festival came early last winter when one of the school's Brazilian students reported hearing derogatory comments from North American peers. "One of the students mentioned in the fall that nobody understood Brazilian culture," Ms. Geary says.

Ms. Geary gathered a core group of Brazilian junior high students to plan the festival. By working closely with ESL coordinators Rae Carter and Deborah Hart, Tisbury School Spanish teacher Kori Thomas (who plans a similar event at the Tisbury School later this spring), and the YMCA, Ms. Geary and the students crafted a diverse and rich festival.

For the Brazilian students, the festival is an opportunity to create greater understanding among their peers about their native culture. Oak Bluffs 8th grader Kenia Rodrigues recalls a less-than-warm reception from her classmates upon her arrival a year and a half ago when her language skills were less developed. "The first day I was in school they would say, 'Oh my god, she's Brazilian, one more Brazilian in my class, that's not fair...' They were so mean, sometimes they would talk, thinking I wasn't understanding. It's easy to understand the people at first, but it's hard to talk in English."

Sixth-grader Rebecca Tenorio recalls preparing her fifth-grade class for the arrival of her peer Mariane Quintao, who arrived speaking little English. Ms. Tenorio, already fluent in English, was able to act as a bridge for Ms. Quintao. "The other kids, I told them not to be mean because it hurts people's feelings. When she came everyone was nice to her."

Seventh-grader Gleyzielle Rodrigues says most Brazilian students who arrive with limited English proficiency encounter varying degrees of respect from their peers, but are often treated kindly by their teachers. The adjustment to American schooling grows easier as English skills improve. "Now that we know how to speak English, it's weird because when we go to Brazil, you start speaking Portuguese, but by accident you catch yourself speaking English," Ms. Rodrigues says.

All of these Brazilian students speak with pride of their native culture. "Brazilians are happy people," says Ms. Silva. "They always are with each other, they are really helpful with others."

All of the students interviewed described the difficulties their parents encounter interacting with their new culture, primarily because of language differences. ESL coordinator Deb Hart says one goal of the festival is to increase Brazilian parents' involvement in the schools. To achieve this aim, translators will be on site throughout the festival.

"This festival is an opportunity for our school communities to join with the Island's Brazilian community in celebration of their culture and heritage," Ms. Hart says. "I'm sure that increasing our knowledge and understanding of our Brazilian neighbors will increase our appreciation of all they have to offer our greater Island community.

Superintendent of Vineyard schools James Weiss praises the festival as a way of both celebrating Brazilian culture and informing the larger community about Brazil. "We are attempting to ensure that Brazilian members of our Island community feel welcome in our schools," he says.

As she and the students prepare the final touches for the festival, Ms. Geary says the goals for the event are both modest and ambitious. "My hope is that students will learn even one thing about the Brazilian culture by the end of it and will have a greater appreciation for the people who live here who are originally from Brazil. I hope that one day it will spread out to other cultures and we can learn about everyone's heritage."

Julian Wise is a frequent contributor to The Times, specializing in music, film, and the performing arts.