Happy Birthday/Parabens para Marshall

Yesterday I celebrated my 57th birthday.  There is something about celebrating anniversaries—especially anniversaries of the day of our birth—that moves us to reflect on where we have been and where we are going.   The opportunity to spend this year in Brazil has led me to think a great deal about how much this country has been a part of my life–and for so long.  I got started in Latin American studies by doing public health work in the highlands of Guatemala during the summer between my junior and senior years in high school (1970).  While an undergraduate at the University of Kansas, I went off to the Universidad de Costa Rica as an exchange student for three semesters (1973-74).  Only after I had spent a good deal of time in Central America, and after I had learned to speak Spanish, did I eventually develop my focus on Brazil and begin to learn Portuguese–the most beautiful language in the world.

Marshall trying to play soccer in Turrialba, Costa Rica (1973)

I first began to study Brazil with some purpose and direction when I was in my first year in graduate school, at the age of 21.  As I mentioned in an earlier post many weeks ago, I first arrived in Brazil just over thirty years ago, in August 1979.  A few months later, I celebrated my 27th birthday.  I have now been studying and writing about this amazing country for nearly all of my adult life—for nearly four decades.

Although I have traveled across nearly all of North, Central, and South America, and parts of the Caribbean, most of my travels and serious study, and certainly the majority of my writing, have been about Brazil.  Although I know more about Brazilian history than most Brazilians, I will never be Brazilian.  I have written and reflected systematically on Brazilian culture for close to forty years, but I will never have the intimate knowledge and feel for Brazilian culture that a Brazilian has by virtue of his/her place of birth and upbringing.  Even if I spend another couple of decades observing and writing about this country, I will always remain an outsider (although a very well informed one, I hope).

By accident of birth, I spent nearly all of the first 18 years of my life in East Texas, on the western fringe of the U.S. South.  I have lived in the U.S. South for most of my life—for the first 18 years, and for the last 27, or some 45 of my 57 years on this planet.  For as much as I have always felt out of place and out of sync in my own society, it is the one place in the world that I feel least out of place.  Although I have not lived in Texas for nearly fifty years, I still deeply identify with my home state, and I have an insider’s feel for the place that a Brazilian could never achieve, even if s/he studied Texas for as long as I have studied Brazil.  I will always be a Texan, and a Southerner, just as the visiting Brazilian scholar would always remain an outsider in Texas (and the South), even if an exceptionally informed and astute one.

All this is to say, that when I write about Brazil I have to face my limitations—as someone who was not born and reared here, and as an outsider with a very deep and thorough (but ultimately limited) knowledge of Brazilian culture and society.  I write with a certain authority, but also with humility—the authority of the knowledgeable observer and the humility of the outsider.  Ultimately, I hope that Brazilians who read my work about their country appreciate my love and appreciation for Brazil, and understand that I do not seek to claim insider omniscience, but rather the informed sensitivity of the participant observer.  I am a sort of anthropologist and I periodically live among my “people”–the Brazilians.  I can never go completely native, but then, when I go back to my own people, I can never be just a Texan or a Southerner.  I am richer for having lived in both worlds, and having been out of place in each.

Marshall and his older daughter, Lee, on Corcovado

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One Response to “Happy Birthday/Parabens para Marshall”

  1. Blair Says:

    Happy Birthday Brother,your daughter has grown to be a beautiful woman.Enjoying your blog

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