News Story

From Brazil to Georgetown

November 12, 2012—Originally from Minas Gerais, Brazil, Associate Professor Vivaldo Santos incorporates a passion for his homeland into his research on culture, economics, and philosophy.

Santos, who also serves as director of the Portuguese program, has been a faculty member in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese since 1999. Although he is “interested in everything,” he primarily researches Brazilian literature, cinema, and popular music, with a special focus on Latin American avant-garde poetry.

A native speaker of Portuguese, Santos did not learn how to speak Spanish until he moved to the United States to complete a master’s degree in Portuguese. After studying in New Mexico and California, he realized how disconnected the Spanish and Portuguese cultures are in academia.

“When I was hired here at Georgetown to teach, it was because I was very interested in bridging between Brazil and Spanish America, because there is not much dialogue. They are similar but different, and it’s important to integrate—to look at Brazil but also to look at all the other Spanish American countries,” Santos explained.

“When I have a chance, I teach Portuguese language here [and] Brazilian literature and culture. But, sometimes, I teach classes on Brazil in Spanish for the graduate students. This semester, for example, [I’m teaching] a survey of Brazilian literature, but two students do not speak Portuguese,” he said. “So, it’s kind of combining Spanish and Portuguese.”

But while Spanish culture and language are widespread in the United States, academically and socially, Portuguese has yet to catch on. Two years ago, Santos created the Portuguese for Heritage Speakers Program to help the language succeed internationally.

Working through the Brazilian consulate, Santos partnered with an organization in Virginia to design a program that formally trains teachers from across the country in nonprofit workshops. The curriculum focuses on the “ethnographic” challenges that arise when Americanized students are immersed in a language for the first time, even if they are ancestrally connected to that language.

“It involves a lot of questions about why [the kids] want to speak Portuguese, questions of self-esteem, because some of them don’t want to speak Portuguese because they’re ashamed of the language, [while] some really embrace it because they have relatives in Brazil,” Santos said. “It involves a lot of social issues, cultural issues, identity issues [that] you have to attack from different angles.

“You need psychological support [and] anthropological support, so it’s very complex,” he continued. “It requires more of you as a researcher.”

Away from the program, Santos addresses some of these issues in his recently published children’s book, O rato que roeu a roupa do rei, which is based on a Portuguese tongue-twister that translates literally as, “The mouse that gnawed the king’s clothes.” The story—which is now a hit in South America—is about a gluttonous king and a subversive mouse.

When he was invited to read his story to children at a school in his hometown in Minas Gerais, Santos discovered that, like his research, it was helping people to relate to each other across sociocultural boundaries.

During his visit, the young students re-enacted the plot for him, dressing up as different characters. Santos was, ultimately, gladdened and encouraged: The children, from many different backgrounds, elected an Afro-Brazilian classmate to portray the powerful king.

“[The students] are whites and blacks and mestizos and mulattos. But they discussed it and, in the end, they picked the [Afro-Brazilian] boy, David [to play the king],” he said. “It was very unique and interesting to make them think among themselves, ‘Of course, there can be African kings in Brazil,’ as we do have a major population of African descendants.”

In research and in life, Santos takes cues from famous Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, who expressed that the key to a good life is a good education—and that the key to a good education is a good teacher.

“We have to be very aware of what we do as teachers or professors—to work with the community and also to work with the students here at Georgetown,” Santos said. “I like knowing about the students and what their interests are. I try to learn from them, too.”

—Brittany Coombs