“Pocho Boy Meets World” is a Latinx poetry column written by California poet, Alan Chazaro. The son of Mexican immigrants, he is leaving his home and teaching job in Oakland to pursue living in South America and Mexico for the next year. For each destination, Pocho Boy will search for emerging and iconic Latinx voices to read, while documenting the textures, histories, and influences of each poet’s hometown region. Join him as he eats his share of quesadillas and uses broken Spanish in hopes of connecting more deeply with what it means to be a U.S. Latinx writer in Latin America.
Vol. 5: In Brazil, Pocho Boy Enters Basements & Translates Japanese-Brazilian Poetry
Where to begin with Brazil? Can I write about being there without mentioning the museums and galleries full of young, vibrant artists who toured me around their colorful cities? Or the crazy parties and beach life that kept us all up until the sun came out on a Tuesday morning? Or the constant warnings and alerts I’d heard from others about the robberies and killings I was sure to witness there? Or the healthy and delicious island-inspired food and cocktails at cheap prices? Or the non-stop music and dancing in the streets with strangers? Or the soccer history and fans with flags half the size of stadiums? Or the hikes and bike rides up steep mountain paths? Surely, there’s a lot to riff on after exploring around the Southern Hemisphere’s biggest country, but since this is an investigation of poets and their unique identities, I’ll stick to what I found in the basement of a cultural center in an unexpected library hidden deep inside São Paulo.
As a foreigner, you probably have a certain perception of Brazil. I know I did. Some of it may be true, but I found that most of what I expected regarding the country was exceeded and shattered—as it always is when you travel abroad. For starters, Brazil is an ultra-diverse nation, in every sense, perhaps competing only with the U.S. for the sheer amount of variety you’ll find. In São Paulo, for example—the largest, most populous city in the entire globe anywhere south of the equator—the income inequality is so drastic and varied that some residents ride public buses for four hours from the outer favelas into the center for work, while others ride helicopters across downtown for their business meetings (the city has more helipads than any other place worldwide because of all the millionaire residents). In terms of skin tones, there is no singular definition or image of a Brazilian, which means that I was mistaken for being a local (and I look more Middle Eastern than anything) just as much as my wife (who is a white-passing Latina)—the only country in which we were both regularly perceived as being natives. But more than having a fleet of helicopters in the sky at all hours and getting a pass from the locals as being one of them, perhaps the most surprising detail from my time in Brazil—particularly in the southern region—is that it hides the largest Japanese population anywhere outside of Japan. This may seem ignorant of me, but, have you ever met a Japanese person who spoke fluent Portuguese then switched over to English or Japanese while wearing a Neymar jersey in a hipster bar with a group of Afro-Brazilians? Up until then, I hadn’t. And because I’m fascinated by first-generation and immigrant identities, I wanted to learn more.
I quickly discovered that one of the neighborhoods in the capital of São Paulo is essentially a replica of Tokyo, with little alleys, Japanese architecture, manga and anime shops, food stalls, gardens, modern high-rises, temples, arched bridges, community centers, ramen shops, and 100% Japanese-speaking Brazilian residents—many of whom don’t even speak Portuguese. The district is known as Liberdade, or Liberty, and includes a mix of first-generation adults, but also many second- and third-generation youth, making for an interesting swirl of cultures and histories. It was truly unlike anywhere else I’d ever visited in Latin America—in which you’ll rarely find a dominant community of outsiders with such a clear and distinct influence on the city’s architecture and lifestyle—except Lima, Peru, which has a noticeably large and long-standing Chinese presence in the center of the city as well; but that’s perhaps a story for another time.
So, when I first crossed that bridge into Liberdade—an island floating above a tangle of cosmopolitan streets below—I felt like I stumbled into a world within a world, and I was determined to find whatever poetry I could that was born from this blend of faraway places. I started at the local museum, which explained how Japan signed a treaty with Brazil at the beginning of the 20th-century to boost labor in Brazil’s coffee fields. Since the Brazilian labor force was struggling, and the U.S. had stricter immigration laws, many Japanese workers decided to cross two oceans to land in South America instead. This unpredictable tide of history turned Japanese newcomers into an underclass of field-hands in Brazil’s southern countryside, helping to replace a void left by war and the end of slavery. Over the years, many poorly paid Japanese families mobilized and moved into the cities for better opportunities; large communities were established in urban areas to the south, where they have remained ever since. Having deeply integrated into Brazil’s social and economic fabric, generations of Nikkei Burajiru-jin, or Nipo-brasileiros (Japanese-Brazilians) have been born.
I asked—as always—those who could field my questions about this group, particularly about their literary presence in the city. Though 99% of those I spoke with were completely unable to assist me in my search, everyone seemed intrigued about Nipo-brasileiros poetry. Even those at the city’s main Japanese heritage center in downtown seemed caught off guard but were highly interested and supportive of my quest. I went nowhere for days. Finally, after asking around various book shops in and around Liberdade and other parts of the city, I found a place inside of a place inside of a place where I was told someone might have an answer. I literally had to go underground in a further-out cultural center and snake my way around the bottom of the building, past abandoned rooms, to eventually come back up another flight of stairs which led to an otherwise deserted library overlooking an empty parking lot. After weeks of searching, I’d found my jackpot.
Since no one there really spoke English or Spanish, we communicated just enough for me to explain my purpose. Thankfully, a younger Brasilian appeared (the only non-Japanese volunteer in the center, who was studying the subject for his PhD) and took me to a back room, where he told me to wait, and soon after brought me a small stack of books from the impressively organized archives of Brazilian literature written by Japanese authors. Many of the books weren’t what I was actually looking for, but one caught my attention: Jipanko Brasiliense by Simone Katsuren Nakasato. It was exactly what I had been burning calories running around the massive, traffic-clogged heart of the city looking for. Victory. But then, another obstacle—I couldn’t borrow the book from the archives, so I had to attempt to translate a handful of poems on the spot to get a sense of what this elusive subject was about. Here’s what I was able to scrap together (apologies to the Portuguese and Japanese-speaking communities if any of this came out butchered). I should note that each poem has a Japanese version, but I am unable to replicate it on the page. The Portugese version always precedes the Japanese, perhaps suggesting the author’s stronger relationship to current location over heritage, though strongly maintaining a sense of both in her “soul.”
The opening poem, a two-liner titled “Esclarecimento” (“Clarification”) establishes: “O que é um imigrante? / Visão dupla em um ser de uma alma sozinha?” (“What is an immigrant? / Double vision in one soul?”). Though not much to work with, the tone does establish a positive sense of self: of addition, rather than subtraction; the speaker, instead of being blinded by contrasting sides, is given more clarity about her wholeness, a “double vision.” The fact that this is the first poem in the collection and presents the speaker’s duality by asking two questions also speaks to the inescapable conflict for those of us who carry a tongue that is apart from our body, a language and history that doesn’t match our skin and blood—and how this never-ending interrogation is buried at the core of our being. For many of us who are children of immigrants, poetry is the place where we go to resolve our confusion and write our other selves into existence, asking questions rather than declaring truths, becoming whole by embracing our fragmented identities.
But she expands beyond the self. In a later poem, “Ao Brasil” (“To Brazil”), the speaker takes on a larger, more political and nationalistic voice by declaring: “Queremos un sonhado / almejado / e clamado / Ecossistema cultural…. Produzir pela inumerável, / constante e infinita / ação de todos os brasileiros… Fortuito país de povo e le povos” (“We want a dreamed / desired / and claimed / Cultural ecosystem… Produced by the innumerable, constant and infinite / action of all Brazilians… [a] Fortuitous country of people and peoples”). Here, I am reminded of Brazil’s greatest beauty—the diversity and range of the nation’s “people and peoples.” This poem is the verbalization of walking in Rio de Janeiro on a weekend evening among the glamorous masses, of going further north to humble towns and eating Feijoada, of seeing a shirtless child kicking a ball across a dirt yard in front of a house with no windows. Of poets, like Simone Katsuren Nakasato, a Nikkei Burajiru-jin born in Campo Grande, learning how to sing and dance in new worlds. Of the “constant and infinite” forms of identities that are writing from unexpected regions throughout Latin America. Of shattering stereotypes and bending binaries in order to create a healthier and more sustainable “cultural ecosystem” on our planet. Nakasato’s voice literally represents her people—it’s her way of taking “action” as a Brazilian for an overlooked population during an overlooked chapter of world history—thus increasing her community’s visibility and narrative. And yet, her voice highlights the simple truth of immigrants everywhere: the struggle to define the self when caught between conflicting and merging cultures (and I can’t imagine two cultures more apart than Brazil and Japan).
From the few works I was able to translate, I wondered more than ever: How come it was so difficult—in such a modern, cosmopolitan city—to find out about this group’s poetry, and what can be done to bring more poets from this community to the forefront of a national or even international conversation? Whose voices do we value in our society and why? And what can we gain from going out of our way to learn about mapping new “cultural ecosystems”? As always, I am left without answers, but open to the adventure of discovery.