By Katy Watson Sao Paulo, Brazil
Brazil is the only country in Latin America where the culture and language are inherited from Portugal rather than Spain – visitors forget this at their peril.
A few weeks after I moved to Brazil, I was on the phone to my father when he asked me how I was enjoying the tacos. I couldn’t help getting annoyed and shot back: “Tacos are Mexican, dad, and I live in Brazil.”
Pao de queijo – delicious bread balls stuffed with gooey cheese that you have for breakfast with a strong coffee – is the quintessential Brazilian food, but there seemed little point in going over the detail with my father.
It made me realise, though, that this sort of conversation was not alien to Brazilians, people here get it all the time.
The song that was written to open the World Cup last year was a case in point. We Are One was a catchy tune meant to unite the world ahead of the beautiful game – only it didn’t, because the principal singers were Pitbull, a Cuban-American rapper, and Jennifer Lopez, whose family is Puerto Rican.
They start off in English and then sing a verse in Spanish. Only near the end is there a verse in Portuguese, sung by Claudia Leitte, one of Brazil’s biggest pop stars.
I have to admit that I too had some mistaken assumptions about Brazil. I studied Latin American politics at university, I lived in Chile and Mexico and spoke fluent Spanish. I thought I knew the region pretty well. And then I moved here.
Yes, Brazil shares a colonial past, but the Portuguese influence sets Brazil apart from its Spanish-speaking neighbours.
It often struck me that Spain had a superiority complex when it came to Latin America. A paternalistic attitude perhaps, and many I spoke to – especially in Mexico – felt angry about the past.
But here in Brazil, it is different. As one Brazilian told me, people here like to go on holiday to Portugal but they see the former master as a quaint little village. Portugal stumbled into a debt crisis and recession at the same time as Brazil started being seen as an economic powerhouse of the future.
It is not that different to Britain’s relationship with the US really – the power dynamics between coloniser and colony have changed.
But it was the language that perhaps threw me the most when I arrived. Spanish and Portuguese are of course very similar – without fail, everybody told me my Spanish would make things easier, and it is true most of the time.
But early on, one Latin American academic gave me some valuable advice. “Forget your Spanish,” he said, “otherwise you will never speak good Portuguese.”
Armed with this advice, I threw myself into learning. For months, I would find myself talking to people in what I thought was quite adequate Portuguese, and then mysteriously the conversation would gravitate towards the topic of Spain – people would tell me anecdotes about their experiences there.
Some would say “gracias” instead of “obrigado” when thanking me. Confusing at first, but then it dawned on me when a workman came round to fix something in my flat. He started explaining to his colleague that I was Spanish so he had to speak slowly.
And then I realised that no, it was not Portuguese I had been speaking, it was in fact Portunhol… think Franglais or Spanglish and you get the picture.
Some people don’t mind you speaking Portunhol. Close to the borders with countries like Uruguay it is almost a dialect. And I have met some kind souls who have spoken it to help me.
My Brazilian cameraman used to deliberately mix up Spanish and Portuguese until I suggested that although he thought it would make life easier for me, it really didn’t – it just meant that I would always speak Portuguese badly – so he soon put a stop to that.
But Brazilians are proud people, so not everybody approves of Portunhol. Some find it a lazy tactic to avoid learning proper Portuguese. They want you to commit to their country and understand them.
Which brings me to another bugbear. The city that I live in is called Sao Paulo and it is spelled P-A-U-L-O – that’s a U in the middle, not an O – get it wrong and Brazilians will chastise you. It is not Italian, it is not Spanish, this is Portuguese – so get it right.
Despite the initial language barriers, Brazil has enabled me to understand a much bigger part of a region that I love. But now I am moving on – back to Mexico in fact. A country I am familiar with and where I can speak the language.
Ironic, really, my dad will be pleased to know that I can now enjoy those tacos, but I won’t be forgetting the pao de queijo any time soon.