Black Moms Abroad: Paula Mans In Salvador, Brazil
Words: Anthonia Akitunde
This mom tells us what it’s like to raise her daughter in a majority-Black country that doesn’t always see it for Black folk.
Travel has been a part of Paula Mans life since she was a kid.
“Because of my father's work, we moved to Tanzania, Mozambique, and Swaziland during my childhood, so I definitely caught the travel bug early on,” Paula, who’s originally from Washington, D.C., explains.
A college-aged Paula first fell in love with Salvador, the Brazilian city that would eventually become her home, during one of those family trips and went back again and again throughout college. She applied for—and won—a Fulbright research grant to study high-performing high school students in one of Salvador’s high-risk neighborhoods upon graduating in 2009.
“Initially it was supposed to be nine months in Salvador and I never left,” Paula says, laughing.
A big part of that decision to make Salvador her forever home was meeting her husband Tamine Lima a year later in 2010. The couple were married in 2014, and had their daughter Sofia Leila in 2015.
“I always say that my baby girl is a global citizen and an embodiment of the African diaspora!” the 30-year-old stay-at-home mom says. “She is Brazilian, Guinean, and American.”
But, Paula says, even though Salvador is 80% Black and marketed as “the New Africa,” there is a fair amount of discrimination that permeates social interactions and culture. She shares more about her life in Brazil while she was back in the States to visit family.
What was it like when you first moved to Salvador?
I didn’t speak any Portuguese and no one spoke English, so most of my nine months was just me trying to survive. Trying to understand people and learn about the city... It was my first time living alone too, so it was just crazy. But I survived! [Sing-song voice]
How did you meet your husband?
I met him at an African club. We both thought we were Brazilians when we met each other. The music was loud, [and we were] speaking in Portuguese. But then the next day we went to the beach, and we realized we're both foreigners. He’s from Guinea Bissau, West Africa.
How long did it take you to learn the language?
My major in college was Spanish and Latin American Studies, so I spoke Spanish and that helped me a lot with communicating.
I could get by, but if people started asking me questions I'd be like "Er, what?" And in Salvador, the majority of the population is Black, so everyone thought that I was from there. People would speak to me at lighting speed and I didn't understand anything. But because I was so immersed, I think it took like a year to become not fluent but [conversational].
What made you and your husband decide to stay in Salvador?
I think he and I decided on Brazil because it's neutral for both of us. If he came to Washington, he would have to give up everything. He did his undergrad and all of his education in Brazil, and he has a career there now [as a port manager]. So he would have to give up everything.
We just thought that no one would have to give up anything by us staying in Brazil. We're both starting from scratch, building our family and careers there. So we decided it would just be healthier. It's been really hard though, I'm not going to lie. Especially with the baby.
What were your concerns about raising your family abroad?
[It’s been] eight years that I moved to Salvador. Of course I missed my family, but I was living the good life. Young, working hard, but also partying hard. But now that I have a kid, I need support. Neither of us have family there. It’s been really hard emotionally being a mom there without having family. I never realized how important it is to have family close by. I’ve been here for two months in D.C. and it’s been amazing just having my mom close by.
I really want [Sofia] to have a strong concept of family. I want her to know my brothers. I want her to know my parents. So it makes me kind of sad thinking about just the three of us, all the way in Brazil.
Did you have any concerns about being a Black American abroad?
Black people blend in especially in Salvador because 80-90% of the population is Black. So everyone is Black. But there’s an undeniable privilege that I have as a Black American in Salvador. I'm not working now, but before I had the baby I was an English teacher and I used to do private tutoring. I would [talk to] clients over the phone or [through] friends of friends, but they didn't know I was Black. And as soon as they saw me they'd be doubting my Americanness because I'm Black. They'd think I was Brazilian, but just false advertising. I would have to prove that I'm American.
My neighborhood is an upper middle class neighborhood, and that’s not the reality of most people who look like us in Salvador. Everyone is white. My white neighbors won’t have any interest in me because they think I'm just another Black person until they find out I'm an American, and then all of a sudden I'm shiny and interesting.
I understand a little bit on a personal level what it might be like to be a Black Brazilian just by virtue of me walking in the streets, I’ve had experiences where I know it’s [because I’m] a Black person, but I also have privilege when I open my mouth and people find out where I'm from.
My worry is I have a child who’s Brazilian now. Being [back in the States] these past two months, I have access to dolls that are Black, I have access to sitcoms, even just shows on PBS that have Black characters, books with Black characters. In Brazil you cannot find that anywhere.
That really worries me—I really want her to have an experience where she’s proud of who she is. But it’s hard in Brazil. Ironically, Salvador is the Blackest city. But you turn on the TV, the Black characters are all maids or nannies or hookers or criminals. And I'm not saying that doesn't exist in the U.S., but we have a history of positive spaces in the media for Black people [that doesn’t exist in Brazil].
I would never think that the history that we've had here in the U.S. as positive, but when you compare it to nothing, it's definitely a lot better.
Even just talking about everything with Black Lives Matter and police brutality, it's an issue in Brazil on a much greater scale. It happens all the time. Police operations going into the shanty towns and just shooting at anyone who passes by. But because there’s not a very strong Black voice in the media, you never hear stories about it. Especially when Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown, there were huge stories in the Brazilian media, but they don’t take the mirror and look at themselves.
So the discourse becomes, look how racist the U.S. is. But it happens everyday in Salvador. It's just crazy.
Can you talk to me more about this issue of Blackness, and how it's looked at negatively even in this all-Black space?
My husband is very fair skinned. In Brazil [my husband] is not Black. Whereas here, he definitely is. Here we have the one-drop rule. In Brazil, it's the opposite. I feel like one drop of white blood makes you further from Blackness.
So a lot of people are like “your white husband” and I’m like “What?!” Where I come from, from my perspective, he could never be white. His features, his hair, even his complexion... That's not white people! But that's how Brazil is. A lot of their celebrities look like they could be Dominican, but they’re white within their cultural context.
There’s a big group of Portuguese-speaking Africans who got fellowships through the Brazilian government. They’re brought from Cape Verde and Angola and Guinea Bassou to study in Salvador undergrad. [My husband’s] experience is completely different from the typical African student in Salvador. His other friends who are darker skinned have had horrible experiences from Black Brazilians.
It's very ironic to me because Salvador specifically is marketed as the New Africa, in terms of culture, religion, food... They still speak Yoruba. There’s a lot of African cultural survival, people are very proud to say "I'm Afro Brazillian, this is Afro-Brazilian cuisine, this is Afro-Brazilian culture" for tourism.
Race is a really interesting thing in Brazil. In the US, what are we, 12-13% [of the population]? Salvador is 80%, but you would never know that looking at spaces of power and privilege.
What kind of conversations are you and your husband having about inoculating your daughter from this really virulent idea of blackness?
I’m not going to allow her to have any white dolls for awhile. I’m loading up suitcases with books and buying all these iTune episodes of Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood, which has Black characters in it. I’m trying to equip myself with as many tools as I can.
What worries me is when she goes to school. I break out in hives thinking about that. The reality is she's probably going to go to a private school where she’s going to be one of two, three black kids. How do I protect her from the microaggressions? She's not going to learn anything about herself and her people from school. So I have to try and combat that within my home. But there’s only so much you can do.
What was it like being pregnant and delivering your baby there?
It was wonderful. They really coddle you [there] when you’re pregnant. If you're pregnant, you get in line first. If you have a baby that's small enough to be held or in your lap, you can get in line in first. Here? [Laughs]
Planning for labor was a trip. I really wanted to have a vaginal birth. In Brazil, in private healthcare, 80-90% of women have scheduled C-sections. So my first prenatal appointment I was 6 weeks pregnant, the doctor wanted to schedule my C-section. For me C-section is for emergencies, but in Brazil, if you have money, you pay for a C-section. They associate vaginal birth with something primitive. Why go through pain when you can just have the surgery?
I had to find a new OB [and] pay for that on my own. I had to find a doula. I ended up getting the birth that I wanted—luckily, thankfully—but it was a fight. I had to do a lot of research. It was really intimidating and tough doing that in a place that isn’t your country, in another language.
What were some of the experiences you had trying to make that happen?
I did all of my prenatal care through my health insurance. I kept seeing my original obstetrician who kept trying to scheduling my C-section. But I continued with the support of my doula who helped me a lot. My obstetrician kept asking for new exams. Some of them were unnecessary. And my doula told me, “She's trying to find a reason to tell you you need a C-section.”
My family is middle class here in the US, so I always had access to really good doctors and I never ever felt like I needed to not trust my doctor. In such a delicate time of a woman’s life—pregnant with your first baby—you want to trust that your doctor wants the best for you and your baby. But I had to go in and give her the side eye, like, “What are your true intentions?”
C-sections are surgeries so they make more money, and they take less time than a vaginal birth, which can take sometimes 48 hours. They don't have to be on call. The benefits are for the doctor and medical system, and not for women and their babies. So thank god for my doula!
What is the cost of living like?
It’s expensive. Being here now, everything is so much cheaper. The one thing that’s more expensive here is real estate, rent. But grocery shopping is extremely expensive in Brazil. I don’t buy any clothes there, I buy everything here. Diapers are ridiculously expensive in Brazil. Minimum wage is like 800 reais / month, which is $300. That's what whole families make. And diapers, one pack for 28 diapers is 80 reais ($24).
When I come here and I see a pack of diapers for $13, I’m like, “Whoa.”
Are you planning on staying in Brazil, or do you ever see yourself moving back to the states?
Now that I’ve come back home, I’m thinking about trying to come back. I have to talk to my husband about it because his career is there. It would be harder, I think, for him here.
I think I’m going to try for a few more years and then see how it works out. As she gets older, I imagine, I think, it will be easier in terms of support. Surviving the first year, it’s almost over, so I hope that it will get easier. But I really want to be closer to my parents.
What is your community like there?
Honestly, once I became a mom, a lot of people disappeared. Because I'm not partying anymore, I'm not going out. I'm at home with the baby all the time. All of my friends are single, late 20s to early 30s, so it’s just not their reality. I have a few really good mommy friends who have kids under 1. But that's it.
I know Sofia is pretty young, but have you started looking into education? What are your thoughts on it?
There’s lots of daycares in the neighborhood, but they're extremely expensive. Like I said, 800 reals is minimum wage. The ones in my neighborhood are upwards of 1,000 reais a month.
There are really good schools in our neighborhood, but they're also expensive, like 3,000 reais a month for elementary school. And public school is not an option. The resources, the infrastructure, it’s just not an option.
Do you know why it's so expensive?
Part of me wonders if it's just to keep certain people out. Because they’re very elite schools. There’s an American school in Salvador also, but that one is also like 2,000-3,000 reais a month ($609-$914).
What are some of the challenges of raising your family there?
I’ve been a stay-at-home mom since she was born, which is a blessing and a curse. I'm ready for some adult conversation in my day-to-day life!
It’s so much easier to navigate the city in D.C.. The Metro, there's busses everywhere, the streets are easy to navigate. The sidewalks are really smooth so I can use my stroller. [In Salvador] I wear Sophia a lot in a baby carrier, but she's getting heavy—I can’t walk 10 city blocks with her in a baby carrier anymore. It’s really hard to get out of the house and get around in Salvador because of the streets. The busses are just not stroller friendly, and we don’t have a car, so I totally rely on walking or public transportation. It's much easier here.
What are the benefits of raising your family in Salvador?
People love babies. It’s easier navigating public spaces with a baby in Brazil. Sometimes I'll take Sophia some places here, I feel uncomfortable because of the way we’re received, but in Brazil, that doesn't exist. People are very accommodating to people with babies. Once, Sophia was maybe 5 months, and I was in a restaurant by myself with her. I was holding her, she couldn't sit up on her own yet, trying to eat, and a waitress was like, I'll hold your baby for you while you eat. And she didn't know me! That's very typical to me of the culture there surrounding babies. people love babies. I don't think the same is true here. That hasn't been my experience.
I love how outdoors focused the culture is—people go outside a lot with their kids. A lot of my cousins are 12,10 here in the U.S. and they’re inside a lot. They play video games a lot, they’re on their iPhones a lot. Of course that exists in Brazil too, but I think people in Salvador specifically because the beach is nearby and the weather is good all the time, it’s nice all the time, I think people enjoy the outdoors more. And I think that's great for a kid. A kid needs to run around outside and enjoy the outdoors, but I think that it also has its drawbacks. The support thing, racial identity, navigating all those things, it’s really hard.
Anthonia Akitunde is the founder of mater mea.