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Mammas, don’t let your babies grow up to be malandros

December 20, 2011

When I first walked into Gracie-Barra Jiu Jitsu in Albuquerque, NM, the scene inside was not what I had been expecting.  Somewhere in the back of my mind, I think I was imagining some Hong Kong movie scene of ninjas training.  You know, maybe a bunch of dudes dressed in black tossing throwing stars under the visage of an old man with a bamboo stick and a mustache down to his kneecaps.  Ok, maybe not exactly.   But apparently some seventies kung-fu meme to that effect still plays out in the background of my brain like a hidden computer script.

What I actually witnessed was… not that.  From a simple entry/waiting room, I peered in on a large space, empty except for wall-to-wall mats, the American and Brazilian flags and a picture of Carlos Gracie, the founder of Gracie-Barra BJJ.   That and the twenty or so students rolling for position or attempting nasty-looking submission moves.  I have to admit, they looked pretty tough.  But I was confident, as I eyeballed my potential competition, that if it came down to it, I could take them all out with my natural athleticism and tenacity.  Especially because their average age was…um..about six years old.  Yes, I had walked in on the kids class.

One of the things I love about jiu jitsu is its emphasis on family and children.  Kids as young as three can begin training safely because of the nature of ground fighting.  Unlike the stand-up arts, it is possible to engage in something approaching full intensity safely, without wearing seven mattresses-worth of protective padding.  That’s because jiu jitsu is based on achieving a position in which you could do significant damage to a joint or could choke someone unconscious if you were to really finish the move.  But you don’t.  Not in training, at least.  Not even in sport-jiu jitsu competition, usually.  Your opponent, in theory, will acknowledge that they have been put in a checkmated position by tapping.  If they don’t, gradual application of a little gentle pressure will make the situation clear.  It is extremely difficult to replicate this level of realism in striking because it is almost impossible to punch or kick with full intensity without risking immediate injury.  Yes, if you are extremely well trained, you can pull your punches at the last instant, but in jiu jitsu, even beginners can come very close to experiencing how the techniques would have to be applied in an actual self-defense scenario without that much risk of injury.

But to watch these kids, you would never guess that fighting or self-defense had anything to do with their exuberant motions.  Yes, they were busting out sweeps and armbars, but with laughter in their voices and light in their eyes.  The scene reminded me more of preschool recess than a fight.  And that’s yet another aspect of the style I deeply appreciate.  Jiu jitsu can be simply be play, even though it’s techniques are very, very real.  The playful aspect is no doubt due in large part to it familial origins.  Brazilian jiu jitsu is the product of a family dynasty – created by the Carlos and Helio Gracie nearly one hundred years ago, carried on and developed by their hundreds of descendants who now teach all over the world.  So there were always dozens of children and grandchildren hanging around, most of whom were rolling practically as soon as they could walk.  The distinction between playtime and training was undoubtedly vague, or perhaps non-existent.

The class ended and, after bowing to the “professor” (as black-belt instructors are called), the photo of Master Carlos and each other, they came off the mats with their eyes gleaming, mobbing the professor with hugs and attempted take-downs.  He, in turn, showered them with copious  praise and affection and take-down defense.  That professor turned out to be Rafael “Barata” De Freitas, an unassuming, small-framed young man from Brasilia, the capitol of Brazil.  His constant smile and easy-going, encouraging manner mask the fact that he is an accomplished mixed martial artist with a  5-0 record and an impressive pedigree in top-level jiu jitsu competition.  I suppose, in that sense, he embodies the same seeming contradiction that I observed in the children’s class – childlike playfulness merged with the capacity to inflict great bodily harm.  Like merging Willy Wonka with Chuck Norris.

It strikes me that there is something uniquely Brazilian in all of this.  I don’t want to fall into facile national stereotypes, but as someone primarily raised by my Brazilian mother and grandmother and who has traveled to Brazil extensively, I suppose I feel roughly qualified to comment on Brazilian cultural norms.  And I see those norms buried deep into the cultural DNA of jiu jitsu, though when I say that, I doubt I’m thinking about the same norms as most of my fellow citizens.  Put another way, I feel like Americans know shizzle about Brazizzle.

That ignorance is exemplified by a joke I heard a few years back.  President Bush is attending a briefing on the war in Iraq.  One of his generals informs him, “Mr. President, I’m afraid I have a little bad news: three Brazilian soldiers were killed in Falujah yesterday.”  The president’s face becomes a mask of horror “What!?!” he replies.  “Three Brazilian diplomats?  Oh my god! That’s horrible!”  The rest of the staff, shocked by the president’s unexpected compassion for the Brazilian citizenry, exchange puzzled looks.   “Wait…remind me,”  the president adds “how many is a brazillion?”

Although the joke was clearly more meant to lampoon our former leader’s mental capacity, it wouldn’t work as a joke if Brazil was not to most of us an obscure, ill-defined culture.  I have found that, for most Americans, the word “Brazil” brings to mind only three things: soccer, samba and sexuality.  But now that MMA has exploded in popularity, even farm-boys in rural Iowa have added a fourth S to that lexicon –  Silva.  As in Anderson “the spider” Silva, the UFC middleweight champion overwhelmingly considered the best mixed martial artist on earth (and, I’m guessing, coming close to surpassing Bruce Lee in poster preference among fourteen year-old boys). Silva, however, is just the top of the heap.  There are literally dozens of Brazilian fighters in the upper echelons of MMA.

So now, the picture formed in the minds of most Americans when Brazil is mentioned is a fuzzy montage of sports, music, dancing, fighting and sex.  In this regard, Brazilians fall victim to the kind of racist stereotyping usually reserved for African Americans – of happy, jiving and shucking songsters with a propensity toward sex and violence.   Of course such stereotypes are always absurd.  Brazil has the fifth largest land mass, the seventh biggest population and the eighth largest economy in the world.  It is a leading manufacturer and exporter of cars and airplanes.  Academically, it is considered a major player in the fields of sociology, architecture, anthropology, ecology and design.  And during the last decade Brazil has become a neo-con’s worst nightmare – a socialist government whose bearded “worker’s party” leader, Luis “Lula” Da Silva managed to institute major anti-poverty programs while transforming Brazil into one of the fastest growing economies on earth.

Brazil contains roughly half of the world’s fresh water resources and half of the worlds species of trees.  And If one agrees with the concept that diversity and integration is a strength, then Brazil is a super power.  There are huge immigrant populations from Japan, Germany, Italy, Holland, Lebanon, Portugal (no, they don’t speak “Brazilian” there) and, of course, virtually every country in Africa.  Brazil was by far the primary end point of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.  Portuguese colonists availed themselves of the slave trade much more than even the U.S.  Over four million slaves of African origin were brought to Brazil by 1850.  But unlike the U.S., those colonists at times intermarried openly, both with the African population and with the 2.5 million indigenous residents of Brazil.  As a result, race in Brazil is more of a blur than a dichotomy.  The terms “black” and “white” are seldom used.   A ex-pat friend I played soccer with in Sao Paulo (a humbling experience) once told me “We say America is a melting pot.  America’s not a melting pot. Now Brazil, that’s a melting pot.  America’s a salad.”   And, yes, they’re very good at soccer.  That, and giving birth to super models.

But Brazil is certainly no utopia.  The need for Lula’s social programs and perhaps even his rise to power could be traced directly to the extreme inequity in distribution of wealth in Brazil.  (Though this is an extreme we in the U.S. seem to be approaching daily, while Brazil appears to be trying to move in the opposite direction).  Yet, it’s true that many parts of Brazil are hard, dangerous places.  Maybe as many as are breathtaking and vibrant, often at the same time.  Terrible poverty, especially in the big cities has led to high rates of violent crime.  Razor wire lines the walls of the wealthy and bullet proof glass is a standard option on luxury vehicles.

If you weren’t born to money in Brazil, you’ve got to hustle to get by.  It can be a hard life.  There are whole neighborhoods in Rio de Janeiro, just blocks from where Carlos and Helio once trained, that are practically abandoned by the city, except for the police incursions aimed to take out the gangs that run the favelas, as the poorest ramshackle areas are called.  Basic services in the favelas are minimal and many residents feel it is the drug dealers that take care of them, not the state.  Rival gangs sometimes war and even the chic get caught in the crossfire.  Then there are the kidnappings.  And the police brutality.  The last time I was in Rio, my cousin said to me, “Here in Rio the mountains are beautiful and the hills are at war with the beach.”  She laughed, saying it as if it were a tourist slogan.

Yet, in a political sense, Brazil is very peaceful country.  The last time Brazil invaded another country was in 1865, when they annexed a portion of Uruguay.  Since then, they have managed all of their international relations without armed conflict.  In recent years, Brazil has begun to take a leading role in peace-keeping operations, conflict resolution and diplomacy.  And that regard for resolving conflict peacefully extends to society at large.  Working things out, getting along, physical affection, laughter, fun, family, tolerance, playfulness, not taking things too seriously – these are all very highly valued traits in Brazilian culture.  A very high premium is placed on the social graces.  There is in Brazil, in comparison to the U.S., a much more subtle and complex set of unspoken rules regarding social interactions and a much higher sense of one’s social duty, especially to one’s extended family, but to friends and coworkers as well.  The very worst thing you can be in Brazil is rude.  (As a side note, this is especially relevant when leaving a Brazilian party.  If, for future reference, you visit Brazil and find yourself at a dinner party and wish to leave at, say, eleven, it would be wise to start saying goodbye at approximately 9:00.  This is  because it will take you two hours to hug and kiss each person at the party, including the twelve of them you just met, and make plans with seven others to go to the beach on Tuesday when, in fact, you both know you will not.)

Perhaps these seemingly contradictory traits are actually two sides of the same coin.  In a country with so many cultural extremes in terms of class, ethnic origin and race living in such close proximity, “getting along” skills are critical.   I see it as a testament to Brazilian restraint that, given the number of ex-colonial enemies seated next to each other on the average bus ride, everyone wasn’t murdering each other with more regularity.  But with all the dangers, the need to hustle, to look out for one’s own, it is also critical to be able to fight in Brazil – for protection, for family safety, for respect and yes, for honor.  Machismo is alive and well in Brazil and someone demeaning your family name is serious business.   Brazilian jiu jitsu definitely evolved partly from the various brothers fighting half of Rio, defending the Gracie name.  And way before the UFC shot to popularity here, mixed martial arts gyms were popping up in every city in Brazil.  So I will admit, perhaps Brazilians do tend to reinforce the fighting part of their stereotype just a tiny bit.  Even my Grandmother was, in the heat of an argument, fond of throwing the occasional dish.  Or two.  Or five.  So, for those of you keeping score at home, let’s sum up, shall we?  Brazilians are: fun-loving, macho, peaceful gangsters, who love family, are very concerned with being polite and getting along, and are ready to fight at the drop of a hat.  In other words, a mess of contradictions, like the rest of us.

In Brazil, that mess of contradictions has a name: Malandro.  If one were to reduce the American ethos to one cultural icon, it would probably be that of the cowboy – independent, tough, taciturn, a lone wolf who seeks justice with his fists, a gun and a square, honest jaw.  In Brazil, that essential icon would almost certainly be the “malandro”, the charming bandit, who breaks all the rules but does so in such a witty, inventive way that everyone loves him anyway.  The malandro is kind of like robin hood, except that instead of taking from the rich and giving to the poor, he just, well, takes from the rich and keeps it.  He’s essentially a peaceful, loving guy, the malandro, all laughter and song.  But if you take him on, you’ll regret it.  The malandro  always wins, usually in some tricky, unexpected way.  He cons, lies, connives, and seduces, but all in the name of justice.  He is the poor man who beats the rich man at his own game.  While seducing his wife.  Then writes a hit song about it.

I guess my point in all of this is that I see jiu jitsu as a kind of malandro – fun, playful, tricky, but capable of snapping your ulna like celery.  Like the malandro, jiu jitsu is fighting from the bottom against a bigger, more powerful opponent, winning by technique, skill and trickery, not brute force.  This cultural juxtaposition of styles was on full display recently when the malandro-esque Anderson Silva (famous, among other things, for his post-fight dance moves) took on square-jawed uber-wrestler Chael Sonnen for the UFC middleweight title.  Sonnen’s pre-fight banter included plenty of xenophobic vitriol aimed at Brazil, including tweets to Silva stating, “Hey Anderson, stick to what your country does best, like soccer and harboring infections disease.”  and “Happy 4th of July, where we celebrate our domination over Brazil…Wait, that’s every day.”

When fight day arrived, the first few rounds seemed to back-up Sonnens smack talk.  He took Silva down and inflicted four and a half rounds of good ole American ground and pound.  But after sitting on top of Silva and punching him about three hundred times in the head in an honest, cowboy fashion, Sonnen fell prey to a malandro trick. In the fifth and final round, Silva baited a punch, grabbed an arm and wrapped his legs around Sonnen’s neck, ending the fight with a triangle choke that would have left Sonnen unconscious if he hadn’t tapped.  After the fight Silva thanked God.  And jiu jitsu.

To many Americans, Silva’s unexpected comeback seemed a little…unsavory.  To Brazilians, it was sweet justice and catapulted Silva into full-on rock star status in his home country.  I’m not much for nationalism, regardless of the country,  but I guess I was with the Brazilians on this one.  I prefer the playful underdog to the bullying cowboy.  Or perhaps it appeals to my Brazilian half to have a little whimsey in my whuppass.  Either way, the playfulness of jiu jitsu won me over like a malandro’s charming patter.  I walked out of Gracie-Barra that day more confident than ever that jiu jitsu was for me.  Watching those kids roll, I was completely sure I’d found the right place.  And I’m still pretty sure I could take em all out in a fair fight.  All brazillion of em.

P.S.  I suppose at some point, now that I’m two weeks in, I should start posting about the actual training.  I promise I will, next post.  Oh, and I promise to keep it under two thousand words as well.  Suffice it to say, for now, that my instructors and training partners have been fantastic.  I feel like I’ve already learned a lot.  Unfortunately, one thing I’ve learned is that attempting a scissor sweep with bad technique against 220 lb man with a strong base will likely result a partially torn MCL.  Looks like no surgery is required, but I’ll be sporting a cane for a few weeks while it heals.  But that’s not going to stop me.  Time to slip on the knee brace, human up and get to class, even if sometimes its just to watch the others roll.  Then it’s back to the cane and an ice pack and handful of ibuprofen. A special thanks to all my training partners last class, for taking it so easy on an old man.

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