“Em que parte do Brasil estamos?” “We are in what part of Brazil?” Dan chorused to the circle of 3rd grade students sitting in the auditorium of the José Mendonça Vergolino elementary school.
“O norte!” “The north!” offered one student.
“O estado do Pará!” “The state of Pará!” screamed another.
We were in the middle of one of 24 workshops Rios de Encontro was invited to give in the elementary school, centered on theatre, dance, music and story-telling. Over the past two months, these workshops incorporated all 500 students into a process of re-integrating regional arts and popular culture into education. The process is representative of the urgent need to construct a new pedagogy within educational institutions that integrates artistic languages and is capable of responding to the contemporary challenges facing the region.
“Marabá fica na Amazônia?” “Is Marabá located in the Amazon?” Dan probed again.
“NÃO!” came the unanimous answer from the crowd, some children shaking their heads and wagging an index finger in their air. Then it was Mano’s turn to pose a question.
“Onde fica a Amazônia?” “Where is the Amazon?”
“Onde tem floresta.” “Where there is forest.”
“No outro lado do rio!” “On the other side of the river!”
The affirmation that the Amazon is a faraway place or somewhere on the other side of the river was a common theme in every class we met with. The few teachers who participated in the workshops or even sat watching (many took advantage of the opportunity to escape their unruly students and left in search of a coffee or a nap) were also complicit in this assertion. Neither their house, their neighborhood, or the city of Marabá are located in the Amazon. To see how widespread this belief was in both children and adults, and in a school for that matter, was pretty shocking. It reminded me of the way my friends and family in the United States reacted when I mentioned I would be working in the Brazilian Amazon. Even here, there is the overwhelming notion that the Amazon only exists where there is dense jungle, exotic animals and indigenous tribes. This is a serious challenge for the preservation of the Brazilian Amazon. If people living here cannot identify themselves as part of the Amazon, what reason would they have to defend it? If the Amazon is a distant place that doesn’t affect them, why should people be worried about its destruction?
Last Saturday, Rios de Encontro’s sixth bicicletada intended to cultivate and celebrate this Amazonian identity. The bicicletada was called “Eu Sou Amazônia” “I am the Amazon”.
Vibrant, exhilarating and incredibly sweaty are among some of the words I would use to describe the bike ride. We had an early start, with all the students, parents, teachers, police and other various participants meeting at the school at 7:30am. As Dan and Mano welcomed everyone over the loudspeaker, I zigzagged through the mass of bicycles, handing out strips of colored ribbon that people could use to decorate their bikes, their hair and their bodies. The day before we expended a lot of energy ripping the fabric into strips and tying them into small bunches that could be attached to handlebars. Still hoping to incorporate an element of solar energy into the bicicletada after our timeframe to record a song for the bike radio became limited, we thought of using the yellow, orange and red ribbons to create a sort of moving sculpture. Blowing in the wind, the ribbons created a fire-like effect and the entire bicicletada became a river of solar energy that surged through the streets of the city. When we cycled through neighborhood streets people came out and stood in their doorways to watch the procession. We made a pit stop for water in Santa Rosa and then biked down the boardwalk to Cabelo Seco, where the Latinhas de Quintal preformed one of their songs in the plaza. It was the biggest bicicletada Rios de Encontro has held so far. It also marked a very significant advancement in the involvement of the military police. This year, the commander himself participated and led the colorful swarm of bicycles throughout the city, followed by 12 handpicked officers in his unit on bikes and motorcycles. Their presence was a strong symbol of their support for the project and an indication of their desire to see a more sustainable future for Marabá.
I was strangely energized post bicicletada despite my sleep deprived state and role as an emergency help vehicle for all the little people struggling to untangle taut ribbons from their wheels and gears during the ride (the only downside to the river of solar energy idea). I initially attributed it to the much-needed coffee I gulped down in the morning, but Dan explained how the bicicletada has a tendency to give people a huge adrenaline rush. I realized he was right; the bicicletada was much more than a bike ride around the city. It also made me recognize that the name they have devised for the second bicicletada is just as relevant and meaningful as the first. In two weeks we will host the second bicicletada for Cabelo Seco, named “Energias de Vida” “Energies of Life”.