Memories of Lúcia Palmares (or: Life Cycle of a Stereotype)

8 04 2008

Lúcia Palmares, capoeirista from Salvador, BrazilWhat with all the talk of women in capoeira today, what was it really like to be literally a girl training among men, in the dry, unforgiving past of earthy Brazil?  Thanks to Shayna’s Capoeira Connection, we’re all able to get a sliver of insight into the world of Lúcia Palmares, who trained from a young age as one of the few female capoeiristas at the time (and her mestre’s first female capoeira student), under the watchful and critical eyes of Mestre Nô in Salvador, Bahia.

The sound of the atabaque got louder. We stopped in front of a one-story white house, and Mr. Máximo knocked on the closed door. An ugly man who they called Barriga (Belly) opened the door. We went in and everyone was hanging out and talking – about 25 shirtless and sweaty men, blacks and mulattos. I was scared. The room was large and the floor was made of cement, and the walls were white. There were two windows facing the street, but these were closed. A breeze entered through the back door, which faced the sea.

I stayed strong despite my fear. Mr. Máximo took me to a man sitting on a bench near the back door. “Nô, I brought this girl here; she wants to learn capoeira.”

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What I found the most interesting about Lúcia’s story is that a lot of old stereotypes about women in capoeira appeared to actually happen in her experience.  For instance: her mother disapproved of capoeira and said it was for vagrants and bandits; Lúcia said she herself would have stayed away from capoeira if she’d known “there were only men in capoeira”; there was cattiness and slight backstabbing between her and two other girls who had started training later; she speaks of girls and/or women trying to seduce male capoeiristas for either knowledge and privileges or “protection” (from what?); and Lúcia herself ended up dating and marrying one of the contra-mestres in her group, in whose shadow she mentions always being even as she became a bona fide capoeirista in her own right.

This brings up something I’ve wondered about from time to time, and although I’m sure this is getting into dangerous and slippery territory, and I don’t think it applies to the particular issue of women in capoeira today, it’s a question worth asking, if only for the thinking it’ll make us do: If a stereotype seems to be true, based on actual evidence and much personal experience, then…is it still wrong to buy into it?  And is it even still a stereotype?

Obviously, the basic answer is yes, since stereotyping means assuming everyone in a certain group has been harvested from the same tire, based on some superficial, usually completely unrelated surface observation.  “Personal experience” is also not very reliable, unless someone has lived for a very long time with members of the group of people in question in every part of the world where they’re found, which is the only way you could get anywhere near enough exposure to be anywhere near qualified in making such statements or assumptions.

On the other hand, what if we added enough qualifiers so that the stereotype was not so broad and all-encompassing?  For example, based on my experience in France, and based on having heard the experiences of nearly everyone else I met in France, any of us would feel completely justified and correct in making the statement: “All the staff of a certain program at a certain university that is in a certain city in France are bureaucratic, inefficient, lazy, and apathetic.”  Is that still an unfair generalization, if all of us had actually experienced firsthand the bureaucracy, inefficiency, etc.? 

Actually, I would say that there were enough detailed qualifiers there that the statement doesn’t count as stereotyping anymore, but just plain description, especially since we’re making it after the fact, and not before it.  But let’s say, and this is still part of the true story/real example, that I and others then had to get other things done in other parts of the city—and it was more of the same bureaucracy and inefficiency.  After having continued experiencing it throughout the city throughout the whole time we were there, I can assure you we were all reporting back to friends and family, simply, “French administration is horrible!  They are all bureaucratic, and inefficient, and lazy, and nobody cares!”  Now, is that still okay?  All the qualifiers have been removed, but we still felt justified and correct in making that statement based on our experiences, even though technically, the most general we could have logically taken it was saying “French administration in this city“.

Well really, I suppose that’s just all it comes down to if you’re trying to get away with a stereotype: making sure that what you’re saying is truly and adequately qualified, so that in effect it’s as far from true stereotyping as possible.  I remember on one of my earlier posts, “Women, Men, and Brazilian Bikinis“, someone talked about how a lot of women seemed to join their capoeira grupo specifically to hook up with the men there.  This person made a point to say it was only “SOME” women, but you can see how a less discerning mind might jump from seeing women in that branch of that group in that city join for the men, to believing and then saying something like “Women just join capoeira to sleep with the male capoeiristas.”  (in the same way my friends and I went from “admin in this one office in this one city in France” to just “admin in France”).

But once you arrive at that point, how do you go back?  Actually, that’s pretty obvious, too: you encounter people who turn your stereotype right on its imbalanced little head.  And really, that’s the whole point of why stereotypes are bad in the first place, right?  Because there is always someone out there who can and will prove it wrong, whether it’s women in capoeira or anyone else.  (Yes, even when it comes to French bureaucracy…sometimes! :P)  On that note, I’ll end with a story of my own:

One of my most gloriously vindicating moments in Morocco occurred at the passport check to leave the country.  As I was about to hand my passport to the officer, he inevitably went, “Japonais?”.  I said no, and he kept on guessing countries for the next 5 minutes, voyaging as far as Tibet and Sri Lanka in what seemed to be a very important quest to match my skin colour to any Asiatic nation.  Finally, he gave up and said, “Okay, what?” 

“Canada,” I all but snapped, virtually slapping my passport coat-of-arms-side-up onto the counter under his nose (to the sympathizing amusement of some girls at the next booth).  To what credit the officer had left, he at least in his expression had the grace to concede defeat. 😛

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Mandinga and Mandingueira: What’s in a Name?

21 03 2008

mandingueira (noun, feminine): capoeira player who is skilled, experienced, intelligent, powerful, dangerous, and not to be underestimated

Malicia and Mandinga” formed the fourth FICA Women’s Conference discussion topic, and since I’ve talked a bit about malicia already on this blog, this time I’ll focus on mandinga.

What is mandinga in capoeira?

What is it? According to the conference discussion group,

mandinga relate[s] to something more abstract [than malicia], an energy transmitted, something magical, spiritual, and related to an individual’s personality.

That sounds about right; and since mandinga is so abstract and versatile, and pervasive in one who’s learned it, it makes sense that how it’s expressed would depend on the individual capoeirista who has or uses it.

There’s also an article about mandinga on Capoeira Connection, in which Mestre Curió says:

There’s the mandinga of black magic and there’s the mandinga of the capoeirista’s cleverness, when he reaches the point where he can really be called a capoeirista. And especially when he’s an angoleiro. It’s not that there don’t exist elements of mandinga in Regional. But there are people who enter the roda, exchange beatings, and claim that they’re good. But they’re not good. That’s what mandinga is: It’s wisdom, it’s being able to hit your adversary but not doing so; you show that you didn’t hit him because you didn’t want to.

I like this one, too. It puts emphasis on the subtlety and “underlying-ness” of mandinga; it’s not brute force, but the threat or potential of force; not overt fighting, but mental manipulation (in all senses of the word) and psychological prowess.

Next, I think the explanation on—appropriately enough—Grupo Mandinga‘s website does a really good job describing just what this mysterious, floating spectre is. You should definitely check out the whole thing, but in a nutshell:

Mandinga in the capoeira environment means, amongst many things, the hidden power that one has to disguise their real intention and to trick the opponent. It is a way to invoke some forces to blur the opponent’s vision of reality almost like hypnotizing him/her into a trance-like state so that they can’t see what is coming. It can also be magic like a trick that confuses and distracts the opponent. However, it is much more than any of the above meanings.

This angle hits on one of the most common notions of mandinga, as a spell one capoeirista puts over the other while playing inside the roda. And of course, it makes the point that ultimately, something like mandinga is beyond description or definition.

Finally, we return to the FICA conference, where Mestre Paulinha split mandinga into four main elements:

  • attitude
  • improvisation
  • deception
  • interruption

If someone who was at the conference could elaborate on her ideas regarding these, that would be awesome! For myself, I could see attitude being the comportment of a capoeirista as they play, their relaxed yet hyper-alert mental state and ability to take the jogo as it comes, turning anything that happens to their own advantage. That covers improvisation as well, and deception would be the capoeirista’s powers of concealment, hiding their every intention and movement until the very last nanosecond, toying with their opponent in the form of dangled feints and barely-there (until you fall into one!) traps.

Lastly, interruption is an interesting one, and I’d interpret that to mean how you interrupt the other player’s game, countering their attacks and moving too quickly for them to even be able to complete a single movement. It could also mean interrupting your own game and mindset, if the situation in the roda suddenly shifts or changes on you.

Now, what does all this have to do with Mandingueira? I thought since we’re already on the topic, I’d take the opportunity to explain the thinking behind this blog’s name. Again from Grupo Mandinga:

When a capoeirista is referred to as being a “mandingueira” it can be considered as one of the highest compliments that could be given. It implies that one is experienced and mature with a good sense of humor and yet dangerous and not to be fooled by the appearances. Sometimes the word mandinga is also used to imply that someone put a spell on a player and for that he/she can’t play well or is not doing well in some senses.

Basically, what better way for a blog to advocate for women in capoeira than to name it after the ultimate capoeirista? Not the “ultimate female capoeirista”, but the ultimate capoeirista, who—guess what?—is female! As for the rest, you could maybe call it wishful thinking or dire optimism, but I’d hope that in the long run, Mandingueira will affect and change society (or at least the capoeira world) the same way a mandingueira or mandingueiro would affect and change another capoeirista in the roda; not exactly by tricking them in my case, but through their interaction making the other aware of their own faults and mistakes, and thus causing them to improve and change for the better…and moreover causing such a complete and amazing change that it’d be like a spell was cast over them (in this case, society—or the capoeira world).

Update: See Comments to download a 40-page research paper on malicía in capoeira angola and capoeira regional!

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Ie viva meu Mestra, Part 5: Mestra Janja

3 01 2008

I almost made a huge oversight in this series–so far all of the mestras or contra-mestras featured have been players of capoeira regional, but of course there are angoleira mestras as well, and they are amazing!  Apologies to any angola capoeiristas who read this blog, and much thanks to Shayna McHugh of Capoeira Connection and Bahia-Capoeira Blog for bringing several angola mestras to my attention! 

Today I want to tell you about Mestra Janja, who has done/is doing so much inside and outside of capoeira that I hardly knew what to talk about first.  And she’s not the only one, so please look out for following posts in this ongoing series!

Mestra JanjaMestra Janja, or Rosangêla de Araújo Costa, is a well-known and much esteemed mestra in the world of capoeira angola. A former student of renowned Mestres João Grande, Moraes, and Cobra Mansa, she began training in Salvador during the early 80s. In 1995, Mestra Janja founded the Instituto Nzinga de Estudos da Capoeira Angola e Tradições Educativas Banto (Grupo Nzinga de Capoeira Angola), along with Mestra Paulinha and Mestre Poloca. Instituto Nzinga, an NGO based in São Paulo and named after a 16th century African queen, works towards an anti-racism and anti-sexism mission statement beyond the preservation of capoeira angola and its traditions.

Mestra Janja plays a major role in social issues related to capoeira. She has coordinated projects such as affirmative action for black students’ entrance into university, and leads the Network of Women Angoleira (RAM). In addition, Mestra Janja has helped to organize events such as last year’s VI Congresso Badauê of Women Capoeiristas, for which she also taught workshops and organized an international conference in Atlanta, USA. Last year, celebrations were held in Salvador to commemorate Mestra Janja’s 25th year in capoeira angola.

Beyond her superlative capoeira skills and extensive social work, Mestra Janja is known for being a top scholar in the field. She completed a master’s and doctorate’s degree in Capoeira Angola at the Federal University of São Paulo, and graduated from the Federal University of Bahia with a degree in History. A university professor and published scholar, Mestra Janja is Grupo Nzinga’s historian and co-publisher of Real D’Angola magazine. She also conducts the Nzinga Berimbau Orchestra, which performs pieces that create links between capoeira and other types of Afro-Brazilian music, such as jongo, tambo-de-crioula, and bumba-meu-boi.

Sources: (with Google translation) (with Google translation) (with Google translation) (with Google translation)

Click here to see other posts in Ie viva meu Mestra


Which Type of Capoeira Beginner Are (Were) You?

31 12 2007

Pointed toes? Ah-hah! One dancer-capoerista, at 12 o'clock!This is a great, fun article I found on Capoeira Connection.  It’s spot on, from “the underconfident one” right down to “the gymnast/dancer”, and I bet you’ll recognize yourself or someone you know in at least one (if not all) of them!  Check it out–click here!

P.S.  Yesterday I received my 1000th page hit, exactly one month from the start of Mandingueira (my first post was November 30th)!  Thank you, to all of you guys!  Happy New Year!