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. 😛

Picture source: http://www.capoeira-palmares.fr/lucia_cv.htm