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The Daughter of Immigrants: Growing up in a Brasilian American Home

Updated: Mar 6, 2019

As a kid, I used to sneak out of bed when I would hear my dad using a mixer in the kitchen late at night. Hearing the sound of that mixer late at night was a sure sign that dad was making Gemada. I could sneak into the kitchen and my dad would grow a huge smile on his face when he would catch me peaking around the corner. I would watch my dad beat an egg, milk, sugar, and coffee in a big yellow bowl. Dad would also heat up toast and spread a little bit of butter on each slice. After the bread was ready we would pig out together, dipping our bread in the Gemada and sipping right from the bowl.

My full name is Jenifer Fernandes Veloso and I am a first generation Brasilian-American.

dancing samba in the street in Rio

This blog was made with the goal of sharing women’s stories and voices which would not otherwise be heard. A voice that I feel often isn’t heard or even known is the voice of women who are the daughters of immigrants. So many women have grown up with parents who are trying to integrate american lifestyle into their foreign culture at home. My hopes in sharing my version of that story are that more women will share their stories of growing up as first generation children.

How a Brasilian family ended up in Flint, MI is a long story for another day; but growing up in a community where I was the only kid whose parents were foreign was weird, awesome, hard, and my norm.

my sister, dad, I and in Rio

When I was little I was drawn to everything Brasilian and I hated it when people spelled Brasil ‘Brazil’ (I understand the reason why but I have always felt the deep need to spell it the way it’s spelled in Portuguese). I started off elementary school with a Portuguese accent but I slowly lost it the longer I was in school. Also, let me address this initial misconception right away...In Brasil, they speak Portuguese NOT Spanish.

My first trip to Brasil was when I was in the second grade and I remember it vividly. My long brown hair, brown eyes, and olive skin was the norm. All my favorite foods were served all day long. I played soltar pipa in the streets. (This is a game where kids Kite Fight; flying kites get cut down from the sky with glass and glue covered string. Click the hyper link for an awesome video of this game). I ate picolé on the beach. Instead of saying hello to my grandpa on my dad’s HAM radio, he was just around the corner napping in his hammock. I loved the smell, the food, the people, everything about Brasil!

Fun fact, bilingual kids have a hard time in elementary school because their English vocabulary is half the size of other kids. Needless to say I was a chatty Kathy who didn’t do so hot in school. As I got older in high school, I realized what a huge asset it was to know another language. Because I was already bilingual learning Spanish was a breeze, and I finally had a decent grade on my report card. In college learning French made sense and I became just as obsessed with French language and culture.

Growing up with a secret language with your parents is so much fun. In public we could whisper things we had to say without anyone knowing our secrets. Every year my mom and dad would sing happy birthday in English, and would immediately start singing Parabens afterwards!

I would hang on my parents’ every word when they would tell me about what it was like for them growing up back in Brasil. I would imagine my hippie mom dancing late at night at block parties in the street to disco and samba. I would envision my dad taking care of the cows on his parents’ farm. My grandma would tell me stories and legends of spirits in the Amazon. I would look at pictures of my parents as kids and dream about their traditions growing up.

my mom tanning & looking like a Brasilian goddess

I feel that because of the home I grew up in I was always attracted and drawn to any other person I met who was different, had foreign parents, and spoke another language. One of the deepest bonds and friendships I have ever made was with my friend Nneka. Her dad was from Nigeria and her mother from Barbados. In her home there were different foods, smells, culture, and language. She and I used to tease each other and call our dads, Mufasa and The Amazon King. She knows intimately what it’s like to be a first generation kid.

I wouldn’t change anything in the world for the things I’ve learned and the perspective I’ve developed growing up with immigrant parents. There are misconceptions that have been really frustrating and there have been also many friends who loved to be surrounded by my vibrant family.

Some unfortunate misconceptions I’ve dealt with are:

  • Do people live in huts in Brasil?

  • You look white/American, you don’t look Brasilian.

  • She (me) wants to get married so she can get her green card.

  • People who have an accent must have a lower IQ and are slow to learn and understand.

  • Brasil is impoverished and a jungle.

Brazil is enormous, industrious, and beautiful. Most Brasilian children are taught English growing up and are at a minimum bilingual. I grew up listening to Elvis with my mom and Maria Bethânia. My dad has brown hair and hazel eyes, my mom has light hair and green eyes, and my sister is a natural blonde with blue eyes. Brasilians all look different, just like Americans all look different.

Please don’t tell me what I look like unless you’ve been in a room full of Brasileiras. When someone has an accent and is having a difficult time expressing themselves in your language, please be patient. This person is making themself vulnerable and attempting to respect your culture and language. Please pay this person with the same respect and don’t speak louder like they are deaf. Do speak slowly and feel honored that another human cares about your language.

tapioca dish in brasil

açai in brasil

I am so proud of my parents. I am so proud  of the culture I grew up in at home, and I am also grateful for this country that makes it possible for immigrants to achieve so much. I can’t imagine moving out of the country at 23, leaving my family behind, and raising two girls in a foreign land like my mom did (without knowing a drop of English). I am grateful that my dad MADE me speak Portuguese when I wanted to shy away from it. I hate that my grandparents are thousands of miles away, but my love for them is deep. I still feel them and their history in me.

Although I didn’t grow up tap dancing, my sister and I can samba our hearts out. The first time I played monopoly was in my early twenties, but I’ve played and swam in the Amazon River. Each of us have culture inside of us that runs deep. We should take pride from where our families came from and dive into that culture.

In high school I had a girlfriend who would say, “I wish I had culture like you do. I’m boring and just an American.” I would tell her, and I’ll tell you, this isn't true. If I took your happy American self to Brasil, Brasilians would go WILD over your American accent, music, and culture. Maybe your parents, grandparents, or great grandparents came from another country. In your family someone else has been a first generation immigrant child. Find your history and take the time to learn other people’s history as well. Try learning a new language. Visit a new country. Try a foreign dish. Go out of your way to meet an immigrant and learn their struggles and strengths. I promise your world and life will be richer for it.

Pictures and Written By: Jenifer Veloso

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