#10 Grassroots entrepreneurship on the streets of Brazil

Updated: Jul 10

We are officially legal. Visitors to Brazil who stay beyond ninety days must register with the Federal Police. We hit our ninety day mark on July 5, so we registered with the Federal Police at their location at the mall-- a very smart and convenient location-- about five minutes from our apartment.


Let me define what the Federal Police is. They are indeed police, and I did see some uniformed officers milling about when we registered, but there’s no one on the street walking the beat. In this case, they’re strictly an administrative entity. The Federal Police has jurisdiction over white collar crime-- cyberterrorism, money laundering, drug trafficking, etc. Essentially, they’re the FBI of Brazil but with a division that handles civil matters like births, marriages, travel, and so on, like a county clerk’s office in the U.S.


Registering with the Federal Police is nothing to sneeze at. It required a lengthy online registration and an even longer in-person registration. We lugged our plastic folder of birth and marriage certificates, passports, and visas to the appointment. The Federal Police needed them all. They fingerprinted all our fingers (twice) and took our photos. If we ever rob a bank in the U.S., there’s no escaping to Brazil. We are 100% in their system. The clerk who registered us was very patient. We were her last clients of the day. She spent almost three hours with us. We could tell she was getting worn down, but she was a trooper and hung in there till the bitter end. I was getting tired right along with her (see photo), translating back and forth and learning all kinds of new terms, like “boletim de agendamento,” the appointment email that each of us got containing our confirmation number.

The thrill of registering with the Federal Police


There are seven other types of police in Brazil— Federal Highway, Federal Railroad, Federal Penal, State Military and Fire Brigade, State Civil, and State Penal. They seem to be the equivalents of various agencies in the U.S. The Military Police are the neighborhood police. We see them driving around town, always with their lights on. You think they’re pulling someone over, but it’s just their standard protocol to have the lights on. I suppose it announces their presence to would-be criminals. The name “Military Police” is slightly deceiving: they’re not actually in the military, though they’re considered a reserve force and can be deployed in a time of war.


Besides the Military Police, there are lots of other interesting people on the streets of Brazil. I’ve identified at least three subsets:


1. Panhandlers. They regularly come to our car window asking for food or money.


2. Vendors. We’ve been approached by people selling all kinds of stuff— candy, scarves, hammocks, acrylic nails, towels, controlled substances, strawberries, and on it goes.


3. Street performers. They’re a combination of the first two subsets, employing a type of grass roots entrepreneurship.


Let me explain. The “jeitinho brasileiro,” which means “Brazilian way,” is a popular term to describe the resourcefulness Brazilians have developed to overcome the challenges of everyday life. These street performers are a good example of the jeitinho brasileiro. They’ve found an inventive way to make money on the streets. Many of them are quite talented and have obviously invested hours in their truly unique skills. We see them often at traffic lights. They wait until the light changes red, when there’s a captive audience, and then they quickly break into their routine, some type of circus act like juggling or tight rope walking. They time it just right so that when they finish, they’re walking toward cars with outstretched hand just before the light turns green. It’s impressive how quickly they do all of this. After seeing this skilled version of panhandler, I feel like any future panhandler is going to have to do a lot to earn my money. I finally managed to capture a street performer on video. See for yourself.

A street performer redefining the rules for panhandling


On the music side, I’ve had several performances this past week. One of my students invited me to perform with his group at the popular Libertas, my third time there. They're all talented musicians and friendly guys. An interesting performance I had was online, performing for a conference sponsored by UFU's Department of Letters with the theme of “Culture and Diversity in a World of Dis/MisInformation.” The conference was entirely in English, and I was impressed with the fluency of the Brazilian professors and other presenters who spoke English. I played two American pieces and a Brazilian piece and spoke about my Fulbright. The week's main performance, however, was my faculty recital at UFU. It happened on July 4th— not a holiday in Brazil— and showcased music by Brazilian and American composers and myself. I performed with a mix of faculty and students in various configurations. The auditorium was packed and we got a standing ovation. I didn’t expect either of those things to happen.

My faculty recital at UFU


Afterwards, my family and I went out to celebrate at Barolo, an Italian restaurant at the mall which somehow we’ve missed all these months. The big draw is their customizable pasta bar— you choose the pasta, sauce, and toppings and watch the chef make it right in front of you, kind of like a hibachi grill for Italian food. If we don’t have one of these things in the U.S., we need one. Dee-lish. My UFU colleague, Raphael Ferreira, who has been nothing short of a superhero in helping us since I first had this crazy idea to come to Brazil two years ago, joined us for dinner. Unusually, we spoke mostly in English, which was good for my family. Raphael serendipitously was a visiting professor at the University of North Texas (UNT) where I did my masters degree. He speaks excellent English. We had fun comparing notes on Denton, TX, where UNT is located, and debating the cultural differences between our countries.

The hibachi grill style pasta bar at the Italian restaurant we discovered in town

With colleague extraordinaire Raphael Ferreira after dinner


I’m starting to expand my options for food around UFU. My friend Ivan, a nice guy who organized the online conference I performed at, took me last week to UFU’s version of the student center, a large outdoor space with a little snack bar called, “LOL CAFÉ” (lol) that serves traditional Brazilian food. I sure do enjoy walking across the campus with its pretty tree-lined streets, here in a video from a previous post, https://www.mtonalmusic.com/post/5-the-twos-have-it. I think I’m adding it to the list of things I’ll miss when we return to the U.S.

The cafe at UFU's open air student center


We’re also getting American treats at home. Some friends of ours just returned from the U.S. and brought us a big ole jar of Jif at my wife, Shaunna’s, request. She’s happy. Recently Shaunna has been making grilled cheese sandwiches, one of our home staples in the U.S. I kind of wonder if they have grilled cheese sandwiches in Brazil. I don't think I've seen them. I'll have to ask. Either way, the ones Shaunna made don’t taste exactly like they do back in the States, because of the cheese, which has a very distinctive flavor here in Minas Gerais, the cheese capital of Brazil. Similar to Wisconsin, Minas is often the target of all kinds of jokes about their obsession with cheese.

An American classic in Brazil


My guitar and music ensemble students are in various stages of preparing for their August 1 performance, which is just around the corner. My improvisation class took their second exam last week. Afterwards, I asked the students to tell me what I could do to improve the class. A wonderful discussion ensued. The students said they found the content of the class relevant, and that the reason they enrolled in the course in the first place was to get an American perspective they don’t typically get. They asked a number of questions about how to practice with more precision the material in the class. Several students said the things I’ve been teaching are things they’ve never considered before, which is gratifying to hear.


As I took my regular walk through our neighborhood today, I felt particularly reflective. Even though it's still less than two months away, I began feeling the weight of leaving. I tried to soak in my surroundings, taking mental pictures of everyday life: men unloading a truck of bricks, people exercising in the park, the car on the corner speeding toward me as I cross the street. I tried to catalogue my thoughts and feelings, because before long, it will all just be a memory. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think, “I can’t believe we’re in Brazil,” today included. I look around, and it still feels surreal. Even on the day we arrived, I remember thinking as we drove through Uberlândia on our way from the airport that I already missed it. I could instantly sense how much I would grow to treasure this place and the experiences we would have here. My instinct was right. Brazil has been everything I could have hoped for and more. There is a reason many Fulbright scholars describe their experience as “transformative.” It transforms your life in unimaginable ways.


Now… there's still quite a bit of time before we depart. As I glance at my calendar, there is no letup in sight. I’m fortunate to have a steady stream of performances, presentations, travel, and family activities on the agenda, pretty much all the way through to our last day here. Even so, I’m acutely aware of how short our time is, and I’m grateful for each incredible day we get to have here.


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