My greatest struggle in becoming fluent in Portuguese was overcoming my reluctance to speak the language. It embarrassed me to make mistakes when speaking to others: incorrect verb tense and endings; incorrect word gender; and, worst of all, the inappropriate use of a word considered offensive or with a sexual connotation in Portuguese.
It did not help when the secretary of the small firm where I worked told me one day in exasperation, as I struggled to give her a telephone message: Você é a minha cruz (You are my cross).
Clients referred to me as aquela gringa que enrola tudo (that foreigner that confuses everything).
Such remarks did nothing to build my battered self-esteem and self-confidence in conquering my place in the workplace. Thank God, the owners of the firm valued my English-speaking skills!
A young man – who I will call Carlos – helped me to unknot my tongue. Before Carlos joined the firm, I had spent my two-hour lunch break locked up alone in the office: a spacious house with a swimming pool in the backyard. Everyone else returned home or went out for lunch. Carlos rode a motor cycle and, oftentimes, joined me for lunch in the kitchen. He had lots of questions about my origins and why I had come to live in Fortaleza. He was the first non-English-speaking Cearense ready to listen and decipher my jumbled speech.
I do not believe in chance or coincidences. Carlos only stayed with us for three months: Enough time to help me overcome my reluctance to speak in a foreign tongue.
Years later, when I started to dream and think in Portuguese, I made an unexpected discovery. In embracing the language, I was embracing the Brazilian culture – their way of thinking and being. The Brazilian people are passionate, so evident in the way they play football (soccer). They are not inhibited in expressing their emotions. I experienced this in the workplace, among my neighbors and friends, and on the streets. Telling someone “vou te matar” (I’ll kill you) is as acceptable as saying “eu te amo” (I love you).
In overcoming my reluctance to speak Portuguese, I was able to gradually let go of my Victorian, British-colonial bottlenecks and embrace the Brazilain joy of life. I became a new person. Even the way Brazilians pronounced my name – Hose-ah-lee-a-nee – baptized me with a new identity. I was re-born in Brazil. I became uma brasileira de coração (a Brazilian of the heart).