There is something special about walking through the streets of Brazil and smelling the street food cooking on every side that brings the ultimate feeling of comfort. I make this walk every single day and the smell always wins. It reminds me that I have no care in the world, that I can finally be at peace.
The cheerful chatter of everyone walking around dissolves behind a new sound. The aromas that provide nothing but the feeling of home. Up in smoke. The first gunshot catches me off guard, and in an instant, I feel something like a flame in my leg. I look down and am bound to pass out as I fall to my knees and grab my leg. One, two, three, four gunshots. The noise becomes worse than the pain in my leg and those four become all I allow myself to hear. I'm squeezing my skull so hard it might crack as I cover my ears. I scramble to find any sort of refuge, and my eyes widen. One, two, three, four bodies. I know there are more, and I don’t want to find them.
I crouch down along the side of a building, away from the commotion and busy roads. I finally let my hands down from my head and slowly opened my eyes. The streets are quiet. No one is talking, the gunfire has stopped, and smoke fills the streets. To my horror, nothing is left standing as it was before. My linda rua. My casa. My mind is flooded with too many thoughts, things I cannot process all at once, and I can’t control my breathing. That’s the moment the pain comes flooding back and I want to scream. I wince and crawl out into the open street, and I realize that I’ve never been so scared to be seen.
It’s remarkable what can be accomplished with gunfire. I don’t know how many shooters there were or what guns they used, but they destroyed just about everything. All the stands that stood along the street selling food and intricate heirlooms were destroyed. What was even worse? The Brazilian flag that stood at the end of this street, higher than any of the surrounding buildings, ripped in half, shreds still fluttering in the light breeze. The gold, green, and blue that has always represented my country is stuffed with bullet holes, and the remains lay in a heap in a pool of mud.
More people creep out from behind buildings and greenery. No one knows what to do. No one knows what to say. The four bodies that laid on the street just minutes before are now twenty, and the attackers are nowhere to be found. I hear people screaming still, but this time from shock and sadness. People are crying, pacing back and forth, and I’m just sitting there. My broken self, unsure of what to do.
It takes time, but people in the area begin to spring into action. Those who were already there that weren’t hurt or killed brush themselves off and helped people who are injured. Those who live in the direct surrounding area come out of their homes with blankets, medicine, and bandages. I have never appreciated the help of a stranger more than at this very moment.
I’m still sitting there with everyone else a half hour later, bandaged to the best of a first aid kit's ability, as sirens are finally heard in the background. An ambulance pulls up behind where I am but the driver never gets out. I turn and look, and he has the same look on his face- petrified horror. It’s not like things like this haven’t happened before. People have guns, and there isn’t enough governmental power in Brazil to stop them. But there’s something about seeing everything up close. Being a part of it all. It cuts you open in a different way.
Finally, the paramedic steps out. "What happened?" he asks me, clearly aware of the situation but needing a primary source. I don’t know what happened, but I just burst into tears.
* * * * *
“Querida, olhe para mim.” Sweetheart, look at me. I look away from her as I struggle to breathe. My mother rubs my shoulders and pulls me close.
I lean back in my seat and take a deep breath. I keep telling myself I got lucky. The bullet wound was not as bad as it could’ve been. At least that's what the medics said when they took me and a dozen or more people back to the nearest hospital. They stitched up the wound, told me not to walk on it. Wrapped it up. Like my problems were instantly solved with a bandage. But the pain that it leaves on every part of me is overwhelming. My mother sighs, and stands up, walking away to give me some space. I looked over at the food she had set out for me an hour ago. It was cold, but I was starving and there was something in my head that yelled at me to wake up. What was I doing? Snap out of it. You’re ok. I am ok. It could’ve been so much worse, the end of everything for me, and it wasn’t. So, what about all those people that aren’t, ok?
When I was six and my family and I lived in the States, my parents separated and my mom moved to Brazil, her home. I stayed with my dad because I was in school, I had friends, and there was no point in uprooting me so suddenly as a kid. Well, that was the thought.
However, my dad and I didn’t live in the greatest place, and we didn’t have the best relationship, which only got worse as I got older. He once told me that the best feelings, the best moments in life are temporary. That is to say, he wasn’t necessarily an optimist or a prime example in my life, and I thought he was crazy. When I was nine, my father was murdered on the streets in front of me, and something clicked in my head. Even at a young age, I thought I need to find somewhere I can stay forever. If I don’t do it now, I’ll always be lost.
It wasn’t because Brazil was a safer place for me, because it wasn’t, but I found a home there really fast and I wanted it to be a sanctuary, a place my mom and I could settle. It took a while, but I found a safe place even on the darkest nights. Maybe my dad was right. Maybe the good things in life are impossible to hold onto forever.
In all honesty, I’m scared to go out and about again. It wasn’t just the shooting itself and the dangers of being out on the street, but I still can’t get over how long it took for professionals to finally arrive at the scene, and that no one has bothered to find the people who fired the guns. Instead, the town is just buzzing with the thoughts of a lot of funerals to plan.
What if I leave? It’s a sudden thought and one that I keep in my mind. What if I leave Brazil? Go back to the States. It’ll be safer there than it is here than it was before. But there is also something else that I can’t stop thinking about. Even though there was a buffer between everything that happened and the arrival of help, people still came. They came as quickly as they could. They weren’t medical professionals or people who were called to come and help. They were simply other people who wanted and were willing to help. That meant the world to me.
As I sit at my kitchen table, I think about my dad. Things were always difficult between us, but the day he was killed was another one of those moments I felt hopeless. I was destroyed and vulnerable and worried that the damage from that moment was never going to be relieved. It was also another one of those moments when someone I didn’t know changed my life. My dad had been shot, but no one knew where the gunfire had come from or why they had targeted my dad. Instead, I was left there to scream as a confused little kid. In a matter of seconds, a young woman who had been across the street rushed over to help. There was nothing either of us could do for my dad, and she knew that. Instead, she had someone call 911 and just sat there with me while I cried. I cried into the arms of a stranger for who knows how long because the fact that someone was there for me was all I needed. Just like today.
It’s incredible what a community can do for each other, especially when you have so little. Maybe that’s why I’ve stayed this long. Because there is something about this place I live in, the people I know that are united. I don't know what I was thinking. Why would I leave the place I’ve spent most of my life because I couldn’t recover from something temporary? My mom comes back into the kitchen, I look over at her.
“Thank you, mamãe,” I say.
“For what?” She asks with a smile.
“Por salvar minha alma,” I whisper. Which roughly translates to, for saving my soul.