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

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16 responses

9 04 2008
Frankie

Hi! I found your blog through an article on Capoeira Connection recommending Blogs on women and capoeira. I just want to tell you that your articles are very thoughtful and well written, and I’m really impressed with your dedication and knowledge 🙂 The story on Lúcia Palmares really drew me in, and makes me appreciate and respect the women in capoeira.

I just started training last September with Rutgers Capoeira under Professor Maranhão, and it’s been a great source of happiness for me. I sooo much to learn, and I thank people like you for making the process a joy.

(The website I’m linked to is actually a new blogging project started by a few female members of our group. I’m not really knowledgeable enough to write articles as of yet, so I help out with technical stuff)

9 04 2008
Soneca

It’s crazy to read about Mestre Nô then- he visits our group in the Summer, since he is the founder of our group- and compare it to how he is now. Trully an awesome read!

9 04 2008
mree

Provacative writing…just addressing stereotypes in general can make for interesting discussion. Thanks for this.

9 04 2008
cenoura

dude, Soneca-too funny. My group is under mestre Nô as well. I do like hearing stories to get history in perspective. as for stereotypes, I kind of feel like you’re not ever going to have enough experience to be accurate about more than maybe a city size group. but I do like your requirement of qualifiers.

9 04 2008
Joaninha

Hey Frankie!

You know what, I actually stumbled across your site a while ago! I *love* your guys’ banner!! It looks really nice/professional and eye-catching =)
Thank you for all the nice things you said, too ^^”

Hey Soneca,

That’s really cool! I always wonder what it’s like for students whose mestres are actually from “the Old Guard”…

Hey Mree,

I’m glad you thought so =) Did you have any thoughts on it too?

9 04 2008
Brotheromi

my line of work has taught me that I should not assume anything. Oftentimes we try to use experience or incidents we may have had as fact. Which I think is unfair. but i still have to relearn the lesson at least once a week.

for example, today i met a woman named Dale.

great post. you actually pose more questions which I dig.

i need to write about something (inspired by this) about my daughter and capoeira.

i will let you know when i write it.

thanks for the info, new sites, new insights, and inspiration.

honestly, this is one of the more intelligent blogs on the net PERIOD….

10 04 2008
mree

I find the “women join capoeira to do the dudes” thing kind of interesting because while we’re dealing with stereotypes, one we can think of is women as reluctantly sexual beings.

It’s a “well-known fact” (using quotes for the stereotypes) that mean will do just about anything to advance sexually with women, including joining groups he has no interest in to have easy access to women or to impress the women with his (false) interest in THEIR interest. But in a double standard, women who would join a group with similar intentions would be seen as an oddity, or even commended for their “liberation” and “eschewing rigid roles set for women in the realm of sexuality”.

Ya dig?

I’ll admit, the boys are generally built quite nicely, thanks to capoeira, so I don’t mind one goshdarned bit watching them play and enjoying the beauty of their bodies. But to join a group just to get laid…wha?…really? I don’t like that at all.

10 04 2008
Joaninha

Hey Cenoura, sorry I missed you there! We must have been posting at the same time 🙂 But I agree, I don’t think you can ever really be right stereotyping either…by definition!

10 04 2008
Joaninha

That’s so true Brotheromi…because it does sound fair to say something like “In my experience, all ____ are/do ____”, since maybe that’s true in that person’s case, but what they and probably the people they say that to forget is that it’s only in _their_ experience, and even assuming they’ve had lots of experience, they’re still only ONE person!

Alright, I’ll be looking forward to reading what you write 🙂 And just so you know, that last comment made my day!! =)

10 04 2008
Joaninha

Hey Mree,

Yeah, I don’t really like that either, and I was surprised the first time I heard that that sort of thing happens! About the stereotypes too, it actually goes both ways…some people might see it as sexual liberation for women, but I think a lot of people would still apply the double standard and see those women as cheap/easy/loose/etc. The idea of women being reluctantly sexual is based on the age-old narrative that women are morally superior to men, and the narrative that sex is bad or immoral, which is why people see forthrightly sexual women as somehow morally fallen.

10 04 2008
cenoura

mree, I have to disagree that it works like that at all. I think the general tone behind that stereotype implies desperation, and is negative. women may be told to be reluctantly sexual beings, but the stereotype comes more as “why would you have to join a group/do x” to get dudes. Women can get laid whenever they want” feminine wiles b.s. I never hear praise for women “eschewing gender roles” for something like that, only slut-shaming. so, no, I don’t dig.

11 04 2008
Soneca

M. Nô actually said one day in class, and even though I love him to death this made me really sad, he said that women have no place in Capoeira…. he didn’t elaborate but would he say this out of aggravation at the stereotype that women come into academies to have “Capoeira boyfriends”? Why would he say this if he graduated a mestra? It kind of brings a bigger question to my mind- does a Mestre just pass his female students along without actually thinking they deserve a higher cord? Would he do this to make them feel better, or just keep them around? Do Mestre’s see their female students as females in Capoeira or as Capoeiristas period?
Hmmmm…..

11 04 2008
Joaninha

Yeah, Cenoura basically said what I was trying to get across. I don’t think I’ve *ever* seen someone impressed in that way by women’s sexuality before! I suppose it also depends on context though…as does most things!

Soneca–WHOA, what?! Frick, I don’t even know how I’d react if someone in my group said that, let alone the person who controls the whole group (and thus whose views would control it as well). How could he say that??? Especially with women IN the class?!! Why didn’t he just tell all you guys to quit then and there? He may as well have. Holy crap.

Even if he’s aggravated at those women, that is so emphatically no excuse, there’s not even a rational connection between some women joining cap. for the wrong reasons and women “not having a place” in capoeira at all. You don’t hear yoga teachers saying guys have no place in yoga (since there are probably some guys out there who just join yoga classes to stare at girls in their skintight TNA, lululemon, etc.).

And omg, that would be HORRIBLE…I never even thought of that before!! Thanks Soneca, I think we just hit a depressingly new low theories-wise…XD But I can’t believe that…because that would be destroying the integrity of capoeira itself, not just the women and the mestre/mestra…wow…

11 04 2008
cenoura

Soneca-I second the whoa? what the heck? I mean, I’ve heard comments from one of m Nôs students making fun of groups bringing in a lot of mestres to an event to the tune of “do they have enough women to give them for the night?”(not sure if those are the exact words, but bloody close, and the intent is exactly right) but that’s just horrible. I have no words. I’ve wondered about your second issue, but I’m pretty sure the contramestre and teachers, at least in our group, try to even some of that out.

11 04 2008
Soneca

When the comment was made there was a sharp reaction from some of the women in the class, very few actually. I think most ignored the comment (ignorance is bliss)… one of the other female students looked into the history of women in Capoeira- her comment in a personal conversation was, “What were the women doing back in the day? Samba-ing while the men played Capoeira?” It was a very sharp comment from someone we look up to and respect, which is why for me personally it’s interesting to read M. Lucia’s recollection on the fact that there were women training in the academy that he was presiding over.

As per passing along or graduating women along without them necessarily deserving a higher cord, I’ve never actually said that out loud or even thought about writing it on a public forum. But being that this is what this thingy-magigy is here for, why not? I feel like I’m crossing over into uncharted territory and am apprehensive about having this conversation as I agree Joaninha, it truly questions the integrity of Capoeira, or the Capoeira taught nowadays. Yikes! =X

13 04 2008
Joaninha

Cenoura…that’s a pretty bad comment too, although not as outrageous as Nô’s (I don’t know, should someone who thinks like that still be respected as a capoeira mestre, if they have such a perspective that thinks capoeira shouldn’t include women when even the original capoeira mestres recognized that inclusion and diversity is one of the things capoeira’s actually all about?). Also, they’re assuming all the mestres are hetero… 😄

Hey Soneca,

Yes, you’re right that that’s exactly what this thingamajiggy here is for, hehe, so even if it is a nearly unspeakably horrific thought I’m glad you decided to put it out there. Actually, I know there are lots of people who think some women get promoted because they’re dating a teacher or mestre or whatever, but then again that’s still completely different from mestres treating women in capoeira as just something they have to “deal with” for the sake of appearances… Where can we even go with this, though? We can hardly confirm whether it’s true or not, and if so how would we change it? Now I feel kind of like we’re on the brink of uncovering some deep, major, devastating conspiracy, but that’s probably getting way ahead of ourselves here!

Now I’m wondering though, with your reminder of Lucia’s memories, if anyone asked Nô to elaborate at the time? Did the comment come out of nowhere, or had he had some recent experience that would’ve lead to saying something like that? What happened right after the women in the class reacted? Did he try to explain himself at all? Was this by way of passing in conversation, or publicly stated in a lecture/talk to the class? Also, how did the guys in the class react (or was there any reaction from them?)?

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